We as humans start learning new things since we are born and continue learning until the last breath we take on this earth. We learn lessons that are essential to our lives such as walking and talking, all the way to life lessons that we learn when we face death. I learned a lot through my lifetime; as a child, as a student, as a citizen, and I continue to learn and grow today as a young adult exploring the intrinsic pathology of the complex human being. The learning curve is steep, and will unlikely level off in the near future as I go into my clinical years and later on with my medical education. But so far the most important lessons I learned were within hospital walls, and surprisingly, not when I was a medical student, but rather when I was a cancer patient.
At a young age where the only worry I should have had was playing football or soccer, which gift I wanted for Christmas, or what cartoon I wanted to watch, I found myself worrying about my life. I had to worry about something so abstract yet vital. It was a rollercoaster of emotions, of new experiences. But after a couple of years in that hospital gown among the lifeless walls and machines, I survived. But survival, as I grew up to discover, was not the most important thing that happened during my cancer journey. I did not know it at the time, but I discovered it along the way as it continues to unfold today.
Doctors went in and out my hospital room, rushing through their long to-do lists with limited time. They shuffled through the door of my room every morning, going on with their ritual of examining me and then leaving to write orders and proceedings. They were the best at what they do, and yet they treated my cancer without treating me.
We get taught a lot in medical school. Every generation of doctors will have to learn more than the generation before as medical knowledge accumulates and reaches novel fronts. We learn about the diseases and how to treat them. We get lectured on the intricate molecular identity of the disease and how to manipulate it. But somehow along the way, we forgot that this disease is part of a human being. We forgot the human facade and we focused on saving the physical body, all the while minimizing the human touch and replacing it with sophisticated protocols. We got better at diagnosing and treating, but we did not heal anymore.
Ever since that first night in a hospital bed, I have learned a lot. Through my school years up to my second year of medical school, I was acquainted with complicated concepts about science, the human body, and life. But the most important lesson I learned was at that hospital bed fighting for my life. I learned about the importance of the healing power that medical doctors have on their patients; that the healing process starts with the first encounter that a physician has with his patient. The trust the patient puts in the physician, the relationship that transcends to something inexplicable yet so essential. That same relationship that Asclepius talked and lectured about. Doctors leave a trace in the lives of their patients, and that mark they leave might be what makes a doctor a good one.
Unfortunately, this relationship is a rare sight nowadays among the well educated and up-to-date physicians, practicing their evidence-based medicine and discovering novel therapies. Somewhere along the way while looking to push the field forward, we forgot about the core of this profession. We forgot about empathy.
Ramez Kouzy is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com