I was a third-year medical student on a Sunday morning when the reality of what I had chosen as my life career truly hit me in the gut. At that moment, I realized how intimate the practice of medicine was and that I would have to bring not only my brain and skills to work every day but my heart.
I was on my internal medicine rotation on hospital wards, and I was pre-rounding, seeing each patient on my list and gathering their vitals and current medicines. I would examine them at 6:00 a.m., before joining the team of residents where I would present those patients on rounds with our attending physician. My patient was near the window in a shared hospital room. I had to walk past the patient who was closest to the door and try not to disturb him or her.
It’s an odd thing to wake up a sleeping sick person. You quickly get used to it in the name of efficiency, but there’s something very wrong about waking the sick. Sadly, it is what we had to do to get to through all the hospitalized patients so we could see other patients in clinic.
The image of what I saw when I opened the door is engrained in my mind to this day. As I quietly walked into the room, a well-dressed elderly man, likely in his seventies, was sitting near the bedside of an older woman in the first bed. She was clearly ill with what appeared to be cancer; she was frail and wearing a headscarf where her hair should be. He had moved the “guest” chair to the side of her bed and was sitting in it reading the newspaper. In his lap sat her feet. He had pulled them off the bed and was rubbing her feet with one hand and reading the newspaper in the other. She was sitting upright, reading another section of the newspaper.
Medicine is complex. It is overwhelming. It is busy. It is a million moving parts. There is the electronic medical record, and all the government strategies and governing bodies dictating standards and checks and balances. It often feels like a tedious job we trudge through every day. With trainees to teach and studies to read, it is easy to become burned out and emotionally detached. I once received terrible advice from a well-meaning physician. He told me separate the disease from the person, it was easier that way. It would save me a lifetime of heartache and sadness. He cautioned me not to get too attached to people. He said I would burn out.
I didn’t listen.
We must always remember each patient is someone’s sister, brother, husband, daughter, grandpa. They are vulnerable and loved.
Remembering this has just the opposite effect on me — it helps me stay attached.
If you’ve ever been a patient, please know your doctor truly cares for you. It is why he or she chose the practice of medicine — to help people. It may not always show in our busy day or in our words, but I think I can speak for the majority of us and say we actually care.
If you are in medicine, don’t detach. I know it is so easy to do. Don’t let the red tape and pressure of productivity steal why we are in this. We must protect our patients from the loss our own compassion. We must be strong and fight to keep humanity in medicine. And we must support physicians who are willing to lead system changes to do so. We also must unplug at times, truly unplug and get away from medicine, to fully recharge so we do not detach.
Being a physician is an honor. I want to be part of the change that keeps the humanity of medicine in the center, as it should be. I hope this post encourages you to do the same.
“He is the best physician who is the most ingenious inspirer of hope.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.