Last year’s Vascular Surgery rotation gave rise to a lot of horror stories and concurrent lessons in medicine for me. I will never forget that week. It was my last week of taking PEP, so I was feeling gross already. The last Friday of the rotation was Valentine’s Day and by then, we were a miserable bunch of students (our superiors were miserable all week long).
We had rounded until 21h00 the Thursday night, and started our morning rounds at 06h30 on Friday. I remember I wore pink because my frazzled mind vaguely recalled the date, but I certainly was in no mood to celebrate. (I was in the mood for bed – alone.)
As I rounded, patients asked if they would be able to go home because their husbands had made reservations for them, and I had to tell them that if they left, their bed in this large and overflowing state hospital would be taken over by another needy patient. So no, they probably could not go home.
Some patients already had their significant others with them early in the morning. I was aware of a vague sense of jealousy because GeekBoy was fast asleep in his cozy bed, and here I was, wondering what time I would be able to see him.
But the breaking point for me was when I got to one of our “notorious” patients. She was morbidly obese with a BMI of over 50, and had just about every chronic lifestyle disease you could mention. She was admitted for a below-knee amputation but had not been operated because the anaesthetists were worried about her heart (and almost every other organ).
She had signed to leave against medical advise twice, and only asked to be re-admitted because her family did not arrive to collect her from hospital.
She was one of the reasons we had all left work so late the night before – she needed intravenous access, but we could not succeed. Eventually someone managed to cannulate a neck vein.
When we (the motley group of medical students – the other doctors were who-knows-where) arrived in her room, she looked worse than we felt. I had never before seen anyone simultaneously happy and dismayed at seeing us.
She was lying on the bed at the most uncomfortable angle. She could not adjust herself because of her body habitus and her general fatigue. She had been calling her nurses for assistance all morning but they, for whatever reason (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, it was a busy ward) had not responded.
So we helped her. It was no grand gesture, it was no favour, and it was no act worthy of praise. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if our tired minds did not do it simply so that we could finish examining her and move on with our rounds.
We helped her and repositioned her, and handed her the breakfast that had been placed out of her reach (whether it was of malicious intent, I do not know). And she promptly burst into tears.
She burst into tears, thanking us.
She told us how tired she was of how rude everyone was to her. How she just wanted to go home. How she was tired of lying alone in her hospital bed without anyone to talk to.
Had we seen her as more than another body awaiting surgery before that point? Had we considered that if it was horrible for us to work in hospital on Valentine’s Day, it was probably worse to be a patient on Valentine’s Day?
I don’t know.
In that moment, I didn’t see the woman who had an unhealthy lifestyle and a rotting limb. I saw the woman that was uncomfortable, and the woman that was probably just a little more sensitive on Valentine’s Day than usual. The woman that wanted to know that someone cared for her, too. The woman that probably felt horrid and self-conscious after our many attempts at IV-access the night before.
I will never forget the day that this woman cried simply because I was nice to her. It felt so wrong that she had been brought to that point: where a small favour that should have been part of standard care moved her to tears, because nobody else had been kind to her during her hospital stay.