Monday, July 19, 2010


somehow we see things differently. i'm not saying we are not part of the common human experience but we are involved in this experience on such an acute level we just end up seeing things differently. i mean if someone drops the word 'urgent' into a message for me i get visions of someone bleeding to death rather than images of having to stop at the shops to buy milk on the way home. maybe what i'm trying to say is we can come across as slightly glib at times. there are so many stories to illustrate this that maybe this needs to be discussed in a number of posts, but i remember when i was confronted by my own attitudes to the realities of life.

i was in casualties resus, a place i really felt at home in. i was stabilising a gunshot abdomen patient and preparing him for theater. it seemed the bullet probably went through the liver and the patient was bleeding enough that i was quite concerned. i was determined to stay with him until i had him under my knife, just in case something went wrong. but once the lines were up and the blood was running in there was little more to do than to wait for our turn in theater. it was a time to sort of stand around and maybe share a joke or two with the rest of the team. it is also a time to see what else is going on in resus.

the patient lying next to mine was a neurosurgery patient. he had been attacked in his house during a break in. for good measure his assailants had driven his skull in with some sort of blunt object. i had nothing better to do so i took a look at the scan. it was clear my neurosurgical colleagues were also not going to get too much sleep that night either. we laughingly teased each other about whose job was the worst.

all this time i noticed there was someone standing just outside the back door of the resus room. he had an expression somewhere between awkwardness and sheer terror on his face. he was clearly totally out of place but he wasn't bothering anyone and i sort of just ignored him. but he looked very familiar, so in between making sure my patient wasn't about to die and teasing the neurosurgeons i racked my brains to try to remember where i had seen him before. suddenly i remembered. he was a pastor at a local church and many years ago, when i was still a medical student, i had seen him there. the polite thing to do would be to greet him, i thought. i moved towards him.

as soon as he saw me approaching he seemed to take a deep breath and gird up his loins and he set out directly towards me much faster than i was moving in his direction. he walked with such a determinedness i wouldn't even have been surprised if he decked me when he got to me. i readied myself to say something, but suddenly realised the usual 'hello, and how are you' somehow just didn't seem to work in this setting. i was formulating a slightly less formal 'hi there' in my mind when he beat me to it and started speaking.

"excuse me," he said with an intense expression etched into his face, "but would it be ok if i prayed with this man who has the head injury?" somehow my 'hi there' suddenly seemed so out of place. even a 'i once saw you in church many years ago' seemed a bit unimportant compared to the fact that his friend would be lucky ever to talk again without saliva running down his chin, assuming he survived. i felt stupid.

i went through it afterwards in my mind. you see when people come into contact with me it is more often than not at one of those extremely important moments in their lives. often the only question to ask is whether they are going to survive or not. things like what ply toilet paper they prefer becomes somewhat irrelevant. but on any given day i may be faced with many people at these crucial crossroads, but each of them will maybe be faced with the situation only once or twice in their entire lives. maybe in a sense sometimes we become used to things no one should ever be used to.

and therein lies the secret. we may never become blasé or glib about the sharp edge of the human condition just because we see it every day. for me it may be just run of the mill or just another gunshot, but for the patient in question it is probably the single most significant moment in his life. even if we can't empathise with each and every patient, we need to remember these facts and respect the patient's experience for what it is, deeply significant.

in the end i mentioned quickly and in passing to the man that i recognised him and then left him to support his severely injured friend in whichever way he saw fit.


rlbates said...

Perspective is always an interesting thing.

BrainDame said...

I think one of the most important lessons in medicine/doctoring is remembering that what is almost mundane to us is so unique to those we treat. Well said!