October 25th, 2013
It was 1998 and I had just moved to Louisville, Kentucky, very close to where I grew up as a child. I was returning to my native state to care for my mother who was dying of ovarian cancer and her mother who was bedbound by a stroke. My life had been interrupted and part of me was okay about that and part of me was not. Caregiving can be hard.
Having been diagnosed with a rare heart disorder many years before, finding a good cardiologist in town was one of my top priorities along with tending to their health needs as well.
I checked my health plan, researched the local paper, called the university medical centers and settled on a highly regarded, mid-50s, white-haired cardiologist in private practice with an affiliation at one of the medical centers in the area.
Our relationship lasted six months. Well, maybe one year, but that would be a stretch.
As a former physician assistant, I handled the paperwork and repetitive tests that come with seeing a new doctor without concern. But the first few months of my move I was miserable and emotionally a wreck. My mother died within weeks of moving; her mother the next month. The job I was hired to do was eliminated and I missed passing the bar exam by one point. I was exhausted and trembling at night from the weight of all the changes and uncertainty in my life.
When the palpitations started, I knew the stress was too much.
“I think I’m depressed,” I said with a lump in my throat to the Midwest cardiologist a bit shocked that I could utter the word. It was our third visit. I went on. “I’m not sleeping well, all I do is cry, and I’m just a bundle of nerves.”
Without looking up from the note he was scribbling in my chart he said, “Have you thought about looking for help on the internet?”
It was all I could do to sit upright on the examining table. I was shocked and disappointed that this was his best suggestion.
“The internet?” I thought to myself. “Who is going to hold my hand or hug me on the Internet?”
At that moment I realized I needed a different doctor. I walked out of his office and never returned.
What I had overlooked was the importance of finding a doctor I meshed with personally. Not just one who had a prominent title, several clinical trials to his name, and a prestigious academic center standing behind him, but one that could simply look me in the eyes and tell that something wasn’t right. Someone with empathy and a gentle touch. Someone I could build a relationship with.
The doctor-patient relationship is delicate; for patients living with chronic conditions or illnesses it means balancing personal rapport with clinical knowledge. For a very long time. Sometimes all you want are the facts from your doctor. But sometimes, you want a hug and some encouragement and the personal connection does as much good as any pill.