From the Wards
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A Welcome Reminder of the Compassionate Physician

The medical students, residents and Dr. G stood around the computer with backs hunched. With serious and emotionless faces, we stared directly into the screen. We were taken aback by the MRI results of his brain in front of us.

Was this a primary tumor? An AVM? A dreaded metastasis from somewhere else in his body? How long has this mass been in his brain? Look at the size. Look at the calcifications. What did his physical exam tell us? Call down to radiology.

I was hearing the entirety of this conversation, yet I was distracted. I stared into his familiar hospital room and I observed as his family members continued to stream in the door. His wife, sons, daughters, son-in-laws, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren were all there to support him.

Through numerous interactions, I had grown attached to him and admired his exuberance for life and positive spirit. As I watched through the glass, I saw him toss his beloved granddaughter into the air with unadulterated pride and happiness. I couldn’t help but feel my heartstrings tug. Such juxtaposition as his team of physicians stood just feet away with devastating news that would soon shatter this perfect picture of joy. We were preparing to break the bad news, and I found myself wanting to slow down time. I wanted to keep watching him interact with his family, untroubled and blissfully unaware of his brain tumor. I wanted to prolong the inevitable.

It felt almost strange that we knew this life-changing news before he did. It was his body. What gave me the right to be entrusted with this kind of information?

Even though it felt awkward at the time, I realized later that this is the beauty of medicine. This is why I became a physician from the start. We are stewards of the human condition. We are the trustworthy communicators of confidential physical findings to the chapters of our patient’s poignant, personal narratives. We bridge the gap between emotionless science and the raw reality of our patient’s lives.

This doctor-patient relationship is unlike any other connection. Our patients trust in us wholeheartedly. We have the responsibility to tell our patients the truth, even when it’s emotionally difficult for both parties. This is their expectation, and as selfless caregivers, we must respect this. And that is just what Dr. G and our team did.

We proceeded into his hospital room single file. I listened as Dr. G broke the news with as much tact, poise and compassion as I could only hope to exemplify someday during my career. Their faces dropped from smiles to fear, just as I had expected. The uncertainty was the most daunting part. But, even in this moment full of worry and doubt, Dr. G was there to comfort in a way that few in society can duplicate. In their whirlwind of emotions, the family looked to him, with desperate eyes, for answers. They trusted him to be the strong and stable one. In a way, this level of dependence in moments like these is a privilege and an honor. Dr. G’s words were eloquent, with just the right balance of realism and encouragement, his delivery being what only years of experience could teach.

After more tests and imaging, this sad story turned the corner. Our patient was found to have a benign oligodendroglioma that was not urgent. But, even with the happy ending, the emotional and frightening moments of this story are what I learned the most from as a future physician. This experience reinvigorated my passion for medicine. With the excitement and bustle of clinical rotations, it is sometimes easy for students to lose sight of what guided them to medicine from the start. For me, it was the prospect of being a beacon for patients in the most difficult of times. The kind of beacon Dr. G exemplified.  I was brought back to this motivation by this patient’s example and reminded that I am now in the very midst of evolving into the kind of physician that I have always envisioned myself becoming.

Gillian Johnston Gillian Johnston (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

University of Kansas School of Medicine

I am currently a third year medical student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. I am undecided as to my specialty of choice right now, but narrowing it down as we speak! I enjoy writing reflective pieces as I continue to navigate the waters of medical school. In my free time, I like to travel, run, bike, hike, anything outdoors! I also enjoy spending time with my family, friends, fluffy golden retriever, and my awesome F-15E airman!