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A Breast Cancer Survivor's Grief: Losing Your Doctor

Doctors aren't supposed to die before their patients. And when it happened to this breast cancer survivor, she felt scared and bereft.


"It's a really personal loss, especially because of what we psychologists call transference -- the belief system we put on the doctor about what they can do for us," agrees Susan Brace, RN, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles, who frequently counsels people with serious and chronic illnesses. "It's almost like losing a family member. And if we have a long relationship with the doctor, it's even harder, because of how well they know us and our condition. Starting from scratch is an awful thought."

Alice Wong, a sociology research assistant at the University of California-San Francisco, never imagined she would lose her doctor. For seven years, pulmonologist Michael Stulbarg had helped her manage breathing problems resulting from her muscular dystrophy. In April of 2004, Stulbarg died suddenly of liver failure due to a chronic bone marrow disorder.

"I was devastated. He was a constant in my life. Every visit counted and he was always trying to come up with new options that might help me," Wong recalls. "I kept thinking, 'What's going to happen when I get really sick, and there won't be someone who knows me, who'll go the extra mile for me?'"

For Wong, it helped that Stulbarg's practice reassured his patients that they would be referred to a close colleague. "My doctor now was not only a colleague of his, but a good friend, too," she says. "We talk about him, and that helps me a lot -- to know that other people miss him, too. It helps to have somebody who knows my relationship with him, and knows I expect the same level of care."

Finding a doctor in the same practice, or who had a collegial relationship with your previous physician, can be an enormous help both in processing your grief and in feeling that your care will remain consistent. Rachel Falls lost her psychiatrist of four years just as she was struggling with whether or not to pursue chemotherapy for a brain tumor. Fortunately, not long before, her doctor had established a relationship for her with another analyst, and the three had begun working together.

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