I am a man. Really I am. And men don’t cry, correct?
Well this one does, not very often, but when I do it is usually a good moment to pause and reflect on the circumstances. Just to check, you know, that I’m still a real man.
Shortly after the birth of our first child, I stayed up one evening to watch “Life Is Beautiful,” the wonderful Oscar winning film starring Roberto Benigni. This film should carry a health warning — beautiful yet haunting as it shifts from delight to horror over two glorious hours. The following morning I tried to describe the film to my wife as we sat in bed over a cup of tea, enjoying a rare moment of peace from our newborn daughter. I didn’t quite manage to get the words out as I choked on the raw emotion of the film I had sat through the previous evening, and tears flowed unexpectedly. My wife looked puzzled, but comforted me as I tried in vain to describe the movie, my emotions associated with it and the new responsibilities I now carried as a father. My wife is still yet to see the film 11 years on — I think the time will come.
Over my medical career I have been reduced to real tears on three, sadly memorable, occasions. These episodes were all slightly different, two involving the death of children and the third an unexpected finding of advancing cancer in a young patient. Each situation remains fresh in my memory but especially the first, despite occurring over 20 years ago — the emergency bleep, a collapsed child, manually ventilating for several hours in our small pediatric unit, the evolving fear of those involved, and the baptism at the bedside by the hospital priest. That day I, and others, will never forget.
On each occasion the tears came suddenly, uncontrollably after the events — that is to say, I managed to hold my emotions whilst I was with the patient or their family, and support them in their most difficult hour, but their trauma entangled me, and abruptly hit me, as I later tried to explain the case to colleagues or my wife (also a doctor). They looked on, reaching out to me, feeling my vicarious pain, and most importantly, they comforted me. A touching hand, a small embrace, a hand on the shoulder from a receptionist, doctor colleague, nurse or my wife was recognition enough — recognition that it was alright to be like this, to be human and upset. Somehow the touching helped — bodily contact soothing the wound.
As doctors we touch people frequently. The handshake as a patient enters the room, the blood pressure check or a physical examination. Mostly this is with implied patient consent — we will seek specific consent for a more intimate examination, but what about the comforting hand? We are doctors, but also we are humans. I would have no difficulty in physically comforting a distressed child, loved one, colleague or even a stranger as a fellow human being — but what about a patient?
The human part of me says “don’t be silly, it’s ok” but the doctor part of me says “do be careful.” Our relationship with patients is like no other, and needs to be carefully observed. I read this account and it resonated with me. There is very little worthwhile work on how patients feel about touch that I could find, although there are many discussion forums that have covered the subject. This was a nice, small, primary care based study that is worth reading.
So can I be a real man, a doctor, and a human all at the same time?
I think that understanding your “weaknesses” can be your greatest strength. In my case, one of these is an acceptance of the effect that dealing with difficult cases can have — protecting patients from this but seeking support from those around me when needed.
In my most recent distressing encounter, the patient was alone and frightened. She was feeling immense emotional pain. I reached out a hand, and withdrew it, unsure of my role for a moment, leaving her untouched. A male doctor, a female patient, a human touch. I was later comforted by my (female) GP partner, and I know that in my hour of need I will look for the hand of comfort.
Did I fail my patient on this occasion? I think I might have.
Richard Cook is a general practitioner in the United Kingdom who blogs at Dr. Moderate.