MedCity Influencers

When doctors are patients (and facing death)

In my office mail this morning I found my medical school classmate, Janet Cathey, looking back at me from the front of the last issue of the Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society. Her photo was linked to an article entitled “When Healers Need Healing: Physicians’ Experiences on the Receiving End of Medicine.” I knew […]

In my office mail this morning I found my medical school classmate, Janet Cathey, looking back at me from the front of the last issue of the Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society. Her photo was linked to an article entitled “When Healers Need Healing: Physicians’ Experiences on the Receiving End of Medicine.”

I knew that Janet had been injured in a car accident last summer. I have tried reaching out to her with notes, etc. She had “closed” herself off from me and many others trying to reach out, so it was nice to see the report on her.  Janet had a busy Gynecology practice prior the accident. I have hear that she had since retired due to the back injury sustained in the accident.

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“Things were happening at lightning speed,” she recalled of the scene at Baptist. “I had a burst fracture of L-1 and needed spine surgery….They were moving me, cutting off my clothes. I was scared and still screaming in pain and frustration,” she said. “At that moment, ER doctor Wendel Phals, MD, was at the head of my bed. He held my face and calmly and quietly said, ‘Janet, you’re going to be alright. We’re going to take care of you.’ For the first time since I’d hit the culvert, I felt calm, secure.”

The article also includes comments from Columbia University psychiatrist Robert Klitzman, MD who has written a book “When Doctors Become Patients

After his own recovery, Klitzman wanted to understand the rare, dual perspective of physicians who have confronted serious disease. His interviews revealed first and foremost that many physicians resist, at least initially, the idea of beiing “sick” or being “the patient.” Furthermore, many physicians most resist “not” being the doctor…..

The article includes another Arkansas physician, orthopedic surgeon Frank Griffin, MD who found himself a patient when he was diagnosed with a chondrosarcoma.

Griffin found both emotional and practical aspects of being a patient surprised him. “I was surprised at the size of my bills,” said Griffin, adding that he understands now the number of medical bankruptcies. ….

Also surprising to him was his embarrassment to ask for pain medicine. “I was afraid someone would think I was becoming addicted,” he said. “……..I imagine there are many more patients suffering from pain than are abusing pain meds.”

Janet is quoted making these observations

“As a physician, you never know what little thing a patient is going to latch onto…be impacted from,” she said, remembering that night eight months ago, in the Baptist ER. “As a patient, I felt my recovery began when amidst the chaos of the night, Dr. Pahls took a few moments to look at me and reassure me.”

All of that medical knowledge can be a blessing and a curse, especially when physicians suffer from something serious or debilitating, Cathey implied. “For me to have a devastating injury, it really hit hard. Being a physician takes away some of the hope that you’d have if you didn’t know your limitations,” she said.

All of us will be patients at some time during our lives. It is important for us to keep this in mind as we care for others. I wish I could link you to the entire above article, but it is not up online yet.

There is a post on the same topic over at Mothers in Medicine: Lessons learned on the wrong side of the stethoscope

I was walking down the hall at work on a very ordinary day in December. I had sudden onset of excruciating right shoulder, neck, and upper arm pain. For the first time in my life, the “…if 10 is the worst pain you can imagine” finally had meaning. ……. The next 48 hrs were a whirlwind: emails, calls, and pages to my internist (I am usually a once a year-ish whether I need it or not patient), a possible diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, MRIs of my brain, spinal cord, shoulder, appts with ortho, neuro, and ultimately neuromuscular, including the test that provided a diagnosis: an EMG/NCS. The diagnosis was something rare called Parsonage-Turner Syndrome. I had never heard of it before (which is a very bad feeling as a doctor).

So, what have I learned from this experience of being on the wrong side of the stethoscope? A lot that I am still struggling to put into words and a lot worth sharing.

Dr. Ramona Bates is a plastic surgeon in Little Rock, Arkansas, who writes regularly at Suture for a Living.

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