Recently, when my parents came for a visit, our conversations led me to realize something important: I have been a doctor for more than 20 years, and yet my parents have no idea what my daily life is like. It then occurred to me that if they have no idea, then surely my patients have no idea either.
So, if you’re a patient who’s ever wondered what medicine looks like from where doctors stand, here goes …
Doctors cancel root canals and oil changes and skip their children’s soccer games when they know their patients need them.
Doctors change their vacation schedules when patients schedule elective procedures several weeks down the road, so as not to inconvenience the patients, even though the patients are retired and have a bit more flexible schedule.
Doctors motor through clinic, surgery, and hospital rounds with a full bladder, an empty tummy, and a dry mouth because we consume no fluids for hours. Because we can. Because we feel guilty sometimes when we take a moment to ourselves. Because people are waiting.
Doctors are just as mortified as you are miffed when our schedules blow up in our faces and we keep you waiting for more than 10 minutes, let alone for more than 20 minutes, even if the reason is because we were in the emergency room or operating room or procedure room doing something to help a patient who was in much worse shape than you.
Doctors worry about you — a lot. Not in a cowering, you-might-be-a-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen way, but more like in a, “Please, Lord, let them heal well despite the fact that they are diabetic and still smoking a pack a day, and though I know it must be hard for them to quit, I’ve asked them to stop so many times” way, or a “That specimen looks worrisome. I hope it will be fine and that they won’t need more surgery. I wonder how long it will take the pathologist to let me know?” way.
Doctors are never talking to their broker, their tailor, their jeweler, or their Porsche dealer when they are late. They may be talking to the doctor taking care of their grandmother in a hospital in another state, or their uncle trying to explain their aunt’s bad prognosis that they’ve just heard, or their spouse explaining why they can’t be at the recital / ballgame / Scout meeting tonight.
Doctors are just as grateful as you are — sometimes more so — when your medical news is good. Whether it’s a pathology report that’s benign, your lab results that are now within normal limits, or an X-ray that shows improvement, we are rooting for you like the best cheerleader ever from the moment we order the test to the moment we get the report. We don’t act like it because we don’t want you to be freaked out by our level of concern. We are taught by our superiors and encouraged by our colleagues to act tough, and we think that’s what you want, too. But now you know: Deep inside, we’re marshmallows.
When the phone or beeper goes off in the middle of the night, we are grateful if our family members are not calling, and the emergency room is not calling. We can go back to sleep — sometimes — if all that’s needed is the answer to an easy question from a patient. We hope we were awake enough to fully explain why everything is fine before our heads fall back onto our pillows.
We are grateful as we end our day that our patients did well, that our family is safe and healthy, and that we have completed another day of doing our best and “first, doing no harm.” We marvel at the human body every day. We long to tell you, dear patient, how much we care. We hope you know.
Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach. She blogs at Love Medicine Again and her upcoming book, Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, will be available this summer. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD. This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
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