It was a little bit like looking in the mirror. We were the same height and build, the same age — mid-30s — and both had of us had two young children at home. In another world, had we been friends, we could have easily shared clothing. But today it was me with the white coat, and her with the death sentence.
Except she didn’t know it yet.
It was the morning of Julia’s discharge from the hospital, and we were going through the array of cardiac medications stacked on her bedside table. She asked the same question about each bottle: “Will this medicine make my heart better?”
I squirmed painfully around the question, weaving ever more elaborate explanations about controlling symptoms, enhancing breathing, minimizing fluid imbalances, improving exercise tolerance. I told every truth about every medication, but I could not bring myself to tell her the ultimate truth — that a roll of the genetic dice had doomed the fibrils of her heart, that her only chance was a heart transplant, that because she was an undocumented immigrant this was nigh impossible. That her children would grow up motherless. Read the full Op-Ed in the New York Times.
(photos from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(link to essay on Medical Error)
Danielle Ofri is the author of three books, including “Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients,” which is about learning the individual stories of patients. She is an Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. She is currently writing a book about the emotional life of doctors.