I started my current job straight out of residency full of knowledge but short on experience. To bridge that gap I leaned on the experience of my more seasoned colleagues. Day after day I would show up in one of their doorways with a question about patients I had left waiting in my exam room. The need for this support was humbling and I was glad to find that as time passed largely so did it. Now years later, the cycle has shifted and I enjoy using my built up experience to help our newer physicians.
A few years ago when one of my early mentors was about to retire, I stopped by his office after work to ask one last question.
Before you go is there anything more I need to know?
He was clear:
Get to know your patients and their families. What do they love to do? What are their jobs? What are their struggles? Who are they outside our office?
That one piece of advice has made all the difference for me.
I recently heard of a surgeon who follows this same advice
. He pauses before beginning a procedure to tell the OR team about the patient who is lying anesthetized before them on the table:
She is an Iraq veteran, a mother of three, and likes the Bee Gees.
By doing so he humanizes the experience invaluably. If we dig deep to connect with our patients, we form bonds with them that create trust.
This advice has not failed me. I am happier in my work knowing that I am caring for children of firefighters, air traffic controllers, teachers, a fashion photographer and children of pharmacists, veterinarians, mothers who love to work at home, and a cookie baker. We become more connected when I learn that, together with their kids, they ski, travel, volunteer, train show dogs and that they sing, model, raise horses and enjoy hip hop. My care benefits from knowing their grandmothers and aunts, and the names of their pets.
So now, as newly hired physicians come to my door to ask me what labs to order, how to reach a specialist or to come to look at a rash with them, I want to add a bit more to my answers. I want to ask them if they know who their patients are, what their patients care about and what makes them smile.
I spoke with a patient’s mother this week. She said that she was sure doctors hear this all the time but… “thank you.” She explained that it seemed what we do must become commonplace in our minds. That we could not really grasp the meaning to her as a parent, of the work we do. She thought I could not understand how much it means that her child is alive and I found it hard to answer her. “You are so very welcome” of course came to mind. Beyond that I felt a bit tongue-tied.
A friend of mine lost a beloved family member recently. The tragedy is overwhelming. So overwhelming that when I was talking earlier to a mutual friend he commented that it was bringing up his own past struggles. He said he felt as if he was “wearing her coat” of pain along with her. Yes. Exactly.
I have at times shouldered that same coat. In random dark moments my mind slips into thinking about my children’s mortality. Just last night as my eldest drove off in the minivan (a hot date car for certain), I called out to him to “please drive safely!” As if that call out could prevent anything. But still, as my mind wandered towards the worst, I tried. Last year a child I knew (out side of work) died in a heart breaking way. It took me months to stop waking up on the occasional dark, early morning in a cold, silent panic imagining the pain that her family must feel. I imagined the tragedy, the event. I dipped my toe into their shoes. I wore their coat for a bit.
How could simple words tell my patient’s mother how well I understood her thanks? While I have not walked in her shoes, I have tried her coat on at times. Doing so gives me the strength to reach out and help her more fully. And to answer her that “No, what we do is not commonplace at all. I too feel the wonder of a life helped.”