I believe patients are the best teachers in medicine.
As an intern, I told a patient one morning that I would visit him later in the day. Various tasks yanked me throughout the hospital as the hours passed. While packing my bag to leave for the day, I remembered what I had said to him. I wanted to go home. I felt exhausted.
He won’t notice if I don’t come around. He won’t remember what I said. And out the door I went.
The next morning, the patient scowled at me.
“I’m upset with you. You said that you would come back. You didn’t. Don’t say you’re going to do something if you’re not going to do it.”
My face flushed. I learned that a caring physician consistently follows through with her promises.
As a fellow, a patient told me about his experience with Familial Mediterranean Fever. In medical school, we viewed this rare condition as a piece of trivia, not a disease we would ever see.
“My body aches in a lotta places,” he said, pointing at his belly, then his knees and elbows. “My chest hurts. I get fevers that suddenly start and stop. Thank God for colchicine. I haven’t had a bout in years.”
I nodded, more to the memory of myself as a medical student. I learned that patients often give colorful descriptions that are more memorable than the bland definitions written in passive voice in textbooks.
Patients have taught me the power of human resilience. A patient, recently diagnosed with stomach cancer, contemplated how he wanted to spend the rest of his life: Volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Continue to coach the Little League team as long as he could. Help his girlfriend start her business.
“I’m not dying of cancer,” he said. “I’m living with it.”
Another patient shared her anger towards and frustration with psychiatrists. She endured many humiliating experiences while detained in hospitals against her will.
“They didn’t believe anything I said. They talked about me as if I wasn’t there. They took away my rights, they took away my life,” she said, “but they never took away my dignity.”
Patients have taught me that they are people who add joy to the lives of others, possess skills and talents that many of us will never have, and provide useful perspectives about health and illness. They remind me that they are not simply diseased organs, malfunctioning systems, or wordy labels. They correct me when I talk at them as if they are only an illness; they look annoyed when I overlook or undervalue their ways of coping with their struggles.
Patients can teach us so much. We must pay attention.