Some patient interactions make a strong impression on me. Sometimes it is because of an unusual diagnosis. But usually it's because I connect with a patient who is a Christian and is going through a very difficult time. Such an incident happened this week that I won't forget anytime soon.
I was just a few days into my internal medicine rotation, seeing patients in a clinic with an attending physician. Internal medicine is the field I'm interested in going into so I'm hoping I will like this rotation. The second or third patient of the day was called and entered the room. My first impression of the patient was that he was an elderly man who looked to be in a good physical state. He had no problem getting around and smiled widely as he shook my hand and the hand of the attending physician. As the doctor asked him why he had come to clinic that day it became obvious that this man had a very serious diagnosis, one with the potential to cause a lot of suffering and which had already caused a good deal of suffering in the days prior to his presentation to our clinic.
It turned out that this patient had gone to the ER with severe pain in one of his bones a few days earlier. In the ER they had ordered an X-ray and then a bone scan which revealed cancer that had metastasized to many different areas of this man's skeleton. Only in the last week had one of these metastases began to cause severe pain. The patient had been diagnosed with and treated for prostate cancer years earlier but the treatment had obviously been unsuccessful and now, barring a miracle, this man would most likely die from this cancer.
It struck me during the interview that this patient had a more severe diagnosis than any I had seen recently and he was also currently in a great deal of pain. But unlike many patients I see every week with less severe diagnoses he had a peace about him. He was friendly and smiled as he interacted with us.
At some point during the interview he mentioned, for some reason, that he had been a pastor. This piqued my curiosity but I thought that in the presence of my attending physician I would not get to explore this further. The fact that this man's diagnosis seemed so severe also made it difficult for me to consider talking about things not relating to that diagnosis. As the interview progressed the patient commented on how the hospital seemed very busy and it reminded him of when he had been a hospital chaplain in Kentucky. I mentioned that I had lived in Kentucky for a couple of years and the patient said, "I also went to seminary in Kentucky." Now he really had my attention and I said, "so did I, outside of Lexington." The patient still didn't expect that we shared any deeper connection and he said, "oh, I went to a small seminary called Asbury." I smiled and told him that I also went to Asbury. At this point I wasn't sure what the attending was thinking as I had just began working with her. But I was happy when she said she needed to step out for a moment and encouraged us to both keep reminiscing. And that we did.
We found that God had touched both of us at a wonderful place called Asbury Theological Seminary. We were far enough apart in age that we had shared none of the same professors but we had enough in common to enjoy talking of our memories of Asbury and Kentucky. When I asked what denomination he had pastored in he said "United Methodist," but quickly added that he had been one of the few conservative evangelicals in California. I could sympathize with him when he told me that it got so bad in the California-Pacific Annual Conference that he and the handful of other Bible-believing United Methodist pastors just quit going to annual conference. He told me that his family had finally left the United Methodist Church for a conservative, Bible-believing church. We were both encouraged by our conversation and with a big smile this elderly gentleman proclaimed that this was a "divine appointment." I agreed. I asked him if I could pray for him and just after I had started praying the attending walked into the room. We both straightened up but I hoped that I would be able to finish my prayer for him at some point.
The attending physician asked a few more questions, did a focused physical exam, and then formulated her plan to our patient. It looked like it would all be over soon when I was surprised to hear her ask, "is it alright if I pray for you?" The patient explained that I had already started praying earlier and said he would be happy if we all prayed together. So the three of us held hands and my attending prayed a wonderful Christ-focused prayer.
It was a great experience. And even though I grieve for what this man and his family might go through in the coming months, I'm thankful that he and his family know the Lord and have a hope of eternal life beholding, worshipping and knowing Him more and more. Seeing a patient with so much peace and even the ability to encourage those around him in the midst of pain and a potentially frightening diagnosis also made me think that this was evidence of God's grace in his life. I've seen many other patients with far less severe diagnoses who were angry, bitter and left the clinicians they met tired and cynical. But this man was a blessing to those he came in contact with. May God have mercy on him and his family.