A week ago I met with a patient who was staying in hospital for a few days after having had bowel surgery. He was upbeat. Telling me about plans for when he would go home. Telling me about various events in his life. I took a history. In medicine, ‘taking a history’ basically means finding out as much as you can about a patient, as efficiently as you can, so that you can plan their treatment and hospital stay optimally. It requires practice and there is a technique so I thought I’d get some practice in. I was feeling quite happy by the end of the chat. The patient was jovial and I had done my duty. I got up to leave, smiled briefly and he went back to reading his newspaper. I went home that night, narrated my experience to my family and thought nothing more of it.
A week later I went back up to do another history on another patient. I always feel a bit like a nuisance doing this. After all, if I was in hospital I probably wouldn’t want to be talking to near strangers unnecessarily. But again I got my history. I even listened to the patient’s heart and lungs using my stethoscope. I was pleased that I seemed to be making a progress in my technique. Almost a doctor, I thought!
I walked past an open door and that’s when I saw him. The patient I had seen last week. The one who was supposed to have been going home. He was still there. I hesitated. I glanced into his room for a mere second and in that second he looked up. Our eyes met and I still thought, if I leave now I don’t have to worry about why he’s still in hospital. But instead I found myself walking in. ‘Can I come in,’ I heard myself ask.‘Of course,’ he replied.
As before, I sat down in the plastic chair opposite him. As before, he put his newspaper down and smiled. As before, I asked ‘what happened.’
But this time, he wasn’t upbeat. He was sad. I wasn’t taking notes, I was listening. He wasn’t telling me his plans for when he got home but about the infection he had got.Eventually I got up. He nodded at me and I left.
That evening I forgot about the ‘excellent’ history I had taken from the patient that morning. I thought about what had transpired. I had somehow crossed that invisible line between ‘doctor’ and ‘friend’. That patient had crossed that invisible line with me between ‘patient’ and ‘friend.’
Somehow both of us transcended our designated roles as ‘professional’ and ‘patient’ and we shared an important few minutes. I don’t know if talking to me really makes any difference in his life whatsoever. However, talking to him brought back to me the fact that before our labels, professions, gender, age and race, we’re humans.
Someone once said to me: ‘Back then, doctors weren’t just Dr.X, but a friend. Someone you knew from a young age. Someone who had seen you grow up and go to college and get married. Back then, doctors were part of the community and not just in the community.’