Michael Abrahams | You’re gone, where do we go now, Lennie?
One of the major causes of grief is death. The passing of a loved one has the potential to induce an excruciatingly painful grief reaction that can take what seems like forever to abate. When a spouse or family member dies, the emotional disruption that follows is understandable. But today I am facing the reality of how a doctor’s death can directly and negatively affect the lives of hundreds, or even thousands, of people.
Dr Lenworth Jackson, the owner of Ruthven Medical Centre, recently passed after a tragic bout with COVID-19. I have been working at Ruthven since Lennie, as Dr Jackson was fondly called, began the practice 15 years ago, although he had been practising for at least 20 years before deciding to run his own business. His death truly hit close to home for me, because not only did I work at the same centre, but my office was directly adjacent to his. The staff members at the centre are all devastated, but the magnitude of grief expressed by his patients is overwhelming.
Lennie was a general practitioner, meaning he would manage patients with a wide range of conditions affecting different organ systems. He was also a family doctor, looking after different generations in the same family. Being a friendly and approachable person, and also a great physician, fostered the creation of powerful and intimate bonds with many people and their families over the course of several decades.
So, with his death, the grief and mourning is complex and multilayered. People not only miss someone they loved dearly, but also someone they depended on. He was not just a doctor. He was a confidante, counsellor, mentor and friend. He was like a rock star with a cult following. There were people I would see visiting him regularly, and I knew that some of them probably did not require medical intervention, but were there simply because just seeing him would make them feel better. For many, Lennie’s practice was a sanctuary. A safe place. Somewhere you could go to and know that everything would be all right.
A friend of mine who was his patient, told me how when her marriage was falling apart, and she broke down in his office, he put her in a room and told her that she was not to leave. She spent hours there, while he periodically checked on her. On the week after his death, she told me she ended up driving on the road where the office is situated and, being overcome with grief, brought her vehicle to a halt, and just sat in the driver’s seat and cried.
And the scene in the office is not much different. While walking along the corridor adjacent to the lab, I came across a teary-eyed man who looked at me and said, “Thirty-four years … Lennie has been looking after me for thirty-four years,” before breaking down. And he has lots of company. Another day, one of Lennie’s regular patients, who I know quite well, turned up. I encountered her at the front desk, looked at her and said, “This is rough”. She did a 180 degrees and walked out the front door to her vehicle, where she sat and wept uncontrollably while I tried to comfort her.
I see people entering the office like rudderless ships with no lighthouse in sight. Looking lost, with looks of bewilderment on their faces. And, apart from the expressions of grief, the commonest comment is the question, “Where do I go now?” Lennie was a lifeline for many. I knew it before, but seeing people unravel and literally not knowing where to turn is sobering.
I have always been proud of my profession, but this experience has forced me to face the reality of how important the job of being a doctor is, and the profound effect we can have on the lives of the people we treat. And if you are a good doctor, like Lennie was, your departure can literally be a life-changing experience for the people under your care.
Lennie was my family physician as well. In addition to looking after me, he has looked after my wife, children, siblings, housekeeper, mother-in-law, sister-in law, and niece. So, where do we go now?