Late Breaking News
The power to give
“It is certainly more agreeable to have power to give than to receive.”
—Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
I am writing this from the family member waiting room of a large American hospital as one of my daughters undergoes major back surgery. Admittedly, this view of the American medical experience is foreign to me and sobering. In my 46 years I have yet to undergo any surgery or medical care of significance beyond the occasional bad tooth or cut that requires sutures.
I have always been on the ‘giving’ end of medicine. As I have expressed before in this column, I feel very fortunate to practice my specialty of anesthesiology within the federal system. I am humbled by the quality of professionals I work with and the pace at which technology seems to continually improve the quality and safety of the care provided. I have a particular fondness for our federal patient population.
The practice of medicine is indeed good for one’s ego. The feeling of fulfillment that comes from a medical education and the power to help others in need can be intoxicating, at least it is for me. Sheepishly, I will admit here that a common comment among my colleagues at the end of a good day of patient care is, “Another satisfying day of inflicting medicine.” This poor attempt at satire is often accompanied by a ‘high-five’ in the hallway. On the surface this is a harmless, and needed, relief from the stresses of a busy patient care practice and the tremendous responsibility it entails.
Perhaps by making poor jokes the gravity of what we do to fellow humans in medicine is more palatable. This most acute surgical experience with my child, viewed from a parent rather than professional perspective, has caused me to pause and reflect on the importance of human interaction in the practice of medicine.
As federal medicine practitioners, we can become easily engrossed in the science, process, and business of providing for our patients. I would suggest that anesthesiologists and our surgical colleagues are even more likely to become dazzled by the technology involved in ‘doing’ things to patients as we do battle with disease and injury. It seems to be increasingly difficult to see the ‘human’ in the patient through the screens, sounds, computers, machines, and bright lights that are increasingly a part of modern medical care and patient interaction.
I am guilty of compartmentalizing the patient to a corner of my conscious as I pontificate to a resident or fellow on some fine point of the technology we are employing in the patient’s care. I will often apologize for these actions to the patient and try to excuse this sterile behavior in the name and service of ‘medical education.’ Certainly a level of professional detachment and objectivity is not only required to perform in medicine but it is expected by our patients. Nevertheless, as we practice the honored profession of medicine we must always recognize the gift of trust our patients bestow on us by coming to us and accepting our care. We must repay this gift by remembering the human that is the patient underneath all that medical technology.
The seed for this editorial was germinated in the operating room as my daughter was sedated for an intravenous line and then induced for anesthesia. My wife and I decided that I should be the parent to accompany my daughter back to the operating room. This is my domain, my area of comfort, my zone. All of my professional detachment was erased by the shining tears of fear my daughter quietly shed (an excellent argument for why I believe medical professionals should not care for their own family members) as she faced this life changing event in her young life. This surgery was her decision which her mother and I supported. I was awed by the bravery of the young woman, my child, as my own vision blurred.
Happily, I was in the company of true professionals who reduced this terrifying experience (especially for a 15 year old) to a very tolerable ordeal. Everyone’s focus was on my daughter who was kept calm and relaxed with the gentle touch of the anesthesiologist and surgeon and she was distracted from the reality of the situation by the telling of a bad joke (it really was a horrible joke but the delivery made all the difference) by the anesthesiology resident. The entire team was thoughtful, respectful, compassionate, and caring in their application of modern medicine. The father in me was beyond grateful, the professional in me was utterly impressed. It seems this old dog can still learn some new tricks.
It is truly better to give the gift of medicine then be in a position to have to receive it or be the loved one of someone in that situation. I have re-learned a lesson from this experience and plan to redouble my efforts to cut through the technology and stay connected with the human I am caring for.
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