This Thanksgiving, remember the importance of gratitude in medicine

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As we enter into the Thanksgiving season, the question of what we are thankful for is frequently asked . Perhaps it is a good reminder for us to take a step back and express gratitude for events that or people who have made a true impact on our lives. I think that for us as medical professionals, it is all the more important, since conditions in the hospital may make it difficult for us or the patients we take care of to be grateful.

In the hospital, we meet patients who are coming to us at a difficult point in our lives. Whether it be a minor illness that is only temporary, or a terminal illness that makes death a certainty, we encounter patients and their loved ones who are trying to process these particular events. At times, it can be incredibly trying for them, and sometimes we may be the target of anger and frustration.

I can think of events in the past where I have been at the end of a conversation in which I was yelled at if things turned out in a way that was not pleasing for the patient or their families. Most of the time, it is not personal, but combine the experience of their frustration with long work hours and many expectations to do more than we are capable of at times, and it can make for an environment where it can be hard to be thankful for anything. If we as health care professionals have a hard time being thankful, imagine how much more difficult it must be for a patient encountering a very vulnerable time in their lives.

But once in a while, we encounter patients that are full of gratitude for the work that we do. In spite of finding themselves in a vulnerable position that can make them bitter about what is going on, they somehow find the strength to acknowledge how hard we are working in what can be a difficult field at times. It is their gratitude that gives us the strength to pick up our stethoscopes one more time, to enter a patient’s room with the hope of making a difference, and to show up to work believing that we can make a positive impact in patient’s lives.

It is all the more amazing whenever they show gratitude in situations where they can see the twilight of their lives as they are preparing to leave their families for another world. In their ultimate period of weakness and vulnerability, they look outward to make sure that we are doing OK and that we know that we are making a huge impact in their lives, providing comfort in what is a very uncomfortable situation. Even as they are staring at mortality, they are thinking about us, praying for us, and giving thanks for us and our service. It is truly a beautiful thing to see gratitude come out of a period of pain and confusion, the epitome of what most patients experience only in the short term.

It is those demonstrations of gratitude from patients that can make us more grateful for the opportunities we have to care for patients and their families. In hearing the words “Thank you,” we have a momentary respite from what can be the craziness of our professions in order to see that we are making a difference in patients’ lives, and they are letting us know it. It is a temporary verbal escape that from memories of patients lacking gratitude. At that moment, we start focusing on the patient instead of ourselves, which ideally is how it should be when a patient encounter begins. And perhaps we realize that we are not alone, that we are working with amazing people going through the same thing we are, and that we as health care professionals have one common ideal in mind, to have a patient leave us better than when they first met us.

So this season, may we take a moment to be thankful for the incredible privilege we have to care for patients. Whether you are a doctor, a nurse, a physician assistant, a nurse practitioner, or a technician, you have access to a world that few people ever have the privilege of entering. You can potentially impact lives in a way that will make patients and their families remember you for years to come. It is easy to get bogged down by the craziness of the hospital at times, but let it not be at the expense of us taking a step back and truly appreciating the incredible privilege we have been given. It really is a cool thing that we get to do when we step back and think about it, and people will be looking to us in their times of need for the foreseeable future. Will we be able to appreciate the experience for the wonder that it still can be?

Chiduzie Madubata is a cardiology fellow.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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