Saying goodbye to a dying patient

A dental hygienist shares a poignant story of a patient who came to his regularly scheduled appointment when he was dying—just to say goodbye.

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"He looked at me with his genuine smile and said, 'Well, Laureen, the doctor tells me I am dying. I don’t want any x-rays or any additional treatment.'"

Editor’s note: The article below originally appeared in the Colgate Oral Health Advisor.

I began my morning the same way I always have. I walked past the front desk, said “good morning,” and headed to my operatory. On this morning, one of our front desk staff stopped me to tell me that one of my patients scheduled for the day may not come. He had told her he may need to cancel because he is not feeling well. Knowing who it was, I said, “No problem . . . he always feels better after he has a blood transfusion, and if he is not well today he will reschedule.” I went about my day.

My patient before lunch was my friend, Carl. He must have been feeling better because he came in for his appointment. I greeted him with my usual “hello” as I brought him back to my operatory. He looked pale and thinner than I remembered. When I asked how his summer had gone, he told me it was “OK.” When I asked if he went to his family reunion in Ohio, he replied, “No, they came to see me.”

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So, I sat down next to him, looked at him directly, and asked how he was feeling. He looked at me with his genuine smile and said, “Well, Laureen, the doctor tells me I am dying. I don’t want any x-rays or any additional treatment.”

My heart sunk. My eyes wanted to fill with tears. But as his caregiver and dental hygienist for over 20 years, I thought, “Well, Carl has fought this bone cancer for over 14 years. He was given four years to live after his diagnosis. He clearly beat the odds.” So, I held his hand, smiled and said, “I am really very sad to hear this.” Realizing he had probably only come in to say goodbye, I did what I needed to do in my heart: treat my patient as his hygienist and treat my patient as his friend of 20 years.

So I said, “Let’s take a look and let’s talk about something fun like we always do!” And we did just that. We talked about his family, my family, where I had traveled that summer. I asked him to tell me again about his Ford Model T and how he had driven it cross country. We talked about his job in the Virginia juvenile justice system. He had shared with me how he had given his home phone number to many of the juvenile offenders he met. He told them that they could call him if they ever needed someone to talk to. On one occasion, he kept a young boy from committing suicide. One juvenile offender eventually came back to work with him in the system.

Carl had a great life.

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When it came time to say goodbye, I hugged my friend, told him I loved him, that I would dearly miss him, and I was grateful for the time we spent together in the dental office. He smiled at me with tears in his eyes.

As I walked away, I cried. But, I knew in my heart I was given an amazing gift as his oral health provider. I was given an opportunity to say goodbye.

My wish for you, Carl, is a peaceful ending to an amazing life. I am honored to be your friend and dental hygienist. Until we meet again . . .

Editor's note: This article first appeared in RDH eVillage. Click here to subscribe.

Laureen Lipscomb, RDH, has been a dental hygienist for 32 years, 21 of them at the same practice in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

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