When I published my first book—“Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue”—I got a lot of ribbing from my friends about the title.
“Singular Intimacies?” they said. “What’s the book about—French lingerie?”
But I wanted a title that would capture the essence of the doctor-patient relationship. It is intimate, but in a unique way. It’s not a romantic intimacy, but it’s an intimacy nonetheless. A poet-friend of mine came up with the title after she read the manuscript. She found it from a section, early in the book, when I was a medical student.
It was my first day on the medical ward at Bellevue. The very first patient we admitted that morning was an elderly gentleman in extremis. Fluid had built up around his heart, constricting the ventricles, bottoming out his blood pressure. He was dying in front of our eyes and all I can remember was feeling sheer terror. He was thrashing about, and I was holding his feet.
Then somebody whipped out the longest needle I’d ever seen and calmly bore it into our patient’s chest. I watched in awe as fluid was drawn out from the heart, and magically—within moments, in front of my very eyes—our patient came back to life.
Over the next two weeks, I became very attached to this patient. In the book I wrote: “A unique bond is created, I learned, after you accompany someone through a lifesaving experience. Just by being near him and touching him during that near-death experience, I felt like I’d been privy to a singular intimacy.”
There are many intimate moments between doctors and patients. Perhaps the most singularly intimate ones occur at the entrance and exit of life. Delivering a baby—no matter how many times you’ve done it—never ceases to astound. And attending a patient as death approaches offers a solemn, intensely intimate connection.
Below is a clip of another story from “Singular Intimacies.” Instead of being the neophyte medical student, however, I was now the senior physician. Decades of experience, though, do not change the fundamental emotions of the doctor-patient relationship. This was another singularly intimate moment—one that is seared in my soul.