Losing a doctor

After I finished my cancer treatment in 2012 and had a minute to think, I quickly turned to worrying about recurrence and progression. It’s a well-worn path among cancer survivors. Anxiety commonly ratchets up during remission.

I was monitored closely by my doctor at the three-month mark, then six-months for awhile, then yearly. Somewhere along that route I got it into my head that my doctor would leave his practice. It happens the way these things often do—through gossip.

A member of my support group goes to the same urology practice as I do. He had been unexpectedly switched to a different doctor for a check-up. My first reaction inside was, “Nope. They’re not gonna do this to me.” I didn’t even pause for a minute to listen to my friend or to be curious about his experience.

Instead I became convinced that my doc was leaving and began obsessively checking the practice’s website to see if his name was still there. A few months later, after my cystoscopy, my doc asked if I had questions and I grilled him about whether or not he was leaving.

It took him awhile to convince me and he ended by saying, “Look, I have far too many financial ties to this practice to leave.”

My connection to this doc was forged not only by my confidence in him and my respect for how he practices medicine, but it was also because he was the bridge that carried me over, from illness to health. He was present, constant, grounded, confident, reassuring.

For me this doc acquired a magical quality, that of the alchemist. It felt like he had healed me rather than that treatments had healed me.

Many years have passed and I still have great respect for and confidence in him, but I no longer feel that he alone can be my doc, though I prefer that the relationship extends to when I no longer need a urologist.

It’s usually not the thing you worry about that actually happens. It’s something else. Which is one of the reasons those of us with anxiety feel our worries are justified. Shoes are always dropping.

My psychiatrist of six years is leaving his practice. There was some prior notice because he has taken some medical leave, but it still felt shocking yesterday when I found out. The news didn’t come from him, but circuitously through a few folks.

The whirlwind of questions is overwhelming to me. Is he seriously ill? Does he have COVID? Is a family member ill? Is he retiring, moving to another practice, leaving the state, buying a boat and sailing around the world?

With each question comes a variety of feelings: abandonment, anger, concern, grief, sadness, helplessness. Truth is, patients are vulnerable, even helpless, when their caregivers leave.

My relationship with this doc was not easy. I am not an easy person to work with and psychiatrists dive right in with the most piercing questions. All doctor-patient relationships are unequal, but I feel that our relationship with psychiatrists is the most imbalanced. They know us at our core. They know things about us that we hide from others and that the world judges harshly. They are the link to medications that make life livable. And we know nothing about them.

I remember so clearly the first day I met with this doc. On the desk behind him was a photo of a child, maybe five or six, in a ridiculously frilly dress and very curly hair. It didn’t fit. He is roughly my age, which is old to have a young child and he didn’t look like a dress-your-daughter-in-frilly-clothes kind of person.

I found out later that psychiatrists, at least at this practice, move among different offices and share space. The photo was someone else’s.

He has only recently brought photos of his family to his office, of a daughter, who looks to be roughly my daughter’s age, and a mother and other folks I can’t identify. He once showed me a photo of his dad and a photo of himself as a teenager dressed for the prom. He has once mentioned his mother during a session and once mentioned his father.

On the teeter-totter of relationships, he is firmly on the ground and I’m suspended in midair.

I have become a better patient over the years, through hard work with my therapist. After about four or five years I began to feel some confidence when I went to appointments, a level of comfort and safety that I very much needed. That hard-won confidence makes it so much harder to lose him.

I am frustrated by this situation. There is no closure to be had, and I’ll likely never know why he left. That teeter-totter slammed me to the ground when he hopped off.

I met with a new psychiatrist today. Like my urologist, he is young and, I believe, better trained because he is young. He spent an hour with me, an almost unheard of period of time. I am optimistic that he will provide good care, perhaps even better care.

But loss is still loss, and I will miss my former doctor very much.

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