Simple words can sometimes make a big impact on physicians

Some days in medicine seem like an epic saga in which the world seems to be playing whack-the-doctor. It is easy to vilify doctors and cast much blame at them. And true, we bring some of this onto ourselves.

Today was one of those days, and by the end, I was just all too ready to run out of the office and go home. And then the last patient came and changed my whole day. He shared humorous stories of his recent medical care, making my medical student and I laugh for almost 45 minutes straight. As he was leaving, he said, “You saved my life, lady.”  He said it in a funny accent, not sure who was trying to imitate but just knowing that he was.

People often ask why I decided to become a doctor. He is the reason. As a doctor, I know my patients give me just as much as I give them. It is not always about curing diseases or saving lives, but making a very real difference in the face of human suffering. It is very easy for doctors, especially those in family medicine,  to feel underappreciated and like pawns in a dysfunctional health care system.  This patient gave me a smile today when I really needed one.

Medicine is not a profession for most, but rather a calling. And part of that calling should be to learn enough about our patients on a personal level. If you walk into an exam room and find a grouchy patient in one that is usually so friendly, there is a problem. But, when we fail to get to know our patients as humans, that added diagnostic ability is lost. Yes, we want to cure diseases and save lives. However, I suspect that our patients want more than that, they want to know we are real people who care about them. Patients expect a lot out of us, but I also suspect that most know that we are human and fallible. And if we acknowledge their human struggles rather than just their disease states, I conjure that they would more easily accept our shortcomings.

People say how busy and rushed doctors are these days. While this is true, there is always enough time to ask an adult how their day at work was or a teen how their soccer game went. And how many seconds does it take to fist-bump or high-five a young child? But, when we don’t know our patients, we don’t know these questions to ask. Maybe that teens blood pressure is elevated because they are doing poorly in a class and they are embarrassed to talk about it. Giving them a lecture on diet and exercise is important, but it is not going to fix their blood pressure elevation if pre-calculus is the cause.

While I think patients would feel much more comfortable coming into a medical setting if medical personnel knew who they truly were (rather than just their name and date of birth), we would be the ones that would be the biggest winners. How much more excited would we be to go to work when we knew our patients would love to ask about our child’s graduation rather than seeing a bunch of needy people who just wanted something from us?

Such a simple statement, “You saved my life, lady,” but so full of a profound appreciation that I really needed to hear at the time it was spoken. Did I save his life? Yes I did, and he likes to tell my students that I saved his life twice. Will I save it the next time? I don’t know that I can, but I know I will try my hardest because I learned how full of life he is and how he fills those around him with great laughter, despite having a terrible disease. Plus, no one can tell a possum versus dog story better than he can.

Linda Girgis is a family physician who blogs at Dr. Linda.

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