Patients as teachers: Local health care professionals share memorable lessons learned

May 26, 2020

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Medicine is science and science is predictable, but treating real people is well…complicated.

Patients are teachers. That’s the big takeaway here. Each patient experience might start out routine and mundane, but years of experience prove the unforgettable ones are inspiring, transformational, and even enchanting.

Following are some patient stories that permanently grabbed the hearts and minds of local Jewish professionals.

Six Weeks and 11 years
Josh Adler
Founder, Adler Therapy Group

I’ve been an occupational therapist for 17 years and a business owner for five. As a parent, I put myself in the shoes of parents whose children I care for. From there, I try to make a connection so I can help them focus on the child’s strengths, while enlisting the parents to trust the process that addresses the challenges.

My most memorable patient is one that I evaluated when he was only six weeks old with a Brachial Plexus Injury due to trauma during the birthing process. I instantly connected with this family and treated him for more than three years while I worked at CHKD. We stayed in touch over the years. Once I opened my own practice in 2015, he returned to Adler Therapy Group where I evaluated him as an 11-year-old who navigates his world with his right arm still affected, but also now with new challenges going into adolescence. Having evaluated him as a six-week old, and then again later in life, and being part of his entire journey and transformation, is a rare experience.

Family Foundation
Darren Dorfman
Darren Dorfman, DDS, The Art of Dentistry

Sam from Pungo had a gift for gab as they say. He had a lot of dental work done, which meant we spent a lot of time together and I got to know him really well. Sam’s a mason. I hired him to do some brick work when we moved into a new house. We spent time together outside the office. He often told me how much he had loved his wife, but that she was mentally ill and committed suicide.

Then, about two years ago, he lost his daughter to suicide. She was home for summer break and took her life a few weeks before returning to school for fall.

This really tore me up because I knew how much he loves his kids.

Now it’s just Sam and his son. He still comes over to do jobs around the house. I see the way he watches me interact with my family and can sense the loss he feels.

What sticks with me is that Sam always reminds me to love my kids and my family as much as I can. ‘Do everything you can for them.’ ‘Hug them and kiss them often.’ ‘Tell them how much you love them.’ He is currently trying to keep his son in a positive place. I admire his strength. Despite everything that has happened to him, he is always upbeat. He has shown me that despite all the things that can go wrong, it is still possible to have a positive outlook and to be happy. Even if you get dealt a bad hand, you can still overcome sadness and be grateful for what you do have.

Back to smiling
Fredric Fink, M.D.
Pediatric Specialists CHKD

“Timmy” was 10-years old. He always came in for his checkups after his birthday, the week before Thanksgiving. His hair was neatly parted to the right. And he always had a broad, infectious smile for me when I entered the examination room. And that day, several years ago, was no different. As always, I asked him how his year was going, and his answer with that smile, “really good!”

One year, something was different. His dad usually would have been there for his checkup. I asked Timmy how he was doing. No Timmy smile that day. I got a less convincing “pretty good.”

His mom informed me that his dad had passed away during the summer from an aggressive form of colon cancer.

As I began to exam him, I noticed a smoky smell to his clothes that wasn’t from cigarettes. I asked Mom about the smell and learned that their house caught fire two days before. Timmy and his mom were able to escape, but nearly all of their belongings were destroyed.

Timmy’s big smile returned because his bike was spared from the fire and it was a birthday present he loved.

I was devastated to hear this. My staff was so moved by the story that they collected clothes and toys and books for him, and clothes for his mom. We invited them to our office for lunch and gave them cooked turkeys and all the fixings, and personal items we collected for them both. He was all smiles, and we were all in tears.

Timmy definitely made his mark on all of us. His ability to smile and stay positive despite such devastating circumstances will always inspire me.

The big foot question
Morris Elstein—Coastal Gynecology

As a gynecologist, my specialty deals with issues and disorders in a limited area of the body, primarily the genitals. I don’t know why, but this is a common question I get from patients on the exam table: “I know this is not in your specialty, but can you tell me anything about this problem I have with my foot?”

My standard answer is, “If your foot was in another region of the body, closer to your genitals, I could probably help you with your problem.”

Motivation and determination
Lucy Cardon, RN
Jewish Family Service of Tidewater

My patient had ALS for five years and in those five years, as her disease progressed, she accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. I was always in awe of her motivation and determination. Even though she could not move or breathe on her own, she continued to work from her bedside, using a computer with eye gaze technology. She attended opera and traveled to Richmond to accept an honor bestowed upon her by the late Bishop Sullivan for commissioning a piece of her beautiful artwork to his church.

She was an expert at micro-managing her own care, who also gave expert advice to anyone who needed help. She was an inspiration to me and everyone who had the pleasure of being in her presence.

I still think about her often, especially when going through difficult times, I wonder what advice she would give me.

- Lisa Richmon

Letter to the Editor