Seeking: Modest Health Care Professionals

Modesty is sometimes an undervalued characteristic in people and health care professionals in particular. When I was a child, it was confidence and authority that you sought in a doctor. You wanted someone who had the answers, or at least pretended to know definitively what to do.

I was always skeptical. It probably started with the fact that it took a year to diagnose my rheumatoid arthritis. We saw a bunch of doctors who were confident and told my parents authoritatively that there was either nothing wrong with me or that it was all in my head (which would make me a talented and imaginative two-year-old!). Obviously, my swollen and painful joints did not agree with this assessment.

As I have progressed in my journey with rheumatoid arthritis, I have come to believe that no one has the answers. There are no cures or even easy treatments. It’s an uncertain road with no signs, GPS, or even a map to guide the way.

So my guiding principle when I meet new doctors is to seek modesty. Sure, I want to work with people who know about rheumatoid arthritis and the potential complications that may accompany the disease or its treatments. But I also want people who will acknowledge that they don’t in fact have the answers, that we are all just trying to do the best with limited information.

Perhaps the best example is an experience I had several years ago when I had swelling, weakness, and new, different pain in my knee. I immediately had a fear that ultimately proved true. But first I needed to consult with a new orthopedist to see if we could figure out this problem.

I had a couple meetings with the new orthopedist and he did a special scan on my knee. When my husband and I gathered in his office, he explained that he thought my knee (which had been replaced with an artificial joint in my teen years about 20 years ago) was infected and needed immediate surgery. What I did not expect was that he believed he was not the best man for the job, that his specialty was shoulders.
The orthopedist referred me to a different doctor with expertise in knee replacements, including a prestigious fellowship. I was totally shocked to have such a humble doctor, but very much appreciated his modest honesty. He was looking out for me and wanted me to have the best possible outcome during a serious health situation. Instead of concern about his own career, and even income, he put his patient first.
The surgeon he referred me to was excellent and did a great job on a very difficult case, involving removing my knee, inserting a temporary spacer, treating my infection for two months, and only then completing a knee replacement revision. It was complex, long, and required the best kind of doctor with solid, specialized experience.

Although I did not use the first doctor, we never forgot him and still appreciate the great referral he made. In fact, a couple years later my husband had shoulder trouble and we knew right where to go. During his visit, my husband thanked the orthopedist again for what he did for me and updated him on how I was doing. I think the doctor really appreciated hearing those words and seeing how much modesty can play an important role in being a quality health care provider.

During my many years of living with rheumatoid arthritis, I have met all sorts of doctors with a variety of approaches. But it will always stick in my memory about how honesty and modesty played a role in making sure I got the best care possible.

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