Only when you are a patient do you experience the frailty of being one

We as physicians need a dose of our own medicine as a booster ever so often.

I went in for a simple procedure. A lumbar epidural steroid injection for pain which has recently become more than tolerable at times — nothing disabling. Nothing that stops my everyday life and living. I didn’t think much of the procedure at all because I am at the other end of operating room procedures on a daily basis as an anesthesiologist.

Walking into the open, spacious, welcoming receiving area of the facility, I saw patients in chairs, some sitting at the edge of their chairs, some bent double, some crumbling. I saw their attendants with them, concerned, helping, anxious. Like my husband who held my hands and sent up a prayer for my doctor and me.

Going into work at a hospital every day seems so routine. When trainees call us with patients for the next day, we discuss pertinent points for management, and when we greet the patients every morning, there is usually some playful banter. Some patients have questions, others may not respond, and then we have the ones who want you to listen to their jokes. One sees different manifestations of anxiety or nervousness. Do we, as physicians, do enough to reassure and to soothe our patients?

Do we see Mr. K as the man who repaired bullet holes in airplanes during the Korean War or Mr. S who returned from Korea with polio and was hospitalized for two years? Mr. D, who lost his wife of 54 years and is tearful as he speaks? Mr. G, who is 42 and has been quadriplegic after falling from a tree, and the most good-natured man ever?

Knowing it all inside out, I still hang on every word my doctor tells me. And then I remember why we talk about the doctor-patient relationship and it’s sacredness.

Then there were the signatures about complications: bleeding, epidural hematoma, infection, increased blood sugars from steroid, irritability, and so on.

Once I lay down, and my lumbar spine was bared and prepped and draped, the doctor and his assistant were ready to start. I listen to them discussing the level and the dose and the needles, and my mind goes into a whirl of memories of discussions of wrong-site surgeries and medication errors and broken needles. I feel the blood pressure cuff inflate tighter, and the audible pulse rate goes higher.

I take a deep breath and trust my doctor to do the right thing.

Lidocaine is magical. The local infiltration was indeed a pinch and a burn, and the big needle that followed was not felt at all. What a marvelous drug!

The C-arm led the way to the right destinations and soon I was up and ready to be discharged.

The waiting room appeared a little less populated, and I was happy to be heading for home. And back to work tomorrow with just even an ounce more of empathy.

Bina Dara is an anesthesiologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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