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My patients taught me how to heal after losing my mother

Dr. Shopitha Sivaranjan shares the impact of personal experience on her work as a doctor.

“Graduating from medical school and becoming a doctor was an unforgettable experience. I remember transitioning from theory to practice, books to reality, hypothetical exam scenarios played by actors to real-life stories of patients. During my initial years as a junior doctor, I thought I knew it all and was mastering the skill of empathising with patients. Little was I aware that I myself, the doctor, would soon be dealing with the gripping sense of loss and grief that many of my patients were all too familiar with.

It was a summer evening and I was driving back home with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. My mum had travelled to Sri Lanka to help take care of her elder sister and had fallen ill with dengue fever. She was due to be discharged that weekend and Dad had decided to fly over to accompany her back home. Despite this, something made me feel nauseous that night. I put it down to irrational worry and long hours at work. I got home and soon fell asleep, a routine I was all too familiar with being a junior doctor.

The next thing I remember is being woken up at 2.30am by the ringing of my dad’s phone. I hurried into his room as an uncomfortable feeling came crashing down on me. I saw my dad in floods of tears and instantly realised that my life had changed forever. My mum had passed away and my world was falling apart. An overwhelming feeling of numbness took hold of me for weeks on end. I had expected relentless pain and to be shedding constant tears but this happened rarely. There were times when I was desperate to cry but failed miserably. I often asked myself how much I cared – did I not love my mum enough? Surely I should be crying all day and night? With time, the numbness transformed into the feeling of grief and reality soon dawned on me.

I changed jobs and started working on a cancer ward. A powerful memory from this job is that of a young boy peacefully asleep at the foot of his father’s bed. The young dad had an inoperable cancer and we had earlier informed the family of his poor prognosis. The strength and graciousness with which they took the news still bewilders me. I was moved when I asked the little boy what he aspired to be and he replied, “My dad”. The innocence of the child, the integrity of the family and the strength of the patient made me realise how unbelievably resilient people can be at the worst of times.

I had to break the news to a teenage girl that her mum was dying and was unlikely to make it through the weekend. I watched helplessly as she broke down and kept screaming for her mum. I struggled to hold back tears as the young girl inside me started calling out for my own mum. I felt about two feet small for thinking that I understood what suffering was. I remember being taught about bereavement and the various steps of the grieving process at medical school. But none of this prepared me for what I had to deal with that day. Being able to share the young girl’s grief had humbled me in a way that no formal medical education could have.

Many times during the job, the only thing I could do was to hold a hand or provide a shoulder to cry on. One thing I learned from losing my mum is that just simply being present at someone’s side can be enough. I am thankful to all the patients and their loved ones for teaching me how to feel, how to ache and eventually, how to heal.”


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Yvonne Hutton 16-Mar-2018 at 18:24 hrs

Doctors are human beings too just like their patients. Loosing a loved one miles from home can be very traumatic. im sure the Doctor's sad experience will only help to make her a better doctor . Words are not always of help and the right ones hard to find but a hug, a handshake or just a presence often all that is required. I lived in Scotland for many years and my husband died . The mole catcher ( we don't have them here) was not there when he died but on learning of his death some 3 weeks later he came to the door, took my hands in his , squeezed them and went away. Had he stayed for an hour it could not have been more comforting. I'm glad that the people the doctor met were sensitive to her feelings.