Two years ago today I was sleeping on a chair by my father’s bedside. Weeks prior, I rushed him in my car to the emergency room of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, a hospital where he regularly received care. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 2013. He, being a doctor himself, didn’t pay attention to the signs and wrote off his symptoms for far too long. After being diagnosed, he spent a year going through chemotherapy treatments and drug cocktails as the cancer continued to spread into his abdomen and liver. After a long year of fighting, my family rushed my father to the MedStar Georgetown’s ER as a result of complications that would change my entire family’s lives.
When he was admitted, part of me knew it wouldn’t be like his other admissions. On some level, I knew this day was coming. Soon, his speech was not audible, he could not walk, he could not express himself, he could not wake up… My mother, sister, and I lived at his bedside during his last weeks. MedStar gave my father a private room and we took turns sleeping on a reclining chair and a cot that the staff found for us, not to mention all the pillows and blankets they could spare.
My father used to always tell me that the compassion and bedside manner of a physician, no matter where he or she practiced, was the most important and often forgotten part of a physician’s day. He didn’t just treat his patients. He cared for his patients. After he passed away, the area hospital where my father worked for 30-some years held a memorial service for him. The large memorial room was crammed and overflowing with his colleagues and patients, all devastated as if they were members of our family. My father’s colleagues and patients didn’t see my father as just a doctor; they saw him for a genuine and caring man who played a special role in specific parts of their lives. They all had stories of interactions with my father, big and small, that had impacted them.
As he lay at MedStar Georgetown in his final days, my close-knit Indian family was trying to hold it together. Those were the most trialing and devastating days of our lives. At the same time, there was a calmness around us in strange ways. The staff surrounding my father knew there was a 95% chance any visitor who entered that hospital wing was there to see my father. The room was almost always full of friends and family for days on end. They knew my mother and I slept there, never leaving my father’s side, and always ensured we were as OK as we could be given the circumstances. Staff took care to make sure my pregnant sister, who was staying in a hotel attached to the hospital center, was OK each time she arrived to sit by my father’s side, never wanting to leave. There was, however, one person who stood out. Her name is Rebecca Kumar.
My father, because of the severity of his condition, he had more than one team of doctors visiting him on any given day. If you asked me who Rebecca Kumar really is, I probably couldn’t tell you. I could tell you she worked at MedStar Georgetown, is Indian, and wore really great glasses. If you asked me whether she was a resident, fellow, or attending at the time I couldn’t tell you that either. Here is what I can tell you: Dr. Kumar would frequently visit my father on rounds with one of the many teams managing his care. After a while, she, like the other doctors, were common names and faces while I dealt with the reality I was about to lose my father.
After a few interactions with Dr. Kumar, I noticed that my family, and myself, built a familiarity with her. We didn’t know her and she didn’t know us. However, she demonstrated a genuine care for the heartbreak and slow loss we were trying to wrap our heads around. Every day, doctors told us that my father wouldn’t survive the night, but every day my father proved them wrong.
One day, I was sitting next to my father when Dr. Kumar knocked on the door and peeked in the room. As she walked in, I realized she wasn’t with her usual pack of physicians. In fact, she was alone. She said hello and then immediately greeted my father. She touched my father’s arm and said “Hi Dr. _______.” Then, she proceeded to ask my father how he was feeling. My father was unresponsive. Actually, my father had never spoken to Dr. Kumar. I can’t remember whether my mother was there in the room or had stepped out, but I remember Dr. Kumar asking how we all were. She wasn’t there as part of her rounds or her shift. She just stopped by.
Now, years later, when I think of my father’s personal mission as a physician I think about how he would have liked Dr. Kumar. My father often tried to mentor others and had a soft spot for younger professionals, wanting to make sure they understood the personal and intimate role doctors play in people’s lives. She was the type of young doctor that my father tried to inspire through his own work. Dr. Kumar was just going about her day, all those years ago, and I would never expect her to remember me, my father, my family, or that she stopped by to see us that day. I don’t know why that seemingly insignificant action had such an effect on me in the middle of an emotionally devastating and frustrating loss. She reminded me of my father and what he would have done. She wasn’t one of his residents. She didn’t even work at the same hospital as my father. But, in my few interactions with her, Dr. Kumar was being the kind of physician my father expected others to be because that was the kind of physician he was.
You’re probably reading this and thinking “well, this was anti-climactic.” We underestimate the effect we have on the lives of others. The smallest actions have monumental impact. Dr. Kumar and Georgetown MedStar were parts of a life altering experience for me. As absolutely horrendous and painful it was to lose my father, when I think of those endless final days by my father’s side, I remember the genuine care and comfort people like Dr. Kumar gave me. Their actions provided an environment where I could focus on my father, my indescribable grief, and my family’s needs. They reminded me of the legacy my father left with his peers, his patients, and with me… but also reminded me that in the worst of times, people can bring comfort in amazingly surprising and seemingly simple ways.