As a pediatric subspecialist in the division of developmental medicine at our hospital and a mother of two school-aged children, I constantly strive to find new approaches to both parenting and my medical practice. Some of these strategies work well, while others do not. Despite my attempts to believe that my roles as a pediatrician and a parent do not influence each other, the truth is that they are deeply interconnected. These two roles are like two fabrics interwoven to form the garment that I wear every day, one that often needs to be adjusted as I go.
I have learned more about medicine from life itself than from any other source. So why is life experience not included in our professional training? Why don’t we, as physicians, intentionally bring more of our humanity into our practice as a way of connecting with our patients? What would happen if we used our personal struggles, losses, and sorrows, as well as other profound experiences, as the foundation for creating a stronger health care community?
Physicians often bring their work experiences home with them. For example, after seeing the negative effects of social media on developing brains during my eight years as an attending physician, I have strict limits on my children’s screen time. When my first son slept through the night (more than five hours) as an infant, I was immediately worried that he had meningitis because of my earlier, anxiety-provoking experiences during night shifts in the pediatric ICU. Of course, he was fine once we got to the emergency department. In that moment, I realized that “ignorance is bliss.”
In the same way, my experiences as a parent, including dealing with tantrums, picky eating, perceived failures, and sleep deprivation, add depth to my pediatric practice and help me connect with families. These experiences come not only from being a parent but also from being human and from my own personal background as a child of immigrant parents, a daughter who lost her mother, a friend supporting someone in crisis, and a partner dealing with her spouse’s health issues.
Bringing my own humanity into the exam room has enhanced my sense of fulfillment at work. Trained to allow silence in my encounters with patients, my mentors also encouraged me to let patients cry. Often, tears opened the door to a sacred space where important details were revealed, leading to clearer diagnoses and more refined treatment plans. Through listening compassionately, I have heard the stories of parents who left their children behind to flee political persecution, the fear of a parent living with a violent domestic partner, and the pain of a mother raising a child who was the product of rape.
Recently, I have even cried with my patients, and I have discovered that sharing our humanity does not weaken the boundaries in the doctor-patient relationship. It simply allows us to see each other authentically and vulnerably. Building this connection and trust is precisely why I became a physician in the first place. However, “healing through humanity” is not often valued in our fast-paced, RVU-driven visits.
Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading psychiatrist and neuroscientist in the field of childhood trauma, addressed the Santa Clara County Healthcare workforce a year after the height of the pandemic, saying: “In medicine, there is a pressure to do high-volume, low-touch clinical encounters with families who are struggling. The irony is that this does a disservice to all involved, the physicians as well as families.”
I agree with Dr. Perry. Rather than maintaining superficial engagement, if doctors increased their time and attention to hold the stories of our patients, revealing the truth about their lives, it would ultimately be more cost-effective, leading to better health outcomes and greater patient and physician satisfaction.
The field of medicine as a whole needs to recognize the value of this quality interaction and to find ways to incentivize it. Compassion, understanding, and healing should be measured and prioritized above profit by the stakeholders in health care. Dr. Wendy Dean described these goals as long-term solutions to what she has termed “moral injury.” Dr. Dean also advocates recognizing and trusting that physicians have their patients’ best interests in mind.
Doctors and patients alike are on a journey, developing a trusting relationship that requires time and attention. Like sherpas, physicians become physically and psychologically prepared to manage acute and traumatic situations with scarce resources, undergoing years of self-sacrifice and training to support families through their pain, suffering, and loss. While presenting life-long diagnoses, I care for families on the equivalent of a climb up Mt. Everest. I see myself as their guide through the emotional peaks and valleys, leading them along the crevices and complicated systems, and navigating to a place of hope.
Many physicians are familiar with trauma even before applying to medical school, and such experiences may even have fueled their calling. However, very few physicians have ever been taught about trauma, about its effects on the body, or about evidence-based, trauma-informed care. In this sense, too, a doctor’s humanity is not valued in medicine, even though it has the greatest potential to save our profession from a toxic spiral.
In The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Dr. Gabor Mate discusses this demoralizing crisis in the field of medicine, urgently calling for attention through culture reform and system change. At present, our medical systems don’t help us to support the weight of patients and their families; yet we cannot let them walk away still carrying the deep pain that is at the root of so many symptoms and diseases. In these cases, the experiences that color our own lives as parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, and as fellow human beings can inform and bring the necessary depth to our profession.
During medical training and beyond, we can model, teach, and reward this approach to healing, in which physician fulfillment becomes a valid goal and compassion takes center stage. Through our stories, we can also use levity to strengthen our professional connections and to remove the layers of competitiveness, shame, and perfectionism. We can begin to recognize our limitations, to normalize our shared experiences, and to remove our alienating masks.
Physicians are not super-human. Yet our humanity can become our greatest superpower, and our diverse stories the greatest weapons against disease.
Roxanne Almas is a developmental behavioral pediatrician.