They are not just sick people in need of care. They are people with lives, hopes, plans, and dreams. A day before they showed up, they may have dropped a son at school, taken a daughter to soccer practice, made dinner, had lunch with friends, done their nails, or even bought a new golf club.
Of course, there is the drug addict with endocarditis, the perpetual drunk with intracranial hematoma, or even the drug dealer who got shot up. They are all still human and are human with as those who they seek care from.
And as health care providers, we should never forget that.
It is easy to see patients as their diseases. It is easy to see nothing else but the gallbladder or broken hip. It is easy to be distracted by obesity, bad dentition, or a debilitated state, but there is a human who is loved and has loved.
Pain and suffering are heavy things to deal with daily. As health care providers, we protect ourselves by dealing with the organic sources of pain and suffering. In that, we sometimes miss the background story. Then when you know that the woman with cancer cares for a quadriplegic husband, it breaks down that protective mechanism. When you find out that a man who needs a new valve just lost his wife of 50 years, your eyes may mist over.
However, I argue that we need to hear those backstories. We need to hear why getting well is not just a matter of beating a disease but that recovery and a second chance at life may affect the lives of so many other people who love, care for, and even depend on a patient.
As an anesthesiologist, I cannot delve too deep into a patient’s history. A preop visit does not always allow for long conversations, so production pressure is high, which is a hurdle that almost all anesthesia providers – heck, all in health care – have to deal with. Yet patients need us to know them and where they are coming from. After all, ours are the last faces they see before they float away, secure or not knowing they are in good hands.
In most cases, knowing these backstories does not affect the quality of care. It creates a sense of empathy in the provider that patients sense. And that sense that the provider “feels it” goes a long way in setting patients at ease. It reduces anxiety and fosters the whole treatment experience. That feeling that “the provider understands my anxiety” is more powerful than any anxiolytic we can inject.
It does not have to be a detailed conversation. Sometimes a simple question, “What are you afraid of?” opens the faucets. It allows patients to be vulnerable because they are being asked to be. With patients in pain, a remark about how it affects their lives can open floodgates. A detailed prior H&P done by another provider can offer clues too.
In the end, each of us must find our way of reaching out, but above all, we must try to do it and do it often.
Dealing with pain and suffering can be daunting and sometimes tug at one’s heart and soul, but the experience can also feed our humanity as providers. Our patients’ stories can teach us about humility and bravery and remind us of how important health, family, support, and love are. Seek those stories.
Nana Dadzie Ghansah is a cardiac anesthesiologist.