Physicians aren’t robots in a white coat

Remember when you were a kid out grocery shopping with your parents when suddenly, smack dab in the bread aisle, you spot your 5th-grade teacher Mrs. Smith? It is almost an out-of-body experience when your eyes lock, and you realize for the first time that your teacher is an actual person that exists outside of your classroom. The same thing applies to your white-coat-wearing, stethoscope-toting, bedside-manner-lacking (wait … I hope not) doctor. Love them or loathe them you, might be surprised to find out what exactly lies beneath those scrubs.

They’re probably a mom or a dad. Ever see framed pictures of a smiling family in your doctor’s office? Yep, they have tantrum-throwing two-year-olds and moody teens waiting for them after a long day, too. No matter what your profession is, having children is another full-time job in itself, complete with its own set of unique worries and challenges.

Physicians don’t actually get to spend a lot of time with their families, however. They miss out on birthdays, holidays, dance recitals and sports games due to their call, operating or clinic schedules. I have known a couple of residents that barely made it to their wives’ deliveries due to being on call or operating that same day. In fact, my darling husband left to do a brain surgery in the middle of my induction and came back unfazed. Luckily, the delivery was a long process. I don’t think he will try that again with baby number two this spring.

They’re probably a husband or wife. Many doctors have loving partners at home waiting for them. The key word is waiting. There is no such thing as physicians’ hours or being “on time.” Emergencies are unpredictable by nature, and they can’t just clock out of the operating room when 5:00 p.m. comes. Patients call at all hours of the day and night. People get sick and hurt on holidays, and that means doctors spend less time with loved ones.

I remember going out to dinner with another couple a few years back. Just as the main course was being served, my husband got a phone call. I could tell by the look on his face when he came back to the table that it was bad. He had to immediately jump in the car and head to the hospital to operate, abandoning me and his chicken piccata. Learning to roll with things like this has been my M.O. Not only was I was able to finish my teriyaki salmon, order dessert and get a ride home from the other couple, but I was also able to bring a full meal home for my absentee husband in a doggie bag.

Sometimes I feel like I am the third wheel more than I am ever one half of a double date.

They probably skip meals. I’ve seen many a Facebook post lamenting about how long people are having to wait for their appointment. Because the doctor is certainly “out to lunch.” The reality is that their clinic days are so booked, and they are trying to spend as much time as possible with each patient that meals are mostly a protein bar (if anything) in between.

I hate waiting, too, and it’s easy to get mad. I get downright Hulk-rage-level when my precious time is compromised. So I asked my husband why he might run behind on an average day.

He explained that he spent extra time talking to a brain tumor patient about their options and life expectancy. Then he had to run through a delicate surgery that could help a paralyzed patient walk again. Sometimes people just talk and talk and talk, and take up more than their “fair share” of appointment time. Doctors have to sit and listen, but also have a unique challenge to wrap it up when there are 12 more people out there waiting, too. Imagine being cut off when you just waited for an hour yourself!

They probably take complications home with them. If something goes wrong, doctors feel it to their core. They don’t just brush it off and go skipping down the lane to the next patient. They can have nightmares about it, feel sick about it and stay up at night going over and over and over it. They think about it when they are at their kid’s basketball game, out to dinner with their wife or just watching a movie.

I can always tell when my husband has had a bad day. Despite being a trained therapist, sometimes there is no way for me to make it better. Talking might not help, being alone might not help, and making his favorite dinner might not help. Much like grief in other areas, passing time and learning from it usually does.

They probably think about you more than their own family.

You, dear patient, are my in my husband’s head more than I am. That sounds strange to read and type, but it’s true. When my husband has that far away look in his eyes when I’m talking to him and doesn’t respond at the appropriate pause, I know he’s thinking about a past, present or future patient. Sounds like “A Christmas Carol” of medicine. There’s a saying that doctors are married to medicine first. And as callous as it sounds, this is the nature of a medical marriage and family.

They rarely have a day off. My husband wishes he could be the stereotypical picture of a doctor, leisurely golfing all day while riding around in his R8 convertible. Yes, the Iron Man Audi is his dream car. (See, I pay attention.) The reality is even on his off days, he is still up at the hospital rounding on his patients, fielding phone calls from patients and, occasionally, scheduling surgeries for weekends because there wasn’t enough time to fit them in during the week.

Even when we have been on vacation far, far away, cell phones still work, and he still touches base with the residents or patients almost daily. It’s not as simple as turning off his phone and ignoring it either. Situations and complications sometimes warrant his immediate attention, even on a beach in Hawaii.

This profession is a calling. It’s true that some go into medicine for the money, but usually, they are weeded out by the end of med school or residency. Doctors don’t make as much as some people imagine and their student loan debt can be crippling, topping several hundred thousand dollars. Most of the physicians I know do this because they want to help you and your family, and have known this since they were little kids.

My husband watched two grandparents pass away from cancer at a young age and dedicated his life to helping other families.

Doctors don’t go into this field to laugh at you having to wait two hours in a stuffy waiting room to see them. They don’t go into it to flaunt a sports car around town, or to send you a high bill just because they can. (Side note: It’s called insurance reimbursement and most docs have zero control over that.)

If nothing else, just know that the person before you isn’t a robot in a white coat. There is a person in there, an imperfect human, who is trying hard to make you and your loved ones well. Isn’t it true that without our health we have nothing?

Kelly Houseman is a mental health counselor who blogs at Kelly’s Reality.

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