Patients are the Best Teachers.

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.