Kids Love Dr. Barton

Medicine Is Human

by Dr. Douglas Barton, M.D., Pediatrician 09/01/2009

Every once in a while, I go a hair on the philosophical side. Medicine is a science for sure, but as a frequent reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that there is some art to it as well. Well, there’s another aspect of medicine that we see everyday and yet don’t always acknowledge, though we work extensively with it. Medicine is a uniquely human. Yes, we can talk about veterinary medicine in many of the same terms as human medicine, but there is something very different about the effects of illness and health on humans, versus animals.

This became abundantly clear to me after I spoke to my mother the other day. I am currently rehabilitating from a surgery to my left knee. The surgery that was planned was a relatively minor cleaning out of the knee. The plan was to be back on my feet within a few days and back to running, if I still wanted to, within a week or two. Once my surgeon got into my knee, however, he found a rather big mess. Not too surprising, since my MRI results were terrible. What was surprising is that he had crossed off “limited weight-bearing as tolerated” off my discharge instructions and replaced it with “non-weight-bearing. Use crutches for 4 weeks.” Now that throws a monkey wrench into things!! I had planned on going back to work in a few days and getting back to full speed relatively quickly. Now I’m on the slow burner for several weeks!

So getting back to Mom…she had reminded me of her experience having each of her knees replaced. Our short-term rehab plans were about the same. The discomfort was different and yet the same for each of us. So we commiserated for a little while and hung up the phone with words of love and encouragement. It got me to thinking, though. She had a vertical cut about 6-8 inches long; I have two small puncture wounds. Her surgeon had to cut through large portions of her muscles to get the device into her joint; my surgeon avoided the muscles all together and went in the side of the joint. You see, here I was whining about 4-8 weeks of not being able to put weight on my leg, while she had gone through a great deal of discomfort (admittedly relieved by chemistry) as her muscles had to knit back together in order for her to walk again.

It got me to thinking further, though. Sometimes we forget, when we give or receive a diagnosis that others have been there before. We also can easily forget that others have been through much worse. I can’t bear weight on my leg for a month or so, but I have a patient who is 18 years old and has NEVER been able to bear weight on her legs. She has cerebral palsy and has lived in a wheelchair all of her life. My work and personal life is disrupted for a month or two. My running may be on hold indefinitely. BUT…I haven’t been diagnosed with leukemia. My life will not be centered around some medication regimen that keeps me alive.  I’ve been inconvenienced, but I haven’t lost a loved one to an accident or a disease.      

As physicians, we give inconvenient news to patients all the time and become somewhat numb to the consequences that this news means to families. As the receiver of inconvenient news, we easily forget that the news could have been worse. News is neither good nor bad. It’s just information. It’s what we do with that news and how we choose to live our life as a result of it that ultimately makes medicine a uniquely human experience.




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