I’ve managed to completely forget that medicine is about people.
I came to realize this over the past couple weeks, especially at a ceremony to remember those that donated their bodies for the anatomy course. The first-years were reading poems, talking about their experiences in anatomy, and I found it all very drab and boring. And then I realized that I was finding it drab and boring, and realized that these were people. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Friends, co-workers.
And about a month ago, while we were studying analgesics (pain relievers), our pharmacology professor reminded us that one of our roles as physicians was to relieve human suffering. “Suffering?” I thought. “Oh. Yeah. These diseases cause suffering. I almost forgot.”
In medical school you want so bad to learn that you dive right in, without looking where you’re going. At first, you get confused by terms like “dyspnea” and “syncope.” You learn the language. Then you go deeper. You learn the organs, the body, and how it can go wrong. You learn about infections, and pathology, and disease. You learn buzzwords, associate diseases with stereotypes, all in hopes that when someone says “night sweats, weight loss, and hemoptysis,” you can be the first one to shout out “tuberculosis!” and ramble off the drugs of choice and their side effects.
And while you’re in the library memorizing diseases associated with symptoms or organs, or at a cafe going over tropical infections and how you get them, you gather this big list of words in your head. You try to organize these words and tuck them away, so you can recall them later. All the while, you haven’t seen a single patient with this disease, or that infection. You know how to describe a certain type of rash, or how it’s supposed to look, based on a Google Image search, but you’ve never seen one in person.
I completely understand how physicians can view patients as only their diseases; there’s enough to know about any one disease that it’s just less mind-exhausting to try to reduce someone down to a few lines or bullet points. But then you think about someone you know with a disease, and it sickens you that anyone would ever reduce them down to a list of symptoms or a pathophysiology. They’re too good for that, they’re too three-dimensional. Too funny when they’re drunk, or too insanely brilliant, or even too annoying to just be a disease.
We had a written clinical case today that discussed a woman with “multiple spontaneous abortions,” and I instantly thought, “antiphospholipid antibodies!” and figured I was done with the case. I successfully matched the buzzword to the disease.
But then I read the words again: a woman with multiple spontaneous abortions. How absolutely dreadful, emotionally awful, and mentally scarring.
I’m at a stage in my medical training where my goal is just to get the diagnosis right, but that’s nowhere near my goal as a doctor. If you don’t see the patient as a person, we might as well just replace physicians with computer programs-they can probably make diagnoses faster than doctors. Click here for your diagnosis.