Thursday 18 January 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly on her own fear of a hospital visit: 'I'm not just nervous - I'm scared of being powerless, in pain and of not waking up'

Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly
Being a patient forces us to face our own vulnerability.

Am finding it hard to write my column this week. The truth is I'm nervous. So I can't apply myself. I sit down, I stand up, I write a line, I pick up my phone to see if there's any messages even though I last picked up my phone about four minutes ago. I write another line. I have a low level of agitation that's (pauses, checks phone) coming between me and my work. Indeed it's coming between me and my sleep. I'm nervous because I'm going into hospital tomorrow.

What I'm having done is very routine. It's not serious. I'm not overly sick. I should be back out after a night or two. But the thought of it is scary. That's the actual truth - I'm not just nervous - I'm scared. I'm scared of needles. I'm scared of being knocked out. I'm scared of the institution, of being powerless, of pain, of not waking up.

I told my loved ones I loved them. They gave me funny looks. But at least I said it. I bought new pyjamas that aren't very me but they were the least un-me ones I could find - and I only remembered when I got home that I don't own any slippers. I'll have to wear shoes or borrow my son's.

The simple fact is that when you are an adult and used to being in charge of your life, being at the mercy of doctors, nurses and indeed an institutional machine, is frightening. It reminds you of a time when you were a child and you didn't understand how the world worked and other people were in charge and you had to do what they said. It feels like a regression. Like a loss of autonomy. It feels like a loss of dignity in some way.

And it strikes me that, as doctors, we really have no concept when we head into work in hospitals, going about our humdrum business there, gossiping in the canteen, plodding through our regular day, that the vast majority of the people we interact with are terrified. We are at work. They are in a different place altogether. We are in our comfort zone. They are anything but.

I've been a patient a few times. Happily for me, never for anything serious, but even so I've hated it. Every time.

They say doctors make bad patients but I've always been inclined to think that being a patient makes us better doctors. It starkly illustrates the feelings of vulnerability and fear that most patients we interact with are experiencing while we're chatting away to them oblivious. And it reminds us that a word of kindness when you're feeling scared makes it more bearable - makes it easier to get through it. Makes all the difference in the world.

The other thing being a patient makes me feel (apart from terror) is humility. It is all too easy as doctors to see ourselves and patients as 'us and them' but that hubris is stripped away when we become patients. It forces us to face our own vulnerability and to reconnect with our humanity - which we sometimes suppress in order to cope with the job.

Becoming a doctor is brutalising, almost militaristic training, it can make us hard. Walking in someone else's slippers helps us understand what patients are going through when they enter our domain. It breeds empathy and helps us to maybe, just maybe, be a bit better at what we do.

Which is all very well and good and might make me a better doctor - but unfortunately doesn't really help me one little bit with being a patient. (Sighs, checks phone.)


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