I was hurriedly checking in on my patients in the ICU one afternoon when I heard my name called out.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, quickly glancing at her monitors for any ominous signs. She appeared to be doing well.
Turning her head toward me languidly, she said, “Well, my neck is really sore. Can you give me a massage?”
Her question caught me by surprise. Usually, patients ask me about their operations or their prognosis, never something like this. My mind searched for an excuse as I took a step back from her bed.
The first line that came to me was, “I am sorry, but I don’t think I’m the person you’re looking for. I’m a surgical resident …”
I thought about walking out of the room quickly and relaying the message to someone else. I needed to grab a quick bite before rushing back to the operating room. Surely, there must be someone more suited to give her a neck massage.
Then a question entered my mind which I have not been able to shake off since. What is my role here? What ought to be my responsibility?
As a resident slowly rising in the hospital’s hierarchy, I have taken on many roles along the way. As an intern my responsibility was to take care of patients on the floor. From there, it evolved to seeing consults, learning how to operate and at times even managing a team of junior residents and medical students.
It was part of the culture that, as I took on new responsibilities, I grew out of old ones, like trees shedding leaves. After all, as economists would say, the most efficient system is one in which each person performs only the most sophisticated and valuable tasks that he or she is uniquely trained to do.
This is why the patient’s request caught me by surprise. It seemed to me a massage would be outside the scope of my responsibilities. In that time, shouldn’t I be doing something more advanced or valuable?
But upon further reflecting on this dilemma, I realized that even before my role as a surgeon-in-training, I have a more fundamental role to play in the hospital and in society: just another human being.
If I had been in any other setting where I did not wear the label of a physician, wouldn’t I have considered this a favor that anyone would do for another person in need? I am perfectly capable of giving a patient a massage.
Not a day goes by when my patients with poor circulation don’t ask me to perform a task that I can choose to interpret as someone else’s job. They ask me to place socks on their feet or place a pillow under their knees.
I do those things gladly — just as, once I’d gotten over my surprise, I massaged the neck of my ICU patient.
In the setting of a pandemic, not a day goes by when I don’t come across stories of people facing hardships that may be medical, and often are so much more.
As the nation grapples with the tragedy and the shame of systemic racism and strives to emerge on the right side of history, I come across countless stories of people needing help.
In these moments, I remind myself that there are actions we can do, that we must do, not necessarily as physicians or whatever professional roles we may have, but as human beings. These are especially important times to forget about roles or labels that divide us, and to remember to look for the most fundamental denominator we share.
Sometimes we allow our titles or labels to dictate our actions. Instead, here’s the question we should ask ourselves: Is this something that any caring person would do for another person?