To say that there is no fear in the examining room is an inaccuracy. I’m not only talking patients here. Physicians may harbor just as much worry and discontent. There are the old standbys of course: The swat team of malpractice attorneys lounging in the waiting room ready to pounce or the old demon of misdiagnosis and the consequences that may follow.
Few of us talk about that sinking feeling which comes with the realization that in the course of doing our jobs, we invite physical danger. During medical school, I remember a psychiatric patient barricaded one of my peers in an interview room. The standoff lasted forty-five minutes until she was able to escape unscathed, physically at least.
I can no longer count the various times I have treated criminals, psychotics or just plain agitated dementia patients who were willing to take a swing at whoever was in reach. For the most part, these interactions have melted away quietly leaving me with little lasting effects.
My escape from the traditional examining room has also brought a new set of challenges, like knowing a patient had a loaded gun a few feet away was somewhat jarring or traveling to a not-so-safe neighborhood during erratic hours. One becomes aware of one’s surroundings more quickly. There are countless dangers that won’t bow to our flowing doctorly lab coats.
But by far, our biggest unspoken and often unrealized fear is that of identification. How does one break the horrifying news to a dying young person and not look in the mirror and see a similar countenance? How do we not envision those we love in similar situations we see every day.
The answer is that we don’t. We use our walls to create a sense of security. We shield ourselves to such an extent that my twenty-year career, I have rarely had these conversations with colleagues.
And as I get older, I wonder if we should. There is a certain intimacy in identification which has been lost on those that hide behind the stethoscope.
We give ourselves a pass.
Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In My Humble Opinion. Watch his talk at dotMED 2013, Caring 2.0: Social Media and the Rise Of The Empathic Physician. He is the author of I Am Your Doctor: and This Is My Humble Opinion.
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