At best, doctors are reluctant patients. Most are allergic to the role and avoid it with the same agility a cat employs to dodge the bathtub. Imagine your doctor sitting in a colleague’s waiting room or a preoperative area, thumbing a 10-year-old National Geographic, surrounded by their own patients who wonder why they’re there. This is a doctor’s nightmare. In an ideal world, a doctor would diagnose and treat all of his or her own medical problems, never set foot in another doctor’s office or surgery, and never, ever visit “Patient land,” the scary place where one is vulnerable, exposed and no longer in charge.
Like all doctors, I avoid the patient role, but I have had to submit to it on a number of occasions and, every time, have under estimated the gravity of the experience. Before becoming one, I considered the patient experience inconsequential. Why were my patients so anxious about impending procedures or surgery? As far as I was concerned, if I were the patient, there was no part of the role I could not handle.
This was the sort of reasoning that led me to decide that I could have surgery far from home and spend a week alone in an unfamiliar hospital. I arrived and found myself adrift in a sea of strangers. Gone were the VJH corridors filled with familiar people — my colleagues, peers, neighbours and friends. During the lonely week, I discovered how much I usually relied on my absent family doctor to navigate the system. I was lost, an outlander in a sea of sick patients with greater needs than my own, rudderless in a system where I usually felt in charge. As I experienced pain, fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, shame and depersonalization, I realized that this was exactly what many of my patients felt when they went to hospital and why they were afraid. For the first time, in a hospital, I felt vulnerable.
In medical school, I learned a great deal about managing patients’ emotional needs, but being one taught me more. I discovered it is one thing to discuss being sick and vulnerable, it is another to feel it. For me, being a doctor-patient provided an important bridge between the book learning of medical school and the reality of being a patient.
Such lessons constitute a big part of a physician’s job, the messy part, where a doctor tries to figure out how to care for a person and not a disease, what information and emotional support a patient needs and how to deliver it. For me at least, being a doctor-patient led to an invaluable understanding of others, the doctor’s role and myself.
Dr. April Sanders writes on a variety of topics for The Morning Star. She is a physician at Sanders Medical Inc. Vein and Laser in Vernon, B.C.