I vividly remember walking out of my first office visit with my new patient, Petra, feeling embarrassed and indignant.
The visit had started out pretty standard, as most do. I knocked, introduced myself, we shook hands, and I took my seat on the stool, she on the chair in the corner of the room, about 4 feet apart from each other.
She was petite, had a weathered face and a short haircut, reminiscent of the one my grade school PE teacher had. She looked stern. When I learned she was a retired teacher it was not a jump to imagine her as one of those teachers most students feared. The one you hoped wouldn’t call on you. The one you hoped wouldn’t notice you at all so you could leave class unscathed.
“So, do you want to know why I’m here or what?”
“I sure do,” I say.
“Well, are you going to ask me?”
I had assumed our prior exchange was an invitation to her to tell me why she was here. I had assumed wrong.
“Why are you here today, Petra? What can I help you with?”
“Didn’t you look at my chart? I told that other lady why I was here.”
OMG I thought to myself. Am I on candid camera?
Immediately after addressing her concern for the day she asked me why I hadn’t recommended a shingles vaccine for her. “Shouldn’t you have recommended that for me since I’m 60?”
She then proceeded to quiz me on every aspect of the history of, manufacturing of and efficacy of Zostavax, and when there were questions I couldn’t answer and offered to look up in the room with her she said she was less interested in the answer and more wanted to know if I knew the answer.
“I’m surprised a doctor would have to look up that information” she said. “Shouldn’t you know that already?”
Well, maybe lady, but obviously I don’t.
And so was our first visit.
I remember thinking, Why did it seem like she was trying to get me to slip up or find gaps in my knowledge on purpose and just for the fun of it? Who does that? But maybe she was right and I should have known that information?
Indignant and embarrassed.
I didn’t think I’d ever see Petra again. I had hoped I wouldn’t see Petra again.
Instead, Petra continued to see me for 6 more years. At first, every time I saw her name I’d groan and prepare myself for battle. And she didn’t disappoint, always rough around the edges and prepared with a “quiz”, ready to question my schooling when I didn’t know an answer.
I was always kind to her. Not out of some inherent niceness in me, but because I hoped in being kind she would stop looking for deficiencies in my knowledge and I could get out of the room sooner.
Then one day, maybe 3 years into knowing her, I told her I was surprised she kept coming back to me as she didn’t seem that confident in my knowledge. She told me she liked that I would admit to not knowing something and look it up with her. She told me how much she respected and appreciated that. That she’d never had a doctor do that.
And then the grilling stopped. And she seemed to soften. And I stopped preparing for battle. And she softened some more.
And then I had to tell her she had a spot on her lung. And then that she had lung cancer. And then that it looked like she was in the clear! And then, a few months later, that it had spread to her brain.
That was another visit I’ll never forget. She was seeing me for back pain and mentioned “oh hey, my oncologist ordered a brain MRI just to be safe and I had it done this morning, do you think the results are in yet?”
I told her I’d look.
They were in, but I didn’t say such yet. Instead, I pretended I was still looking through her chart to see if the results were in. A quick scan of the results had told me the cancer had spread to her brain and I was debating lying and telling her the results weren’t in yet.
I have no idea how much time passed as I was pretending and debating, but eventually I knew what I wanted to do.
“Petra, they’re here. Are you ready for your results?”
“Come over here and sit by me, let’s look at this together.”
She lived another year and had a pretty good quality of life until the last 3 weeks when she deteriorated quickly.
She saw me every 8-10 weeks that last year. These were primarily “social visits” as we docs call them. Petra let me in to be part of her experience of dying, and it was beautiful. And scary. And heartwarming. And heartbreaking.
We let ourselves feel all the feels. We laughed and cried and got annoyed with each other and hugged a lot. She shared her weekend “girls” trip in which she picked out her urn for her ashes: a warm, cozy, gorgeous wooden vessel. We talked about our beliefs regarding what happens after death. We compared our golf games. We talked about families and relationships. She talked about what changed for her after getting a terminal diagnosis, while most things were eerily the same and the world kept turning.
At one of our last visits she said “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you that day to give me the news of my brain MRI results. That must have been so hard. Thank you.”
I felt so fully human during and after these visits I wondered what to call my life experience the rest of the time if not fully human.
I spend so much of my time jumping to the next thing, and the thing after that, living a few minutes to hours to days in the future, rarely fully present. I’m convinced this keeps us glossing over people, places, things and emotions, almost hovering just above our life, robbing us of the richness life has to offer when we’re actually there with it and for it. All of it.
Petra and I were THERE during that last year of office visits.
How would I react today if meeting Petra for the first time? I like to think I’d smile at and relax into the awkwardness of the visit, not take her questions and comments personally, and be curious about her, what made her tick. I like that version of me better than the version that did meet her for the first time 6 years ago.
But had I been that version of myself then, would our relationship have played out the same? Would we have grown and evolved and enriched each others’ lives as we did? I guess I’ll never know.
But I like to think we both were exactly who we needed to be when we needed to be and that everything happened just as it should.