My class was recently asked to write a short piece on how a patient encounter has changed how we’ll practice medicine someday. We had a couple of different topics, but one resonanted with me – “Reflect an instance where a patient has brought you a new understanding of how disease impacts patients’ everyday lives.”
At first, I’d thought of writing something rather pedestrian – how someone with diabetic foot has to keep track of their foot health, how someone with a C-spine injury deals with everyday activities like eating or dressing… Don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing daily challenges like those, they just seemed to be what the question was leading towards.
Then I thought of a lady I’d met. She really did change how I viewed both myself as a healer and my patient as a partner and teacher. I’ve rewritten my response below – and if you steal material from it to complete your assignment, God help me, I WILL SET MY NINJAS ON YOU.
One afternoon, my preceptor informed us that we were to meet a woman who was in hospital for complications of multiple sclerosis. Upon hearing the words “MS,” my mind immediately jumped to the daily, seemingly mile-high barriers of those people unfortunate enough to have it. I knew little about MS, aside from the basic pathology and poor prognosis, but it sounded like a simply dreadful illness to have. I just knew this was going to be a depressing trip. I braced myself then walked in with my group.
To my surprise, she greeted us with a beaming smile and an enthusiastic handshake. She seemed positively delighted to have so many guests and told us her story with gusto, giving us all the relevant details she knew we would ask. She joked with us, laughed with us, and reminded us of a few clinical pearls essential to any patient interaction. She was a pro at this.
The more I heard, the less sense it all made. She had hardly any family support to speak of, a history of long-standing suffering (in more ways than one), no way to get home care, and a chronic illness that was beginning to get worse. Her situation sure seemed bleak to me… yet here she was – cheery, focused, and eager to teach us. I was taken aback, to say the least.
In retrospect, it seems so obvious – did I really expect her to be miserable just because she had MS? Or because she lived alone? Or because of her difficult past? It became clear to me, soon after we’d left, that this was a remarkable lady who had never let life get in the way of her happiness. More importantly, she reminded me that chronic illness isn’t a one-way street to depression. For patients with these diseases, their illness is simply a part of their life that gets dealt with every day, like tying your shoes or combing your hair. They normalize. They adapt. Life goes on.
My misplaced pity nearly got in the way of my learning from her. Since then, I’ve tried to accept my patients’ suffering without trying to shoulder it myself. Pity doesn’t treat patients. Doctors do.