Is teaching bedside manner a thing of the past?

I caught the tail end of a recent #hcsm (health-care social media) tweetchat and it looked to be a good one. I saw a few comments about teaching bedside manner and whether it’s a thing of the past (oh, how I hope not). It occurred to me that sharing a real-life story could be instructive.

I put on a brave face when I got a mastectomy for stage 0 DCIS three years ago, but bravery, and Ativan, take you only so far. No matter how much you tell yourself it’s just another surgery or body part, there’s something so deeply personal about losing a breast.

This is where my surgeon enters the picture. Well, he had already entered the picture through two attempts at breast-conserving surgery.  His first, wire-guided procedure was the first surgery I ever had. When he came into pre-op that day, he adjusted my sheets and told me he liked my socks. (I had on really loud smiley face socks as a small way of owning the experience.)

When the first attempt didn’t get the desired clear margins, the next time he pulled the little curtain back he grinned and said, “I’m ba-ack,” and it cracked me up. I asked him if many women go through this twice and he said he and his team have a way of wearing out their welcome. This time he sat on the bed with me and rubbed my arm. I asked him if he would also do the mastectomy if this attempt didn’t work, and he said he would. I was so ignorant I didn’t realize he did both types of surgery and was hugely relieved when he said yes.

Needless to say, it didn’t work and here we were, waiting for the procedure every woman dreads. He had been funny and comforting through the first two surgeries and numerous office visits, but this time he was nothing short of amazing. We joked around a little and then I must have looked scared because his expression changed and he came over and sat on the bed and put his arm around me. There’s not much you can say at a time like that and he didn’t try.

I wanted to put my arm around his waist but I was afraid they’d have to pry me off of him, so I patted his stomach. He noticed some blood on my hand from the IV and asked the nurse for a sterile wipe. When she said, “I can do that,” he said, “We’re fine,” and acting like he had all the time in the world, sat there and wiped the blood from my hand.

He could have said, “No problem,” or “I’ve got it,” or even “I’m fine.” Instead, he said, “We’re fine,” and I was no longer a frightened woman alone in a curtained-off area before they let my husband join me. I was not facing this scariest of surgeries alone, and I will always be grateful to him.

My surgeon’s name is Tim Kingston.  I’m sharing it because I want you to get a sense of him as a real person.  He and my other doctors let me use their names when I wrote a book about my experience, so I’m not using it or this story without permission. So here’s a shout out and big thank you to Dr. Kingston.

Jackie Fox is the author of From Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned And You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer, and blogs at Dispatch From Second Base.

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