If you’re an idealistic sort of person, applying for medicine is all about helping people. It’s that vocational calling, not really rooted in anything rational, just this deep desire to connect with people, and help them in some way. You know it’s a calling because when people question you on it, tear you down on it, laugh at it, tell you that it is not as valid a reason as loving anatomy or physiology, or science in general, it holds up. It just holds up anyway, in the face of all that because that’s what conviction is.
Now nearly ten years since I finished medical school, I think a lot about what helping people really means, especially in that strange paradigm that’s a public hospital, that place of a million competing interests, not all of them patient-centred. I watch as we treat illnesses, as the numbers recover, their colour returns, I call their families and try as best as I can to set the tone and make sure there are no surprises. I try and keep their spirits up by telling them it’s going to get better, that home awaits,I thank them for their patience – I was in hospital for 4 days after a baby and practically self discharged, they’re in for weeks and rarely complain. And then I learned that people with delirium frequently develop PTSD. The things they see and hear, none of them rarely good, remain as memories. We don’t talk too much at work about people might be feeling, if not only because the whole thing is so overwhelming for most that they don’t even know how they’re feeling until it’s all over.
The first time I ever thought about doing medicine was when I was 15. I idolized my Dad and thought I could become a doctor like him. When I asked him about it he just looked at me sadly said “oh my darling, you don’t need to become a doctor to be a healer”. At the time I took it personally – did he think I wasn’t good enough? And it took me a very long time to understand what he meant.
Healing is much more nebulous than treatment protocols for diseases. It’s not in that bag of IV Ceftriaxone. It’s not even necessarily your patient. It’s their families, it’s you, your colleagues – everyone around you needs healing in some way or another. Healing is that moment of “everything’s gonna be okay” that you feel when you wake up and aren’t sore or that terrifying fear you had is unfounded. It’s when the air is warm after a long winter and your body relaxes and stops using up so much energy to warm itself. It’s in that moment in a family meeting when you say “let’s stop for now, that’s a lot of information and these times are just so hard on you all”. It’s the look on someones face when you validate how shit everything is right now, and that while you don’t have all the answers, you’re right there with them. It’s in compassion and kindness and friendliness and reassurance, in those warm moments when someone says “hey I get stuff wrong too” instead of the cold “I’m perfect and obsessive” or when you sit down and just listen instead of telling someone you have to go because you’re so busy. It’s in relaxing in that mire of hospital-anxiety and doing it your way instead of the way you’ve conjured, that correct ‘this is what a doctor is supposed to be’ that you try to shoehorn yourself into in spite of it being the antithesis of you.
Healing is all about you. Healing is treating yourself with that warmth and kindness and friendliness that seems so absent sometimes and realising that in doing that, you’re truly helping others because the way you treat yourself is ultimately the way you wind up treating your patients and colleagues. But more than that, it becomes the way you treat the people in your life. And in doing that, you’re more than someone who helps someone, you’re someone who heals. As a doctor, if you can be both that person who can manage the illnesses well, with a degree of knowledge, competence and confidence, and in addition, be someone warm who validates their suffering without having to be told. Be someone who is endlessly kind and collegiate to their colleagues and doesn’t try to ‘teach them lessons’ by rejecting their requests, or belittling their missing details, instead offering to help them find them, or gently suggesting where, then my wonderful reader, you are both doctor and healer. I see these colleagues from time to time and they are something very special. The specialness comes from the kindness you display to everyone around you. Don’t discount it, don’t let it be discounted by those who don’t understand it or are so far behind you on the path that they see it as weakness. Let the best part of you come through in spite of that noise, you and your patients will be better for it.