Sunday, August 28, 2005
After we put up the fence, we tested it. 135 volts. Champie can be a bit insouciant, as the picture shows, but I think 135 volts might get his attention. He won't like being separated from his mother, but sometimes you just have to do these unpleasant things.
Later, I found the picture below. For some reason, it stuck in my head. It was a little tickle of intuition: the picture symbolized something important.
This is a depiction of a planned glass bridge that juts out over the Grand Canyon. You can see across, but you can't get across. Sort of like the electric fence. Plus, both involve a certain kind of danger. Both bring you close to a distinctly unpleasant sensation.
In response to my request for thoughts about the ideas of empathy, and racial and gender disparities, in health care, I did get some email. One pointed to this, a collection of letters written in response to a newspaper article (In the Hospital, a Degrading Shift From Person to Patient). Here is one of the letters:
To the Editor:I should think that someone named Dupont who lives in Johannesburg could tell us quite a lot about disparities, and someone hospitalized for peritonitis ought to have something to say about empathy. (A couple of assumptions, granted.) He makes a good point: "there are things you can do to a patient that you wouldn't dream of doing to a person."
While I was hospitalized after surgery for peritonitis, one thing really struck me: doctors and other medical staff members are human beings. And in order to perform grueling tasks like surgery or intubations, they have no choice but to do away with human feelings.
That shift from person to patient may be perceived as degrading, but it is also a vital to medical staff, because there are things you can do to a patient that you wouldn't dream of doing to a person.
Johannesburg, Aug. 18, 2005
The practice of Medicine is rife with Great Divides.
There are the divisions between doctor, and patient; between the doctor's thoughts, and the accompanying feelings; between the doctor's assumptions about the patient, and the reality; and, of course, there are racial, socioeconomic, and gender divisions. All of these deserve considerable introspective thought.
So far, only one horse out of the five has touched the electric fence (October, the poor thing!). The rest saw him jump back, and now they won't go near it...
As physicians, we learn by watching our colleagues. If one of them jumps away from something, we are likely to stay away, too. That becomes habitual. Doctors may think they are smarter than farm animals, but sometimes I'm not so sure of that: we all are influenced by instincts.
...After a few days, we could turn off the fence, and the horses would still shy away from it.
During the course of medical training, how many times does a medical student see an attending shut off his or her feelings, shy away from confronting unjust disparities, or fail to challenge an unfounded assumption about a patient?
We assume that people have supportive families at home, when they may not. We assume that if they say they understand something, that they do understand it. We assume that a patient who looks cheerful could not be depressed or suicidal.
Then there are the assumptions that we are trained to make. We assume that if they deny substance abuse, that they could be lying. We assume that a young woman might be pregnant, even if she says it would be impossible. We assume that patients with bipolar disorder might have unprotected sex with strangers, even if they live in a convent.
Sometimes we offend patients with these assumptions. Sometimes the assumptions are justified, and the patient is upset even though you are being scrupulous with your assumptions This can be distinctly unpleasant. Sometimes the assumptions are not justified, and we are too proud to endure a distinctly unpleasant confession.
We may be able to see across the divide, but we can't get across.
Consider the "fact" that "there are things you can do to a patient that you wouldn't dream of doing to a person."
Is this really true, or is it just an attitude we have learned? Consider another of the letters:
To the Editor:We may be able to see across the divide, but we can't get across.
I spent all of January 2005 and six weeks in the spring on the transplant floor at Memorial Sloan Kettering having chemotherapy related to my acute myelogenous leukemia.
I determined to make my room a "nest," and the doctors and nurses responded to me as a person, asking questions about a photo or pointing out something of interest to a new resident.
The cleaning staff members are also important to one's well-being. At first I was a bed to clean around. As I engaged people in conversations about themselves, they began to smile when they entered my room.
I refused to see myself as a patient even though my day consisted of infusions and transfusions. I asked that hospital's alternative medicine staff members visit me. They provided soft touch, visualization techniques, meditation and music. They helped me feel alive.
The positive energy surrounding me helped me survive some very desperate days.
Brooklyn, Aug. 18, 2005
But maybe, we can get across. Maybe we just think we can't, because we've been jolted a couple of times, or because we've seen our mentors shy away. As I mentioned before, all of these deserve considerable introspective thought.
I posted on this topic previously, here; and subsequently, here. As it happens, when Yvonne and I came home from grocery shopping today, we saw that Champie had jumped over the electric fence! He's not quite five months old, and never has been trained for jumping, yet he jumped right over it. Maybe horses actually are smarter than doctors; certainly, they are more courageous.
Categories: medicine, armchair musings
Tags: medicine, Health, medblogger
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E-mail a link that points to this post:
When Craig had chemo he decided much the same. It was a place where he had to spend the day, but it wasn't going to pen him in. He had me bring his guitar. All involved were quite at ease. No jolts. No glass bottom walkways. (Wow! I wonder if I could walk that ledge, opposed to crawling along on my hands and knees?)
Later, working with adults, I sometimes wondered why people would put up pictures of their family and stuff. Obviously, I had a lot to learn. I did notice, eventually, that it is a lot easier to think of a patient as a person, if there are personal effects in the room. Conversely, it is a lot harder to dehumanize a patient if you know what their kids and grandkids look like....
This is getting long; I'll just expand it to a new post...