Bill died last week. He was 93 and, at the end, his passing could be considered neither tragic nor unexpected. His daughter thoughtfully called my office to let me know, and that he wouldn’t be keeping his next clinic appointment.
The last few years hadn’t been easy for him, bringing increasing disability and dependency. Things hadn’t been really right since Daphne passed away about three years ago, after over 60 years of marriage.
Before that they’d always come to clinic together and supported each other through their health issues, surgeries and increasing fragility. Bill was one of those people who seemed incapable of despondency or self-pity. Always smiling, he began every appointment by asking me how I was doing, and never left without thanking me. He never refused a request to allow a learner to listen to his heart. In fact, he usually offered before being asked. Like many of his generation, he never lost that sense of gratitude for what his new country made available to him and felt a need to repay that debt.
He’d emigrated from England in the 1950s. He was an engineer and worked in various projects over the years both in Canada and Europe, finally retiring in Kingston over 30 years ago, building his “dream house” with Daphne. In retirement, he developed a large community of friends, including many neighbours (some of whom were physicians in our hospitals) who would support him as he continued to live there alone. They would often bring him into clinic appointments, or call with concerns about him.
In one of his last selfless acts, he agreed to participate in our First Patient Program. Two of our first year students, Madison Price and Michael Christie, got the opportunity to meet Bill, visit with him, accompany him to appointments, and hear about his medical history and life story. He taught them something about heart disease and its various complications, but mostly he taught them about the patient experience of living with a chronic condition, about how physicians can provide valuable care even after cure is no longer possible, about the remarkable courage and grace with which patients can face the end of life, and about how communities can come together to support those in need.
He shared personal stories with them, telling them about how he had worked on developing radar equipment for Lancaster bombers during the Second World War. He told of how his brother was a tail gunner on those aircraft, which provided Bill even more incentive to ensure the radar was effective.
He believed he had something valuable to impart to these young people and future physicians and indeed he did. In the end, his final gift was to teach them about bereavement and, particularly, how physicians and health care providers can be affected by the loss of patients they’ve cared for, come to know, and admire. He made medicine real to them by giving it a human face that, I believe, they will never forget.
With his willingness to engage these students during his final days, he provided a priceless and lasting gift, not only to these two aspiring physicians, but also to their future patients.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education