What doctors learn from us

Most of my doctors work at one of Boston’s teaching hospitals, so I sometimes have a student or intern in the room during my appointments. This past year, there was a fellow, Dr. N, working with the doctor who I see for my sleep problems. The fellow has been really great, and I’m sad that he’s leaving in June when the fellowship ends. Before he leaves for an exciting new position, I wanted to tell him how great he’s been. But he beat me to it!

At my last appointment, I pointed out that I probably wouldn’t see him again, and he looked sad and reached out to shake my hand. Then he said, “I’ve learned a lot from you.” I was completely shocked. He was being very sincere. I could tell that he really meant it, that he had learned a lot from me. I was truly touched.

I hadn’t thought much about him learning from me. I had been thinking about all I wanted to say to him about what a great doctor he is. I still told him, and I gave him specific examples. I asked that he try not to lose his enthusiasm and caring over time.* He blushed deeply and said he wouldn’t. I hope what I said sticks with him. What he said sure sticks with me. But in that moment, as I was thinking about what I wanted to say to him, I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to respond to his statement. Now I’ve had some time to consider it.

I try hard to convince doctors to be open-minded and understanding, but I forgot what an impression I might make on doctors who are completely new to the field. With Dr. N, it wasn’t just about open-mindedness and understanding. That was part of it, but I think I showed him what a chronic illness patient really looks like. I’m guessing he hadn’t seen many yet, and probably few like me who are so proactive no-nonsense. He saw my resilience and determination. He also saw my fear and anxiety. He heard me say I was willing to try anything, but push hard to prioritize non-pharmaceutical options. He saw me work incredibly hard and try many options, even the ones I clearly disliked or feared. He received many emails from me as I tried to improve my health, emails that were always short, to the point, and respectful. He saw me struggling to stay awake in appointments while trying to joke and keep the atmosphere friendly. He heard me state my symptoms methodically, without complaining about them. He heard me emphasize the disabling aspect of my symptoms in an effort to be taken seriously, even when no one expressed doubt, and I’d like to think he understood why I felt the need to do that. In a short time, he saw and heard so much.

I don’t know what exactly Dr. N meant when he said he’d learned a lot from me. I can only guess. But I would like to think that at least one new doctor now understands more about what chronic illness patients deal with, and will show them the compassion and understanding that we all deserve.

*Note: Dr. N really was fantastic. He went out of his way to do everything he could to improve my health. On top of his magnificent efforts and attitude, he was also very knowledgeable without being arrogant. I hope he goes on to be the amazing doctor that I suspect he’ll be.

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