This morning when my daughter coughed and then said in a very weak voice, “I've got boogers in my throat now.” I replied, “It won't kill you. Get ready for school.”
As I carried on with my morning routine I thought to myself, “Now that is why I am not a Doctor.”
This may not be your automatic reaction to a less than compassionate comment but it is mine because doctoring was once in the realm of my possibilities.
In another lifetime I was a kinesiology (study of human movement which leads into occupational therapy, sports medicine etc.) student at Dalhousie. In my first year I found that although anthropology was my hearts true love, human biology was my actual intellectual strong suit. I memorized, I analyzed, I dissected. I got straight As and was on the Dean's List.
For me it was easy, it only required time—the concepts and facts of human biology were simple. They were a story. Every process in the body had a beginning, middle and end; similar to the construction of the simplest fairy tale. The Krebs cycle; a story. The digestive system; a story. Hormones and their feedback loops; a story. The body is a story if only you know how to read the book. And I did.
Stories have always been part of my life and part of what I do. I have been writing stories since elementary school and it was only natural to bring this perspective to my pursuit of biological knowledge. It was a strategy that worked and it worked so well that I found myself thinking outside of the kinesiological box and looking at MCAT (Medical College Admission Test ) prep texts.
With such a command of biology one may ask what kept me from scaling the heights of medicine all the way to the top of the heap as an MD? Books, labs and exams were all great—in fact I loved them all-- but in actual medicine, on the ground, in the hospital medicine, you have to deal with sick people. And I hate sick people.
I must revise that sentence, I hate sick people who are only moderately sick. Sick people who are dealing with their illness stoically while their bodies are wracked with pain—those people I love. I often am one of those people and that is why I hold the other kind of sick people, the sick-enough-for-the-hospital-but-still-mobile type of sick people, in contempt. It is this sort of sick person, who are the majority of sick people, that I knew I would never be able to face on a day to day basis with any compassion or bedside manner. I would tell them, as I have told my slightly sick, over-exaggerating child who wants to spend the day at home from school, “It won't kill you. Suck it up.”
My lack of compassion for the slightly sick comes from, as I mentioned above, my many experiences in the horribly-sick, wish-I-was-dead-to-end-the-pain category. As a life-long sufferer of bowel obstructions I know pain. I know sickness. I know how to keep my head down and get through it. I know that if you can talk, it doesn't hurt that much. If you can walk, you should keep moving. If your not almost dead, keep living.
One incident from my teen years is particularly emblematic of the kinds of experiences I have had that have lead me to be such an unsympathetic person vis-a-vis sick people. I was 17-years-old and in the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton. I had a bowel obstruction as usual. I had an NG (nasal-gastric) tube stuffed up my nose, down the back of my throat and into my stomach to pump out all the accumulating gastric juices which were prevented from exiting the body by way of the normal route due to the obstruction. Beside my bed was a 4-gallon jar with a small pump attached which was emptied of the dark, green, repugnant sludge that was sucked from my body several times a day.
I had a intravenous drip. The insertion point was constantly getting infected and my forearms were swelling from the fluid that leaked out of my unnaturally small blood vessels.
I could not eat anything. Could not drink anything—not even ice to relieve a dry mouth. I was NPO.
Stabbing pains in my stomach were only slightly relieved by needles of Demerol every four hours which resulted in pains at the injection site that still ache on extremely cold days.
After a week the NG tube was pumping fecal material (I hope you all know what that means). There was nothing left to do.
I went home.
I was starving. Yet I could not eat. Everything I did eat was retched back up in short order.
I was desperate. I began just to chew food and spit it out. At least I could satisfy my taste buds if not my hunger pains.
After a week of not eating at home I went back to the hospital again. Had an NG tube inserted again. IV again. And returned to the same hospital room, again.
Now here is the thing I have not told you yet about this experience which turned me into the I-hate-slightly-sick-people person that I have become; in this room I had a roommate. She was a senior lady with a head of wooly white hair. She was slight in size but her complaints took up the entire room.
She paced our room everyday from window to door only pausing at the window of our 8th floor room long enough to say, “I want to jump out the window,” or a variation of that theme.
I never knew what was wrong with my roommate. She looked perfectly healthy to me. She had no IV. She could walk on her own unaided. She slept through the night. The only problem this lady really had, as far as I could tell, was that the minute I could get out of my bed I would head over to the window hoist it open and invite her to jump.
I think this experience and others like it over the years have sucked the compassion for sick people out of me. I am compassionate in other instances but not this.
Knowing this about myself was a good thing. I'm not saying it's a positive side of my personality. A little more compassion for the slightly sick would come in handy—particularly in the profession of parenting. The saying is, 'Physician, heal thyself'. It should also be: 'Physician, know thyself,' because if you are like me and love the biology, the pathology, and the labs but not the people you should never go down the MD trail.
I write this as a cautionary tale. An aptitude for biology does not indicate a future practicing medicine. Research is a perfectly respectable profession. Just saying.