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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.

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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.

"Sometimes I wonder if he did that because he knew he wasn't in good health," she says of her doctor, who had had bypass surgery not long before his death. "It's really wonderful to have a therapist who understands how much you miss your former therapist, and knew him and misses him himself. It's been a gift to me to be able to talk about that."

Irene Hall, another of Stulbarg's patients (he treated her for pulmonary hypertension), reports that her greatest support has come from another former patient. "We both felt that if we indeed got to the last stage with our illness, we wanted him there with us, and no one can replace him," she says. "It helps to talk to someone else who feels the same amount of grief you do, because you realize that it's a normal thing."

How else can you cope, emotionally and practically speaking, after the loss of a doctor?

  • Write a letter to the doctor's family, telling them how important the person was to you. "If you've ever lost anyone you loved, you know how much it means to hear what they meant to someone else," says Massie. "To share that with your doctor's family can be therapeutic for you as well as for them."
  • Use a journal to get out your feelings. "I think a journal is a good place to put your fears: 'I'm afraid that because I don't have Dr. Smith, I won't be able to be cured,'" says Brace. "That's not necessarily the case, but it's a fear that you need to express."
  • Seek out a "grief group" at your hospital or treatment center. You may find that an existing support group temporarily turns its focus to the loss of a shared physician; if not, ask a social worker or staff psychiatrist if something can be arranged. Online support groups can also be helpful.
  • Acknowledge the discouragement that comes with trying to build a new medical partnership. "Face it and get power over it by naming it -- like Rumpelstiltskin," says Brace. "Yes, you're discouraged, tired, and you have to do things all over again with a new doctor. Realize that you don't have to do it today, but you do have to do it, because your well-being depends on it."
  • Talk with your new doctor about your feelings -- and remember to give her a break. Of course, you should feel free to find another physician if the two of you don't mesh, but try to be honest with yourself about whether the relationship truly isn't working or if it's just that the new doctor will never be your old doctor.
  • If your fears or grief are overwhelming and begin to interfere with things like sleep, work and family, find a therapist or counselor to help you work through them.

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