It’s not exactly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but everybody knows my level of patience varies from time to time. So I was surprised to find myself happily telling the emergency room that I would assess the patient shortly. The kids were horsing around on the playground, and I knew I would have to call my wife and ask her to come home. It would be my second 45 minute trip to the hospital on an otherwise busy Saturday afternoon.
For some reason today, I was able to sublimate the automatic annoyance and return without emotional drama. I slowed down, listened to the patient calmly, and reassuringly put a plan into place. Driving home, I felt both relieved and saddened by the joy that overcame me.
Why didn’t my life’s work make me feel this way all the time?
I guess it starts with one simple fact. I blame myself: every heart attack, stroke, or new diagnosis of advanced cancer. As disturbing as it sounds, how could I not? It takes a certain type of personality to want to be a doctor. A kind of hyper conscientiousness pervades our wounded souls. What else would drive us to study while our cohorts play, or slave away in gross anatomy while our peers receive their first pay checks? And how does one wake up in residency after an hour of sleep with a foreboding sense of nausea and fatigue, and face an overwhelming twelve hour day of patient care?
You learn to believe that your actions matter, that your struggles draw the line between life and death. If you only work harder, stay up later, study more, bad things will cease to happen. This is the promise that drives us through these PTSD-inducing situations. And, of course, the joy.
The joy in those fleeting moments where you hold a hand, sigh gently, and become one with the great swath of murky humanity. Those moments are what sustains us through the everyday torture that many of us signed up for eons in advance of the knowledge of what we would be doing.
Half of today’s practicing physicians have been irreparably damaged by the experience, and huddle behind walls so impenetrable that patients can’t break through their stone faced facade. The other half are trying so desperately to once again feel deeply, and yet not suffocate under the immense pressure of their daily lives.
If you are a patient, I suggest you avoid the former and seek out the latter.
If you are a medical student, you may want to learn how to embrace the joy now before it’s too late.
Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician and founder, CrisisMD. He blogs at In My Humble Opinion.