There are parts of medicine that are horrendous. Moments too painful to recount, and events that will break even the most innocent participants.
And then, there is unspeakable magic.
I live for the days when a patient comes to the office with a particularly vexing set of symptoms. Specialist after specialist bows their head in disagreement. Laboratory values whisper falsehoods with jeering tongues. Symptoms are transient, physical exam signs inconsistent and in the midst of head scratching, an answer mysteriously appears. Maybe a common presentation of a rare disease or a rare presentation of a common disease.
Explaining with words so fast that sentences jumble — ideas merge. The patient shakes their head enthusiastically less because of deep understanding, and more because they know that my excitement means that finally the answer will unfold like a blossoming flower selflessly bearing its pollen. I will eventually slow down enough to present a cogent explanation. And things will get better.
It lifts me up when a patient sits down beside me after yet another round of chemo. When, at the end of the day, I have a sparing moment to settle in for an intense conversation. I bite my tongue, become quiet and listen. I hear of hopes and dreams. I hear of pain and suffering, joy and fear. We talk like doctor and patient —
like friends, like family members.
We get past the intangibles of life and death and move on to the more palpable like dignity. Upon finishing, we leave the room in strength. We leave the room with resolve. We leave the room with tears in our eyes — all of us.
And I love when an unwitting pattern is recalled from the deepest depths of memory. The clock is ticking. Heartbeats rise and fall rapidly. Knowledge accrued from past struggles presents itself at the most opportune time, and a life is saved.
On the triumphant drive home from the hospital, with the radio blaring, I remember the patient whose back such life-saving knowledge was attained.
And I rejoice that all their suffering was not in vain, and neither was mine.
Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In My Humble Opinion. Watch his talk at dotMED 2013, Caring 2.0: Social Media and the Rise Of The Empathic Physician. He is the author of Five Moments: Short Works of Fiction and I Am Your Doctor: and This Is My Humble Opinion.
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