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Resurrecting Compassion

Hendrix, Cheralyn J. MD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002477
Teaching and Learning Moments
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C.J. Hendrix is a resident, Department of Surgery, George Washington University Hospital, Washington, DC; e-mail: cjhendrix@gwu.edu; Twitter: @CHendrix_MD.

An Academic Medicine Podcast episode featuring this article is available through iTunes, the Apple Podcast app, and SoundCloud.

I’m an old and broken man, my face chipped away by life’s decisions. Nurses come and go. Medical students, young doctors, seasoned doctors. Coming into my room to do things to me. They sigh. They shake their heads. I know I’m a mess. I lay in my bed alone day after day enduring procedure after procedure. The pain is unbearable, and yet they keep coming back. Now they tell me my treatment is failing. Where does it all end?

I can only imagine the musings of the patient I see as I walk into a room dimly lit only by the sunshine slipping through the blinds. There he lies, his face and shoulders covered in specks of dried blood. I’ve come for the next procedure. He is resigned to more pain. It is just one more item on my seemingly endless to-do list. This task is going to take forever. He’s withdrawn. I’m exhausted. I don’t have time to think or feel anything about this patient or his pain. Or do I? Has anybody?

My phone won’t stop ringing. My pager won’t stop beeping. More requests for medications. Orders for morning labs. When are you going to come talk to this worried patient and her family? Is that another trauma alert? I don’t even have time for the patient in front me. I’m overwhelmed, even irritated. Is this really medicine?

I spot a King James Bible on his bedside table. I take a deep breath and start the procedure. I should make small talk. Good doctors make small talk.

“Sir, what’s your favorite passage?”

“I don’t know,” he replies. “I really like the New Testament.”

“Oh? What have you been reading?”

“Nothing. I can’t find my glasses.”

“One of my favorite passages is Psalm 139. Are you familiar with it?”

“No.”

“Would you like me to read it to you?”

He nods. So much for small talk. I silence my phone and sit down by his bedside. I don’t have time for this. But I will make time.

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you.”

As I begin to read, he breathes a heavy sigh. I look up from the page in time to see tears rolling down his emaciated cheeks. Rolling through the dried blood. Rolling over his sutures. Dripping from his disfigured chin. I take his hand. He squeezes mine. I keep reading. His tears keep falling. And suddenly I am keenly aware that he doesn’t need my medical degree at all.

I stop perseverating over my to-do list—all the patients yet to be seen, all the orders yet to be written. Not even the ache of exhaustion can dissuade me. I grab a washcloth and wet it with warm water. I begin to wipe away the tears and the blood. He moans.

“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?” He shakes his head and I realize he hasn’t been bathed since his surgery. He asks me to continue.

I came into his room on a mission to complete one more routine task, and I left knowing that sometimes the most powerful medicine comes in the form of a tangible expression of humanity, the careful attention to the soul. It is so much more than tending to the frail body of a fellow human being. From this day forward, I am determined to resist the temptation to treat patients and their ailments as a list of tasks to be accomplished. Instead I resolve to pursue a practice of medicine that is characterized by choosing compassion above all else.

Copyright © 2018 by the Association of American Medical Colleges