You, me and the medical profession. To varying degrees and for varying reasons, we all have and all will in future interact with medics. And after talking about this aspect of everyday life with friends and relatives and reflecting on my own experience, I thought it might be helpful to share what I’ve realized and/or discovered.
I could relate personal tales about my interactions with General Practitioners (GPs), Nurses, Hospital Doctors, Specialists, Consultants and whoever else. (With apologies if I’m getting any roles/titles wrong.) And I was going to go down that route. But, realising that everyone’s experience will be, to some extent, specific to themselves I decided to, instead, focus on what seem to be commonly shared experiences.
Yes, the following is for people working in the medical profession as well as those who aren’t. And what’s more, you could easily be on the other side of the interaction.
And no, not everything that follows applies to everyone and every event. But this is one time when common sense can come into play: pick what’s relevant, when it’s relevant.
There’s a lot to be gained from learning something from someone who’s in some way distant from you. And for most of us, the medical specialist you interact with will be just that. A bit distant. Able to offer a cool, dispassionate eye. This is over-and-above their expertise and experience. They’re assessing you, as it were, as stranger.
(I’m aware the above might not be that clear. So, the following is by way of an example. When I was not long discharged from the rehab ward and seeing my GP in (I think) the first follow-up meeting, I was saying about how I was determined to grit my teeth, to keep trying, to keep pushing. It took my GP to tell me that sometimes, perhaps if you’re tired for example, it’s OK to say ‘no’. And it was hard to hear that advice, but I was far more willing to listen to my GP on this rather than my partner, precisely because of the distance between us; because of my GP’s ability to be dispassionate.)
#They Know. You Don’t
It is easy to forget that lots of the people who make up the medical world have an awful lot of knowledge, expertise and experience – which you don’t possess. It is important – vital – to listen to what you’re told. Not doing something won’t help. Doing too much of something won’t help. They have earned all they know, and you have to listen to them and follow their advice if you’re going to gain from it.
There’s a related angle to this. It is very easy to not do something, even though you have been told it’s the right thing to do and even though you understand that’s the case. In other words, it’s easy to be like the rest of us. Because, yes, we all are prone to not following-through.
There are a host of potential reasons and back-stories in connection with trying, or not trying, to do something. Why it is that, sometimes, people don’t follow advice they know is good. Morale might well be factor and the question of belief in their future – does it feel like it’ll be worth the effort. There might be bad previous experiences and hence well-founded cynicism. There might be brutal, blunt despair. Or quiet, soul-sapping depression. And any number of other reasons.
I have no expertise. My experience, both lived, observed and raised by others, is that we all need to be willing to look hard at ourselves. We need to look at ourselves, as dispassionately as we hope a doctor might assess us, and question what we are doing and why. And if and when we find we’re not living up to our own hopes and goals, we need to have the courage to seek support.
As well as questioning yourself, you also have to be willing to question institutional cultures. Because such things exist.
The easiest way I can think of to explain this is by reference to my own experience. In the first hospital involved in saving my life, my partner was fully involved in my treatment, all the way down the line. Everything was explained.
In the second hospital, (which I was moved to once it was clear I was going live and so could be nearer to home), the staff there had to be coaxed into explaining anything to my partner. They had a totally different attitude, namely: they are the experts and all the patients (and their relatives) have to do is nod.
Let’s be clear. This wasn’t malice or arrogance on the hospital’s part. It wasn’t lack of care on the part of the staff. But it was a culture in the hospital that had to be actively challenged if you wanted to know what’s going on.
#You Need Someone In Your Corner
Underlying all of the above is a basic recognition that everyone involved in all this is human. And as such they have strengths, weaknesses, good days and bad days. At any given time everyone might be under all sorts of pressures no-one else has a clue about.
And with that in mind, as a patient you need someone in your corner. And as a medic, you ideally want someone to accompany your patients.
This person, let’s call them a ‘personal advocate’, is there to look out for the patient and to explain things about the patient that the medics might not know and the patient might not be able to articulate.
And they’re there to look out for the patient to help safe-guard against perfectly human shortcomings on the part of the medics.
And they’re there to ask questions that that patient might not be able to ask, and get answers that they and the patient will be able to understand – ideally, with a written back-up because memories fail easily, especially under pressure.
And as a medic, these ‘personal advocates’ are there to help you feel sure you’re as fully informed as possible, and are acting to help you cover all the angles that you need to.
#In This Together
Throughout all aspects of this, along with everything else, what’s equally crucial is reasonableness and politeness. Whatever the pressures, everyone’s in it together.
#Whoever You Are *1
Being in need of medical help can be a very lonely experience, especially once events have moved beyond the immediate crisis. That loneliness can be felt whatever someone’s personal circumstances. Addressing it is to try and tackle a very complicated variable, depending on a whole host of different factors. It’s no secret that loneliness is compounded if you’re alone in life. But unwelcome solitude is a big factor in a lot of lives and it needs to be kept actively in mind.
Further, it can have immense knock-ons. (Who’s the ‘personal advocate’ for someone who’s now living alone …) To my mind, I think this is a systemic issue that the whole system would benefit from addressing.
#Whoever You Are *2
Kindness counts. Simple, small, acts of kindness can go a long way. It meant a huge amount to me that one of the cleaning staff at the High Dependency Unit always found time to say a couple of words to me as I was being wheeled about in a wheel chair.
It might sound a bit of a feeble thing to say, but we can all be kind.
#Whoever You Are *3
And kindness can hurt. Someone being kind can be, almost, a threat. You have to allow for pride. To go back to my own example, above, about my GP telling me that it’s OK to say ‘no’ sometimes. That hurt. That was telling me I could give in on occasions, that I could be ‘weak’.
So, it might well be to the better if you allow for pride being a factor in how someone responds to kindness. And allow, too, for what it might be covering up.
#Whoever You Are *4
As well, you have to allow for emotions overwhelming rationality. I can write all of the above and be fine – until the previous paragraph. Even after all these years, specifically revisiting that time in my life makes me well-up. It took me several years before I could visit my GP about anything without tears overtaking me.
And I would say it’s no big deal. So what? No surprises. It’s called being human. But we all have to remember that we are all human.