Be thoughtful about promises that you make to patients. When you do make a promise, make sure that you can keep it.
How might zombies be symbols of empathy? What connects sleeplessness to storytelling? How does forensic pathology relate to intergenerational connectedness? Who prescribes poetry while concurrently prescribing medications? The common thread to all of these seemingly disparate questions—DotMD. Described as the “Festival of Medical Curiosity” in Galway, Ireland, the festival brought together physicians, medical students, and healthcare professionals. This was a space where medicine could be explored using a creative approach. Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing unique lessons learned from DotMD.
On the second day of the conference, I attended a session entitled “Bedside Stories: Medical Storytelling.”
Dr. Anthony O’Connor, a gastroenterologist based in Dublin, shared the story of an older patient who was admitted to hospital for several weeks’ time. The patient had his paint set and a canvas brought to his hospital room, and began to paint a beautiful scene of sailboats drifting through calm waters.
He asked the medical team how much longer he could expect to live. Dr. O’Connor and his colleagues replied that one thing was for certain—he’d be able to finish that painting. Months later, after the patient was discharged, Dr. O’Connor saw him once more in the hospital—this time, offering the now-completed painting in his arms as a token of his appreciation.
Dr. O’Connor has since taken that painting wherever he has practiced medicine, from Dublin to Boston and back. He said that it reminds him of the fundamental lesson that he learned from this patient—keep your promises.
This lesson has stuck with me. As a medical student, I’m still not sure what is appropriate to promise to a patient. In addition, I never considered that promises could be more abstract than the results of a peer-reviewed life expectancy algorithm. The promise that Dr. O’Connor made ultimately helped a man move forward with his life when facing uncertainty—a promise that I see as a gift.