As a resident at an academic institution, I meet and learn from patients with some of the rarest and most complex diseases. Over the last six months, my senior physicians have frequently urged me to make the most of these encounters.
"You should follow this patient closely because this is a condition that affects one in a million people," is one suggestion I've received.
"Look, this patient is so interesting because he has an anatomical variation that makes this operation a lot more challenging," is another.
Such advice helps maximize my education. The opportunity to have extraordinary experiences drew me here.
Yet, this rhetoric had an unexpected side effect.
Subconsciously, I started to see distinctions between types of patients: interesting versus average, complex versus straightforward, challenging versus easy.
I began to seek out the unique, the rare, those patients with a certain because. I assumed I derived more rewards from patients who offered more lessons. I wanted to pack in as much "value" or "efficiency" as possible, turning patient care into a calculus of rewards.
This year, I began my general surgery rotation at Holy Redeemer Hospital, a community hospital about 45 minutes outside of Center City.
At first, I feared that I would grow restless, unable to find the "exceptional" patient encounters that had become so familiar.
Yet, my time here turned out to be just as exceptional and extraordinary as my time at my home institution, just in different ways.
Walking into the preoperative ward one morning, I greeted a gentleman in his late 60s who had come with his wife for an operation.
"Hello, sir, I'm the resident who will be in your case today. I see you are having a hernia repair?"
"That's right, shall we get started?" he asked with surprising cheer and a complete lack of worry.
"Do you have any other medical conditions? Do you take any medications? Have you ever had surgery before?"
"None at all."
I paused. Surely, there must be more to his clinical picture.
But, no, that was it. This patient was extraordinarily ordinary.
His operation lasted all of 20 minutes. It was straightforward without complications. He woke up with hardly any pain and went home before noon.
No because. No complex takeaways. No challenges.
However, when I saw him wake up and smile at his wife, I experienced a sense of meaningfulness that was just as profound as I had felt with my most complicated patients.
Albert Schweitzer, a physician and humanitarian, once said: "In the hopes of reaching for the moon, men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet."
I had, over more than four years, come to define exceptional and extraordinary as necessary to a great patient-care experience.
However, I learned in that moment that patient care itself is intrinsically exceptional, no matter how ordinary it may seem.
Care needs no grander purpose or nobler context. Interacting with patients is a joy in and of itself. Being with patients and colleagues here at Holy Redeemer constantly reminds me of this lesson. This community reminds me to be wholly present in the act of caring for them, without seeking anything extrinsic.
Schweitzer also said, "In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle our inner spirit."
As I advance in my career at an academic institution, for all the complexity that threatens to stand between me and my patients, I hope each time I can rekindle this lesson.