Are you dating the person or the patient?

I was 15-years-old the first time I went on a date.  Like any rookie, I had no idea what to expect.  As my date and I sat at the red-and-white-checkered table at TGI Fridays, I watched his expression slowly change from one of interest to trepidation; after drowning him with endless conversation, I was hardly surprised when he informed me that he would not be calling for a second date.  The evening was recorded as a memory I hoped I would never repeat.  Little did I know that I would someday look back on that experience with envy, in admiration of my uninhibited fifteen-year-old self.

Now, after ten years, almost four years of medical school and three failed relationships, I am only months away from finally experiencing the joy only the two letters “M” and “D” can bring.  Yet despite my academic accomplishments, when it comes to love, I often still feel as if I’m the turtle chasing the hare.  While many of my peers have celebrated their twenties by attending weekly happy hours and saying their “I do’s,” I’ve spent the last several years racing between a library cubicle and a patient’s bedside.

My story is far from unique. Medical students learn quickly that medicine is far from a job; we come to understand that medicine is a mentality, a way of life.  As Hippocrates instructs, we have “special obligations to all fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.”

But what happens when an oath to the medical profession interferes with the ability to have a successful personal life, including love and relationships?

Hello, online dating.

In an attempt to nurse a broken heart and wounded ego, I gathered my courage, bid farewell to judgment and created an online dating profile.  Within minutes, I received a message from bachelor #1: a 28-year-old Vanderbilt grad with all the charisma of a good Southern gent.

To any wandering eyes, our first date would have appeared to be going well. But as I sat at the bar sipping my ten dollar glass of chardonnay, I felt myself retreat. I actively watched as I simplified my life’s details to the bare essentials, as if I was explaining the pathogenesis of appendicitis in lay terms to a patient.  When my date mentioned his appendix had been removed, I couldn’t help but bombard him with inquiries of my own: did he present with transient umbilical pain and subsequent tenderness at McBurney’s point, or was his presentation not so textbook?

Needless to say, we only went out once.  While it would be easy to attribute this date to little more than a social experiment, the experience revealed to me the person I had morphed into since starting medical school: a woman who had unconsciously reacted to her date as she would a patient.

It is expected that as we transition from student to physician, our ability to interact successfully with patients matures.  We are taught to honor a patient’s wishes, acknowledging that they have an equally powerful role to play in the management of their health.  We work to form a partnership so that overtime a patient will be willing to put their life in our hands.

Yet, the nature of medicine also fosters an unspoken separation between a patient and health care professional.  It happens the moment we dawn the white coat; its presence reminds both the patient and provider of the fundamental discrepancy of knowledge that exists between these parts, giving this disconnect a tangible quality.  While many physicians attempt to find common ground by getting to know their patients well, when the existence of one life hangs in the balance, such roles can never truly be equal.

Relationships, unfortunately, are quite the opposite.  A partnership based on mutual respect and equality is essential for any love to thrive.  While a patient won’t likely understand or want to know the process taken to arrive at his or her diagnosis, in personal relationships, each step matters. Finding common ground is everything.

Thus, when it comes to love, I dare say we must defy Hippocrates and put aside our “special obligations.”  We must remember to loosen the white coat and adopt the naivety of that first date when there was no simplifying and no diagnostic inquiries, just butterflies; even if that lasts just long enough to share an occasional glass of wine. Only then can we hope to delineate the person from the patient.

Catherine Spaulding is a medical student.

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