But my patients have taught me, too. And not in the sense of, “I’ll never forget the first S3 I heard.” No, it’s the wisdom that can only be gained through living. Today, I’d like to share a few of those lessons.
Take care of yourself to take care of others. I once took care of an 86-year old woman, a lovely dear woman, who had spent her life raising four children, one of whom had autism at a time when that diagnosis wasn’t well-understood. “I always had someone to take care of,” she mused in her hospital bed, “but now I don’t know how to take care of myself.” She had worn thin over the years with all the love and dedication for her family, but now, she needed to learn a new way to put herself first so that she could continue to be there for her grandchildren. It became my job to educate her about how to eat, exercise, and ask her doctor about things she’d been too discreet or busy to ask about before.
Value your heritage. The hospital where I worked as a medical student had a lot of elderly Italian-Americans who were damn proud to tell you that they were Italian, and New Englanders on top of that. I chatted a lot with these patients about digging for clams, favorite beaches, “the old country,” and of course, Italian cooking. When they asked me, genuinely curious, about my Chinese background, we ended up talking a lot about food, it being such a crucial aspect of both cultures (and more delicious than hospital food). One woman commented, “I hope you can pass those cooking traditions on to your children!” It was a reminder to hold on to the history of where my family came from, and to be proud of it. Because of these patients, I’ve learned to recognize when I can bond with a person over their cultural identity, and strengthen the therapeutic relationship.
The glass isn’t half-full–it’s running over. Over and over again, I met patients with remarkable tenacity and cheerfulness in the face of GI bleeds, pneumonia, bone infections, and colon cancer, to name a few. They weren’t putting on a happy face for others’ sake. They did it for themselves, to motivate themselves to enjoy what life they had, and be prepared for whatever was next. These were people who had been born in the Great Depression, had fought in WWII or other wars, had walked door to door doing political campaigns, had cared for their dying parents. They had known suffering. But they were humble, grateful, proactive, and always put smiles on other people’s faces. I was lucky to have them as more than patients, as teachers in how to live life.
Question of the day: Have you ever gotten good advice from a patient? If so, please share!