Lessons From a ‘Difficult Patient’

The only patients deemed more difficult than insistent patients like Sal were his opposites: patients so overwhelmed that they stopped wanting to pay any attention to their illnesses at all. They are well known to every doctor: a dialysis patient, gray from uremia, eyes glazed over when asked why she missed her last session; a double amputee now bed-bound, refusing home visits; a boy with severe food allergies who won’t carry his EpiPen with him.

Sal did not bring his binders to his next appointment. They were becoming too cumbersome, he said, so he had started to simply jot down any crucial notes. These all had the same upshot: Sal was growing sicker and weaker. During one appointment I sat in on, Sal complained that he could not lift as much as he could the previous year: Why was that? And what could he do about it?

The doctor pointed to his own gray hairs — advancing age, nothing to be done about it. I expected Sal to press the doctor to back up this proclamation with numbers and parameters for lung function, or to demand a new doctor. Instead, he was quiet for the rest of the appointment and seemed to shrink into himself on the examining table.

Later that week Sal wrote me an email: Prepare a speech for those moments, like the one that week, when patients come to you at the end of their rope, and you have no more solutions to offer, he said. I think I was studying for an exam, and brushed off the message.

By now I was almost done with medical school. As we neared the end of our rotations, actors were hired to play patients and give us feedback on our bedside manner. They said things like, “It made me feel better when you looked me in the eye to break bad news.” We laughed, half insulted, half guilty.

I practiced “therapeutic distancing” to make decisions about patients coolly and unemotionally. I didn’t share much about myself or display vulnerability or uncertainty. I practiced not thinking about my patients once I got home.

With Sal I maintained none of these conventions. He and I continued to email back and forth. I sent updates about medical school, vacation travels, relationships and my plans for the future; Sal updated me on his declining health. Then one day my email to Sal bounced back, because he had died.