When Was the Last Time You Saved Somebody’s Life?

I got an email Saturday from Laurence Bauer of the Family Medicine Education Consortium. 

Larry said that when he talks to doctors and residents about saving lives they usually think of their preventive medicine efforts and few people have stories about the short term impact they have on people’s lives. Larry asked me if I had anything to say or write about that.

The first thing that comes to my mind is my work with substance abuse, our medication assisted treatment, which I still do for Bucksport via telemedicine even though I live and otherwise work 200 miles north of there. Statistics show that immediately upon entering a Suboxone program participants risk of dying from an opioid overdose is reduced by 50%. So it’s possible I’ve saved a life or two there. At the annual staff appreciation day in August patients from the Suboxone program had written greetings to me on the whiteboard and a couple of them had written that I saved their lives.

The other thing I think of is the triage type of decisions we make. Somebody comes in with chest pain and we have to decide whether or not to send them to the emergency room or order tests for heart disease or blood clots in their lungs. We’re supposed to make the right decision and when we do we don’t necessarily get a thank you card or anything. Perhaps if we don’t, there would be all kinds of repercussions. Very often in our line of work our reward is the absence of negative feedback.

In less dramatic cases, we make choices all the time that could be life altering or life saving. When we order an x-ray or CT scan rather than say, “let me know if it doesn’t get better”, we could be in a lifesaving situation, but once you have been practicing for a few years you don’t reflect on that as much as when you first start out. 

In my post “Primary Care is Messy” I wrote about this five years ago, although I didn’t even remember the incident until I searched my own blog for “saved my life”. For non-physicians it may seem incredible that one might not remember a story like this one, but when you see sixteen to thirty patients day in and day out for forty years, you can only make so many personal notes and still keep up the pace. 

“Knowing what constitutes success in frontline medicine is not easy. Let me illustrate:

A middle aged smoker comes in for a follow up on his blood pressure treatment and mentions that he would like to try Chantix (varenicline) to help him quit. My nurse has already secured our practice credit for documenting his smoking status. I can use certain billing codes to document my counseling on the subject, and I can get credit for printing out the drug information, even though the pharmacy also provides a printout. This is a successful visit, it might seem.

But I also ask, “Ron, what makes you want to quit at this particular point in time?”

“Well, I’ve had this funny cough, like a dry hack, for the last two weeks whenever I take a deep breath”, he answers. 

Ron turns out to have a very small, resectable lung cancer. My question about the reason for his request probably saved his life, and catapulted us from shallow administrative success to probable or at least possible clinical victory, without making any further difference in my own quality metrics.”

So, Larry, I think there is a lot of focus on doctors supporting each other when they feel burned out or inadequate, but I’m not hearing much about taking notice and stopping to celebrate the small and large clinical and relationship progress or downright victories we have in our everyday work. With no doctors lounge to visit anymore (another blogpost of mine from just four months ago), how do we do that?

1 Response to “When Was the Last Time You Saved Somebody’s Life?”


  1. 1 Mary Ellen McColl MD September 5, 2019 at 5:42 am

    Your simple aside about “ No Doctors’ Lounge any more” brought a tear to my eye.


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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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