In the course of our work as doctors we will undoubtedly witness events that change the life of our patients, but coming into medical school I never realized how directly some of these events would also change my life.
Often in medicine we see people at the worst possible time. Our patients are usually sick or grieving and rarely happy to be in our presence, no matter how great we might think we are. More often than not, they are experiencing things we’ve never experienced, things we understand on a molecular or biochemical level, but not on a palpable, emotional level. We don’t know what it’s like to live in their shoes, so we draw on our experiences, the experiences of past patients we’ve seen and the knowledge we’ve gained in our training and do our best to play the role of both healer and comforter.
But, as medical students, sometimes our pool of past patients with similar experiences to draw on is limited. How do we ensure we are the best providers for our patients when we may have absolutely no clue how they are feeling? I truly believe that, as medical students, we have a very important role on the healthcare team, but when our experiences are limited what do we base our actions off of?
I believe Social Media has a role to play here.
Because I’m interested in Ob/Gyn and Reproductive Endocrinology I keep track, via Twitter and blogs, of several women’s journeys through infertility and pregnancy loss. I have silently watched from the sidelines as they supported each other through loss, openly shared their heartache with strangers and occasionally even expressed what they wished friends, family & medical professionals had done or not done for them while they were hurting.
So, when I happened to be the first provider into the room to see a woman who was miscarrying, I wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. I’ve never been through pregnancy loss or talked at length with any friends who have experienced it, but it was almost like I had an army of compassionate friends in my back pocket providing me with insight I could not possibly have had otherwise.
Without these women I would have asked a quick list of questions and gotten the heck out of that room, because quite honestly, I would have been uncomfortable and entirely at a loss for what to say without making things worse.
Instead, I knew that this patient likely wanted someone to listen to her story, that she probably would benefit from hearing that this wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could have done differently or better. I understood how important it was to let her know she was allowed to feel however she felt, whether that be completely devastated, functionally numb or even relieved. She needed to hear from someone else that she was allowed to grieve, that any feelings of loss were wholly valid and that, even though I had no idea on a personal level what she was going through, I was going to do everything I could to support her while she was there.
These ladies are my teachers…my professors…my examples. Without trying, without being paid, without PowerPoints or lectures, they taught me how to be a compassionate caretaker in a situation I did not understand.
As I walked out of my patient’s room that day I knew she still had a long road ahead of her, but I was confident that, if even just a little, I had helped her. I left that day realizing that, without my presence in Social Media, the night would have likely gone very differently. I left knowing that nothing in medical school would ever have prepared me to be confident enough to begin to handle a situation I could not possibly understand.
Most importantly, I left knowing she had helped me more than I had helped her, because she had opened my eyes to the fact that everyone around us is a teacher…even on the internet.
Medical school teaches us how to handle situations we can control, ones we can fix or change or at least slow down – not how to handle emotionally-heavy situations where a negative outcome is inevitable and immediate…only experience teaches that.
I wrote this several months ago as a thank you to my Twitter friends who have dealt with this situation publicly and today I finally decided to share it here. So, thank you for letting a bystander hang out in your world every once in a while and for being open about your struggles, losses and triumphs. You, along with all the other patients, activists, and advocates I interact with, both online and off, are making me a more compassionate, informed and confident care giver. You teach me things I will never learn in school, help me keep up-to-date on literature and are a huge asset…not only to me, but to my future patients.
Image: Sura Nualpradid | FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image: Ambro | FreeDigitalPhotos.net