Let me tell you a personal story that has, since recently, been caged somewhere in my brain — until a good friend reminded me about it.
It was around 2005-2006 and I was a 4th year medical student (clerk) then. My groupmates and I were quite frantic about another bedside preceptorial session for our Neurology class. In these sessions, we go to the ward, discuss one patient’s case, learn from them, and get graded in the process. These sessions were crucial.
(Photo: Flowers in Brussels, Belgium)
Our preceptor was a known and respectable neurologist. Having him as a preceptor was something you would want. For that session, a patient’s case was already pre-selected for us. Together with the consultant, we went to the patient’s bedside. He started asking about the patient, how he should be examined, and how the diagnosis was established.
Suddenly, at the corner of my eye, I noticed that the family members of the patient on the next bed were very anxious. I glanced at the patient.
Something was terribly wrong.
Without any second thought, I broke off from our preceptorial. I went over to check. He was “coding” — his heart rate was dangerously slow and he was no longer responding. I called a “code” and started resuscitating the patient. It was my first time to lead a code. I was scared. I was mainly afraid for the patient and his family. To my relief, my friend had also left the group and helped. (I am forever grateful.)
Being a mere clerk, with limited clinical experience, I was hoping the consultant would stop and help out. I was hoping more people would come and assist in bringing the patient back.
But nothing like that happened.
Each chest pump we gave coincided with the voice of the neurologist that resonated throughout the ward. He was oblivious to what was happening. Our classmates stayed with him and just looked on. Afraid to compromise their grades? Only they know the answer.
My friend and I continued the resuscitation, surrounded by the patient’s family who were helplessly crying.
The patient, sadly, did not make it.
(Photo: Duck in park by Woluwé Saint Pierre, Brussels)
I can’t remember crying so much because of frustration over a lot of people and the system. Our institution was supposed to be producing compassionate physicians but at that moment, everything seemed to have failed.
I don’t know if the outcome could have turned out differently had others with more expertise stepped in. I just know that we owe it to every patient and his/her family to at least try and be there for them when we are needed.
Not because we are graded or it’s part of the job, but because we genuinely care about their well-being.
Not because we pledged to, but because they are our fellow men.
After that incident, I promised myself that I would never allow myself to become that kind of person — successful but insensitive to the plight and needs of others, superficial, uncaring, and without real connection to others.
Once in a job interview, I was asked why I quit my residency training in internal medicine a long time ago. "I get too emotionally attached to the patients," I said. Yes, it was part of the reason.
"Will that not become a problem when you’re already in the field and see a lot of people suffering and dying?" They again asked.
"No. The moment I become distant, I will stop caring. It is by being connected to them that I am able to push myself to do everything I can to help them.”
I am not saying we should all become saints. I am not. I cannot. I will not bother to, even in a million lifetimes.
I am just saying that as human beings capable of caring, we should do this often and not scrimp on it.
After all, caring is for free.
If each of us will care a little more for others, we may slowly solve most of our problems. And then the world will become a better place for all of us.