Doctors often struggle to show compassion while dealing with patients

I was standing at my patient’s bedside. Mike Venata was having chills with a temperature of 103. Sweat covered his balding scalp like dew, then coalesced and rolled down past his staring eyes.

Just 20 minutes earlier, a specialist had informed him that he hadmetastatic pancreatic cancer and could expect to live less than six months. He was alone. I’d seen him once before; as an infectious-disease specialist, I’d been called in because his fever might be due to an underlying infection.

I wondered: How do I show him compassion?

Many say our health-care system lacks compassion. I too at times feel that pills and surgeries, CT scans and radiation therapies, biopsies and blood tests have become a priority in medicine and that compassion — the “touchy-feely” part of medicine — has become an afterthought in patient care.

After a few days in the hospital, Mr. Venata’s fever subsided, and I asked if I could talk with him about his experience. He was a retired major who earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, then became an executive for a multinational company, from which he had recently retired. He had never been married. I wanted to talk to him about how doctors should handle end-of-life situations.

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