How Do We Comfort Our Healthcare Providers?

At my last rheumatologist appointment, I had a somewhat bizarre experience.

When my doctor orders labs, one of the nurses comes in and does them right there in the same room.  On this particular day, she only ordered two tubes of blood.

The nurse came in.  She is one that I have had before and she knows me by name.  She is extremely nice and we have a friendly relationship.

The nurse stuck me once, with no luck.  She stuck me again. Again, no luck.  I didn’t take this personally.  I am, admittedly, a tough stick.  A two-stick day is a good day for me.  Obviously this was not going to be one of those days.  But again, I didn’t take this personally.

The nurse looked at me.  And then she said, “I feel so defeated.  I’ve never had to stick you twice.  And I’ve never had to send you downstairs to the lab.”

What was I supposed to say to that?  I told her it was okay and not to worry, that she shouldn’t feel bad about it.

But the experience got me thinking.  Do our rheumatologists and other doctors acutely feel our successes and our failures?  Do they celebrate in private when we are doing well with a treatment regimen?  Do they mourn in private when we aren’t doing well and our treatments aren’t working?

Doctors aren’t tabula rasa.  While they try not to internalize the successes and failures of their patients, it’s impossible that they don’t feel the gains and the losses – especially rheumatologists who very rarely cure their patients.  They rarely get to provide truly good news.  That has to be draining on a person.

Rarely do we get to see the members of our healthcare team be vulnerable.  Rarely do we ask them how they feel about the things they see us experience, those things they can help, and those things they cannot.

But then again, we don’t ask.  Sometimes we get stuck in our own heads with our own emotions.  Rarely do we have the time or the energy to tell our doctors how we feel, let alone ask them how they feel about the way we feel.

I’m so used to getting stuck with needles that I never really considered the frustration that the lab tech might feel in not getting the blood on the first try or the second or the third – and how they feel when they have to pass me on to someone else because they aren’t allowed to stick me anymore.  I never imagined that their inability to draw blood may make them feel inadequate, that it might even make them question why they do the job they do.

I know that as a patient, I want to feel good, I want to get better.  And I know that sometimes I dread going to the doctor with a laundry list of problems, and not being able to say that I feel amazing.  If that wears on me, it must wear on my doctors.

I didn’t realize that the nurse not being able to hit a vein, would strike a nerve within her.  And then it struck a nerve within me.  It made me realize that I don’t know how my doctors feel.  I don’t know if they’ll ever tell me.  But I hope that if it does happen, I’m not taken aback and uncomfortable.

I have never considered the repercussions that my health causes within those that take care of me.

If we think about the clinical encounter this way, I think it makes our doctors seem more human and less godlike.  It changes the dynamic from the teacher and the student.  Instead, we become colleagues with a stake in the same exact thing.  We want to feel better, our doctors want us to feel better.

The next time I go to the doctor, I might not ask my rheumatologist how she feels about my situation.  But I might look more closely at her face and her mannerisms, I might see compassion rather than indifference, effort rather than inaction.  I might just look at my doctor and remind myself that she is human, too.  We are all imperfect.  We are all fallible.  But in the end, we are in this together.

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