“Listen here young doctor”: Lessons on dying from an “old” doctor, by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

Wednesday, 09 Oct 2013 09:13

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page


Many years ago when I was a “young” doctor, moonlighting in the ER of a tiny country town, I had an experience that challenged my training. You see, most “young”, “new” doctors often think their training and knowledge is superior to that of “old” doctors…which is often…malarkey! A wise and sage “old” doctor in this tiny country town taught me an important lesson on where and how one should die.

Here is the story:

I had just walked in for my second moonlighting shift in this small 5 bed ER when the paramedics buzzed by me “bagging” (artificially ventilating) a small elderly lady. All I saw of her as they whizzed by was a dangling pale arm and dyed blue-black hair perfectly coifed with shiny pin in place.

“Well come on in here, Dr. Murphy,” the charge nurse said as she motioned me into the trauma room of this little ER.

The paramedics gave me a quick report, “She just fell over unresponsive at the beauty parlor (southern term for hair salon). All of the ladies were screaming when we arrived and all she has is a gag reflex as far as we can tell. Her blood pressure is up but heart rate is normal. Whatcha think, Doc?”

“Head-bleed (slang medical term for intracranial hemorrhage),” I said as I quickly checked her pupils and lack of response to a brisk sternal rub.

“That’s what we were thinkin’ too, Doc.” The lead paramedic replied. “And, by the way, the family is on the way.”

Since I was a young doctor with a whole lot of book sense but very little common-sense, I proceeded to intubate her, cat scan her and arrange for her helicopter flight to our larger regional hospital, all without asking the family about her wishes or advance directives, or even what their desires for her might be.

All I told the family was something like this: “She has a very large amount of bleeding in her brain, this made her faint and now she is unresponsive. I had to put her on a life support machine and now we’ll need to fly her to our regional hospital so the brain specialist (neurosurgeon) can see her. I can tell you that this doesn’t look good.” (At least I had enough sense to tell them that the situation was grave.)

Basically, my conversation was about what I had already “done to her” and what else we were going to “do to her.” This is too often how doctors and medicine function. You end up in the ER and we place you on the “medical train” and tell you where the next stop is- without asking your opinion or your family’s opinion about our itinerary.

Fortunately, one of the family members had something to say, “Would you mind calling her family doctor to let him know?”

“Of course!” I responded, “Absolutely, I will call him now.”

So, I got him on the phone:

“Dr. Crane, this is a courtesy call to let you know that your patient, Mrs. P, 75 year old female, came in unresponsive with a massive head bleed. I am flying her to our regional hospital and I wanted to let you know. I have spoken with the family and they are all here.”

Dr. Crane said, “Pull up the Cat Scan (brain image) and I will be right there.”

Almost as soon as I hung up and put up the images, he came around the corner.

Dr. Crane looked about 75 himself, and was very striking, with gleaming white hair and glasses framing his bright green eyes.

He shook my hand and at the same time he began to review the images. “Mmm….hmm,” he said as he examined the images carefully. Then, he turned to give me an unusual look, while pushing his glasses up to rest on his head. It was the same look that my grandmother used to give me when she wanted to gently correct me. I recognized it, but didn’t have the foggiest notion what he was about to say.

“Listen here young doct-uh (southern drawl for “doctor”). With all due respect, I know that you are doing what you were trained to do, but this lady isn’t going anywhere.”

Slightly startled, I asked him, “What do you mean?”

Then came the lesson:

He said, “You see, Mrs. P was born in this town. I have been her doctor for 30 years. Her whole family lives here. She has lived here for all of her 75 years. So, there is no reason for her to die in any other place. Ain’t nobody gonna survive a “head-bleed” that big anyway. There is no reason to send her and her family 90 miles away so that she can die in a strange place, a strange city. It doesn’t do anybody any good.  So, we are going to keep her here and keep her comfortable. Her whole family and her whole community can be with her. That’s the right thing to do. Don’t you think?”

I stood very quietly, even reverently.

Then, I said, “Yes, Sir.”

I recognized that I was standing in the shadow of a “real” doctor. I watched as he sat with Mrs. P’s family and held their hands. They all cried together and then he wrote admission orders… and extubation orders.

I cancelled the helicopter, and began to hope that one day I would “grow up” to be like “old” Dr. Crane.

Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

As always names and some medical details are changed to protect the privacy of the patient

( This is not a photo of “Dr. Crane” but reminded me of him)

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16 thoughts on ““Listen here young doctor”: Lessons on dying from an “old” doctor, by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      Thanks Jack! This is a hard lesson to learn, ’cause it kind of hurts the ego a bit. But, it was transformational experience for me. Glad to hear from you!

  1. Rea

    To “do” or to “be.” Yes, sir! Every thinking person would vote with you and learn the elder’s lessons. — Beautiful note on an indelible memory! Hold it close. Keep teaching it.

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      Thank you for your continuing support. It means alot to me. This was indeed an “elder’s lesson”…I’m glad that I had enough sense to “hear” it.

  2. Pingback: Listen here young doctor”: Lessons on dying from an “old” doctor,… | It’s OK to Die | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

  3. M. Jane Markley

    You absolutely have “grown up” to be “old” Dr. Crane!! And thank goodness for the rest of the world. Your anecdotes and insights freely shared are a true blessing to the rest of us and we try to get people to realize that death is not an option but a reality of life. Keep up the great work.

  4. Pingback: Listen here young doctor”: Lessons on dying from an “old” doctor,… | It’s OK to Die | Loss, Grief, Transitions and Relationship Support

  5. Chuck Sheppard

    Remember visiting with an elderly man in the ED (about an unrelated problem) discussing the recent loss of his wife who had collapsed south of here had been flown in with CPR intubated etc with the expected outcome. He said “the only ride longer than the one up here was the one home. I knew she was dead when she left and knew what I would find when I got here”. Keep up the good work so maybe the next spouse won’t have to make that long ride.

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      Donna, Yes- Please use this story any way you wish (with proper attribution and reference to the website of course!)

  6. Terri

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story – living in the south as a hospice nurse we have to remember family tradition and family needs – all to convenient for us folks from the north where hospitals are located everywhere. I have passed on this website as well as our company has bought the “Its ok to die” Book to share with our staff — just wanted to say thank you for being brave enough to share the truth- your gift — and Namaste Terri

  7. Pingback: “Listen here young doctor”: Lessons on dying from an “old” doctor, by Monica Williams-Murphy | baltimore-citycounty

  8. Pingback: Listen here young doctor”: Lessons on dying from an “old” doctor,… | It’s OK to Die | The Mortuary Forum

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