Friday, December 13, 2013

The ways we grow

A patient recently eyed me right before a bedside procedure (I was supervising my residents) and asked with one eyebrow raised, “How long have you been a doctor?”

I thought about it for a couple of seconds, doing the math. “13 years.”

His face registered a small shock. Then, he relaxed a little. “Do you have children?”

“I have three.” His eyes widened, and he smiled.

Thirteen years is a long time; many things have happened to me that undoubtedly have shaped who I’ve become since I graduated medical school. I’ve certainly changed in many ways. Which ways were due to medicine and which were due to plain old maturation? My marriage? Having children? Other life experiences?

Upon reflection, I think medicine is responsible for this: more compassion.

There is a belief that medical training may result in the opposite. That because we see so much death and suffering, we have to harden a little to get through it all and come out emotionally unscathed. I certainly don’t think that’s universal and likely some of those observations arise from the development of burnout, the dampening of resilience.

As a hospitalist, I witness suffering from illness regularly. I am, not too rarely, the bearer of bad news – the cancer we found, the poor prognosis, the decline in function that is unlikely to be gained. I see people at angry, vulnerable, hurting points in their lives.  I’ve seen illness stem from poor choices. But just as often, I’ve seen illness strike with absolutely no provocation, turning someone’s life into a nightmare overnight.

Being a doctor has not made me numb to the suffering of others, despite sometimes feeling surrounded by it. On the contrary, it has made me more acutely away of what makes us human and connected. I think this has altered my approach to the universe. Probably, choosing to work in the veterans health system has something to do with that. I’m driven more by service now than when I was younger. I did community service in college, more because I felt I had to rather than because I wanted to. I do it now because it fills a need to serve and sustain.

The man who cleans my office is my favorite person at work. He is a wonderful soul, kind, generous and thoughtful. One day, after reading a column I wrote about emergency research done without consent, he said to me, “KC, I have observed that you have a deep, abiding compassion for those without a voice.”

I didn't know what to say.

Is that me? That wasn’t me before medical school, but if it is me now then I am grateful that becoming a doctor has made me so.

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