I remember once asking one of my retired patients what he had done for a living. When I found out he had been a college professor, I asked him what he taught. After a pensive pause, where he reflected on his teaching life, he looked at me sadly and answered, “In retrospect, not a heck of a lot.”
After some 30 years as a family doctor, I often wonder what my legacy will be. Have I made a difference in my patients’ lives? I must admit that I am often rushed and spend less time with patients than I would like. This is complicated by my incessant need to be on time, which is one symptom of my obsessive-compulsive personality. I also get irritable at times and have a hard time hiding this fact. So, do I help people, or do they stay with me because they don’t really have another choice? Is there some way of measuring a career as a family physician?
There are websites such as Rate Your MD, but most individuals only post there if they have strong feelings one way or the other. As a rule, since there is no court of appeal, I don’t visit these sites. However, my patients and family members will tell me what people have posted: one guy gave me terrible scores in all categories except for punctuality. He had to admit that even though I am a terrible physician I am usually on time.
So back to my question: how do most of my patients feel about me and the service I provide? I have taken care of many of them and their families for decades, but maybe they don’t have another choice due to the shortage of family physicians. I think of many of them as my friends and care deeply about their health and happiness, but I wonder if this shows? Do they realize how much their life issues affect me? Is this caring reciprocated?
The answers to these questions came to light recently due to my wife’s illness and my sudden absence from my practice. Initially my patients were told I was away for personal reasons, but as time went on, I gave the okay for my staff to let them know that my wife is unwell. My colleagues have been exceptional and have covered most of my office shifts, but I have had to work some days because vacations were scheduled and locums already spoken for.
The outpouring of support and genuine caring that I received during these times has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Some of my patients have also had tears in their eyes while relating how sorry they are to hear about my wife’s situation. Cards, flowers, and casseroles have appeared on a regular basis. The love and caring I have felt has filled and sustained me when I have been close to empty and overcome by sadness.
Many of my patients shared that they’ve never forgotten how much my caring meant to them when they were faced with adversity and life’s challenges. They wanted to give a little something back as a sign of appreciation for the job I have done and the relationship we have built. This is a legacy I can live with.
—David R. Richardson, MD
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