November Gratitude Shorts, Day 23 (I think they will all be late now…)
Though my formal medical training ended in 2002, my real education has continued in earnest since then. I spent 7 years in my first practice, 5 years in the second, and I have been in my current situation about 18 months. I have known thousands of patients in that time, some very closely, as well as their families. It is perhaps the greatest privilege I can imagine, to be allowed so intimately into the lives of so many.
The best part comes after I have had enough encounters and important conversations to say that I truly know a patient. When I can predict their responses to diagnoses or preferences for treatment; when I can tell by just looking how they feel physically, emotionally—that is when I know a true relationship is established. Sometimes it’s built over many years of regular visits. For others the interval is short, because they are dealing with some acute, distressing event or circumstance. Coming through serious illness with a person bonds you like nothing else. Sometimes it’s subtle, too. You come in for a cold, but you never get sick, this time it got you and brought you down hard. That’s a chance for me to ask some important questions. What’s going on in your life today? I never know what lies on the other side of that question, and it’s a tremendous opportunity for connection.
Or, our initial encounter (or two, or three) leaves me feeling tense and frustrated. I start making up stories about you that may or may not be true. The next time, we get to a point in the conversation where we can open up to each other about the relationship, and talk it out, figure out the best way forward. Maybe we come to some new mutual understanding and everything changes for the better—these are the patients who teach me the most. Other times we agree to part ways, and that’s okay too. Not everybody is meant to be together.
Either way, there is no substitute for time and face to face meetings. Every relationship is a two-way street, and my patients teach me every day about withholding judgment, staying curious, asking for their story, and telling the story that I make up. They teach me to monitor my assumptions, ask more questions, and explain my rationale clearly. They hold me accountable for my words and actions, as I hold them, too.
They make me a better person, every one.