When caring for an overweight infant as a medical student, I wrongly assumed the mother was overfeeding the baby. This experience will remind me in the future to leave my suppositions at the door.
It was late in the afternoon. The pediatrician and I, a med student, were nearing the end of the day. To speed things up, I went to see a mother and her four-month-old baby and presented my findings to him afterward.
“Physical exam was normal; however, the infant is overweight. She’s been drinking up to nine ounces every three hours,” I said.
“Yes, I see the baby’s growth chart shows that she’s in the 99th percentile for weight. Let’s go see the mom and baby together,” he said.
The mother had given very short answers to my questions when I saw her. I assumed she was just uninterested and wanted our visit to be over as soon as possible. But when the mom interacted with the physician, she became a different person. He sat down on a stool and scooted close to the mother. The doctor looked at her with a warm and reassuring smile and asked, “So, how are things at home? How have you been adjusting to being a new mom?”
“Things have been kind of hard,” she said as she looked at the floor.
“Tell me more,” he said, and then listened intently.
The mother started to weep. As tears dropped from her cheeks into her lap, she expressed how she currently didn’t have a stable home and her baby wasn’t always with her. The other person taking care of the baby constantly overfed the infant to keep her from crying, despite the mom’s complaints. She wasn’t uninterested. She was in great need.
The doctor began to ask how we could best support her and the baby. The mother left that visit with a solution focused on her core problems. She received resources to help her find stable housing, formula from our clinic’s pantry, and counseling on healthy feeding habits.
I left that encounter learning three things that I’ll carry with me:
1. A patient’s change in health habits comes through relationship with their clinician.
2. Patients will often tell us what the problem is. We just need to listen.
3. Our assumptions can create major obstacles to giving excellent patient care. Go into each encounter with an open mind. We have no clue what underlying problems the patient or family may be facing.
As I reflect on this encounter, my hope is to provide a space for my future patients to be vulnerable and open so that I can give them the best care possible.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.