Sometimes patients know they’re about to die. Doctors, accustomed to saving lives rather than passively awaiting death, don’t always handle those situations all that well.
“Even though death is an inevitable part of the human condition, it’s not something that most doctors, including me, ever get too comfortable with,” family doc Ben Brewer writes this week in his WSJ column. “We get used to pushing it off until another day.”
Brewer writes, the final few days of a patients life can be illuminating for doctors who make the time. He describes the last days of a 95-year-old patient who came down with pneumonia.
The patient took to telling stories of his youth. He described visiting Germany with his family as a young man, during the 1930s. At one point, as he was walking down a deserted street, he encountered a soldier who stopped, raised his hand and said, “Heil Hitler.”
My patient, who wasn’t Jewish but wasn’t saying “Heil Hitler” to anybody, affected a broad smile, and replied, “Good morning,” as pleasantly as he could. He kept walking without looking back and wondered if he would still have his head as he passed by. He survived unharmed.