Many years ago (even before HIPAA), my family was visiting for the holidays. On several occasions I had tried, without a lot of success, to explain to my father what I did for a living as a head and neck cancer surgeon. On this day, I looked at him and said, "Dad, I have to see a couple of people in the hospital this morning. Do you want to come with me?" He readily agreed.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the inpatient floor. One of my patients that day was a man in his early 30s who had undergone cancer surgery to remove part of his cheekbone the day before. He had done well overnight and was recovering. I stuck my head in his room.
“Merry Christmas!” I said. “I know this is unusual, but my father is with me this morning to make rounds. He is not a doctor—actually, he is a retired dime store owner—but he would love to meet you. Do you mind if he comes in with me?”
“Really?” replied my patient. “Sure! That would be fine.”
I returned to the hallway and explained that the patient’s face was pretty swollen but that he was otherwise doing fine. My dad nodded and we went in. I introduced them to each other. If my father was surprised by the man’s early post-operative appearance, he did not let on.
“Good morning!" said my dad. “Nice to meet you! How are you doing today?”
Despite his swelling, my patient replied, “Actually, I’m doing very well, thanks. Better than I expected.” The young man was lying in bed with one eye nearly shut and his cheek full of packing material. His upper lip was swollen, making conversation a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, as I checked his surgical sites and looked through the notes in his chart, my dad asked the patient about his cancer, his hometown, and his family. My dad, a distinguished looking gentleman with graying temples, nodded and smiled, absorbing the story.
The patient asked my dad, “So, how long do you think I will be in the hospital?” My dad smiled and glanced at me.
“I don’t know what my dad thinks, but I think you’re doing great,” I said. “I predict you’ll be ready to go home the day after tomorrow.”
“Thanks again, Doc. I’ll let my family know.” We all said goodbye and Dad wished him well. After we finished seeing my other patients, Dad and I headed home for our family’s Christmas meal.
For years, my father recalled the day we made rounds together. He would remind me what he had seen and would ask how the patients were doing. Those few minutes had given him a glimpse into my life and work that I had never, ever been able to adequately share by trying to tell him what I did.
A few years ago—and long after my dad had died—I received a holiday card from the patient, marking the anniversary of his hospitalization. “I remember you and your father even came in to see me on Christmas Day! I will never forget that,” he wrote.
I was surprised by how much that one brief Christmas morning rounds encounter had impacted both my father and the patient. The shared experience had preserved the memory and sharpened our senses. I wrote back to the man, now a long-term cancer survivor, that I was very grateful I had been able to share that moment of insight, healing, and presence, both with him and with my dad.
It is a Christmas present I have always treasured.