Monday, December 3, 2012

Elaine Woo's Last Day at Work: Hitting a "Walk-Off"

Dr. Elaine Woo

One of the most exuberant and energized people I know is a physician who recently decided to leave her longtime post at Mass General Hospital. Of course, Elaine Woo -- who also helped compose our college class show -- wouldn't leave without a coda. This is what she wrote to her former classmates, while exhorting them to stay involved and share their own stories of transition, (which I hope you do here!)

What do you suppose it feels like to hit a "walk-off" game winning home run at your very last at bat as a ballplayer? I know how it feels and here is my story.

As many of you know I became a physician and have spent almost the entire 38 years of doctoring as a hospitalist - a doctor who is responsible for the care of people who have been admitted to the hospital. I diagnosed and treated the medical problems but I also managed the fears and stoked the hopes of patients and family as they grappled with illness, disability and mortality. It was my identity as a physician.

Fast forward almost 40 years in a blink of the eye. The adaptations needed to keep up with the demands of modern medicine happened inexorably but never impossibly. My 65th birthday came and went, the Medicare application was something that others did while I remained a hospital employee with full benefits. And I never looked back or up until this past summer. It was the small things, actually...the white hair and slowed gait of people who had been interns with me, the applicants for the hospitalist team who were all younger than my son, greeting the dawn after a night on call side by side with these children who were springing off bright eyed to their day jobs while I staggered home to crash. 
And then it dawned on me that I was not enjoying myself anymore. Each 12 hour shift was becoming an increasingly challenging labor -- too many patients on the roster, too many disasters-in-waiting to be averted, too many questions for which I didn't have the ready answers. I was often on the run from the start to the end of the shift and too many times I was frightened for myself and for my patients. Every doctor has those moments but they should be few and far between and when they become commonplace, it’s time to take stock. I knew that some of this change was the result of changes in health care because my young colleagues felt it too, but I had to wonder if some of the pressure came from the fact that I was getting too... can I say it...Old(!)

So I told them that I was going to stop being a hospitalist and on August 27 I worked my last shift. On this last night there was time for anything and patience for anyone who crossed my path because they would be the last patients on my last shift. 

The last patient was a 45-year-old retarded man who had diabetes, kidney failure and an infection on his hand. It was 2 o'clock in the morning and he arrived on the floor with his exhausted parents who had been by his side since his arrival in the emergency room 12 hours before. They were his advocates and caregivers -- as they had been for his entire life and knew they would be until they couldn't do it anymore. It was a relatively simple task to take the history, do the exam, formulate a plan and write the orders admitting this patient to our service. 

But he was my last patient so I pulled up a chair and I let him and his parents have all the time they wanted to tell me what happened and to ask me what I thought and hear what was going to happen and I took the time to explain to them everything they needed and wanted to know. When we were done talking I headed to the nursing station and the patient's mother followed me. I thought perhaps she had one more question but she wanted to tell me something.

She said, "Doctor, I have been by my son's side for every visit and admission to the hospital since he was a young child. As you can imagine, I think I have spent more time in the hospital than at home and we have met a lot of doctors over the years. I just want you to know that you are the first doctor to sit down with us like you did and take this much time to listen to us and include us in your deliberations. And we really appreciate it more than you can know!"

It was 3:00 in the morning and in my last at-bat I had just hit a walk-off home run. This grateful mother had just validated my life’s work, confirmed that I had spent that life doing something I loved and doing it well. I will treasure that moment.

Elaine asks (and I do, too):
Do you have some moments that you treasure and want to share? Or perhaps you are wrestling with a transition. 
Contact me at and I will try to tell your story.

1 comment:

Bob Bryan said...

Job well done Dr.Woo! It will be interesting to hear abt the next chapter in your life!