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Student Opinion

Medical student learns life-changing lesson as a patient By Joseph Lee

Had you asked me this question one year ago, my answer would have been vastly different than it is today. In the summer of 2012, after completing my first year of medical school, I embarked upon my last official summer vacation with two goals in mind: a basketball tournament in Dallas and one in Atlanta. My closest friends and I had been playing in tournaments for the past 10 summers, forging a sacred bond in the name of competition. However, two weeks before our first tournament, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly short of breath. Having been born to Korean immigrant parents, I was raised to utilize the hospital in emergency cases only, and I knew this was such a case. A few scans later, doctors discovered numerous pulmonary emboli (PE), caused by a subclavian deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and just like that, I was lying in a bed of a major hospital for a life-threatening condition.

Fast forward a few months, and I am lying in another but similar bed to treat the underlying cause of the sublclavian DVT: a first rib removal. There is little that can adequately prepare someone physically, emotionally or spiritually for undergoing surgery, and my thoughts continued to race. In addition to expecting physical pain, I felt isolated, fearful and frustrated. Fortunately, the procedure went according to plan thanks to a skilled surgeon and his team. But the attributes that made the doctor “good” went far beyond his ability to operate.

“Wow. I’m glad you are feeling better,” and, “I can’t believe you went through that,” are common reactions from people when they see the scars on my upper chest and hear about my nine months of literal blood, sweat and tears. But I remain positive and full of gratitude, knowing I gained the invaluable experience of being a patient and discovering the vulnerability and trust that patients give their doctors. Patients divulge information to doctors that they may have never told anyone else, and in doing so, they place great trust and responsibility in the hands of a doctor.

My Surgeon Understood

Many patients will not understand the mechanism of disease behind their condition and hope the doctor will explain to them why it is they are feeling the way they are and ultimately heal them. And that is precisely what my surgeon understood: the privilege of being able to care for patients and the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship. And as I awoke to the care of my worried parents, they immediately wanted to discuss the details of the procedure that my “good” doctor had methodically and patiently explained to them.

In study after study, patients have reported dissatisfaction with their medical care, not because of lack of knowledge or health outcome, but because their doctors did not show enough warmth in the encounter or listen to the patient’s questions and concerns. There are few times in life when patients and their loved ones are more vulnerable and in more need of compassion than when facing hospitalization. And for some doctors, a patient may be another item on a checklist, but that patient is someone’s mother or father, son or daughter, sister or brother. My “good” doctor understood this and would often say, “If you were my son…” when discussing treatment options. Such ideals are rooted in love and compassion for patients, not in a health care system that views them as clients.

Unfortunately, the ordeal of living with a chronic illness or undergoing a major operation extends beyond the confines of the hospital. From creditors harassing patients for medical bills, to prescriptions that need to be refilled or lifestyle modifications that need to be made, the health care experience doesn’t end when a patient walks out the hospital door. It often takes only a minute, as in the case of the “good” doctor, who told me that as a student I could apply to the hospital for financial coverage of the procedure. Anticipating my financial concerns and directing me where to go helped relieve my stress.

Last, the “good” doctor understands that just as our patients are human, so are we. This means we will make mistakes, which sometimes can result in life-threatening consequences. With that said, the “good” doctor practices humility and honesty, apologizing and sharing as much information as possible with patients. How one reacts to a mistake is a distinguishing feature of the “good” doctor.

Of all the “good” doctor qualities I’ve described in this piece, there was no emphasis on skill and knowledge. Being able to fulfill the duties of making a correct diagnosis and planning appropriate treatment are expected. However, the intangibles of love, compassion, foresight and honesty are what make a doctor “good.” I learned such lessons in the purest manner possible, by being a patient myself, and will use them to guide me in all future patient encounters, as I strive to be a “good” doctor too.

Joseph Lee is a third year medical student at Rush Medical College.

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