Every patient has a rich history behind their current state of health

As I was reviewing his chart, I noticed under social history that “freelance artist/painter” was listed as his occupation. I’ve never met a patient of such talent and honestly, I was excited to meet him. When I arrived at the ER, I was introduced to an unassuming elderly man. He wore a pair of worn out jeans and a burnt orange T-shirt. Tufts of white hair emanated from under his baseball cap. He ran out of home oxygen a day ago and was brought by ambulance for COPD exacerbation. After being on high-flow oxygen for some time, he transitioned to a nasal cannula dialed to three liters.

“Hi Mr. Birch, my name’s T.J. I’m a third-year med student with the treatment team.”

“Hey there, T.J. You’re here for the story?”

“Yes, only if you’re comfortable and breathing better.”

“About 80 percent better, let’s go.”

After filling in the details on what brought Mr. Birch to the hospital, I asked him what it was like being an artist.

His journey started in high school where he would often draw the pictures and illustrations from his history textbook in lieu of paying attention to his teachers. When he was home, whatever thoughts, feelings, and emotions came to him he would scramble for pencil and paper and let his hand run free. After college, he went on to travel across the U.S. and then around the world as a freelance artist with the support of his mother and father.

In his early days, he painted portraits of those he met and stayed with and at one time a portrait was showcased at a fine arts museum. With only a pencil, he also drew the landscapes and horizons of Italy, Spain, France, and iconic monuments along the U.S. East Coast. Animals he too enjoyed painting from dogs to tigers, as well as family portraits at the request of relatives, friends, and clients through the grapevine. In Marseille, France is where he met Mary, “the love of my life,” and the two tied the knot soon thereafter.

Tragically, a decade ago Mary passed away from breast cancer and since her death, his love and motivation for artistry did not endure. Today, he struggles with his smoking and alcohol addiction. Every morning, he smokes a pack of cigarettes and throughout the day one to two more. What started with one bottle of wine a day since his wife’s passing turned into two a day. He now lives in a small house outside of the city limits with only his German shepherd to keep him company.

As our first conversation drew to a close, I spoke with him about his thoughts on quitting drinking and smoking. I also asked him if he would pick up painting again.

“My COPD takes away most of my energy, even now I sometimes struggle to catch my breath. With Mary gone, I just don’t have the desire to paint anymore …”

I placed my hand onto his and told him, “Once an artist, always an artist.”

Before we said our goodbyes, he slowly inched closer to the bed railing.

“I drew comfort from smoking and drinking since Mary died. It eased my mind and my pain, but the anguish is always present. The phrase “time heals all wounds” is horse shit.”

I couldn’t muster words to say and we both looked at each other.

“What I really want to say is that you’re the first person to sit and talk with me about how bad drinking and smoking are for my health. I’ll try my best to quit. Maybe I’ll dust off my brush and paint again too … thanks, doc.”

“You’re very welcome, I’m glad to have met you and for the time we talked. Anything you need we’re here for you. I’ll see you early tomorrow morning, sir.”

Every patient has a rich history behind their current state of health. As medical students, we have the power to have very personal and important conversations with our patients; conversations that transcend the traditional history and physical. Understanding suffering starts with their story and we must never forget that medicine is an art with the patient at its centerpiece.

Ton La, Jr. is a medical student and student editor, the New Physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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