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‘People beyond the patients’ is the fourth part of Jessica Grace’s ‘Medicine beyond the textbook’ blog series. The blog posts, released every two months, share Jessica’s stories and thoughts as both a medical student and rare disease patient.

I’m in resus again. I can’t stop shaking, my heart rate’s through the roof. My mouth is dry because I keep being sick; I really need some water but everyone seems to be busy. They’re asking me questions but I can’t remember the answers.

Now I’m on the ward. It’s the day after my admission. I haven’t brushed my teeth because I can’t get to the bathroom. I saw a team of doctors for a few minutes on the ward round this morning. They said someone would come later, but no one did.[/two-third][one-third]medicine-beyond-the-textbook-blog-jessica-with-text-darker[/one-third][/row]

It’s 11pm. I’ve been moved to another ward. I’m not sure why. I desperately want to sleep, but the woman next to me is talking loudly on her phone. The light is shining in from outside the bay. I want to draw the curtains around my bed to make it darker, but I can’t manage to do this myself.

Things have taken a turn for the worse. It’s the middle of the night and I’m being whisked to the intensive care unit. There are lots of people around my bed but I don’t know who they are or what they’re doing. They’re talking about putting me on mechanical ventilation. I’m scared. I want my mum.

The lessons I have learnt from being a patient run deeper than just the ability to empathise. Although as a medical student I now walk around in a white coat with a stethoscope, I still find myself identifying more as a patient than as a health professional.  

I know what it feels like to find yourself in a bed in an unfamiliar place, completely dependent on the care of others, often without the energy or ability to advocate for oneself. I appreciate the frustration of waiting all day to see a doctor who never comes, the confusion of being sent for tests you’re not even sure why you’re having.

I’ve seen an elderly woman struggle to put on her cardigan for over an hour because her eyesight is so poor. I’ve listened to the cries of patients with dementia who do not understand where they are and why they must stay in their bed.

It doesn’t matter who you are; when a patient is hospitalized, their life and most basic needs are suddenly in someone else’s hands. They might not be able to wash themself or get to the toilet unaided; even simple tasks might become impossible. Being in hospital can also be highly stressful, inciting feelings of fear, anxiety and frustration, as I have conveyed from some of my own experiences above. In such situations, a little kindness goes a long way.

As a medical student, I, perhaps more than most, appreciate the pressures health professionals face. Our healthcare system, though offering much to be grateful for, is overworked and stretched beyond its capacity. Doctors simply do not have the time to dedicate more than a few minutes to each patient on a busy ward round.

However, there is a danger that time constraints, stress, and pressures to meet targets may lead doctors to adopt an almost robotic approach to a ward round; viewing patients as a checklist to complete as quickly as possible before progressing to the next task in their busy schedule. This can result in compassionate care and bedside manner falling by the wayside.

It is important to remember that a patient is first and foremost a person; not just a vessel for their disease. There is more to medicine than procedures and prescriptions, because behind every patient is a story. That little old lady struggling with her cardigan is not just ‘the COPD patient in Bed 18’; she is someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. Maintaining a sense of humanity and compassion is a fundamental element of medicine and anyone working in a hospital setting can put it into practice.

Compassion is making sure a patient can reach their spectacles or filling up their glass of water. Compassion is helping a patient brush their teeth or comb their hair. Compassion is offering a comforting hand to the distressed dementia patient. Compassion is the doctor who greets his patient with a smile, introduces himself and pulls up a chair to their bedside. He doesn’t spend any longer with his patient, but his manner shows that he is listening, instead of already mentally moving on to the patient in the next bed.

In five years of doctors, multiple hospital stays, and more procedures than I care to remember, only a few occasions stick firmly in my mind. It wasn’t the doctor who transfused blood into me, nor the microbiologists working behind the scenes to find out which antibiotics I needed. It was the doctor who rubbed my calves when they seized up with painful spasms, whilst I vomited repeatedly into a sick bowl. It was the nurse who at the start of every shift made sure I could reach everything on my table, then proceeded to ask my teddy bear how he was doing today (you’re never too old for a teddy!).

Being in hospital is never a pleasant experience but simple acts of kindness can make a patient’s journey that little bit easier. These particular individuals will have long forgotten my face in the sea of patients who have since passed through their care, but I still remember. They didn’t save my life, they didn’t miraculously cure me, but they made a difference, and isn’t that what most health professionals hope to achieve?

Medicine beyond the textbook: People beyond the patients

by Guest Contributer time to read: 4 min