When I treat my patients, I typically start by stating my compassion for what ails them. Migraine headache? "Oh, that sounds awful." Ankle sprain? "How frustrating!" Venous insufficiency? "I'm sorry to hear that." We teach our residents and students that validating our patients' symptoms is of critical importance. Unless our patients feel that we truly hear and connect with them, they cannot enter into the patient-provider relationship with trust. No trust = no ability to problem-solve together.
But, deep down inside, I distance myself from any real, visceral connection to my patients' symptoms. I need that space to think objectively and to protect the core of my emotional self. If I had to constantly experience the agony of a migraine, the throb of a sprain, the ache of lower extremity edema, I probably couldn't survive in this occupation for long.
Sometimes, though, life rudely reminds me that I am just as vulnerable as my patients. The most recent episode of this rudeness hit at about 1:30 am this past Monday morning, when I awakened in a cold sweat with gut-wrenching nausea.
By about 5:00 am, it became clear that I wasn't going to make it into work. I suspect that I am not too different from most doctors in that I hate, really hate, to call off work. And, like most docs, I'll work through just about any ailment, even ailments that I would encourage my patients with to "take a couple days off and rest."
I was helpless, however, in the face of mid-winter's viral GI hell.
As an academic family doctor, calling off means rescheduling meetings, connections that might have been months in the making. It means finding coverage for teaching responsibilities, burdening my colleagues with unanticipated duties. And, worst of all, it means rescheduling patients, individuals who might have been depending on that appointment to bring them some relief from their own concerns.
On the other hand, it did serve as a good reminder of my non-essential-ness. Now back at work, it's pretty clear that everything hummed along without me just fine. The office staff rescheduled my patients. My colleagues covered my teaching. The meetings found new times. It's honestly a bit of a relief to remember that the world does not rest squarely on my shoulders alone.
Along with that relief comes a heaping dose of humility. Shame on me, for thinking that I'm so important and invulnerable! It's easy to lose perspective, sometimes, in this slightly surreal world of academia where nothing is ever truly "done" and new challenges always beckon. I just wish that I might have gained a reminder of that perspective in a slightly less, uh, unpleasant way.
Ah, well. Lesson re-learned. Anyone else want some ginger ale?