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Another of 10,000 Stories

Jeffrey Luther, MD, FAAFP


We had been visiting Bea in her home for about three years. Having lived into her 90s suffering from multiple sclerosis, she was not exceptionally mobile and so she was a natural addition to our house calls service. We visited her every month or two and, with time, developed something of a relationship. She was from the south, transplanted to Long Beach decades before, and largely alone.


On one memorable Tuesday we were sitting in her living room and there was a lull in conversation. This was not uncommon, as her speech pattern was a bit halting. After one such pause, and with no clear context, she muttered, “It just makes me sick...” Another pause was followed by, “…to see all those dark faces go by the window.” Before we could respond she turned to me and said, “But what am I telling you for? You’re probably a n*****-lover yourself.”


At that point I found myself at a loss for words, and so I told her I didn’t know what to say to that, and that we were leaving. And I left with a sense of judgment and disappointment in someone I thought I’d come to know, and probably some other feelings I couldn’t quite identify.


In the time before our next visit I had the chance to reflect on relationships and assumptions. As the patient-physician partnership develops, it’s natural to take for granted common values and perspectives with one’s physician, and perhaps vice versa, but that is based on generalizations if not stereotype. And when those assumptions break down, it can shake the foundation of that relationship.


In the coming years, until her passing, we continued our relationship. On the rare occasion that she made a similarly off-color remark she did so with a recognition that we had very different outlooks, or at least I think she did. In the process she also gave me a lesson in caring for others in the face of otherwise polarizing differences. I’m still processing that lesson, and I suspect I always will be.