When pediatricians are parents—how being a patient changes everything

I became a better doctor today.

No, I did not buy a crisp new white coat, giving me the appearance of authority and stature. I did not attend the latest breaking medical news conference. I did not read my most current Pediatrics medical journal that is buried under the pile of annals on my desk. I did not even make a great diagnosis or save a child’s life today.

I found myself on the other side today: the fearful parent in the waiting room, anxiously willing those doors to open and the surgeon to come out and tell me my child is okay. How much easier it is to be on the other side of those doors, the one hiding behind the white coat.

I knew too much to assume all would go well. I knew exactly what that OR looked like, how it smelled, the lighthearted banter and music in the background. I knew exactly when they would be injecting the IV medication to paralyze my child so they could insert the breathing tube necessary for him to survive. I watched the clock, knowing at what time the surgeon would be cutting into my precious boy. I knew the potential disasters at each step in the process.

To the surgeon, this was simply another routine case, a quick and easy repair of a defect that had been present since birth. To the surgeon, my son was a medical record number, a case number on the OR white board, another 6 year old in her long list of cases for the day. To the surgeon, she could probably turn her brain off to do this surgery as she had done hundreds before him.

How do I know this? Because if we doctors are honest, any one of us will tell you at times we all put on our white coats and disengage. How easy it is to methodically move from patient to patient, from one ear infection and common cold to the next, as we have done hundreds of times before. How easy it is to explain the risks and benefits of a procedure or medical test, then head to Starbucks for an afternoon caffeine fix, all the while leaving the parents scared and anxiously waiting for their child to return safely to them.

I became a better doctor today. Not because I didn’t care before, or was not engaged, or lacked compassion or concern for my patients. But I sat in that waiting room, stared at the clock, willed those doors to open. I faced the gripping fear of the unknown, the incomprehensible. I experienced firsthand the fear that envelops parents when I turn my back and walk out the door. As horrible as those hours were in the waiting room, it allowed me to glimpse the other side, learn lessons no one could teach me in medical school. Lessons of empathy and humanity and dignity. Lessons I could have never learned until I took off my white coat.


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