I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

August 25, 2010
David Lubin, MD

Dr. Lubin on physicians' acceptance of death as a part of medical practice and a habit shared by many of his colleagues: reading the obituaries.

It’s supposed to be kind of a guy thing (well, a straight guy thing…not that there’s anything wrong with the other…) that the first section of the paper you read in the morning is the sports section. I used to do that, but as I became more entrenched in my medical practice and the more I kept “losing” my patients, I often found myself turning to the obituaries before the sports. Because all physicians must eventually come to accept that death is an inevitable part of the job, we’ve learned to live with it, probably better than most people. Still, we’re often surprised when relatively healthy patients die suddenly, and more often than not, relieved when sick, elderly patients pass away.

Every once in a while, one of my patients or former patients dies and for one reason or another I won’t know about it. Perhaps they were living outside of Tampa and I hadn’t seen them in years, or they were in a nursing home, or had been admitted to a hospital and died during their stay (since I don’t admit anymore I’d have no way of knowing unless my hospitalist alerts me).

People die in a number of ways. Some just “die.” Some “pass away.” Others “went to be with the Lord,” “went home to be with the Lord,” “died suddenly,” “entered into God’s care,” “departed,” “unexpectedly departed,” or any of a dozen other ways of saying the same thing. I don’t mean to be disrespectful at all. I often read the obituaries and wonder what kind of lives these people led, especially the younger ones (often wondering why they died so young), or wonder what the older ones did to get TO their 90s. And having just had celebrated my 60th birthday, I become concerned about the ones who died in their 60s…

I read the obits one day to find out that one of my patients, a lady in her 70s, had died. I had just seen her in the office for a physical and she was fine. She had had no problems and her labs were all normal. I couldn’t imagine what I had missed and then feared getting the dreaded letter from an attorney’s office requesting all of her records. I contacted one of her family members to find out what had happened. To be honest, I was a bit relieved at what I was told, although still saddened. Apparently she had been hanging pictures over the head of her bed and had slipped, fallen off the bed, and broken her neck.

When reading the obituaries, I find the names of many of the deceased to be interesting. Most are your “everyday” names but some just strike me as a bit unusual, the same feeling you get when you browse the phone book. Some of these people probably had to spell out their name every time they were asked. I came across one the other day that made me fell a bit sorry for the woman; her last name was Mess. The connotations are endless.

And then there’s the length of the obituaries. Some have as little as three lines; others have been two or three columns and are repeated for several days. Obituary notices aren’t cheap, although the short ones are free. I often wonder what my loved ones will say about me and who’ll offer to pay; I hope it’s more than three lines.