She lay there with her blanket pulled up close to her chin, with her arms buried in the three blankets covering her, as if she was in her own bed. My patient was an elderly woman from Bangladesh. Her daughters had brought her from home, where she lived with them, because she had been feeling generally weak and having more trouble moving around. She had fallen a few weeks ago at home and her daughters were worried her health was declining. The elderly woman, who was in her 80’s, appeared frail, but still had a round face. She was slow to speak, did not know English, and was very sweet and kind. The patient’s two daughters spoke with concern and anxiety for their mother’s wellbeing.
I pulled a stool stuck beneath the sink in the room and wheeled it closer to the patient’s stretcher. As her daughter’s translated for me, because the patient did not speak English, I took her history down. She was here because she had simply felt weak. She did not have fevers. She did not have pain. She sometimes felt a little dizzy. Her blood pressures may have been running high; sometimes her systolic blood pressure, which is the top number in the blood pressure reading, would read 160 or 170. The patient had not been vomiting, had no blood in her stool, and had not passed out or hit her head. But she had fallen. They described that her knees simply gave out beneath her and she had slumped down to the ground, unable to get up without assistance. The patient’s daughters were fortunate they were home at the time. They worried a great deal about what would happen to their mother if they were ever unable to be with her frequently, if she were to fall when they were not around. As we talked, my thoughts trailed off.
The patient was the spitting image of my grandmother. They were both roughly the same age. They had the same kind of wrinkles in the same places around their face. They had the same warm eyes, with different colors, but full of a sense of exhaustion at what their life had entailed. They had both raised large families, in countries and societies that did not have many resources or support for mothers, families, or young children. Now they were both in the twilight of their years, clutching onto what little strength they had, trying their best to adapt to the advancing world around them as their own bodies started to crumble from within.
I completed my discussion with the patient and her daughters, performed a physical examination by asking the patient to sit up, which she had difficulty doing. I helped her stand up, though she was quite unsteady on her feet, and begged to get back into bed. She said her dizziness was worse whenever she stood up. Her heart beat was strong and regular. Her pulses were equal in all her extremities. Her cranial nerves, which are important nerves which connect the brain with the rest of the body, were functioning well.
As I thanked the patient and her daughter for their patience with me, as this was only a few months into my intern year, I walked out of the room and fought back the tears welling in my eyes. I had just walked out of a room with a patient who was, essentially, my grandmother. Her daughters, with their concern and anxiety over their mother’s health, were analogous to my own mother and her sister. I began to think about all of the obstacles and difficulties this family faced in getting to the hospital today. They were in an inner city Baltimore hospital. The area around the hospital is known, sadly, for violence and crime. They chose not to call 911, but to bring their mother in by their own private vehicle. I could not help but think about what they would eat, as they are all strict vegetarians, and the time was now 1 AM in the morning. Any family they had in the country lived at least 5 hours away, including the patient’s grandchildren and son in laws. Some of them were actually back home in Bangladesh.
I tried to focus back on the task at hand – to identify what could be ailing my patient, what could be serious enough to place her in immediate danger – emergencies. I quickly listed out a variety of severe diseases and conditions which I needed to check her for, and made up my mind to admit her to the hospital because of her frailty. I was worried she may fall at home. I was worried that she needed physical therapy, and potentially a walker or a cane to get around. We completed her ED workup and admitted her to the hospital for physical therapy and occupational therapy, and to make sure we did not miss anything that could be contributing to her decline.
* * * * *
Five months later, while I was on my Medical Intensive Care Unit rotation, my heart stopped when I saw the patient’s name on my colleague’s admission paperwork. I became distraught and learned what was going on. She was being admitted to the ICU for monitoring because she had an infection, and was found to be very frail. Her vital signs were also concerning. My colleague offhandedly commented that the admission was unwarranted. I built up the courage to walk near the patient’s room, and sure enough, she and her daughters were there. Almost unchanged from when I cared for her in the ED. I could not bring myself to say hello, or visit her. I found a quiet place and let my thoughts race.
Will she be okay? What does it mean for her, to be admitted to the ICU? Based on my experiences here, patients did not frequently leave the ICU without difficult struggles with their health. Sometimes they even became afflicted with conditions as a result of our own efforts to help them – hospital acquired infections, injuries to their blood vessels from our attempts to insert catheters and tubes…I cried. I cried, feeling overwhelmed, feeling the weight of everything I had seen as a trainee, the pain and suffering I had witnessed not just that month in the ICU, but over the past 4 years in medical school, the prior 2 years in EMS, and the 4 years before then when I volunteered in an Emergency Department.
There is perhaps no greater struggle for us as nurses, doctors, and care givers, than to be tasked with caring for those who remind us of our own families and loved ones. But it is my belief that this particular situation – this emotional response and the associated feelings – is a necessary aspect of our work. I had been taught, both directly and indirectly, that these sorts of connections and emotions for my patients and their families, were not just inappropriate, but unsafe and dangerous. I disagree. Having done what I do for just this short a time, I can say that giving myself the freedom to feel the sadness, despair, frustration, and concern my patients feel, to truly empathize with them, is a source of strength. Many argue that it can cloud our judgment and bog us down, but my response is simply that the alternative, a world in which doctors, nurses, and others who care for patients simply ignore, or internalize what they feel, is far more dangerous for the nurses, doctors, and most of all – for their patients.
We must feel. It is our duty to feel. It is that very expression, that bond that develops between a physician, nurse, or health practitioner, and their patient, which allows us to deliver the best care.