I’ve had the privilege of being a physician for eight years. During this time, I’ve had the misfortune of being a patient on three occasions. I’d like to think that being a physician made me a calmer patient and, more importantly, that being a patient has made me a more compassionate physician. I guess the same cannot be said of all physicians.
Dr. R was one of the most difficult patients I have encountered, and as a vasculopath, I’ve encountered him time and again. When we first met, I discovered that he was clearly a talented man with multiple “specialties,” including internal medicine and tax fraud with a subspecialty in general grumpiness. I can’t say I blamed Dr. R for his demeanor, for his financial wreckage at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service paled in comparison to the devastation that peripheral arterial disease had inflicted on his limbs.
As a physician-patient, he had the misfortune of being painfully aware of his condition, a perspective I shared. But insight into his condition and knowledge of his prognosis only furthered his pessimism as he lost a toe, a foot, a leg. This resulted in anger toward the residents who were caring for him in the form of twice-daily outbursts, propagating the problem as residents refused to care for him and his wounds were further neglected. And the cycle continued: toe, foot, leg.
During the last admission during which I cared for him, I was pleasantly surprised at the condition of his wounds and his overall attitude. Dr. R had entered the acceptance stage, perhaps due to his absence from his son’s wedding. His new attitude was reminiscent of my own grandfather’s, and I finally had the patience to sit and learn more about him and from him.
His office manager and accountant had botched his taxes; he wasn’t defrauding the government. He hadn’t chosen to skip his son’s wedding; his wife simply couldn’t transport an amputee abroad. And finally, I discovered he had incredible physical examination skills, a talent that his generation of physicians mastered and my generation pretends to have. When the true physician emerged, his inherent desire to teach was revealed.
He taught me to take your time. Don’t rush through morning rounds, and never rush through life, or you’re sure to miss the murmur. Caring for him was painfully educational but worth the grief and sure to make me both a more compassionate surgeon and, one day, a more understanding patient.