“… he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.”

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.

 – Atalanta

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5 Comments

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5 responses to ““… he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.”

  1. Thank you, Atalanta, that is a great piece. You have learnt two very important lessons already.

    The first, as you now know, is that you cannot learn medicine without your patients. This may seem obvious but is actually a lesson that whilst all doctors learn, many forget on their journey.

    Secondly, the human capacity to overcome adversity and illness is unbounded. People often can’t understand how those with illness can cope. As a med student and later a doctor you will be in the privileged position of seeing how it is done on a daily basis.

    Well done, and good luck with your blog.

  2. This kind of experience is one of the reasons we encourage our Pediatric residents to go out and interact with patients at various camps and schools and so forth. We are so used to seeing patients with a given disease (ALL, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, asthma, sickle cell…….) in the hospital and SICK that we think that patients with a given disease are sick all of the time and never do any regular kid things. But all of these patients are kids who also happen to have a disease and invariably enjoy life both inside and out of the hospital.

    • Elvishswimmer

      I agree.
      I have a coming 4 year old cousin with CF. While I’m sure he was sad and sick in the 3 times so far he has been hospitalized, all the times I have seen him he has been an exuberant, active and intelligent child. He loves playing soccer and jumping on his trampoline, he also loves building Lego.
      And at his age he doesn’t know any different. He gets to take his special magic beads when he eats (His enzymes) and enjoys watching kids TV shows like other kids (while taking his inhaled antibiotics).
      Its a joy everytime I get to go and visit him 🙂

  3. Oh very nicely written! This is indeed a very important lesson. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder!

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