One thing that we all have in common is pain. Every one of us has been hurt and been disappointed in one way or another. It’s a scary thing to share your experiences of pain with others – it’s a place of extreme vulnerability. It’s also often uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of someone else’s pain; what do you say? what do you do? … if anything at all.
I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with a tutor at medical school. I can’t remember the exact setting for this conversation or how many other students were part of it, but I do know that I left that day feeling dissatisfied. He suggested that we as doctors, create in our minds, a metaphorical “white coat”. One that we are able to slip on at the start of our day, to allow us to cover up our own personal lives, personal thoughts, beliefs and experiences. A kind of guard to protect the patient from any part of ourselves other than our brains, and the scientifically sound plans that we would have learned to prescribe. Then, after managing a host of situations that are potentially painful; death, ethical controversy, giving bad news and witnessing people at various stages of grief – the advice was to protect ourselves, by removing this “white coat” at the end of the day and leaving it behind at work. In some ways, I get what he was saying… no one wants personal ideas and thoughts shoved down their throats, and taking on the pain of every patient would be unhealthy, but this “white coat” as he described, felt like it was covering up the “human factor” that every person needs. It’s the human factor that allows us to relate to, empathize with and trust. It’s been times when I’ve been on the receiving end of the medical world, that I’ve realized, that too many health professionals have such a coat. No one wants to be managed or treated by a robot.
A few weeks ago, I was at work, when I was reminded of the advice from this tutor from several years ago. Reaching the end of my evening shift, it was now almost 7 am, and I was checking on a few babies in the nursery. I was tired, and so the natural tendency after a busy night, is to sink back and just get on with the job at hand, and avoid anything extra. A mother in the far corner, sitting over her baby’s bassinet, caught my eye. She looked sad. I was tempted to just silently say a quick prayer for her and continue my quest to get home to my three girls, but I couldn’t. I went over to her and smiled, and asked her what her baby’s name was. Politely, she forced a smile and answered my question. I asked if I could see her baby, and enquired about what had happened that resulted in her baby being admitted into the nursery. With tears in her eyes, she explained that her 2 day old baby had Down’s syndrome, not something that she was expecting, and that the baby had an associated heart condition that was going to need surgical repair. This was the moment to decide whether to slip on my “coat” or throw it in the bin. I chose to bin it. I pulled up a chair and we had a mother-to-mother chat. The “doctor” me was tired and ready to hand over for the day, but the “mother” me was eager to engage with a grief-stricken mom. Her situation seemed heavy to her at the time, her hopes and dreams for her baby seemed shattered at that moment, and she felt greatly disappointed with life and with God. I could identify with those feelings. She spoke and cried, I cried and touched and encouraged. Our conversation ended, and she expressed sincere gratitude for simply having me listen to her thoughts and fears. She asked me whether I had any children, so I briefly told her about my new journey and the hope that I had found. I could see that she was encouraged. Possibly not what we are taught to do at medical school, but I’m tired of all the white coats that I see being worn. If my own journey through grief can make me more relatable and even encouraging, then I’m willing to risk the pain that my tutor was so eager to help me avoid. The pain that comes with feeling and experiencing, facing fears, being uncomfortable, not being able to answer all the “why?”s, or explain the purpose of bad things…the pain of just being, honestly human.