This past month I was in the belly of the monster. I was poked, prodded and stuck. It was worse than my wife trying to get me out of the bed in the morning. I have seen more doctors than are in a typical medical school graduating class. They know some of what I have and more of what I don't have. Everything else is HOK: Heaven Only Knows. I have experienced the finest in care, and I have endured when the anesthetic hasn't.
I am now officially a patient.
Being a patient is a hundred times worse than being the doctor. That is a low estimate. Think a million times. But try telling that to medical interns who have been up all night. They won't always believe you. But personally being one of the reasons why they were up, trust me. It's worse being the "stickee" than being the "sticker." The reasons go beyond the sting of the blood test or even the pain of the incision. I am not talking about the fear of dying or lifelong disability. Forget disease. I am just talking about the process of being a patient. Once someone enters into the monster of health care, there is the feeling of semi-helplessness. I say "semi" because I am a doctor. But also helpless because I was uncomfortable or in need of an official diagnosis. I had already provided my own unofficial one, but neither my doctor nor my wife would accept my version.
The imprisonment feelings were because things were being done to me that I couldn't control. There were facts I pretended to understand but really didn't. I had to have a series of three labs when I thought two would be just fine. The IV was in an uncomfortable location because some whoever doctor in some remote part of the hospital said so. The stay was overnight and not a short casual drop-by visit. There were things to monitor that they decided needed monitoring, not me. I could choose the channels on my TV, but that was about it.
It was also painful to be ordinary. I was the "somebody" in room 2, or the 50-plus-year-old male with an EKG, or patient number 749348. It made me wonder if some doctors become doctors because they don't want to be patients. My father was a patient when I was growing up, and I wonder now if I wanted to cure him or just not be him. My fear is not so much about being in pain again. I worry if I need to feel extraordinary at someone else's expense.
"There are no ordinary people," wrote C.S. Lewis. "You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub and exploit immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."
Perhaps because medicine just sees the physical, it makes being a patient so difficult. As physicians, we are trained, drilled, even beaten, to learn about the molecules and the tissues and organs of the body. The potential fallout of that exclusive intellectual culturalization is treating the sick or the infirm as protoplasm or as was the joke in medical school PPP: Pretty Poor Protoplasm.We image the corpus with different wavelengths of energy or probe the depths with cameras as in some fantastic journey. But if we only picture our fellow beings and ourselves as organic and not immortal, there is always the risk of being and acting ordinary. Then it will always be painful to be a patient, even without diseases, shots, or incisions.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at email@example.com.