Thoughts on Death, Part One

I posted yesterday about a chance meeting with an old acquaintance. With a simple question, he was able to make me think about my own state of affairs today, and to have the wonderful conscious thought that yes, indeed, I am happy.

Today, I turn my thoughts to death, not because I am depressed, but because I recently lost a medical colleague to a sudden heart attack, just days after he had left our employ and started a new job in the upstate area of South Carolina. There are certain thoughts that come up in one’s mind anytime someone dies. When a colleague dies, especially a colleague you have been related to in a supervisory context, these thoughts are varied, multi-layered, and complex.

Dr. B was sixty nine years old, eleven years my senior. It is always hard to supervise an employee who is older than you, but it happens more and more frequently in today’s workforce, where the average age of employees has risen across the board. Specific incidents sometimes arise that must be dealt with directly, and supervisors with their own authority issues may have a difficult time dealing directly with these issues. Also, as one ages, one tends to fall back on “the way things have always been” or “the way we have always done it”, and this may lead to conflict in the workplace when practice trends, productivity expectations, and operational use of new theories and practices are foisted upon all employees, seasoned and new.

In medicine, as in many other fields, we are taught to be lifelong learners, productive professionals, self starters, and industrious workers. We are taught in essence to tow the line, to be like everyone else, and to “close ranks” when adversity strikes us as a group. Like the “Thin Blue Line“, medical professionals look after each other, support each other, and have each others’ back, even as they try to fight illness and foster the health of all members of society.

Now, this does not mean that we as medical professionals always agree or always do things exactly the same way. We are trained in similar ways, some of us at the same programs by the same mentors and professors, but we develop our own practice styles as we age and as we become more senior in the profession. Best practices are guidelines that are generally regarded as the standard of care in most medical circles today, but there is plenty of wiggle room in medicine for the “art of medicine” to still shine through. Personally, I am glad for that.

All this to say, I guess, that we must strive to respect those who disagree with us, or who we disagree with. Especially in a professional group such as mine, it is imperative that we respect each other, have open dialogues when disagreements occur, and that we constantly try to improve the practice of medicine in general and our own take on it in particular. This is paramount in times of stress, such as the current period in medicine when electronic medical records, reimbursement, documentation and maintenance of certification grab more headlines that the latest cures for some obscure disease.

Death, and what it takes away from us, also makes us rethink what could have been. Did I really listen? Did I strive to understand the pressures from the other side, the other perspective? Did I give that situation a fair shake, or did I simply blindly impose my own value system on it and make a decision that was rigid and not completely informed? Hindsight is always 20-20, isn’t it? Death takes away our ability to rethink, reprocess, and correct course. Death is nothing if not final.

I wil be attending the visitation for my colleague on Thursday evening. Somehow, the little things that mattered so much two weeks ago, the scheduling issues and the specific patient problems and the interpersonal stresses and all the rest, do not seem so important now. Whether they were imposed on me from above and I was simply an agent of change, passing down information or rules to my supervisees, or things that came from inside me, doesn’t really matter now.

What does matter is that a colleague has finished his life’s work, albeit much sooner than he anticipated. He has listened, heard, and acted on the things that he could change for his patients, and he has done  his best. His toils are done.

He has taught me, like everyone I have ever worked with has, some important lessons. I will be a wiser man, and a better one, if I heed them and use them in whatever time I have left to live my life.

Rest in peace, friend.

 

Charles “Chuck” Baber III

August 31, 1946-December 13, 2015

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