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An Abiding Presence

On a cold, February morning in 2017, I received a phone call from the resident psychiatrist on the psych unit at University of Maryland Medical Center. He introduced himself as Dr. Shapir Rosenberg, the doctor taking care of my twenty-five-year-old son, Adam.

With his warm and patient voice, he said, “Your son entered the psych ER with a drug induced psychosis. He was admitted to the psych unit and stabilized with Haldol. He’s doing much better. I wanted to reach out and ask about his history. Is this a good time to speak?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am so glad you called,” relieved that someone sounded genuinely interested in his story.

For the next hour, I shared the chaotic eight years of Adam’s drug addiction. Dr. Rosenberg listened to all of it. He occasionally asked questions so that he could understand my son and the impact his addiction had on the family. He was interested in who Adam was, not only as an addict, but as a person. Throughout the many years of speaking with Adam’s caregivers, whether it was therapists, rehab counselors or doctors, no one had taken the time to get to know my son and our family with compassion. It was clear that he had made a genuine connection with Adam and cared about his well-being. Most doctors in the past were rote, checking off the boxes of a generic questionnaire and getting off the phone as soon as possible.

I explained that, for the past year, we decided as a family to disengage from the unrelenting cycle of rescuing and enabling. We had let Adam know that if he chose recovery, he would have us back in his life with love and support. As a mother, it was a wrenching separation.

Dr. Rosenberg facilitated Adam’s re-connection with me, his father and older brother during his hospital stay. He explained that his discharge plan was to return to the rehab he had previously and successfully attended for a year.

“Although Adam’s discharge plan is a good one, I must warn you, Alison, that he is at high risk of death.” After his intent listening, Dr. Rosenberg helped prepare me for what I was about to face.

Adam never made it to rehab. After discharge, he overdosed and died. I called Dr. Rosenberg to deliver the tragic news and invited him to the funeral. He attended and delivered beautiful remarks at the shiva service at my home. Before he left, he said, “Alison, if you would like to talk, I am here for you.”

Reeling after the complex loss of my child, Dr. Rosenberg mentored me in my grief. We talked regularly. He listened to my turbulent sea of emotions. He never delivered platitudes or advice to make me feel better. He was purely present, accompanying me with his deep listening. This uncommon relationship has facilitated my healing. On my journey five years later, he is still listening.

Alison Hartman
Baltimore, Maryland



















7 thoughts on “An Abiding Presence”

  1. Thank you. I am so sorry for your loss. You have paid the greatest compliment to the doctor, that of being a authentic witness to the other. TheDoctor’s refined empathy demonstrates a transcendent human potential free to all.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story so bravely. It is all so complicated. May Adam’s memory be for a blessing. And may your and Dr Rosenberg’s connection and collaboration continue to bring comfort. You no doubt have inspired many people along this difficult journey.

    1. Thank you, Pam, for your thoughtful comments. Making meaning out of this loss, with Dr. Rosenberg, has been healing for both of us, and for others. I appreciate your kind response.

  3. I’m so sorry for your loss… but appreciate your sharing this powerful story, and grateful for colleagues who take the time to listen.

  4. Thank you for sharing this meaningful story. I’m so sorry for your loss. Nothing can make up for it, but I’m so glad you have Rosenberg to support you.

    1. Thank you, Sara. I appreciate your comments. I feel in a way my son gave me Dr. Rosenberg. Dr. Rosenberg and I have co-written a performance piece that we have presented at medical humanities conferences telling this story of loss, and the unique and healing relationship between mother and deceased son’s doctor.

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