Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The sharp end of the knife

As a surgeon, it is a difficult position to be a patient. Perhaps this is why there are so many comments about doctors and nurses being 'bad' patients. We know too much.  Enough to be scared. We know about risks.  After all, we talk about them everytime we consent a patient for surgery. We review complications and deaths with our colleagues in the attempt to improve care for future patients. And perhaps some of us went into medicine in the hopes of cheating death. But, everyone of us is human and subject to illness and death just like every other living being on the planet.

Years ago, I had my first surgery and recently a second, though I am soon to have another more major surgery than either of the previous two. Each time, I have known that there was really no other reasonable choice. The day before my first surgery, I was talking to two colleagues. I commented that, up to that point, I had maintained a 'double standard' about surgery. One of my colleagues, looked stunned. He was Black and thought I was referring to race. I explained that it had nothing to do with race. I tried to treat all patients the best I could, but rather it had to do with the fact that I had done surgery on thousands of patients but no one had ever done surgery on me. I felt scared. I really didn't like the thought of being on "the sharp end of the knife." Or at least, I didn't feel comfortable as a patient, I didn't know how to feel, while I had become quite used to being a surgeon. His expression changed and he said that he certainly could understand that. That surgery went very well. I was home the same day and back to exercising within the week.

My second surgery didn't go as smoothly as anticipated. Hospital stay and pain were both far more than I had anticipated. But it was still necessary and has helped to heal me.

Since my recent hospitalizations, I have seen several of the people who took care of me. All have commented that I seem to be doing well. Again, during the hospitalizations, I had some times that I was scared. While in the emergency room, I was placed in a private room. I'm sure it was done to give me some privacy since I was a staff member. But it was scary for me to be alone. I was in pain and my blood pressure was quite low. I had yet to have any significant treatment. I thought they would just leave me there alone as things got worse. I thought that I might die. I worried about my children, still far too young to be on their own. I called for help, more than I truly needed it, but I didn't want to be alone. I was happy when friends and colleagues came by to visit.

Being a patient, or the family member of a patient, is certainly important for medical professionals. It can teach us a huge amount about how the patient feels and how the family feels. It can teach us how to be more compassionate as caregivers. It can help make our care better for future patients. But, the process is far from enjoyable.

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