The other side of the curtain

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Sometimes I forget. I forget what it is like to be on the other side of the curtain. I forget that what is just another day of work, another shift, another seemingly ceaseless night of call for me may indeed be the longest day of their life. Sometimes I forget that the waiting seems endless, that the seconds turn inexplicably into hours, the hours into the next day. Sometimes, while they wait, I am absorbed in the care of another. Sometimes this other requires more urgent, more critical attention. While I am not ignoring, but prioritizing – sometimes I forget that still, they sit – anxiously, breathlessly, wondering when the answers will be revealed.

Sometimes I forget what it is like to be full of questions, observations, and worries that spill over to the point of being unable to speak. I forget that they do not know how many others are waiting, how many minutes I have been in this room already, how many more tasks await once I finish here. I forget that sometimes it is the listening that is the most therapeutic, the most crucial to their healing. And when I do need to speak, sometimes I forget that they have no idea what I am saying – that though I am trying my best to distill and explain, that swirling fog of sleeplessness, fear, and dinging alarms may be slowly drowning out my words.

Sometimes I am reminded. I am reminded of what it is like to be at the mercy of the medical system. Sometimes I am reminded by family or friends that the hospital is not a place one willingly goes – it is, indeed, somewhere best avoided. I am reminded of the mystery that enshrouds the workup, the diagnosis, and the treatment when, without access to the documentation, I must rely on the lay understanding of a health care encounter conveyed via text message.

Sometimes I am taught. I am taught by those I seek to serve about how little I may know. Sometimes I am taught by a parent’s pleading eyes – ones threatening to spill their long pent-up emotions – that I did not hear their true concern. And when I ask, I am taught that it is not always the diagnosis that matters—it is the explanation, the assurance, the relief from fear that they seek.

Sometimes I am the patient. I am the one on the wrong side of the curtain. Sometimes I am the one seeking clarity, explanation, compassion. I am the one waiting, wondering when an update or answer will be provided. Sometimes I am looking at the MD badge, questioning whether this doctor is actually internalizing my complaints or truly hearing my story; sometimes, I am the one curtailing my concerns as I decipher whether this provider cares more about me or about the time and expense of the consultation. Sometimes, the dynamic shifts when I pull out my own badge – revealing my background or choosing to speak in the medical terminology with which they may have labeled me. While I benefit from this privilege, this partial leveling of the playing field, I cannot help but wonder how those without this advantage fare. I cannot help but reflect on my own interactions with patients and wonder how my presence, persona, prose is interpreted, and how it shapes both the interaction and outcome. And finally, I cannot help but wonder how things could change if each of us, at least sometimes, would stop to remember, or at the very least, imagine, what it is like to be on the other side of the curtain.

Jacqueline Bolt is a pediatric emergency medicine fellow.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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