Many of you know about my Aunt Terri, the 94-year-old dynamo who has loved, supported, mentored, and inspired me since I came on the planet the day after her 29th birthday. She lives independently, drives safely, walks a mile in about 20 minutes every morning and before the pandemic, worked several days each week helping arrange trips for her senior group.
Last week, Aunt Terri needed emergency surgery because of a hole in her bowel (from a ruptured diverticulum). My cousin, Ray, and I share power of attorney. We agreed that though we would advise her to have the surgery, if there were persistent mental or physical postoperative complications, we would follow her advance directive and the many conversations we’ve had with her. We would not agree to keep her alive on machines. Aunt Terri reviewed and signed the consent form herself.
Within 12 hours of surgery, Aunt Terri asked to sit up in a chair and took some steps in the room with the nurses. Since her bowels were already working, she drank liquids. She also demanded that Ray go to her apartment and bring her lipstick and a scarf (since she hadn’t had a chance to get her hair done).
My family breathed a sigh of relief; I held my breath.
The blessing of being the doctor in the family that I can communicate with care teams, advocate for health-challenged relatives, and translate for my family. This can decrease anxiety for everyone. It is my privilege to fill this role.
The curse of being the doctor in the family takes many forms. I know what can happen and what must or must not happen before my family member is out of the woods. I don’t believe the soft words care teams use to control anxiety. (A nurse said my aunt was “indisposed” when her bowels had stopped working, and she was vomiting. the team passed a tube through her nose into her stomach to drain everything she’d eaten the day before.) I must strike an often precarious balance between destroying my family’s hope and giving accurate information that controls unrealistic expectations. (One cousin thought Aunt Terri would be back home by the weekend). The most valuable skill a doctor offers her patients is the one she cannot have for her loved ones: objectivity. I am on the wrong side of the mirror. Because of that, the final part of the curse is to manage my own pain, fear, and grief and ensure that none of this interferes with being an effective advocate and translator.
I am blessed with friends in health care who can make sure I process medical information accurately and with prayer warriors who support, comfort, and cover me.
Though she is still in the hospital, Aunt Terri has never become confused. She is back to working with PT and eating though she still receives intravenous nutrition. I’m talking to docs and nurses, translating for my family, leaning on my own care team, and loving my Aunt Terri. When Ray let us Facetime from her hospital room, Aunt Terri called me her “sweet angel smile child,” as she always does. Later, I texted Ray that he was a dead man for letting me see her without makeup and her usual hairstyle. He said he knew and would enjoy the time he had left until she could get up and catch him. My Aunt Terri hates cats and it has always been my joy to send cat cards for every holiday, birthday, and sometimes, just because. When another cousin brought her a stuffed cat from me, Aunt Terri rolled her eyes and laughed. No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen, we’re keeping our “I Love Yous” up to date. That will break any curse.