About two years ago I had the privilege of being asked to care for a good friend and colleague’s mother in law. It’s always hugely flattering when a physician you respect asks you to care for a loved one.  I am grateful that that privilege has been offered to me many times. I’ll call this one J. for this story.

Suffice it to say that J. was quite ill. With severe autoimmune disease, terrible spinal abnormalities, limited mobility, and a long list of other debilitating problems, I met her and three daughters for the first time in the Emergency Room with serious post-operative complications after back surgery.  There, a two-year journey began, working constantly to improve J’s situation, optimize her comfort, and try to restore her health as much as possible. There were some triumphs along the way, but many setbacks as well, many return trips to that Emergency Room. Ultimately, J. became severely ill, and in accordance with her own beliefs and wishes, as well as her loving family’s, was kept comfortable until her passing.

Yesterday, at her Memoriam, a celebration of life, I was among a large gathering of those who loved J and cared deeply for her and her family. A slideshow of her revealed images of a stunning young woman and the richly heartfelt life she lived. Though I would have said I knew her well, I realized how much I had missed in never knowing J when she was healthy, and in only glimpsing the depth of her connection to her large and loving family and community. It hit home – hard.

Lessons come every day to Doctors who are listening. That is why it truly is the “practice” of medicine. Despite extensive training and decades of experience, continuing education and collaborative consultation, there’s always more to know, and so much more to a person than you may ever formally see. Understanding the arc of the lives of those we care for is crucial to understanding their needs, integral to offering the best care, and, to me, the reason to become a physician in the first place. In the end, in all things, it’s the heart you bring to it that matters. Indeed, I was, and ever will remain, privileged to have been asked to help care for her.

J, and every other patient I have had and ever will have.