Dr. Jeff Kane: Medical curmudgeons speak
I recently hung out — on Zoom, of course — with three med school classmates, Sam, Jean and Connor. We graduated before your parents were born, so, as befits our ages, we met in rocking chairs on our respective porches and reminisced about the “old days.”
Our unsurprising consensus was that almost everything was better then: fifty cent coffee, easy parking, free college tuition. And that was before insurance agents, lawyers, drug reps, and bureaucrats contaminated the medical examining room.
Docs were far more independent then. We had no boss, so our income didn’t depend on following orders from administrators three states away. Since we spent as much time with patients as we liked, we got to know them better.
“It’s a different world today,” Sam said. “Medicine’s a corporate high-tech assembly line. Young docs aren’t trained to get much more of a history than name, rank and serial number. They can’t percuss a liver to save their life, but their bosses make sure they’re proficient at entering data. The worst part is that no one encourages them to conceive of any style different from today’s.”
After our griping burned off, we discussed what we reaped from careers that began so genially.
Said Connor, “We were with patients so much more, and that was the most rewarding thing. In what other profession do you get so intimate with people in their most crucial moments? I discovered more resilience and kindness than I’d ever imagined. It rubbed off on me, made me a deeper person.”
That made me think. I freely admit that when I entered medical training I was no incipient Mother Theresa. My hobby might as well have been snideness. I thought the words “compassion” and “empathy” resided only in poetry. If I was good at anything, it was memorizing and regurgitating the complex information professors served up.
Everyone applying to medical schools is asked, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” The universal reply is some version of, “I want to help people.” We do help people, of course, but we help ourselves, too, without anticipating or even recognizing it for years. Several decades of working hip-deep in others’ suffering can significantly change one. Hearing — deeply hearing — people’s grief and pain plus enduring a little of our own along the way can’t help but make us more patient and more curious.
When I said this to my classmates, they nodded. Jean said, “I never thought of it like that, but yeah, it’s true. If I’d answered the admissions question, though, by saying, ‘I want to be a more complete person,’ I would’ve been shown the door. Can you teach medical students patience and curiosity?”
Sam replied, “I don’t know. Those are products of time and experience, aren’t they? Maybe genuine medical education never ends.”
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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