Sometimes in medical science- being a human gets more important.
A thirty-five-year-old sat in her ICU bed, a sheen of terror on her face. She had been shopping for her sister’s birthday when she’d had a seizure. A scan showed that a benign brain tumor was pressing on her right frontal lobe. In terms of operative risk, it was the best kind of tumor to have, and the best place to have it; surgery would almost certainly eliminate her seizures. The alternative was a lifetime on toxic antiseizure medications. But I could see that the idea of brain surgery terrified her, more than most. She was lonesome and in a strange place, having been swept out of the familiar hubbub of a shopping mall and into the alien beeps and alarms and antiseptic smells of an ICU. She would likely refuse surgery if I launched into a detached spiel detailing all the risks and possible complications. I could do so, document her refusal in the chart, consider my duty discharged, and move on to the next task. Instead, with her permission, I gathered her family with her, and together we calmly talked through the options. As we talked, I could see the enormousness of the choice she faced dwindle into a difficult but understandable decision.
I had met her in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved.
To one woman, who was recovering from a cardiac procedure: “Are you hungry? What can I get you to eat?”
“Anything,” she said. “I’m starving.”
“Well, how about lobster and steak?” He picked up the phone and called the nursing station. “My patient needs lobster and steak—right away!” Turning back to her, he said, with a smile: “It’s on the way, but it may look more like a turkey sandwich.”
The easy human connections he formed, the trust he instilled in his patients, were an inspiration to me.
What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own. Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.