When your doctor dies …

The best tribute isn’t sending flowers. It’s finding another doctor.

My doctor died late last year and even now, when I think of him, the pain’s like a fresh bruise.

He was ridiculously young — just 58 — and it was so unexpected. In the ornate gloom of the Greek Orthodox church it was easy to pick his medical colleagues among the mourners; sensibly dressed, dazed with disbelief. On the street, young women clad in stretchy black fabrics gathered, cuddling babies and rocking prams, looking desolate.

Their doctor — my doctor — brought our four children into the world; his steady hands the first to hold them. He dealt, effortlessly it seemed, with my various childbirth-related mini-crises just as he dealt with the disasters and despair that shadow obstetrics, that mirror its joy with unspeakable sorrow. He’d wept with heartbroken parents, and he’d wisecracked with us about test-driving mini-buses to carry all our kids after the birth of twins.

When I finished having babies I thought: what now? Some days, the only solids I had time for were crusty leftovers hastily scraped from the kids’ bowls. While caring for them, how do I care for me? Check my boobs in the shower once in a while and cross my fingers?

I needed a strategy to give myself the best chance of being at my children’s 18th birthdays, so my doctor and I made a plan. Every second spring, when the blossom appeared, I’d book an appointment. There’d be an examination, we’d talk through any issues, I’d ask every question no matter how stupid and he’d send me for various tests. I felt lucky and just a bit invincible with him as my gynaecologist/coach, holding me to account.

Over 18 years, he built a file on me as thick as a phone book, surely more my authentic story than any memoir I’ll ever write. It’s full of ghastly medical images, of second opinions, frightening near misses and routine tests with happily predictable results. And, as it turns out, it’s a testament to one of the great partnerships of my life.

The visits followed a comforting ritual. I teased him about his posh office with its designer furniture and meaningless art prints. He shrugged it off with a rejoinder about my appalling taste. I complimented him on the glorious view across the rooftops of inner Melbourne, the inevitable patchwork sky: how did he ever get any work done? He checked on the lives of the kids he’d delivered, we express-shared stresses, sorrows and happiness in the five minutes before getting to work: questions, advice, examination, test requests ...

Once — just once — this routine varied. I walked in, pleasantries were observed and he asked: ‘How’s Michael?’ In fact, my husband had just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Our children were in primary school, we were renovating the house and, truly, the sky was falling. I found myself pummelling his desk with my fists. ‘I can’t die. I just can’t. Please help me not to die.’

If random malevolence could descend once, why not twice? Why not 50 times? I mean, that is randomness. If we both died, our kids would be orphans. My deepest fear: who else could I tell?

He put down his test-ordering pen and looked at me for what felt like the longest time, and I wondered what he was thinking. That I was irrational? Ridiculously pessimistic? Mad? ‘Don’t worry’, he’ll say, like everyone else. But he picked up his pen, and gave me what I needed. ‘Alright,’ he said, seriously, emotion just in check. ‘Let’s order some tests’. Knowing that while a handful of tests wouldn’t be a suit of armour, they were, at least, a smack in the mouth to random malevolence.

After what turned out to be my last visit — routine returned, the cancer vanquished — I reflected on what a wonderful doctor he was. In his prime: a lifetime of experience and maturity, balanced with energy. A depth of compassion. The consummate professional, yet easy with people: calm, funny, respected. I trusted him — not without question, you’ve always got to question — to have my interests at his professional heart, always challenging me to care for and about myself.

And then, he was gone.

At his funeral, I ran a finger lightly along the casket and thanked him for giving so much — too much? — of himself. With wobbly hands, I wrote a cheque, in lieu of flowers, to the hospital that tried to save his life.

But there’s really one way to thank him. There’s only one thing he’d want, and I’m ashamed that I’ve been putting it off. Finally, there’s a referral in my wallet and I’ve made an appointment to see a new doctor who will, I’m assured, be dedicated, wise and, quite possibly, funny. Someone who will hold me to account and answer my questions, no matter how stupid. And soon, we might even develop a routine, even if the view from her window will never be quite the same.