|Memorial block for my mom at the Riverwalk in Downtown Ft. Lauderdale|
As viewed in one of my earlier posts about my mom and how special she was to me, I am sharing with you a very special and touching medical journal article about my mom that was written by one of my mom's best friends and also our family Doctor for many years. Dr. Marlene Wolf is a General Practitioner in Coral Springs, Florida and I highly respect and love her so much. Here is a picture of Marlene and I had taken at my sorority's Founders' Day and my chapter's 20th anniversary. I am grateful that to this day that we still see each other and stay in touch (even if sometimes it is just playing "words with friends" online together) until the next time...
I wanted to share this beautiful and very personal article about my mom with you all here today... to remind us that cancer and ultimately death- is not the end of being able to teach and touch people's hearts...
Life’s Last Lesson
By: Dr. Marlene Wolf
“I am going to heaven,” she said very calmly as I asked her how she was feeling. My friend was dying. I kissed her forehead and told her that I loved her. I glanced over to her husband, holding her hand, with tears in his big eyes. She said that she was ready. And we both knew what that meant. Her gentle smile and wonderful personality still filled the hospital room, despite her body being full of breast cancer. She denied being in pain or having problems breathing. She had chosen me to be her family practitioner so it was now my duty to help her die. This was my hardest role to date, helping a friend die and comforting her family. Yesterday she wanted chemotherapy; today she was waiting for heaven. So I addressed this issue with the nurses, signed her DNR form and put a “Do not disturb” sign on her hospital door.
She was a gentle elementary school teacher, my neighbor, mother of my baby-sitter in years past, and wife to my friend. Everyone loved her, with only sweet words from her lips. She and her husband were friends of my in-laws. I have known this woman for over 25 years, before I graduated medical school. We had both moved from Philadelphia to south Florida. Somehow, we bought a house on the same block, several years apart, unbeknownst to each other at the time. It was a wonderful block; we watched each other’s kids grow up. We ate Christmas cookies together. We watched out kids as they went trick or treating. We even dressed up for a few Halloween parties like kids. Over the years, her four children grew up and moved away. We both sold our houses and relocated to different neighborhoods. But the bond was evident as she selected me for her personal medical care.
These memories flashed through my mind as I held her hand and gently washed her arms with warm water. She lay dying in bed, I as the physician, she as my patient. The morphine was keeping her pain free. For this I was glad, but I mourned the fact that I could not wave my magic wand to make her all better. “I love you,” she said to her husband. The tears welted in his eyes. His pain was evident. He reassured her of their love and the importance of her life to both him and the family unit. I held her hand for I did not want to leave her alone as her husband left the room to call the priest for her last rites. I stayed with my friend and we spoke briefly of kids, friends, and fun times past. When her daughter came into the hospital room, my role for now ended and I left the family in peace. The priest arrived to give the last rites. Even though it was my Saturday off, my beeper number was affixed to the chart with the nurses aware to call me at any time.
My pain was evident for my colleagues could see it in my face. “Why are you looking so grim?” a colleague asked. “I have to help my friend die!” I exclaimed to him. This was my hardest role as a physician for over 20 years. As I fought back the tears, I realized that this gentle elementary school teacher was giving her last lesson about life, how to die and I was the student. I had the privilege and honor as being chosen to participate in this lesson. For this is one certain thing about life, we will all die, the time and place, yet to be determined.
Her sons arrived as she drifted in and out of consciousness. The family unit was one for the last time. Life’s last lesson was occurring. I had told her husband the day prior, in my office, to call her sons for the last visit. He understood and made those solemn phone calls. He was very forthright and told me he wanted to know the truth and understand his wife’s condition. We spoke frankly. He told me he understood how hard this was for me. His sensitivity to my dual role, friend and physician was personally comforting. We hugged as he left my office to play his greatest role, to comfort his wife of many years, the mother of their four children, as she lay dying in the hospital.
I left the hospital and went to my home, just a few miles away. “This was my Saturday afternoon off, I said to my husband. “Do what you have to do,” he replied to me, in full understanding of the situation. He offered to go to the hospital with me but I returned alone that afternoon. The nurses had notified me of her deteriorating condition. As the family sat vigil around the bedside, I sat with a cup of fresh coffee in the lounge, solemn in my thoughts. I briefly glanced at the most recent issues of a few medical journals. New medicines to cure this….Medical research to end this… Better health with this combination… Exercise and diet to improve this… the abstracts read. The focus of medicine and medical school is on disease prevention, disease cure, the healthy and living longer. Our greatest service as a physician is simply holding the patient’s hand, saying goodbye at the time of their death, and comforting the family. We need no medical research or studies to confirm this fact. Death is certain for all of us and as physicians, we all help our patients to die. This is much harder than all of the tests ever taken in medical school. There is no book to each you how to help a friend die. There is no lesson plan. As my friend died, she taught her greatest and last lesson; accept death as natural and do not show anger. Her peaceful acceptance of the inevitable comforted not only her family but also her physician.
I comforted her daughter, now a woman of her own right and wife, with hugs and words of advice: “This is your greatest role and you are doing a great job!” She returned to her family and I waited. The family called me and I knew my final curtain call was here. I pronounced my friend, hugged each family member and said my condolences.
Heaven is a better place now. The lesson was taught well; death is a certainty, natural and beautiful; the timing not in our control. Though my heart still aches for this family, I hold my head high knowing that I received from this elementary school teacher the greatest lesson about life. Life’s last lesson is that death, met with a strong faith, is heavenly peaceful and our own acceptance on our deathbed is very comforting to our family, friends, and healthcare workers. Thank you for choosing me as your physician.
Published in the Florida Medical Journal Spring 2002
Written by Dr. Marlene Wolf
Thank you Dr. Wolf for being an incredible family physician and my family's true friend...