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Medical Economics is proud to unveil the honorable mention entries in our 2015 Physician Writing Contest. We believe the essays exemplify what connecting with your patients is truly about, and demonstrate the levels of heart, determination, and empathy you strive to bring into every exam room, every day. Thanks for reading.
The hand that touched me was that of “Jane,” the young check-out clerk at the MRI office. She was young and I could sense her eagerness to comfort from the look in her brown eyes that first greeted me and then followed me as I went to change into a gown. That I was seriously ill was apparent from the loss of virtually every hair on my body.
Jane compassionately recognized my anxiety and asked, “Is there anything I can do?” I did not immediately respond but then shared how I unexpectedly suffered a panic attack at my last MRI and dreaded having another.
In my rational mind, I knew I had done far more difficult things than having an MRI. Notwithstanding the medical school and residency experiences, I was unprepared for my role as a cancer patient and the new appreciation for fragility of life and sense of helplessness made even the smallest tasks overwhelming to me.
As I entered the MRI room Jane followed, saying “I want to be here for you, maybe I could just touch your foot while you are in the MRI machine.”
Then she placed her hand on my foot as the machine slid me in. This human touch that showed me that someone cared and recognized that I needed that more than I could verbally express...more than the MRI that had been ordered. Jane’s act of kindness and compassion came from her heart after she recognized my unspoken need to be cared for.
“Boom, boom, boom” blasted loudly as the MRI magnets churned. Trying to escape from reality, I fantasized I was at a rave nightclub jumping and dancing to the loud rhythmic noises that the DJ was playing, but I knew it was really just the MRI. I now knew that in a blink of an eye, one’s life can be changed from being a confident, invincible, high powered physician to a vulnerable, scared and physically weak patient because of cancer.
I focused on the staff’s hand on my foot as I needed to feel comforted as I felt disconnected to the outside world during this time deep in this loud, large medical tube cold, claustrophobic, and unable to move. “Jane” unselfishly did this for me.
I am a 42-year-old female with poorly differentiated triple positive breast cancer that had spread to a regional lymph node. I remember getting the business-like biopsy report by telephone call from my doctor one morning just before I walked into an office full of patients.
My first patient of the day was an 80-year-old woman who was a new patient. I was still in shock! It was unreal to be facing my own mortality at age 42, in the prime of my busy practice. I gathered my composure, smiled and quickly rushed into my first patient’s room with no time to read her chart. I started her physical exam and saw two large scars and a disfigured chest as she had undergone a bilateral mastectomy.
I was taken aback as my mind finally registered that this patient had breast cancer! She then shared how she had been diagnosed around the same age as I in her early 40’s and she had survived until 80 years old!
This felt like the universe speaking to me, as she had obviously survived cancer in order to be able to walk into my exam room 38 years later. I had been told of my diagnosis of cancer not even a half hour earlier, and now I had a powerful message of hope! I had been taught to listen to the patient, but never knew of this reason before that day.
I then shared with her I had been told I had breast cancer. Her smile, confidence, and aura of being at peace allowed me to open up to her on a personal basis.
As we concluded her visit, she hugged me and whispered encouraging words, making me feel the healing benefit of someone who cared. Her kindness, caring and compassion, like Jane’s, have helped me be a more caring physician and friend.
Facing one’s mortality makes one feel extremely vulnerable. If physicians would embrace the more spiritual roots of their journey to becoming caring healers, I believe that patients’ lives could be transformed.
Throughout history, compassion and caring have been the foundation of healing and without these, medical treatment is incomplete. Although personal lessons in empathy are an excellent way to learn the impact that behavior has on healing, it is the only way to this truth. If we learn, as fellow human beings, to look through the eyes of our patients and their families, we can learn whether they really feel cared for. If the answer is “no” we should make needed changes.
Most of us went into medicine to help people. When taking the Hippocratic Oath we swore to help those in need and to also continue to improve our care. “Care” includes knowing and incorporating the patient’s fears, background and support systems giving a more personalized focus. We all yearn for human connection when walking into the doctor’s office.
So how do we incorporate this intangible into the art of health caring? It starts from the doctor in the office and then will be followed by the complete staff. Every act of caring contributes to complete healing. I have experienced it first-hand and know the difference between genuinely being cared about versus being another number in the healthcare system.
The experience of having the MRI clerk touch my foot is the spirit of compassion. We know that every patient has an inherent right to find a doctor who is compassionate and caring, not just for their disease process or illness, but also for the person, a human being. Empathy, caring, love and compassion can be practically applied in every patient interaction.
It is our privilege and duty as physicians to create an environment in which the patients feel the health “caring” of the staff, nurses and doctor. The integration of peaceful, stress-free and comforting surroundings, caring providers, together with evidence-based medicine creates the ultimate healing environment. We should create the environment that draws the patient to answer: “Yes, I did feel cared for today and I do matter as a person.”
MJ Bishop, MD is an OB/GYN practicing in Lake Mary, Florida.