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The Art of Medicine

Father wounds

Dealing with loss

Maurer, Brian T. PA-C

Author Information
Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants: February 2018 - Volume 31 - Issue 2 - p 58
doi: 10.1097/
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And I remember sitting there on the steps, looking up at him in his rocking chair and talking about my daddy, saying that I thought the worst thing that had happened in my life was his early death, that never having known him, I knew that I would, one way or another, be looking for him the rest of my life.

Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

“This 17-year-old boy is here for a physical exam,” the nurse says, handing me the chart. “He hasn't been in for 2 years. He needs his meningitis vaccine to start college this fall. His mother's out in the waiting room. Oh, and there's a sticky note posted inside: looks like his father died this past spring.”

I let the chart fall open in my hands. Two words appear on a Post-It note, scrawled by an unknown hand: “Dad deceased” followed by the date of death, just 4 months ago.

The boy sits on the examination table, clad in a plaid work shirt and faded blue jeans. He's got the beginnings of a downy blond beard on his narrow chin. A swath of pimples covers his forehead. His steely blue eyes meet mine. His lips draw back over a set of crooked teeth into some semblance of a smile as I extend him my hand.

“I don't believe we've met,” I say, introducing myself.

“Naw, I ain't seen you before,” he says. “It's been a while since I come in. I need a physical for college.”

“I see. Where will you be going?”

He names a local community college.

“What do you want to study?”

“Computers,” he says.

“That's a good field to get into these days,” I say.

He gives a slight nod of his head.

“How has your health been?”

The boy shrugs his shoulders. “Okay,” he says.

“Any after-hours visits to the hospital? Any injuries? Taking any medications?”

He shakes his head no.

“Any major upheavals in your life since you came in last?”

The steely blue eyes meet mine. “My daddy died a couple of months ago.”

His words hover in the air. I let them settle. Then I say: “I'm sorry.”

He nods his head slightly.

“Had your father been ill?”

“Naw. He had a heart attack, died in a car crash.”

“How old was he?”

“Fifty-six,” the boy says.

“Were you close to him?”

The boy nods his head. “I was livin' with him since he and my mom got divorced 3 years ago. Now I'm back with my mom and her friend again.”

I study his steeled face. There is no hint of emotion. “Have you had an opportunity to talk to anyone—a counselor, perhaps—about all this?”

“No. I'm not much for talkin'. I talk if I need to, but I usually keep to myself.”

“Sometimes people feel better after they talk things out,” I say. “If you felt a need to do that, do you have a go-to person, someone you trust, someone you could talk to?”

Slowly, he nods his head. “Yeah, I got my older brother,” he says. “He lives with his girlfriend, works two jobs, but he's around.”

“Good,” I say. “I'm glad to hear that.”

We proceed with the boy's examination. Afterward, I complete his paperwork, sign the forms, and hand them to the boy.

“That should do it,” I say. “The nurse will be in shortly to finish up with your vaccine.”

“Then I'm all set?” he asks.

“All set,” I say.

I offer him my hand. “Come back and see us anytime; the door's always open.”

He nods his head.

I think of my father, who lost his dad when he was a boy; a grandfather I never knew. I think of a boyhood friend, whose daddy died when he was 2. And I think of another good friend, a physician colleague, who never knew who his father was until he read the obituary his mother sent him one Fathers Day. Somehow they managed to surmount overwhelming odds to grow up to become solid salt-of-the-earth men.

Perhaps this boy will follow in their footsteps; perhaps one day he will find his daddy again, I muse, as I make my way down the long hallway to an empty chair at the sparse steel desk in the back office.

Copyright © 2018 American Academy of Physician Assistants