Is teaching bedside manner a thing of the past?

I caught the tail end of a recent #hcsm (health-care social media) tweetchat and it looked to be a good one. I saw a few comments about teaching bedside manner and whether it’s a thing of the past (oh, how I hope not). It occurred to me that sharing a real-life story could be instructive.

I put on a brave face when I got a mastectomy for stage 0 DCIS three years ago, but bravery, and Ativan, take you only so far. No matter how much you tell yourself it’s just another surgery or body part, there’s something so deeply personal about losing a breast.

This is where my surgeon enters the picture. Well, he had already entered the picture through two attempts at breast-conserving surgery.  His first, wire-guided procedure was the first surgery I ever had. When he came into pre-op that day, he adjusted my sheets and told me he liked my socks. (I had on really loud smiley face socks as a small way of owning the experience.)

When the first attempt didn’t get the desired clear margins, the next time he pulled the little curtain back he grinned and said, “I’m ba-ack,” and it cracked me up. I asked him if many women go through this twice and he said he and his team have a way of wearing out their welcome. This time he sat on the bed with me and rubbed my arm. I asked him if he would also do the mastectomy if this attempt didn’t work, and he said he would. I was so ignorant I didn’t realize he did both types of surgery and was hugely relieved when he said yes.

Needless to say, it didn’t work and here we were, waiting for the procedure every woman dreads. He had been funny and comforting through the first two surgeries and numerous office visits, but this time he was nothing short of amazing. We joked around a little and then I must have looked scared because his expression changed and he came over and sat on the bed and put his arm around me. There’s not much you can say at a time like that and he didn’t try.

I wanted to put my arm around his waist but I was afraid they’d have to pry me off of him, so I patted his stomach. He noticed some blood on my hand from the IV and asked the nurse for a sterile wipe. When she said, “I can do that,” he said, “We’re fine,” and acting like he had all the time in the world, sat there and wiped the blood from my hand.

He could have said, “No problem,” or “I’ve got it,” or even “I’m fine.” Instead, he said, “We’re fine,” and I was no longer a frightened woman alone in a curtained-off area before they let my husband join me. I was not facing this scariest of surgeries alone, and I will always be grateful to him.

My surgeon’s name is Tim Kingston.  I’m sharing it because I want you to get a sense of him as a real person.  He and my other doctors let me use their names when I wrote a book about my experience, so I’m not using it or this story without permission. So here’s a shout out and big thank you to Dr. Kingston.

Jackie Fox is the author of From Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned And You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer, and blogs at Dispatch From Second Base.

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  • PamC

    Can we clone him?? ;)

  • A Kazen

    Even  if teaching bedside manner is not a thing of the past, I’m not sure you can teach someone to be this awesome. They are either a compassionate person or they are not, and teaching them bedside manner probably just polishes their already-present personal qualities. 

  • jackiefox

    I agree with you both, a) I wish we could clone him and b) I don’t think you can teach someone to be this awesome– but I do like it that schools are realizing they have to address patients as people. In my book I said “They don’t teach that in medical school” but perhaps they’re starting to try. I had never had surgery in my life before this and boy did I get lucky (and I thank my family doc for recommending him.) The only downside is  he’s ruined me for all other surgeons :) oh well.

    Thank you for your comments!

  • Leslie Edwards

    You can’t teach great bedside manner. It’s just natural. Medical schools need to admit these kind of people to begin with. But you can at least take the ones with bad bedside manner and break them of their bad habits.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jackie – a lovely story about Dr. Tim.  What a guy….   Remember the post here a while back written by Dr. James Asante ? (I know you do – you left a comment on his post about the power of human touch).   A profoundly powerful essay that reminds me such compassion cannot, alas, be taught –

    Conversely, I do believe that “being a jerk” can be beaten out of med students quite effectively. It’s like that great scene from one of my favourite films “Snowcake” in which Sigourney Weaver, playing a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, says to a visitor: “I’m supposed to offer you something to drink now”.  She doesn’t know this intuitively – somebody has TOLD her how to be polite and gracious.

    Many doctors I’ve come across have apparently never been taught this lesson. Like the cardiologist I once heard of who delivered his patient’s cardiac prognosis “while filing his nails, leaning against the counter”. You can just picture this kind of appalling bedside manner! 

  • Kristy S

    Wow!!  What an excellent article.  Thank you for sharing this experience.  This article is excellent because it is a good reminder to patients that you can find good doctors.  Sometimes it can take work to find them but it can be done.  Thank you again for this very important reminder.

  • Anonymous

    Lucky you to get such a wonderful surgeon. While good bed side manner might not be the top priority when choosing a physician, it sure is a great attribute for one to have. I hope bed side manner is still being taught, or I should say, I hope GOOD bed side manner is still being taught! It even makes me feel good to hear that comment your surgeon made, “We’re fine.” Amazing the power of those little words.

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