In Medicine we’re extensively taught about disease and how to manage/treat/cure it if we can. Given that it’s 2016 and medical teaching has made some advances, we’re also taught to focus not only on the disease entity itself but also on the human aspect of healing. You can do that by developing a therapeutic relationship with your patients and by serving as a compassionate facilitator throughout the experience of their disease. Although establishing this rapport with your patients can be quite a challenge at times, I believe it is the bare minimum of what constitutes being a competent physician. In fact, it’s really the least we can do. Rarely do we have the chance to go out of our way to ‘cure a life’ so to speak. But what does ‘curing a life’ actually mean??
A few days ago we had a cozy teaching session with the renown Dr. Phil Gold and he shared a phenomenal story with us. Some thirty years ago he met a young woman in her early twenties whom he ran into on the wards as she stormed up to him and simply stared. She was diagnosed with thyrotoxicosis (Graves disease) which they promptly treated. It soon became apparent to the members of the treating team that this young woman wouldn’t live for long after she was discharged; not because of her disease but because of her lifestyle. She had dropped out of high school and sustained her avid drug addiction by working as a prostitute and living on the streets. The team decided to go out of their way to make a difference in this young woman’s life, which, at the time, was quite out of the ordinary. They somehow managed to enroll her back into high school. That was a good start. Dr. Gold then took it upon himself to take care of the pimp who would have prevented her from going back to school by hiring someone who knew someone who knew someone who broke the pimp’s arm (not exactly the type of thing you hear everyday). It worked: the pimp left her alone and she was able to go back to school.
Against all odds, she completed her high school degree and went on to complete an undergraduate degree as well. She met with Dr. Gold every now and then and she talked with him about going to law school. Back in the day he happened to be good friends with the dean of the Faculty of Law and he agreed to give her a chance. She graduated at the top tenth percentile of her class and started practicing family law.
In this young woman’s case, Dr. Gold and his team were able to ‘cure a life’. It’s not everyday you have the opportunity to make that type of a difference.
Ultimately, the moral of the story is to always take a good social history! Does elderly Ms. I in room 7 who was admitted for a congestive heart failure exacerbation live on her own? Does she have family nearby that can come to her help if need be? Can she climb the stairs that lead to her apartment or is she afraid of falling again? Is Mr. A your teenage patient who is struggling with school and dropping out a victim of bullying? Has peer pressure forced him into drugs? Is Ms. S the single mother of two struggling financially? Is she having trouble buying the medication her children need and paying their school fees?
Needless to say that ‘curing a life’ can only be accomplished if you call upon the expertise of other experienced allied health care professionals such as social workers and occupational therapists. Nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished alone.
Behind every condition, there lies a context. It’s up to you and I to take the time to understand it and to add it to the rest of the puzzle pieces we’ve collected to create a clear, complete picture of the patient presenting themselves to you. Only then will we be able to engage in the patient’s healing process while managing their disease. Only then will we be given the rare opportunity to intervene in meaningful ways to help our patients move forward, outside the hospital doors.
May we all have the privilege of helping ‘cure’ at least one life.
Photo credits go to: http://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/a-new-year-s-hope-for-single-parents.html