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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  • Lisa

    I’ve told I have cancer three times, twice by phone and once in person. In all cases, I felt like I was given the news then left to find my own way, to figure out what the next step was. The time I was given the news in person, the radiologist sort of patted me on the back as we walking out of the room and told me I’d be okay. I felt like slugging him – how the hell did he know? The truth was I was okay, I am okay, but the reassurance felt empty to me.

    It would have been helpful the bad news would have come from the referring physician first, rather than from the radiologist. At least that way the referring physician talked with me about what to do next, instead of waiting for me to call them, totally freaked out.

    • Suzi Q 38

      I really don’t mind the phone, but I agree a face to face would be better.

  • Suzi Q 38

    My neurologist told me about a year and a half ago that the numbness and weakness that I had been feeling in the prior year and a half was probably Multiple sclerosis.
    At first I was devastated, but I gathered my thoughts and asked him a direct question….I said “prove it.”

    I remember taking extensive blood tests, an full MRI of my brain, cervical, thoracic, and lumbar sections.
    I also took a lumbar puncture test.

    After the scariness of all that, I waited…and waited…and waited.
    For a phone call from my neurologist’s nurse or from the neuro himself.
    My emotions went from shock, to sadness, then anger not just at what I could have and what was to be my future, but at my neurologist for making me wait so long for an answer.

    I called the hospital and spoke to his nurse. She said she would ask the doctor to call me…still no response.

    I decided to drive the 35 minute ride to the hospital and find the doctor myself. When I got there, neither he nor his staff was scheduled to work there that day.
    I was furious.

    The nurse then said something she would regret.
    Without asking me if I needed any help. She was rude and curt and asked me in front of a waiting room full of patients why I wanted to talk to my neurologist.

    I admit I was blunt and rude with my answer.
    I said: I have taken a series of tests about 3 weeks ago. The doctor told me he would call me back with the results. I am still waiting for those results. I was told I might have MS, do you mind?? I kind of would like to know if I have it or not.”

    She got me into a patient room really fast.
    They tracked down the his nurse. I told her off on the phone.
    I told her I was not leaving until I got an answer from the doctor.

    He finally got on the phone and told me that my tests were negative.

  • Patient Kit

    First, I’m very sorry that you’re going through this and that your doctors have handled it so badly. As a cancer patient myself (early stage ovarian cancer), I try to keep in mind that all of my oncologist’s patients have cancer and that many of them have more advanced cancer than me. At the same time, I expect oncologists to always remember that a cancer diagnosis is never routine to any patient and that they should always take the time to communicate compassionately and clearly with all of their patients. I’m lucky enough to have a GYN oncologist who does that well. There’s no excuse for a doctor to be cold and inconsiderate when delivering a cancer diagnosis. It’s unacceptable behavior.

  • Kim

    What you describe is standard practice for many doctors and nurses. What ever happened to compassion? I know a few doctors that I will never return to; not because of their lack of knowledge or skills , but because they were rude, inconsiderate, and showed NO compassion at all for their patients.

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