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What’s love got to do with it: lessons from a dying physician

They came from all corners of the globe to bid him farewell. He looked cachetic, his frail form interrupted by swelling in his abdomen and legs, a result of end-stage pancreatic cancer. It was Dr. Yeat’s last week in the hospital before being transferred to a nearby hospice.  He was now on morphine, and despite severe fatigue and difficulty breathing, he always managed a smile.

Some of his visitors were former colleagues; others were friends, previous medical trainees, and mentees. Amidst moments of laughter, crying, and sober reflection, each recounted one anecdote after another of their encounters with Dr. Yeat at some point in their long medical training. One common thread emerged from their stories: Dr. Yeat was a revered clinician and teacher; he was matchless in his boundless medical knowledge, compassionate and thoughtful, with unrivaled bedside manner. But above all else, he was loved.

A reputable internist, he had served as the chair of the medicine department 30 years ago, at the same medical center where he was now receiving care. I met him on a palliative care rotation in my third year of medical school. Although Dr. Yeat was slowly wasting away, there was an air of solemnity about him. I’m not sure when exactly it dawned on me, but the spectacle of one protégé after another genuflecting at his bedside or squeezing his hands tightly in a bespoken gesture of gratitude left an indelible impression on me.

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