The Call

I got the call again tonight. It’s always the same:

“Hello, Doc, Officer Moran here. We have an unattended death…”

The patient’s age, gender and circumstances aren’t predictable, but it’s always the same story. Once again, someone died, who wasn’t supposed to die.

I never get used to getting these kinds of calls, even after all these years. They wake me up early on Saturday mornings, they come in the middle of a late supper, they come while I work and when I rest.

An unemployed sixty-two year-old woman on pain medications is found dead in her bed one morning; a successful businessman dies suddenly behind the wheel of his Mercedes near the golf course; a father, who lost his parental rights in a divorce, is found hanging from the rafters of his barn.

These calls last only a minute or two, but their effects linger and accumulate, one by one and over the years. They are different from losing patients to illnesses that span over time, however short. They offer glimpses into desperate recesses of people’s lives and they announce medical disasters I never saw coming.

Each call stops my day, suspends my own life, while my mind brings forth images of the patient and my last interactions with them. Was there any clue that this could happen? Did I do everything I could with what I knew at the time?

I gather my thoughts, register the emptiness, and try to return to where I was before the call came. If I am at work, I must quickly get back to a waiting patient, who expects my full attention. At home, my family understands and gives me latitude. It does take time to work through the emotions after these calls, even after thirty years in this business. That’s probably a good sign.

1 Response to “The Call”

  1. 1 Ken D Berry October 9, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I have taken many a call such as this… The hardest ones for me were, as an ED physician in a small hospital, being call in the night to pronounce someone who had passed away on the floor (inpatient room). As you know, pronouncing death is only a small part of the job; the biggest responsibility is to talk to the family and to make sure the “event” has the dignity and decorum expected.
    Excellent post and excellent blog overall!

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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