Some time in freshman year, we were told that our patients are our teachers. It made a lot of sense, especially in the context of anatomy class where we studied the human body through working with cadavers. Somewhere along sophomore year, buried under review books and lecture material, I slowly forgot that valuable perspective. Now, more than midway through junior year, I am noticing a new appreciation for my patients as teachers. I have pieced together several valuable patient encounters that left special impressions. Here is what my patients have taught me:
You can find strength in places you expect the least
In my hand is a list of children’s names. Next to their names are words such as ‘depression’, ’suicidal ideation’, ‘sexual abuse by uncle’, or ‘physical abuse’. However, in front of me is a group of beautiful children sitting quietly in a circle. One is saying that he wants to be a professional football player and get drafted to Missouri University. Another wants to be a video game designer. In a different occasion, these children are laughing while playing Pictionary. It’s heartbreaking to think about how much pain and sorrow each one of these young children have gone through and yet, they laugh, joke, and behave almost like a regular group of children. They carry such dark pasts with them while at the same time, demonstrate so much hope and potential. Their resiliency is absolutely amazing to me.
Pray with patients when you sense the Holy Spirit working in you
A man was seen in clinic for a referral for an adenoma found on a colonoscopy more than a year ago. He had been referred to a surgeon in the past who wanted to do a repeat colonoscopy. On the day of colonoscopy, he found out the procedure was cancelled by his insurance because this surgeon was not covered by his insurance policy. Frustratingly, the insurance went back and forth for a year before he could have another appointment to address this tumor. Fortunately, the surgical oncologist I was working with was comfortable with attempting to remove the tumor through colonoscopy first and is having a colonoscopy scheduled right away. I was happy for the patient and I felt the Holy Spirit bidding me to pray for this man. So right as the visit ended, I asked for his religious background, got permission, and held his and his wife’s hands as I prayed for a smooth procedure as well as praising God for progress in this uncertain stage of his illness. The second I finished praying, this man stood up and hugged me firmly. I was taken back by surprise by his hug and seeing his wife tear up. I realized there was a reason I felt I should pray for them. The prayer really addressed their burden and worry for the past year since his diagnosis but nothing was done about it. It was a huge weight lifted off of their hearts and I was blessed by their joy.
Prayer is powerful for the patient, but sometimes even more so for the physician
A man in his 70s is laying in bed, looking sullen and depressed. His cirrhosis has caused him to have ascites and pitting edema up to his thighs. He is so fluid over-loaded that he is seeping serous fluid from a small scratch on his flank, soaking his bed sheet. Every morning, he greets me with a gloomy undertone. Maybe it’s because his renal failure keeps worsening and he started on hemodialysis. Or it could be that his new cellulitis at his IV site is too painful. He had been in the hospital even before I joined the medicine team. Just a few days before I was leaving for Christmas break, he commented that I fortunately do not have to be here anymore. Upon hearing that, I knew he was feeling bitter about his long admission and deteriorating health. I felt my chest tighten up because I felt a lot of sympathy for him and I felt like I was not doing anything for this man.
For the rest of the day, I felt gloomy to the point of being depressed just thinking about how this man will spend Christmas holiday in bed while the rest of the world is celebrating. I decided to write him a Christmas card and I gave it to him on my last day. I also prayed with him, asked God to heal him, give him peace, and to help all of his providers to take good care of him with the hopes that he feels cared for and encouraged. After I finished praying for him, he appeared comforted and more cheerful, but I was on the verge of tears. After I bid him farewell, I hid myself in the closest bathroom for a few minutes and allowed tears to pour down my face. I do not fully understand my emotions at that time. There’s been times when prayers moved my patients to tears or immense joy, but I have never been brought to tears by my patients. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was moving in me and I truly empathized with him. Perhaps I was unconsciously saying farewell to someone who had become a friend and I knew I won’t see him again. Whatever it was, I truly hope that the Holy Spirit touched him on that day, comforted him, and sparked an interest in Christ. As for me, I learned that when I pray with patients, I experience the satisfaction and fulfillment of knowing I had done everything I can to take care of a patient’s physical and spiritual wellbeing.
Change is possible no matter what
“I take full responsibility for cheating on you 7 years ago”, he said genuinely as he read his letter to his wife to the other men sitting in a circle. As he continued to read a list of things he takes full responsibility for, his voice started to choke slightly and had to pause a little. I have heard love letters, confessions of love, and even wedding proposals, but so few are done so honestly and genuinely that you would not think he’s exaggerating or making things up to sound good. On the addiction & chemical dependency unit, there are many individuals struggling to quit substance abuse and relapses. It is difficult for me to break certain bad habits in my life, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to quit addictive substances and remain clean in the face of temptation for the rest of life. However, it is also in drug addicts that I also find the most spiritually passionate Christians. Romans 5:20 reads, “but where sin increased, graced abounded all the more.” The more wrong a person has done in his life and desires to change, the more he appreciates forgiveness. As I listen to this man’s letter, I realize that I, too, have many areas for growth and a need for forgiveness.
There are so many special patient encounters in the clinical years and I feel these are what give meaning to the practice of medicine. Yes, there is much value in practicing evidence-based medicine and in ongoing break-through research. I do not want to minimize the intellectual aspect of medicine as that is absolutely necessary. At the same time, I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” A physician with perfect knowledge but no expression of compassion and kindness to his patients is missing out on some of the best parts of medicine. There’s so much emotional healing and sense of fulfillment in holding patients’ hands, praying with them, getting to know them, and encouraging them. This applies to any aspect of life as well, but being in medicine is a very convenient position to do this. I hope all Loma Linda students will try praying for their patients at least once during their training. We are made with a yearning to be loved, to be cared about, and nothing makes us happier than being in a loving relationship with others. I am truly glad that I will be able to care for patients for the rest of my life and I thank God for this unique environment here at Loma Linda.