One night I entered the room of one of many patients on my list in the ICU to remove a catheter in his arm that helps continuously measure blood pressure.
Although the hole in the artery is very small, the bleeding can be brisk, so firm pressure needs to be applied for about 20 minutes.
As I stood there at his bedside, I began to look around the room in detail for the first time of a patient whose name I had been hearing about for six months.
In the corner, I noticed a neat arrangement of photographs in which the patient could be seen as he appeared before this illness, enjoying activities such as grilling and being at the beach surrounded by loved ones.
Though I could have told you every single medication or laboratory value in his chart, I was not prepared to see these photographs — his real identity and life outside of the hospital. In a sense, it was as if I were meeting him for the first time and understanding just how much this illness had taken from him.
I was sad to see him in a completely different light. Until this moment, I had defined him by his pathology and a series of tasks he still needed done, but from then on, I could not erase the image of those photographs.
When we meet patients in the hospital, especially those who are critically ill, it can be hard to imagine who they were before their illness. They may be unrecognizably thinner with their hospital gowns fitting loosely. Many of them are sedated and have a breathing tube in.
COVID-19-related precautions have made it even more challenging to humanize physician-patient interactions. The need to wear masks has made facial recognition and expression much more difficult. Touch has become minimal, reserved only for invasive procedures. Visitors who would show us the human aspects of our patients had reduced visiting hours.
But what that night showed me is just how important it is to keep reminding ourselves of who our patients were and are. Our charts are full of patient history as it pertains to their disease process, but seldom captures personal details.
Perhaps remembering and even physically including human characteristics at the patient’s bedside or in their chart can become a personal goal for health-care workers because humanizing our patients is an important reminder of just what is at stake, and the cornerstone of our interactions.
Though saddening, seeing those photographs made me care more, and reminded me to be more thoughtful and less callous in a setting where it can be easy to become numb.
It will require an effort. Not all patients have photos on the walls, or cards with get-well notes, making it hard to remember who they were.
But even so, we can do so much to remember their humanity. I used to not understand why certain nurses would spend a lot of time frequently bathing, washing, trimming, and combing their patients’ hair.
Now I realize that, though it may not be medically necessary, these were affirmations — reminders that our patients have lives beyond their diseases.
Jason Han is a cardiac surgery resident at a Philadelphia hospital and contributor to The Inquirer’s Health section.