How to be a doctor
“Be a doctor, Kacper.”
I’m six and he’s 63 and with hands carved by dirt and eyes worn and tired, he outlines a world of undeniable possibility, of hope, and ultimately, of love.
“I was sick. Very sick. Right here.” He leads my tiny paw to his heart. “Hear that?”
A single bump pulses under my fingertips. It sounds like little metallic gears turning together yet there is no clicking or grinding. The single note is smooth, as though there is a solitary string being strum in one direction, then strum again before it can rebound.
“It is different than yours. Different than others, too.” It continues to pound gently. Neither up or down, the rhythm is consistent.
“I came to Canada for this. And from this, you came too.” I look up and notice that he’s smiling.
“You can do this, Kacper. For others. For anyone. For me again if I need it.”
I open my mouth, trying to find the words to tell him that his heart is healthy. But he instead says, “Let’s get some dinner.”
My hand moves away and we eat and I grow, I do, I feel and 15 years pass, and I’m standing in an emergency room. I’m holding the hand of a beloved. People are crying around me. A beep-beep is heard when the tears stop.
I am stoic against it all. It is my grandfather’s words that comfort me: there’s hope here. This is Canada after all. Doctors can make things better. They will respect you. They will care for you. And sickness will be cured, injuries will be mended, and life will return to normalcy again. The single pulse will become immutable in time.
A phone rings. It is my grandfather. His voice is pregnant with worry. Is everything is okay? Is everything okay?
I don’t answer, and time passes, and we find ourselves in a long line. No longer is there the careful weighing of words. Instead in a busy hospital packed with people, we have become meat-wagons preparing for a nameless butcher. A number is given to us, we’re sandwiched among others, we’re yelled at, and shuffled around.
Once it is our turn, a doctor comes in and says this is what we’re doing. Surgery, he says. It is the first thing he utters. We never learn his name.
We try to ask questions. He says he’s busy. We say we understand but… We’re cut off. He says he will be back later to answer our queries. We don’t see him again.
We bounce around from unit to unit. A procedure is done. A mistake is made. It happens, we’re told. The procedure is done again.
We’re furious. Our worries are passed off with rudeness. We’re burdening others with our concerns. We have become a burden, my father says.
Another doctor enters. He introduces himself. We ask how our beloved is doing. He mumbles something, dismisses our questions. “How are the X-rays?” “You wouldn’t understand them.” “How is the catheter?” “It’s a complicated situation.”
He then tells us that surgery is imperative. There is no alternative. We ask about the method, he tries to explain it. We don’t understand. He tells us he has explained the procedure enough and he was the doctor and twice was enough for him.
He left the room, and the power dynamic became relevant. We weren’t just nobodies; we were physical bodies too, and that’s all he could see. Flesh, muscle, and skeleton coming together in the wrong way. We were a problem, an aberration, a sickness and no more.
Perhaps it was just a bad few experiences because the next hospital met us with kindness and a handful of information. We could challenge findings. We could seek second opinions. We weren’t powerless under authority; we were guided by it, and thereby made all the more powerful.
This, I believe, is what is what it means to be a doctor. Having not only technical competence, but also competence in social perception, emotional receptivity, and cultural sensitivity.
This two-pronged approach is necessary for sickness does not simply injure a person’s physicality and rejuvenation is not just a bodily concern. Illness and healing alike involve the whole being of an individual. Both are the unwinding of that patient’s story; there is an assault on the entirety of a person. From a free individual to an anxious, dependent, often bed-ridden patient, they become an iota of what they were and what they saw themselves to be.
Doctors can help lead back to the consistency. Doing so means assessing the whole patient, not just treating them as some means to an end. This means introducing oneself when meeting a new patient, asking how the patient is feeling, ensuring that they understand the procedures, gauging one’s comfort, discussing particular findings, not talking down to an individual, consent is continually stressed, and ensuring that the complications are listed, and not simply discovered haphazardly.
That way a patient can be empowered, instead of feeling like a burden, or worse yet, a cow waiting for slaughter. This is necessary as patients are not just the sum of their sicknesses. In between the coughs and blood and diagnoses are those same stories - stories of peeing in Lake Ontario or eating ice-cream cakes at Dairy Queen or first kisses or last ones all the same - the pages are just curling in a moment of bad weather.