I was afraid to connect on a deep level with my patients, concerned that my heart would overpower my head. Such relationships are what make practicing medicine meaningful.
Mr. S was an older Korean man. He was soft-spoken and unassuming; a husband, father, and devoted brother to his very old sister. He spent many of his days in clinic; his multiple myeloma required frequent blood draws and transfusions. Despite this, Mr. S was full of positivity and gratitude. He always arrived at clinic wearing a Navy medic hat and a grin. One day, Mr. S arrived with a lump.
As an intern, I became his primary care physician, and I dreaded seeing Mr. S’ name on my schedule. He was so medically complex that I had to steel myself for our appointments.
When I laid my hands on the lump, I knew. I hadn’t felt one before, but I remembered the board question for a hard, immobile lymph node. Cancer.
Then came the biopsies, the chemotherapy, the G-tube, the infections. His visits changed shape. I met his daughter and wife. We talked about what was important to him. He wanted to stay strong, I suspected more for his family than for himself, but he was tired.
Near the end, many family members gathered in his hospital room, so many that we ran out of chairs. My mask soaked with tears, I told him, “It has been an honor taking care of you.”
Friends and family ask me how I cope with death. In my preclinical years, I worried about how I would handle it. I feared critical moments would reduce me to tears and that I would be completely overcome with emotions. As a resident, I was surprised that crying in clinical encounters was uncommon for me. Something about assuming the role of doctor grounds me in my head rather than my heart. For the most part.
But sometimes, I really click with one of my patients. I don’t have the miracle cure for burnout, but I will say this; I never felt more connected to my own humanity than at that bedside, letting myself open up to patients. I have to remind myself to not be afraid of this heart-to-heart connection.
The author would like to thank the Veterans of the West Los Angeles VA.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.