A Mile in the Patient's Shoes
During this pandemic,
do we blame people for acquiring COVID, or do we empathize? I wonder this as I
read a message from an esteemed senior, who mentions that people are suffering
or in isolation due to COVID because of
their own negligence.
My mind reflects back on all the dying doctors who caught the infection while
treating the virus. And then there was the ophthalmologist in Wuhan who
diagnosed the virus, the dermatologist who wrote his will before being put on a
ventilator, the nurse who died after taking care of ICU patients. One of those
patients was my aunt, a housewife who died despite all precautions.
Did these people want to leave their loved ones behind and die of COVID? Or do
we just need someone to pin the blame on every time? I do what writers do: I
think and try to solve the myriad of questions my mind throws at me. I pen down
my thoughts as my mind tries to answer absurdities.
If the concept of heaven and hell is concrete, will these people be rewarded
highly for dying in the course of helping others live? Or is it that if I die
tomorrow due to COVID, I will be responsible for my own death? Even though
practicing medicine during a pandemic and always being at the brink of COVID
exposure should be looked upon as an honor, it is looked down upon as
negligence in our society. As a doctor walking in a patient's shoes for the
first time, I ponder on how responsible I am for being a symptomatic COVID
patient? Does anyone want that for themselves? Do I want it for myself?
I had a long weekend after two months of working Saturdays and my social plans
were laid in concrete. I had to attend a birthday celebration and then meet up
with an old friend. I had to sleep in late and watch a movie to unwind and
relax, but God’s plans were otherwise. Now I wonder: Was my mask not good
enough? Or was the data that states that you still stand a 20% chance of
acquiring COVID despite wearing PPE correct? When my bones ache and I can’t
call for help – did I ask for this? When my cough doesn't let me complete my sentences,
I think of all the times I counseled families and they confided in me. Some of
those words I still carry with me in times of stress and hopelessness. When I
spike a fever – I wish someone was around to get me a Panadol instead of having
to do it myself.
Then the constant fear that my family might get COVID from me – a fear we
doctors live with as we work to save lives while risking ours. The medical
profession puts patients' wellbeing at the forefront, but a doctor's needs
require attention too. We see patients at their worst as they hand over their
life to us and while we may not always be able to magically turn around their
ailments, what we can do is utter words of generosity.
Empathy entails the ability to be attentive to the difference between our own
and others’ feelings. The empathetic and self-aware physician can remain
emotionally stable, at the same time, engage with their patient’s situation. It
has a positive effect on in-patient care. The medical profession requires
doctors to be clinically competent and empathetic towards patients and
colleagues. Sometimes our words are all that people remember and our
prompt diagnosis is of no significance. All emotions, including our most
cherished ones (love, empathy, devotion), are ultimately chemical reactions in
the brain that can be manipulated, enhanced, and extinguished. Stimulating
electrodes that are planted in the right areas in the brain can make a person
feel anger, fear, hunger, or lust. Chemicals ingested into the body, such as in
the form of antidepressants, can do the same. The entire field of
psychopharmacology is based on this simple fact. There is now plenty of
evidence that words can induce the same chemical changes in the brain through
slightly different mechanisms. Words can make us feel happy or sad, angry or
relieved, hopeful or depressed, despairing or ecstatic. The right choice of
words, at the right time, can lift a person out of despair and literally save a
person’s life, while an ill-chosen word, or worse, a purposely harsh one, can
scar a person. The entire field of narrative medicine is formed around the
principle of reviving empathy in doctors towards patients and their colleagues
so that we keep the inner human alive in us as we treat the obstacles we are
faced with daily.
If you are a physician seeing a multitude of patients, try spending time with
the patients and offer them a word or two to heal. If you have a colleague who
has acquired the monster—try being extra compassionate and generous rather than
blaming the victim. Reach out and help them ease as they battle the disease.
DISCLAIMER: Copyright belongs to the author. This blog cannot be held responsible for events bearing overt resemblance to any actual occurrences. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of CCIT or AKU.
About the Author
Natasha Khalid works as a physician in Pakistan. She has written for various platforms for over a decade. Narrative medicine is of particular interest and has helped her channel inner creativity alongside mentally and physically exhausting medical work.