Dear (Abi's) Doctors,
It’s almost Thanksgiving. Perhaps this is something your patients do on Thanksgiving. Send you notes to express their appreciation for all that you do for them. It’s a first for me.
I’m not writing to thank you for your medical expertise. I’m glad of that. Sure. But that seems like the bare minimum. Of course you know your jobs.
No, this is something different. I’m writing to tell you thank you for opening your hearts to my daughter. For taking time to get to know the beautiful woman that she is. For loving her and sitting with her and for laughing with her. For crying with her.
This week, in the middle of a storm of pain and disorientation and fear, Abi gently asked me to go back and reread something that she and I wrote in February. It was our description of why we chose Love as one of the four pillars of the website. Here’s what it said.
Love: To accept the kindness of strangers, friends, and family. To have the courage to tell the people who have touched us how they filled our hearts. To hug like we mean it. To let somebody cut in line. To do a nice thing for somebody who didn't even ask, and never tell another soul. To let it come in. To let it pour out.
I live in a place of contradiction right now. We all do, perhaps. I want to believe that you treat all of your patients like you treat Abi.
That you leave the office in the middle of the day to hand deliver a prescription to a pharmacy twenty minutes away because the computers aren’t working and you know that your patient needs pain relief right now. Just like you did for Abi one Thursday afternoon.
That you sit with a patient when they talk about a trip they’re planning to California, and tell them about your dear friend Donny at Trespass, and promise to get in touch with him to set up a private tasting at his vineyard. Then come into the treatment room ten minutes later to excitedly tell your patient that it’s all set up, and to remind her to take a tour of the caves at Schramsberg because it’s right up the road from Trespass. Like you did for Abi this Spring.
That you drop by a patient’s room in the hospital because you happen to run into her father in the coffee shop after you’ve worked a full day, and he mentions that she had emergency heart surgery the day before, and she’s hurting. Even though you have literally nothing to do with this particular hospital stay and you have god-knows-what left to do before you go home and even more after you get there. But you still drop by and sit beside her and talk about whatever she wants to talk about for as long as she wants to talk about it. LIke you did for Abi a couple of weeks ago.
That you reschedule a patient for the last appointment of the day so you can linger as long as she wants you to linger and talk about soul-matches and share your own stories of loss and cancer and swear about doctors who don’t understand what it means to be twenty-seven and facing things that most people won’t have to face for decades. That you give her so much of yourself and weep with her openly on a Tuesday afternoon when she tells you about what her best friend means to her and how sad she is that she won’t be there when her friend marries and has her first daughter. That you tell your patient you have a copy of When Breath Becomes Air on your nightstand, but you can’t read it because you know it will wreck you. Like you did for Abi.
If you’ve never read the first essay in The Empathy Exams, I recommend it to you. Not because you might learn anything, but because you’ll see yourself in it, in the most intimate and beautiful way possible. Leslie Jamison knows you. Knows each of you, and was writing about you when she described empathy:
Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.
She doesn’t say this, but it’s implied, I think.
Empathy doesn’t just mean bringing the difficulty to light. It’s joining them in that difficulty. Not just standing outside of the room and poking your head in every now and again and asking:
“Hey! how’s it going in there?”
No. It’s walking in, taking off your white coat, and sitting beside them in that really uncomfortable place. And talking about friends and love and wine and loss.
You know, like you do for Abi - all of the time.
And there’s the contradiction.
I want to believe that you do these things for all of your patients. But I also want to believe that your relationship with Abi is unique because - well because she’s my only daughter and I know how unique she is. And there simply are not enough hours in the day to do this for every patient. I know that.
And on Thanksgiving, it’s time that I told you how much we appreciate your compassion, and how you’ve touched us and filled our hearts. Each of you has filled our hearts.
Thank you so much.