Posted on 2 March 2012 by Gillian Vickers
While training as a GP in York, I was called one morning in the middle of a busy surgery to an ‘emergency visit’ — an unexpected death.
My first reaction was that pressing on and seeing the rest of my patients took priority over visiting a patient who could no longer be helped. I was assured, however, by the reception staff, that it was urgent and that the family were waiting.
This was the unexpected death of an older man with very little past medical history who lived alone and who I had never seen. His son called to visit him that morning and found him dead.
I had witnessed and certified many deaths in hospital over the years, but this felt very different. This was my first death in the community, I was on my own, and the relatives were already there and waiting for me. To say what, exactly? I quickly gathered my equipment, bag and coat, and started to rehearse in my mind what I might say to them.
On the way out, one of the partners, trying to be helpful and supportive, said: ‘I usually say: “He died peacefully in his sleep.”’
Good advice, I thought, and off I went.
The living room was filled with relatives in a state of shock, and they appeared to be waiting for me. Little was said, and I was shown upstairs to the man’s bedroom. He was in bed in his pyjamas. I was left alone to perform my duties. I pulled back the blanket and did the necessary examination.
I went back into the lounge, where the family was sitting and waiting. I sat down and expressed my sympathy. Then, just as my trainer had advised, I said: ‘He must have passed away in his sleep.’
‘No he didn’t,’ his son immediately retorted. ‘I found him lying behind the front door. He had been trying to get out.’
I wanted the floor to swallow me up. I was speechless. Fortunately, the family took no offence, and seemed to accept my genuine sympathy.
Following a more in-depth discussion with the family, I returned to the surgery rather stunned by the course of events. It was midday. Perhaps the other GPs had seen my patients or they had rebooked. I just wanted to stop and ponder on life and death.
As I walked through the waiting room, I recognised several patients and soon realised that they were waiting for me.
This is general practice, I thought. Life goes on. I reluctantly resumed my surgery.
I shall always remember that visit, mainly because of the embarrassment it caused me, but also for teaching me the importance of being absolutely honest with patients and their relatives.
Gillian Vickers, part-time GP in Scotland