The importance of a medical team in patients’ lives cannot be underestimated. When I speak with medical professionals about communication issues and how they view themselves against patients and their families, I find that professionals often underestimate the depth of the connections that patients and families are making with them.
Most appreciate the fact that some kind of empathic connection contributes to “good patient care,” but many are surprised to learn just how profoundly intimate these connections feel to the patients they treat:
My nurse is an angel; she just seems to know what I need, when I need it.
Dr. J? He’s everything to me; I would trust him with my life. Ha! I am trusting him with my life!
I Love, Love, Love, Love, Love my doctor and my nurse. I mean that, really, LOVE.
Who else can you call at any hour and get the help that you need, thank God for hospice heroes.
Patients and families choose their medical teams in many different ways: some research and seek multiple opinions, others go to the first team they meet, some seek referrals, others go by what their insurance dictates, and some find themselves being treated by “the only doctor in town.”
Regardless of how they come to you, once there, the chaos of diagnosis and treatment decision-making, and the fears and anxieties involved in coming to terms with a life-threatening illness, can render patients emotionally raw and extremely vulnerable. The medical team becomes a lifeline and the desire to connect, a deeply human response to the fears and sudden existential awareness of the body’s fragility and mortality itself, is often directed towards that very special lifeline.
When individual members of the team are caring and empathic (and sometimes even when they aren’t), patients quickly develop an attachment to the “heroes” that they hope will save their lives, or, at the very least, provide the best of care.
The team may find themselves on the receiving end of gifts and goodies, praise, and appreciation expressed in many ways. They may also take the brunt of anger, fear, and anxiety, and wonder why a patient is so hostile. Whether positive or negative, there is often a profound depth of feeling that a patient experiences in relation to his or her medical team, a level of feeling that speaks to the meaning of connection with caring and competent providers.
As members of the medical team, understanding the power of that connection, of those feelings and that sense of intimacy, can shape our interactions with our patients and families in so many ways. We may use it to help with adherence to treatment regimens and medications. We may also find that, even when we cannot do something about a given situation, our caring presence alone provides much needed support. We may count on that connection as we guide our patients through the maze of treatment decision making.
As a support group participant once told a group I was running, “My doctor has a nurse who answers all the calls and questions, she’s amazing, I trust her and do what she says, how else could I survive this?”
Do you find that most cancer patients treat you as their lifeline, offering appreciation, or is hostility and anger more prominent, leaving you feeling unappreciated and stressed?