Angels Among Us

Rain in Australian Rainforest

I get very attached to people. People are the most important things in my life. And when special people leave my life, it creates a hole where something wonderful used to be.

Yesterday, I said goodbye to a man who took care of me for more than 30 years, a man who enriched my life in ways I can never come close to repaying. He knew every inch of my body on an intimate level; he delivered my babies, performed surgeries on me, and became my primary care physician as well. And my friend.

At first glance, this post might seem silly, but 30 years is a long time, and to have someone you can trust, someone who made you feel like you mattered—is a precious thing. Especially in a world where a lot of doctors treat their patients as if they’re just a number. Or worse—a nuisance they’re forced to deal with so that they can buy that new Ferrari. Yes, I’ve had doctors like that.

A few weeks ago, I received a letter notifying me that Dr. H. was moving to another city. He had been my OB/GYN when I lived in Denver and after I moved to Northern Colorado 18 years ago, I continued to drive two hours each way just to go to him. And I never regretted it.

But now an important chapter in my life was coming to an end. You see, Dr. H. was not your ordinary doctor; he helped me through some very tough times in my life—from births to deaths to cancer-scares and everything in between. I couldn’t let someone like that just slip away without letting him know how much he meant to me, so I phoned his office to make an appointment. “All his patients want to see him one more time,” the receptionist informed me. “There’s nothing available, but you can send him a letter.”

My heart sank down into my shoes, into the floor, and into the earth beneath the floor. No, I need to see him, I thought. I need to look into his eyes and thank him, in person, for everything he did for me. Even if I can’t get an appointment, I’m going down there just to say goodbye.

I explained my situation to the receptionist and she squeezed me in.

In the meantime, I decided that I wanted to give Dr. H. something to let him know how much he meant to me. Thirty years is a long time. How did you thank someone for giving you the gift of good health? My husband would say, “You pay him LOTS of money; you don’t need to give him anything—he already has everything money can buy.”

But there are some things money can’t buy—like making a person feel that they’re important—that they matter, easing another person’s fears and assuring them that everything is going to be alright. How do you thank someone for that? How do you thank someone for really caring?

I decided to write Dr. H. a letter telling him how his compassion, kindness and expertise effected my life. Maybe someday he would look back on it and realize what a huge difference he made in the world–and not just in my life, but in the lives of thousands of others.

Through my tears, I remembered how he took care of me during my pregnancies—the last one in which, when I waddled in for my weekly checkup, well past my due date, hugely pregnant and miserable, and complaining, “Dr. H., has anyone ever died from terminal pregnancy?” He laughed and said, “Not that I know of!” “Well, I think I’m going to be the first, then,” I moaned. A few hours later, I went into labor.

I told him how much it meant to me that whenever I was giving birth, and in that cold and unfamiliar place—the hospital delivery room—surrounded by all that sterile equipment and tiled walls and being poked and prodded and examined by doctors and nurses in masks, and salespeople and janitors (just kidding about the salespeople and janitors, but it sure felt that way at the time) the moment I saw his kind and familiar eyes, my entire being relaxed because I knew that now everything would be just fine.

Close up of baby's foot in mother's handI told him that I had pictures of him from 27 years ago in the delivery room suctioning out my newborn son’s nose and mouth because he had swallowed a lot of amniotic fluid during his entrance into the world, and I truly think it was Dr. H.’s knowledge and quick thinking that day, that saved my son from what could have been severe complications.

And when I went to see him for a follow-up after my hysterectomy, he chuckled as he told me that during the surgery, I “woke up” and reminded him not once or twice, but numerous times, “Don’t forget to leave my ovaries in, Dr. H.!”

When I went to see him the year after my parents died, I told him how much it meant to me to see his familiar face again—it felt like it had been ages after all I’d been through—but his compassion in listening to what I had to say was like a light in the darkness that day and it gave me something I so desperately needed—hope and the strength to carry on.

And when I was terrified upon finding lumps in my breasts, he made sure that I got the best care available with the best surgeons and facilities in Denver and he stood by me every step of the way to calm my fears and keep me healthy.

I wrote that in his care, I always knew that everything would be alright. And it always was. And that, right there, is something undeniably rare and priceless.

I put the letter into my purse and went for my appointment.

It was weird, because when I got there, the waiting room was empty; usually the chairs were filled with women in various stages of pregnancy or juggling newborns in car seats, or elderly ladies waiting to see their doctors. Not today. I proceeded to sign in but the receptionist told me not to bother.

A strange feeling erupted in the pit of my stomach; I felt like I was in a place I shouldn’t be.

There were wooden carts in the hallways and behind the great reception desk filled with rows and rows of manila file folders covered with sheets, each folder representing one woman’s medical history—a sad reminder that someone who had been there a very long time was getting ready to leave—someone who was obviously very well-loved because there were a lot of carts with a lot of folders. I had to squeeze past them to get to the examining room.

When Dr. H. came in, his face was tanned and his shirt impeccably pressed. His once-dark hair was dyed a light brown, and he was sporting a grey goatee, which seemed an attempt to hide the sagging skin on his neck, but his brown eyes were as soft and kind as usual. He asked if I’d gotten his letter announcing his move. I said that I had and I fought back tears as I handed him my letter.

After the exam, we talked for a few minutes and shared some memories. Once again, his warm and gentle demeanor reassured me that even though he was moving away, everything would be just fine, and that if I still wanted to come see him, I was more than welcome. He handed me his business card and said that if I was in the area, to let him know, and that “If there is ever anything you need, you just call, ok?” Then he hugged me. I don’t think there is another human being on this planet who could have gotten away with hugging me while I was dressed in a paper drape like that!

When he walked out of the room, I could hear him talking into his little voice recorder as he always did—saying my name and noting the results of my check-up. But things were no longer going to be as they’d always been; this would be the last time he would speak into his recorder about me.

I got dressed and walked out into the hallway. Dr. H. was waiting there for me and he gave me another hug. My heart felt like it was dissolving into liquid—tears. Then he went in to see his next patient.

This was not a physical or romantic-type of relationship I had with my doctor; it was personal on a different level–and based on respect and unwavering trust for a professional who continuously went above and beyond stipulated job duties to make me feel like I mattered. I am a better person for having known him.

He once told me about the time he accidentally killed a fish in a lake with a bright orange, Pinnacle golf ball when he was golfing and that someday he was going to buy himself a Harley. And last year, I gave him a copy of my book because he said he was interested in reading it… Thirty years is a long time…