Sympathy is the missing art in medicine

I still remember when my phone rang with an eerie sound, early in December 2013. The oncologist I had seen a couple of days earlier was on the other end asking me to return to the hospital ASAP because my bone marrow biopsy results was consistent with acute leukemia and I was at risk of bleeding.

That was the first time I knew about my diagnosis while he merely broke the bad news to me over the phone. It seems he had forgotten the fact that I was just a patient. After hanging up the phone, I froze in my chair for few minutes and then I called him back, telling him I was not coming to the hospital and I could not accept receiving such bad news over the phone, and that I demanded to sit down with the hematologist who would actually take care of me and discuss this life changing diagnosis.

Sympathy is the missing art in medicine. It is the one which speaks the universal language of humanity. The one not limited to time, location or color. This is what I have learned going through the toughest time in my life: a month of chemotherapy in the hospital.

Our perception, understanding and reaction to the distress or the needs of another human beings has a completely different feeling when standing in the patient’s shoes. I have always thought I understood the meaning of this word, until I was diagnosed with cancer and was proved unequivocally wrong.

I still recall when my family and I met with my hematologist the first time. She understood that I had been told I have cancer via the telephone, and this is as far as I knew about my condition. She realized during that visit that we were still in the shock phase of the news. She took her time with us explaining my condition and treatment options. I remember when she walked into my room that same day to make sure I was comfortable and I took the first dose of my medication.

I thanked her again for taking the time to explain my condition to my mother, who had accompanied me, and she replied, “I am a mother too and I can feel your mother’s feelings.”

I remember her smile every day during her morning rounds when she would come to my room with my lab results and took her time answering my questions. The morning after one month of chemotherapy in the hospital, she had walked into my room and said, “Guess who is going home today!”

As health care providers, we will either be remembered for the unacceptable disregard or negligence we have used with patients, or we will be remembered for the encouragement, carefulness and attentiveness. We should represent our profession with pride and display the utmost care possible.

It is our responsibility to demonstrate to the coming generations and medical students that our each and every word has its own impact on the patient. It is our responsibility to make them understand how fragile our souls are and that every human can suffer with sicknesses and become vulnerable. This revelation is what I sensed and identified, not as health care provider, but as cancer patient still receiving chemotherapy and seeing his doctor.

Bashar Ismail is an emergency medicine resident.

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