I walked into the patient’s room to discover an emaciated young man burned from head to toe, with one patch of hair atop his head and gangrenous, disfigured hands. He was lying in bed, laptop across his lap, playing video games. My resident and I introduced ourselves and conducted the exam.
The next day, during morning rounds, it was decided that the patient would be an excellent teaching case. We rounded as a group in the patient’s room. Ten of us stood around the boy’s bed. We watched the resident examine him and turn around to discuss his findings. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the patient looking down, an expression of deep sadness on his face. His spirit was shot. I wanted to hug him and say, “I’m sorry for putting your disease on display.” Instead, I stood there silently as my heart ached.
When I returned to his room later that day, the patient was preoccupied with his computer. I asked what he was looking at. He replied, “Legos.” His father had promised to buy him a set as a reward for his courage. I said: “I love Legos! May I look?” As we browsed all the different options, I learned that the Legos of today are different from the simple plastic blocks I played with as a child. You can buy intricate kits to build structures like the Guggenheim Museum. The patient turned to me and said that he used to build with Legos all the time, but now, because of his hands, he could no longer put them together by himself. So, he and his dad built things together. He excitedly asked his father to tell me about the time they built Big Ben. I saw a new, vibrant, happy young man emerge as I took the time to get to know this patient on his own terms. I became determined to find a set of Legos so that he and his father could build a structure during his hospital stay. After two days of searching, I found a suitable set and returned to his room. With a twinkle in his eyes he said, “Thank you.”
The image on the cover of this issue represents a child building Legos. It serves as a reminder that patients not only allow us to touch and examine them physically but that they are also opening themselves up and sharing their most private thoughts and concerns with us. It is an honor to be privy to this information. In a teaching hospital, the patients are our professors. Without them, we cannot become physicians. Each time I enter an exam room, whether I am alone or with a team, I need to remind myself of this and demonstrate mutual respect through my actions and demeanor.
Maryam Soltani, PhD
Dr. Soltani earned her PhD in psychology with an emphasis in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California; she is currently a fourth-year medical student, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.