50 years later, a letter reminds a doctor of the life he saved

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    Michael LaCombe holds the card he received from a patient he treated 50 years ago. (Courtesy of Michael LaCombe)

    Michael LaCombe holds the card he received from a patient he treated 50 years ago. (Courtesy of Michael LaCombe)

    When Michael LaCombe was training to be a doctor, he met a woman in the psychiatry ward on one of his rotations. He would sit and talk to her, but he didn’t feel as though he helped her. Fifty years later, she proved him wrong. 

    Fifty years ago, Michael LaCombe began training to be an internal medicine doctor. He had a six-week rotation in a psychiatry ward and was assigned one patient: a 17-year-old girl named Nancy, who was schizophrenic and who would cut herself in response to the voices that she heard in her head. 

    He would sit and talk with Nancy twice a day. He’d tell her stories about his son, who loved fishing. Usually she wouldn’t respond, but he would sit with her nonetheless, having a totally one-sided conversation.

    “I can remember feeling sometimes that maybe we were getting somewhere, and then I would go back the next morning and find her in a tumble of sheets covered with blood, having cut herself.” 

    He visited her for the six weeks he was at the ward, and he continued to visit her until he left the medical center. 

    “And then the 50 years passed. They were filled with excitement of medicine, of diagnosis, of treating disease, of the unfeeling bureaucracy, the uncaring administrators, and in the twilight of a career, the ever-present question of whether anything you had done had ever mattered, whether you had ever reached anyone,” LaCombe says. 

    Then a letter in the mail answered those questions for him. 

    Listen to Michael LaCombe tell his story from the American College of Physicians Doctor Story Slam above. 

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