“I’m not taking those anymore.”
“The big ones there, for night time.”
“Why don’t you want to take them?”
“I don’t even know what they’re for.”
Medicine is complicated. Twenty three years of schooling later, and I still find myself stumped with some of the patients I encounter in various medical disciplines.
Imagine how the patients feel.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate in my time as a physician, is how much we can take our knowledge for granted. Things that seem so obvious to me, like why do I get heart burn when I lay down, often mistify the patient, by no fault of their own, but simply by virtue of the fact that medical science isn’t part of traditional education.
Doctors forget this. Myself included. Which brings me to today.
I met a gentleman today with a number of chronic illnesses. As these things go, a number of illnesses means a number of medications. It can often be overwhelming to the doctor, let alone the patients. It can be difficult for patients to keep track of why certain medications were started, and how long they should be continued. Let alone what each individual pill looks like.
Don’t worry. As a physician my job is to help you keep track of these things, and to make sure you’re taking what you should, whent you should.
But that doesn’t mean leaving you in the dark.
“I had something stuck in my stomach,” the gentleman from the clinic said. “I was in the hospital for a few weeks… They cut me open, did something.” Tears began to fall and I moved closer. “I used to be so healthy, so active. Now, I can barely move. I’m terrified every night when I go to bed. ‘Will this be my last? I hope I go in my sleep… At least it’s painless.'”
He was terrified.
As you’ve heard me preach time and time again, knowledge is empowering. The opposite is also true. Ignorance is paralyzing.
This gentleman had no idea what had happened to him. They cut him open and entered his body and he was in the dark. Traumatizing? You tell me. Sure, many physicians had reminded him time and time again what had happened, but this information isn’t always easy to retain. To him, he felt abandoned. He had quit his medication, not only because he felt like he was taking pills blindly, but also as a form of protest. This man, who put his lives in our hands and felt so disempowered, had one last way to assert his control. By refusing.
“I can understand. That sounds absolutely terrifying. Of course you’re anxious. I want to help you through this. I am going to help you.”
I sat with the patient for a while and discussed with him his illnesses, and his medications. He was beaming by the end.
And maybe the same thing will happen tomorrow. He might forget. And that’s ok. It’s not his responsibility to understand the medicine perfectly, I did eight years of medical education to achieve that. And trust me, I’m still working. What’s important, is that we as physicians remember the value of taking a minute to check in and make sure our patients feel educated, and included.
Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.