The selfless people in medicine are the people a patient never sees

It’s been two days now since I basked in the glory. I still find myself floating above the ground. I can still feel the weight of the heavy gown and the velvet tam. I can feel the tickle of the tassel on my ear. My eyes fill with tears at the thought of my classmates – those who toiled alongside me – experiencing the same emotions. The reminders of our newfound responsibility echo in my ears, peppered with compliments from family and friends about the noble, giving, altruistic profession I’ve joined.

As young physicians we proudly take our place on the pedestal that society presents us. How could we not? We’ve worked hard for what we know and, with the help of others in our clinics and hospitals, we can actually save lives. We hear it so often, “I’m so glad there are folks like you who are willing to help others,” or “You are such a selfless person, you’ll be a wonderful doctor.”

The truth is, I am as selfish as they come.

Every time I pick up a book or a journal, every time I catch a baby, every time I hold a scalpel or a pair of Metzenbaum scissors, I steal time from those who love me – my wife, my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, and my friends. I repeatedly send the message that I care more about a complete stranger than I care about my own flesh and blood.

And they’ve yet to make a sound. They just sit there, waiting patiently, until my next text message, email or phone call. They wait until my next vacation, then they tell me how proud they are of the work I do. They tell me how lucky my patients must be.

The truth is, I’m the lucky one. People entrust me with their deepest secrets, their doubts and fears, their health. They allow me to take care of their unborn children, and they allow me to meet their children even before they do. I have the pleasure of placing my stethoscope on my patients’ chests, closing my eyes, and being present with them – in awe of the beauty that is the human body. I experience the joy of hearing a patient say “thank you” even when all I did was listen. I receive far more than I give.

The selfless people in medicine are the people a patient never sees. They are the husbands and wives, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They are the nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. They give far more than I could even imagine, never complaining, only waiting, for the next text message, phone call or email. They selflessly wait for the next vacation.

And I just stand there, gowned and gloved, waiting for the next incredible experience.

Ryan Stewart is an osteopathic physician who can be found on Twitter @stuboo.

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  • LAmobileACU group

    I agree. I treated this lady after medical misdiagnosis brought her from asymptomatic to the Intensive Care Unit for mistreating a kidney infection. The first day I evaluated her, I mentioned keeping her legs warm to assist in circulation and allow for the pitting edema to subside.
    When I returned a few days later, I found the family had taken turns massaging and warming her previously blue tinged cold skin back to warm and properly colored. I watched as the family fought to keep there loved one comfortable in hopes of recovery from the mishap.
    There is a lot to be said about the under-acknowledged care that is receive from our loved ones and the struggles that they go through for the one’s they love.

  • Miriam Delosantos

    As a soon-to-be new graduate facing the world of practicing medicine, I am faced day after day with the demands from patients, attendings, nurses, and upcoming boards.  I am painfully aware of the sacrifices my loved ones have made during my time in school.  At the end of a long 10-hour day, it is easy to forget that there are people besides you making the sacrifices.  Thank you for helping me remember.

    • Ryan Stewart

      Thanks for the nice words, Miriam. I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on this during medical school and several weeks before graduation trying to think of a way to explain it to my family.  This was the result.  It’s an honor to do the work we do.

  • Steven Reznick

    Congratulations and best of luck. There are many loved ones, friends and acquaintances along the way who  contribute to all our successes. 

  • Jan

    “As young physicians we proudly take our place on the pedestal that society presents us”.

    With this statement you completely contradict your claims to selflessness. 

    • Researcher1

      You have misinterpreted the author’s point. They were never claiming selflessness.

  • art4littlehands

    As a wife of a doctor who was with him from undergraduate through residency, I think this is true except I did complain … a lot!!!

    • Kari Muth Ulrich

       We are allowed to complain some ;) The long hours they put in is beyond the hospital walls- it seeps into your home and family time. The role of husband, father does take second place at times. But with that said, I would not have it any other way.

    • Ryan Stewart

      Of course you’re allowed to complain! :) Thanks to both of you for commenting.

  • Researcher1

    The problem I have with this whole article is that the physician AND
    their families benefit from the health care system. Sure, the wife,
    sons, and daughters don’t get to spend that much time with their loved
    ones… but what about the families where BOTH parents have to work hard
    and struggle to make ends meet to provide for their families? The
    fortunate reality for families of physicians is that they will be well
    taken care of, will be able to afford everything they ever want or need,
    will be able to go to college to get the “Best Education.”

    You have actually considered the WRONG people as selfless here. The ones
    who the patients don’t see are the people who developed those methods,
    developed those medications that are saving the lives of everyone you
    treat. But for the doctor… they get all the credit.

    Society didn’t place you on a pedestal, the physicians ahead of you
    did… Please give credit to the appropriate people. Your families are
    well taken care of and don’t really need much credit given to them.

    • Researcher1

      And: “They selflessly wait for the next vacation.”

      Physicians live in a very protected world. How can you wait selflessly for the next vacation (that isn’t too far off)?

    • Researcher1

      I’m a little disheartened that no response was given to this subject.

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