Offering patients strength for each day

June 1, 2011

After years of medical school and residency, there is still one thing the author is desperately trying to learn as a pediatrician - how to offer strength to her patients.

After years of medical school and residency, there is still one thing I am desperately trying to learn as a pediatrician. I can't find it in textbooks. It rarely comes up in conversation with colleagues. Google does not have much to say about it.

How can I offer my patients strength for each day?

You see, I work part-time-just 2 days a week. The rest of the week I am home with the kids. Some may say this suggests a lack of commitment to my career. I have grown tired of explaining myself, so I don't.

Which is why I ask over and over: How can I offer my patients strength for each day?

Because that is what families need. Strength to make ends meet. Strength to fight illness and also to let go. Strength to mend marriages and family life. Strength to simply be parents, day in, day out, without respite.

Knowledge and diagnostic skills are critical in medical care. But more often than not, it is the daily battles and smaller blips of life that wear down a family and destroy its heart. Unlike the portrayals in House or ER, there is no adrenaline rush of a brilliant diagnosis and lifesaving feat. Just fatigue, worry, stress, hopelessness, and the palpable discomfort of not having easy answers.

I wish I could write a prescription to cure poverty. I wish I could test and treat for injustice. I wish I could put in a referral for opportunity and just another chance.

Instead, I write prescriptions for medications. I offer advice. I give bad news. Sometimes good news. I give hugs and handshakes. An occasional hand on the shoulder. I try to be as genuine as possible in that short 10 or 15 minutes I have with a family.

Our community health center closes at 5:30 PM. I grab my things and rush home just in time for the lunacy of dinner with 2 toddlers bouncing off the walls and pasta thrown all over the kitchen floor. Then it's water all over the bathroom floor as they splash around in the tub. Then it's me dozing off during bedtime stories. And then, with relief, all is quiet.

As I lay in bed, I contemplate the day. Patients come to mind. I feel both guilt and gratitude for the immense blessing of my children's health. Dissatisfaction lingers with still having no answer to how I can offer strength for the things my patients have to face.

I think about the little details that aren't in the patient's chart. The exhaustion on a mom's face. The fear in a young girl's eyes when I tried to explain what renal failure means. The tears and self-hatred visible on the face of a teenager who already weighs 500 pounds. The flat disconnect between a mother and her very difficult special needs child, because the journey has just been too much.

The fact is, some of my patients already do have incredible strength. I am in awe of them. But even the seemingly strong have a breaking point. At those times, I wish I could offer more, but I don't know what.

In the meantime, I pray. People balk at the idea of prayer. Prayer is for the weak. But you know what, I am weak. Recognizing our weaknesses brings about a different kind of strength and perspective. So I pray my heart out, because that is what my heart knows how to do. I pray for my patients and their families. I pray for myself and my role as both mother and pediatrician. I pray because there is a realm of living that scientific medicine simply does not touch.