When A Doctor Becomes A Patient

My father is a doctor, and now he’s also a patient. 

It’s difficult for someone who has seen and thought clinically his entire lifetime to suddenly have to feel and experience things in a human way. What this highlights is that once a doctor or scientist becomes a patient, they’re susceptible to the same experiences as any other patient. They’re just as afraid, they’re just as alone with their disease, and they’re just as emotional, even though they might have a greater understanding of what’s happening to their body and what medicine might do for them.

What happens is the person who was once a scientist and could look at diagnosing a disease is suddenly being looked at as the science project; with that, their ability to separate the two becomes blurred. I’m not sure if there’s a subconscious recognition that they’re now the one being observed versus the one who’s doing the observing, but whatever it is, they’re no longer able to look at things from a distance or through the abstract lens of science and medicine, particularly now that they’re in the very human position of being the patient.



From scientists to science projects

They’re now the science project that they once compiled and researched. They’re now what’s being observed and treated, and some of these doctors lack the drive to do the research on themselves that they once did for others. They, too, trust their doctors as they once were trusted, blindly hoping that things will go the way they’re supposed to.

Or maybe they realize that they’re no different than the other patients and they’ll go through the same journey with science intervening as much as possible, but with their destiny remaining the same. They’ll see that being a patient, even from a doctor’s point of view, doesn’t guarantee the best of care because doctors are human, too.

Paralyzed by fear of the known  

I’ve wondered at times why my father hasn’t approached the understanding of his disease and treatment with the same rigor that he might have approached it for one of his patients. Is it that he’s accepting of his fate, or is it that he recognizes that there’s only so much he can do? Or is he paralyzed just like a regular patient and suspended in disbelief not knowing how to move forward or be treated, even though he’s a doctor? 

As this retreat into acceptance of one’s illness occurs, depression sets in like it does for every other person who’s sick, trying desperately to find something in the small things and appreciate those moments, but not necessarily able to fully appreciate them because they’re so consumed by their illness that they can’t feel what they once could.

Illness changes everyone’s world and perspective

When a patient becomes sick, their world changes. At first it’s incremental change; as time passes, the change happens more rapidly, reducing the size of the patient’s world in what seems to be almost overnight. Their world suddenly gets small, from cycling and hiking with cancer to living in one’s easy chair. My father will say, “My world has gotten very small,” as he comfortably lays in his easy chair. The chair has become a real-life metaphor where he can find comfort and acceptance because it’s pain-free, even if it’s a small pleasure. The little things in life become so much more meaningful.

Tender loving care and support is the strategy 

As I write this article, I think of strategies that could be helpful to any patient, be it a doctor or a patient. What I recognize is that what they need is simply TLC. Yes, a doctor needs the same tender loving care that a patient needs (because they’re a patient, too.) They need to feel surrounded by love and support because their minds are still capable of feeling and understanding while their bodies are in a slow decline.

They also need to know that while we’re not walking in their shoes and we can’t feel their pain or fright, we can understand that holding their hand is another way to show that we’re with them. The human touch is incredibly special and connective; even just sitting in silence and making the trip to see them shows that we care. Support sounds so trite, yet that’s exactly what’s needed. Support, the feeling that people are with you during your physical decline, is essential. In some cases, this time is chronic and will resolve over time; other times it’s the beginning of the end.

Either way, support in a real-time and real-person sense is so very important. And if you can’t be there in person, the next best thing is a phone call; for some patients, that’s even more helpful because they just want to feel that someone cares. It matters just as much to the patient as it does to the caregiver. 

We must remember that a patient is still a patient—and they need real-life, real-person, human tender loving care, regardless of their background.

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