A few months ago I had another one of those amazing experiences that makes me feel so lucky to be a doctor. These don’t come every week or every month but they do come, and they are life-affirming.
I was admitting a man in his late 80’s, very tall, cultured, handsome and well traveled. When I asked him where he was originally from he said “Germany. I left in 1956”. We had been having a lovely conversation and suddenly I couldn’t help it and I just thought “NAZI! His people killed my people!”. The man was warm and mysterious and funny and very sick. His daughter told me that her dad was a wonderful man who had fought on a U-boat for the Germans towards the end of the war. She said he really was like an “international man of mystery”. I finished my H and P and couldn’t stop asking myself: ” What happened to him during the war; what was it like for him as a child in the brown shirts; what happened to him after the war; how did he stay for years in Germany and then end up a successful business man in the United States”? But I was afraid to ask him.
The next day I sat down next to him in a chair. “Listen, Mr. X., you don’t have to talk to me but I have the feeling you have a really interesting story and if you feel like talking, I would love to hear it”. And to my surprise he did tell me his story. Multiple times during our conversation he mentioned that he never talked about this, never talked about the war to anyone. I said he didn’t need to continue, but he kept wanting to. When I asked him why he didn’t want to discuss it, and also how he had achieved such a successful life after such a difficult start, he said that he believed whole-heartedly that we must move only forward in life. He said that the only choice worth making is to make the best of what you have and move on towards the good.
Afterwards I shook his hand and thanked him, and he held on to my hand and said “you know, I’m suprised, but that made me feel good, thank you for listening to me”. When I discharged him he again took my hand and told me that talking to me surprisingly made him feel better. I was so grateful to him for trusting me enough to talk to me. A few weeks later he was dead. I called his daughter and she said it was really ok, he was ready to go when he did.
What a bizzarre and amazing confluence of factors led this elderly German man who fought in WW2 to tell his story for the last time to a curly haired Jewish doctor brought up on stories of the holocaust. He will never tell that story again. I will never hear that story again. That whole generation is almost gone. Maybe telling that story helped him to be ready to go. I would like to think so. I felt it was a blessing for both of us. I felt like the exchange in our words and our handshake contained forgiveness and compassion and acceptance that life and goodness go on no matter what. It was a reminder that we can find comfort in each other’s humanity at any stage of life and across any cultural divide.
It was another reminder of the best of what medicine can do for us. It remains such a privilege to be able to sit at the bedside at the end of someone’s life and hear their story and offer comfort, both medical and emotional. It can be a gift for the doctor and the patient.