“I’ll never forget the look in your eyes.”
Uh oh, I thought to myself.
“You had this look that you wanted to help but just didn’t know how,” said my patient.
Apparently I have very expressive eyes, and she was right. The event she was referring to was what we call a rapid response. This is when a patient’s status suddenly changes and the team wants her to be evaluated immediately. When I walked into the room, there was very little information. Initially, we didn’t know what was happening and why, and I could see how pale and distressed the patient was at the moment. I just wanted to fix it. After the initial few seconds of chaos, my training kicked in, and I found a way to help manage the situation. The patient quickly turned around.
A few days later, on my last day on service, the patient told me she could tell I cared, and this wasn’t just a job for me. She then started to cry.
Five years ago, during medical school, one of my first teachers told me that patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I thought to myself: I got the caring part down. My struggle is I don’t know anything.
Now I’m an intern. I know some things, but I have a long way to go. The constant learning is one of the reasons I love this profession. However, showing patients how much you care becomes more challenging when there are just days when you’re trying to survive. Yet, most days I have time to breathe, and the most rewarding moments for me have been those times I get to sit with a patient and just talk about their life and what’s really important to them.
For a patient of mine last week, it was finding his cane that he forgot in the emergency room. For another patient, it was simply being an ear for her to discuss her likely cancer diagnosis.
The physicians I admire most are the ones who know their patients as people who happen to sometimes have diseases. I find primary care physicians often excel in being patient-centered, but it is far from easy with all the demands of medicine and life. Patients do take notice, and so do our colleagues and younger trainees. There is a reason my colleagues love having primary care physicians on their inpatient service, and I guarantee it is not our expert knowledge of anatomy.
We make sure our patients’ chronic diseases are well controlled. We seek out nurses, patients and their families after rounds to answer all their questions. We make sure the medical students feel they are part of the team and not simply free labor. We do what we can to be patient-centered and make the hospital feel a little less of a scary place.
Although going on a scavenger hunt around the hospital for a patient’s lost cane is not the most educational activity I could be doing with my time, I do it. In the end, it was the most important thing we could do for the patient at the time.
For me, progress in primary care does not always mean innovation or shouting from the rooftop. Sometimes it’s simply standing tall and showing your colleagues and patients your value by doing what you do best. Caring for the whole person in and out of the hospital, coordinating care, and showing patients not only how much you know, but how much you care.
Cleveland Piggott is a family medicine resident.
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