I am pretty good at maintaining that professional distance that we all talk about when dealing with patients and families. However, one patient became very special to me. After some time, he and his wife said they considered me their adopted daughter.
I should have realized I was setting myself up for trouble by letting this patient and his family become a part of my life, but it can be hard not to get sucked in when you're treated like an extended member of the family. It feels good to feel special.
I genuinely took this patient's death very hard. When I went to his funeral, I hugged his wife and assured her that we would stay in touch. Apparently, we had very different definitions of what that meant.
She called me at the office fairly frequently at first, but I didn't mind talking to her when I wasn't seeing other patients. What I did not expect was for her to start calling me at home.
I have an unlisted phone number. I never gave it to her, so the first time she called me at home, I was curious how she got my number. She said I had mentioned where I lived. There were only two people in my town with that last name, and only one was listed in the phone book. She called that number and reached my father, who, for some unfathomable reason, gave her mine.
Though I didn't mind talking with her per se, the fact that she got my number, and how she went about it, bothered me tremendously. I have an unlisted number for many reasons. One of them is to prevent patients from calling me at home. My home is my sanctuary from the craziness that can come with work. Having her call me at home felt like a violation.
She continued to call me and leave messages on my answering machine. She called me at work. She sent cards and letters. Rather than dealing with the situation appropriately, I hate to say I took the coward's way out. I dodged her calls at work, screened her calls at home, and did not respond to her mail.
Eventually, I stopped hearing from her. And even though I felt a huge sense of relief, a part of me felt somewhat sad at how I treated her. I'd been a big part of her life for several months. I had become part of the family, and then I dropped her without an explanation. This happened quite a while ago, but I still feel a twinge of guilt when I think about it. I learned some hard lessons from that experience.
Have any of you experienced a similar situation? How do you maintain professional boundaries with patients and families who spend a significant amount of time depending on you for care for their loved one, as well as emotional support?