I much prefer to be called “doctor,” to be on the side listening and examining, and hopefully to help find a solution. Finding myself on the converse side; trying to explain my perspective and trying to find an explanation and solution to my own medical issue has been an illuminating experience.
Recently, I crossed over to the other side as a patient. As I waited for my health issue to go away or get better, it not only stayed but continued to get worse. When I could no longer ignore it, I scheduled an appointment with a new doctor as my original physician had left the practice.
I found out that this doctor would also be leaving the practice shortly. I scheduled follow-up appointments to pursue answers and a solution. A long-time diagnosis was called into question. I requested labs and was unable to get a clear grasp of the situation.
I then scheduled an appointment with a second doctor, and the conclusion was that surgery would be the definitive solution. The second doctor told me she would call to discuss the surgery and next steps. I waited for the call and finally sent a message through the online portal. I spoke with a nurse and the surgery scheduler without receiving answers. Finally, I received the doctor’s message through the online portal; it had journeyed through circuitous routes, gotten lost in a mire of messages, then eventually found its way to me. The message instructed me to schedule the surgery if I wanted to proceed. As our written correspondence was hurried, I still had questions and doubts and did not feel confident enough to schedule the surgery.
I had to accept that my unwelcome medical issue was here to stay, so I scheduled another visit with a third doctor. I told my story and enumerated every question and concern. The third doctor deftly perused my chart to immediately confirm an elusive diagnosis that had gotten lost in the shuffle between doctors. She explained the criteria for this diagnosis and the profound implications of a previously proposed additional procedure. During our visit, she ruefully mentioned comments about patient wait times but said that she could not change how she cared for her patients. As she clearly and carefully presented all the information to me, I realized that I was the grateful beneficiary of her time and expertise. I could confidently move forward with the surgery having had this discussion and having understood the details and implications of the surgery. I decided against an additional, optional procedure which would have profound and irreversible consequences. She checked labs and sent me results that evening. I felt seen and heard and acknowledged.
I know that physicians are dealing with burnout under the crush of a packed, overbooked schedule and numerous patient messages and calls. I do not doubt the clinical acumen or knowledge of any of these doctors. They did their best and sincerely desired to help. How did the third doctor find the time to truly take care of me and my concerns with her voluminous work? How had she retained that primordial spark that draws us to medical school and found her vocation amid this system that inexorably churns through physicians, depleting the scarce personal resources left after work? Although I do not know the answer, I do know that we need these rare and singular physicians.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Rose Chang-Jackson during my patient experience. She provided me with straightforward facts and guided me through precarious moments. She possesses both the empathic humanism and the brilliant, keen intellect characteristic of a consummate physician.
Rebecca Kim is a pediatrician.