When the doctor is the patient, humanism and competency matter

Over the past few weeks I’ve had ample opportunity to be on the other side. Not like some parents with chronically ill children or those with children who have suffered tragic illness. No, not like that; I am fortunate that hospitals aren’t a part of my family’s everyday (except for work). My children have had amazing fortune and I remain in awe of good health. Lately though, we’ve had some stumbles. Literally.

O broke his leg a week ago after falling from some play equipment while we were on a trip to California. Six days before that, he turned blue in his lips and mouth and we ended up in the ER for a 6 hour investigation. My mom finished a week of chemo this past weekend and we’ve got follow-up visits for nearly everyone. Two today, in fact. I’m still living a part of the generational sandwich. And we go to see doctors. Allowing ample opportunity for being on the other side.

When I tell others about my experiences in the ER with little O or with my mom at the cancer center, or going to the doctor for my own health care, people often point out how good it is for me. Enter broccoli with a side of brussel sprouts. People want doctors to go to the doctor. I get it.


It’s a little like how, on some level, it would feel much better if BP’s Tony Hayward lived on the gulf coast, wore boots that were drenched in washed-up oil, and had to make a living in a small fishing town in Louisiana for 5 months. Maybe then he’d feel the impact of the oil spill that we expect. We just want people in charge to understand and feeeeeel.

We consumers of health want our doctors to connect, to understand, to care. We anticipate, discuss, and await the visit; often it’s the crescendo in our day. We want the doctor to sit down. We want them to listen so we don’t have to repeat ourselves. We want them to know it’s a scared space–that airspace between doctor and patient. I mean, it’s a formal endeavor for many of us; my mom puts on make-up, I comb my hair. We want it valued. Really, we want to share our shoes. Swap them, of course, with those who help us so they walk like we do and understand. We want to have those who are in charge of big decisions in our lives (read: doctors) really embrace the decisions like we do.

Lots of providers, lots of the time, really do feel this. They really do connect. Ask them to if they don’t. Say something like, “Did you hear what I said about her not being able to sleep?” if your doctor is distracted. It’s always okay to clarify. And it’s always okay to ask.

When O broke his leg, we were in northern California visiting the husband’s parents. We were far from Seattle Children’s and from the resources and colleagues with which we are familiar. When we arrived in the ER, I was unsteady. Hoping for good care but expecting the worst. Trying to find balance in being primarily a mom, but having the pediatrician inside me, too.

Crazy thing was all I found was compassion. It changed everything. From the nurse (who told me about his children) to the ER doc (who enlisted my opinion) to the orthopedist (who told me of his 20 month old while holding tyrannical O down for the casting), the entire team took the time to care about O and his entourage. They took time to connect. It was this humanism that changed everything. They call this place, “The Queen.” Maybe this is why.

Humanism, care, and competency are exactly what you want when you’re stuck on the other side. I’m okay with all this time on the other side. I’m learning a lot. And with a leg that is healing, I know the little bits of my mommy-broken-heart will, too.

Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc.

Submit a guest post and be heard.

View 11 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories