My friend, Dr. Barbara Brennan, who gave up her practice because of her CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, told me a very touching story about her last conversation with her gynecologist.
Dr. Brennan worked hard, and seemed to be inexhaustible until her illness stopped her in her tracks. In this medically underserved area we all work hard, and many of us looked to her as someone to admire, because she didn’t seem to tire of what she did day after day.
Barbara Brennan told me that there was one colleague who had told her to take a hard look at what she was doing.
Samuel Baumgarten was Barbara’s gynecologist for many years. He had delivered two of her children and when she came in for her annual checkup he always took time to ask how she was doing as a physician. She confided in him that she wished she wasn’t working quite as hard.
Sam had stopped delivering babies a couple of years earlier as his patients grew older, and focused more on gynecologic surgery. He had also cut his workweek from four to three days a week. He told Barbara that five days a week was too much for any doctor.
In his mid sixties, Samuel Baumgarten was youthful and always seemed relaxed and in perfect health. He was an avid skier, tennis player and sailor. He never wore a tie. He followed the Red Sox and gave the impression that medicine was important to him but never kept him from being a human being also.
The last visit Barbara had with Sam he had urged her to think about changing her situation.
“You’re working too hard” he lectured her. “No one is indispensable, not even you or I.” He looked very serious, almost stern as he spoke to his younger colleague and patient.
“People may say that only you can help them, but after you’re gone, they’ll say ‘She was good, but who do I see now?‘”
She often heard those words echo in her mind on days when fatigue started to creep up on her. She did start to think about what she might want to – or need to – do in the next few years in order to avoid burnout.
Two months after that appointment Samuel Baumgarten died suddenly while skiing down his favorite slope. Barbara heard one patient after another say what a good gynecologist Dr. Baumgarten had been and in the next breath ask whom they should see now.
Barbara herself had to do the same thing, choosing to see Sam’s younger partner Sandra, who was ten years his junior and a nice enough woman, but not a mentor the way Sam had been.
His words came back to her often during the first weeks of her illness as she struggled with her guilt over not showing up at the office. They helped her make her final decision to quit her practice. And she imagined her own patients, one by one, wrapping things up the same way:
“She was a great doctor, but who do I see now?“