Could I ask you for a moment, for the sake of posterity, to walk a mile in the shoes of a patient? In the shoes of my patient?
Imagine for a moment you are 32 years old. You have just moved across the country after a year of chemoradiation to reconnect with your estranged mother, a relationship that will require some healing.
Still, at least your body is on the mend. At least the treatments are done.
Or so you thought.
Things are getting painful again. It hurts to sit. It hurts even more to move. You head to the hospital. There is an abscess.
They clear you out.
Dig you up.
Switch you all around.
You leave the hospital with some new friends: One bag collects the urine leaking from your belly, another sticks to your torso, collecting your stool. They will be companions for life.
You are complicated now.
You are messy.
But you are alive.
You start to settle in again. You make new friends and get back to normal. (Or whatever normal means now). But it does not last. Your mom kicks you out, and soon after your legs swell up. Your feet are balloons. Your shoes cannot hold you anymore.
So, it is back to the hospital again, and that is where you meet me, a third-year medical student who is in way over his head. It is day 2 of my 6 weeks on the wards, and you are far too complicated for me. I am a deer in the headlights, and you are a sixteen-wheeler with the breaks cut loose. Still, they put me on your case.
That abscess? It has returned. So have your fevers. And your pain—it never really left, but now it is back with a vengeance. But your blood is clean. Your urine is clean. Your imaging? It is inconclusive.
We talk to everyone: Colorectal, oncology, nephrology, urology, infectious disease, pain management. No one has the answer, but still, I try my best to figure you out.
We talk through many afternoons. You are hungry to be heard, and so I listen. I hear about your travels. Your jobs. Your regrets. Your mistakes. Your fears. Your hopes. Your plans. Slowly, your humanity unfolds itself, and I begin to see a side of you no scan could ever capture.
You tell me of your father, somewhere abroad, your sister, who you only just met, your friends, who you left behind, and your mother, who says this is all your fault. I update her every few days. With each conversation I wish more and more that I could drop all clinical pretense and professionalism. I want to scream at her. I want to beg her to see how important her presence is. I want her to untie whatever knots there are between the two of you. I want her to heal the parts of you I cannot get at. She visits once, drops your things, yells at you, and leaves.
I do my best to forgive her. I do my best to replace her. I become your shoulder to cry on. Your deep breath when anxiety strikes. Your advocate when the pain becomes too much. And together, with the rest of the team, we refuse to give up hope. I visit the radiologists. Call the outpatient oncologists, fight for new plan after new plan: MRI. Biopsy. PET Scan. Weeks go by, and you get closer to discharge, closer to a new treatment plan, closer to getting your life back. Slowly, tremblingly, you begin to arise from the bed. Your grit inspires me, and when the physical therapists cannot make it, I walk you through the halls.
And then you stopped getting up.
Six weeks passed. I left the hospital before you did, but still I came to visit you ever so often. I wrote you a card. Told you it was my greatest privilege taking care of you. Told you how you challenged me. How you grew me.
You cried. You did not believe me. You said you did nothing for me. You said all you did was complain.
You are wrong. You were my first real teacher. And in the end, although I could not save you, I think I made you realize how much you matter. And I think that might be enough.
Thank you, my patient—my friend. To you I dedicate this essay. May it live on as a reminder to all who read it that even in the age of medical miracles, there is still no intervention more powerful than a genuine human connection. There is no lab, no scan, no test, no drug, no surgery, that can replace it. For the soul heals not by human medicine, but human kindness. And when the end does come, as it will for all our patients, we often wish had practiced a little bit less of former and a whole lot more of the latter. May I never forget that. May I never forget you.
2021 Hope Babette Tang Humanism in Healthcare Essay Contest
The Arnold P. Gold Foundation holds an annual essay contest to encourage medical and nursing students to reflect on their experiences and engage in narrative writing. The contest began in 1999 open to medical students and expanded in 2018 to include nursing students. Students are asked to respond to a specific prompt in a 1,000-word essay.
For the 2021 contest, students were asked to use the following quote as inspiration to reflect on humanism in health care during the past difficult year using their experiences or observations, as an individual or as a team (doctors, nurses, therapists, etc.)
“We’ll observe how the burdens braved by humankind
Are also the moments that make us humans kind;
Let each morning find us courageous, brought closer;
Heeding the light before the fight is over.
When this ends, we’ll smile sweetly, finally seeing
In testing times, we became the best of beings.”
—Excerpt from “The Miracle of Morning,” by Amanda Gorman
More than 270 essays were submitted. A distinguished panel of judges, including esteemed health care professionals and notable authors, reviewed the submissions. Three winning essays from medical students and three winning essays from nursing students were selected, along with 9 honorable mentions. The winning essays will be published in consecutive issues of Academic Medicine and the Journal of Professional Nursing in the fall/winter of 2021.
The contest is named for Hope Babette Tang-Goodwin, MD, who was an assistant professor of pediatrics. Her approach to medicine combined a boundless enthusiasm for her work, intellectual rigor, and deep compassion for her patients. She was an exemplar of humanism in medicine.
The Arnold P. Gold Foundation is a nonprofit organization that champions humanism in health care, defined as compassionate, collaborative, and scientifically excellent care. This Gold standard of care embraces all and targets barriers to such care. The Gold Foundation empowers experts, learners, and leaders to together create systems and cultures that support humanistic care for all.