Sometimes, We're More Than Just a Doctor for Our Patients
A primary care physician reflects on the different roles he plays in his patients’ lives.
The last time Charlie's grandmother called me before a visit, it was to let me know that he had a special friend.
She didn't say it directly, but I knew it was time to have a talk about the birds and the bees, STDs, and birth control. Charlie may have been in his mid-30s, but he still functioned like a teenager.
Charlie never really knew his parents. His father jumped ship when Charlie's mental shortcomings began to manifest during elementary school.
A short time later, his mother died from pneumonia and it wasn't long afterward that Charlie moved in with his grandparents.
That was followed by a few years of independent living in an apartment complex. But once his grandfather passed away, he returned to live with his grandmother and help around the house.
Charlie was diagnosed as "slow" years ago, before we even had nomenclature for the complex range of mentally challenging diseases that have been identified today. Anyone who spent a few minutes talking to him could tell that something was different.
A longer conversation, however, would reveal that there was a coherent person behind the label permanently pinned to him. Charlie had held a job at the local grocery store for more than a decade, and was even named employee of the year a few times. He was fiercely protective of his grandmother and a loyal friend.
Taking care of Charlie was a pleasure. He came to see me regularly and always followed any directions he was given. He had a plethora of minor problems, which we dealt with on an ongoing basis. It was the kind of visit I looked forward to.
This time, Charlie entered the exam room in a buttoned-down shirt, blushing as he handed me a necktie. His grandmother's vision had become too poor to help him do such things anymore. We stared into a mirror together, as I stood just behind him.
Gently, I took his hands in mine and guided him through the motions. By the end of the fifteen minute appointment, he could tie it by himself. I made him promise to take pictures and bring them to the next visit.
As a physician, I fulfill many roles for my patients. To some, I am like a son doting over his parent's every ache or pain. To others, I am a friend who lends an ear during difficult times.
And occasionally, I get to momentarily take the place of a father who left long ago. Being the product of a single-parent family myself, it's a role I particularly cherish.