To most physicians my illness is a routine incident in their rounds, while for me it’s the crisis of my life. I would feel better if I had a doctor who at least perceived this incongruity.
– Anatole Broyard
For medical students to treat illnesses of all kinds, we must first fill our brains with thousands of facts, everything from anatomy, to physiology, to microbiology, and biochemistry. We essentially become robots, pounding this information into our memories through hours of rogue memorization and constant repetition. But with all the time we spend wrapped in our studies, are we sacrificing our humanism in medicine?
Greater priority in medical education seems to be in improving standardized exam scores. We become slaves to these exams, practicing test question after test question, and in the process growing numb to the descriptors of pain and suffering. We read on our screens, “The patient complains of …” In our daily lives, a complaint might sound like, “My flight is delayed. My coffee is too hot. My shoes are wet.” But for a patient, a complaint is, “My anxiety is so severe, I can’t pick up my daughter from school. The chemotherapy has kept me from enjoying a single meal. I have a dull, achy swelling I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about.” Patients are not standardized like our exams. And to heal them, we can not treat their suffering like a clinical vignette.
I remember once meeting a patient who struggled daily with painful bowel movements that woke her from night, forcing her to spend hours in the bathroom, preventing her from leaving her house. I knew I could not fix her pain, even with the strongest of medications. So instead, I sat with her. And I listened. After a time, she dried her tears, and I told her I would return with the doctor to see what we could do. His callous handling of her story was irking. He repeatedly interrupted her. And the only words he could find to say were, “I’m listening, but … I hear you, but … I understand, but …” Here’s a tip for future physicians: If you have to tell the patient you’re listening, you’re not.
For the entire interview, his eyes flickered from her face to the clock until he closed her case and rushed out of the room. Now, I can’t exactly blame him for his actions. I recognize we work in a medical system that rewards services rendered, not time listening. Despite this, it is important for medical students to remember, while we only see our patients for 15-minute intervals, their suffering spans every minute of every hour in between. To do their stories justice, we should drop the books, look at our patients, and provide them with the greatest therapy of all: a listening ear.
Angie Hamouie is a medical student.