Several studies have explored the experience of grief that physicians feel when they lose a patient.
But what about when the patient loses a physician—when the doctor dies?
Dr. K was a well-known child psychiatrist, a loving husband, a father of two, and an irreplaceable support and friend for a number of children suffering from trauma, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and other challenging psychiatric conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. K passed away in a tragic accident while vacationing with his family. His loss was nearly unbearable for most of us.
Days after the funeral, a colleague of Dr. K inquired into whose care his patients would be transferred. She was shocked to hear that one of his patients, a young teenager suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, and depression, had overdosed on his medication and committed suicide the day he heard of Dr. K’s death. It was no coincidence.
Behind the family members, close friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are the physician’s patients. They are part of a separate, almost secret life that the physician leads. And yet, the patient is whom the physician spends more time with than anyone else—they are in some ways the truest reflection of the doctor. While family and others grieve together in collective remembrance, patients often do so isolated, alone, confidential.
There is no data on patient experiences with physician death, perhaps because it is not quite as common as the reverse scenario. But physicians are people and they die in all kinds of ways, some naturally and others unexpectedly. The bond between the patient and physician is hard to measure and understand, but in Dr. K’s death, we all understood it a little more. When you lose someone who was fighting for your life, you essentially lose a part of yourself.
Managing the care of patients who have lost their physician is an important topic that deserves attention. Particularly for those who form strong emotional bonds with their physicians, such as psychiatric patients, attempting to cope with such an immense tragedy without proper support can be extremely debilitating and in some cases, even life-threatening. In many ways, this alludes to the reality that medicine is less a job than a relationship, less about medications and procedures than about life, love and humanism. We miss you Dr. K—your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your patients.