In this post I want to share with you the reflections of a doctor going to see her doctor. This was written in a creative piece entitled Kindness by Dr. Scholten, who provides healthcare to refugees in Canada, [i]. It is especially potent because she has experienced being both the doctor who is appreciated by patients and then a patient who feels gratitude towards her doctor. So often we wish that our doctor could be in our shoes, could experience the emotional turmoil we experience, that can only be touched through kindness. Sure we need doctors that are competent and capable but there are times when these qualities just aren’t enough.
She begins her story by saying that she had helped an Eritrean couple who were new refugees to Canada and facing an unplanned pregnancy. They come to her office for the last time before continuing with an obstetrician and the husband expresses his deep gratitude to her with a small speech. Obviously she had touched them deeply with her caring and help. She writes, however, that she is “embarrassed that I’m thanked for dispensing something that cost me nothing: no education, no honing of skill, no effort. I’d rather be thanked for diagnostic prowess or a deftly performed procedure.” It is clear in her statement that she underestimates the importance of her kindness and she believes technical skills and intellect are much more important. She writes that she forgets their gratitude as soon as she ushers them out. What happens next in her story, however, gives her a new perspective:
Seated in my doctor’s office, I’m in the chair tucked right next to his desk. This is the first visit that I haven’t sat casually on the exam table with my legs dangling over the side, the first time I haven’t popped in for something routine like a vaccination or contraception or a prenatal visit, where we talk shop and I ask about his daughter, a medical school classmate. This time, I’m here to follow up a disastrous ending to a second-trimester pregnancy. He knocks on the door, steps in, gives me a long, sober look as he slowly closes the door, sits down. He sits in silence. I can’t look at him. Finally I force myself to talk, exhausted, crying, despairing and he listens. He leans over his desk, arms folded on it, looking down. Eventually I look at him, at his solemn white-bearded face, and I note that he is flushed. His eyes are damp. And I realize that he is moved by my distress, and I am completely taken aback.
If we have a chronic illness, we have probably had a similar experience. We have sat before a doctor in all our emotional nakedness, overwhelmed by a mix of sadness, fear, shame – feeling very vulnerable and helpless. At that moment we don’t need “diagnostic prowess or a deftly performed procedure.” At that moment what we need, what heals, what has a lasting impact on us is “kindness.”
This encounter had an impact on Dr. Scholtens because she thinks about it repeatedly over the next few weeks. She continues to feel comforted by the fact that he just sat there giving her all the time she needed, that he was moved by her distress. She goes on to say, “His kindness is more dear to me than anything he’s done for our family over the years, even his delivery of my daughter.” Dr. Scholtens seems to have been humbled by her experience as a patient, recognizing that she has “been wielding something powerful without any respect for it.” This power is the impact that doctors can have on us when they allow themselves to be drawn into our emotional pain for a few minutes.
We are deeply touched when our doctor hears and understands when we are experiencing the fear that comes when our body has failed us and we don’t know how to fix it – or maybe fear that our painful body will never be fixed. We become very attached to a doctor who we have seen when we were most vulnerable and s/he acted with kindness. We also can be deeply hurt when a doctor who has touched us deeply doesn’t recognize our gratitude; doesn’t understand the importance of the relationship to our wellbeing. Relationships end for a lot of reasons and the ending can be even more painful when the pain isn’t recognized and acknowledged by our doctor. I was left feeling very alone and betrayed. I just wanted to hear the words, I’m sorry.
[i] Scholtens, M. (2011). Kindness. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 467-478.
Copyright © Patricia A. Bailey and I Miss Me, Too/imissmetoo.me 2012-2013.
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Categories: Doctor/Patient Relationship