​​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.