Bringing Ourselves Into Patient Care

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Sitting with the boys from Little League and their parents on Saturday night, a parent (and friend) surprised me when he said, "I know a lot about your Dad." He told me my Dad's name and he knew that his birthday was on Valentine's Day. It turns out that he had met the spouse of a former patient of mine, and she remembered me fondly and recalled this information that I had shared. I wondered ... what was the context for me sharing this about my Dad and was that appropriate?

The next morning, I read the front page article in the New York Times about M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. The question on my mind after reading this article is whether or not the story captured the essence of our top-ranked institution. 

There are many perspectives on the story, depending on whether you talk to faculty and staff or patients familiar with M. D. Anderson, or other people who are mesmerized by the story but unfamiliar with our center. To me, of the images and various vignettes in the story, the most striking was that of a singular mission -- to eliminate cancer in Texas, the nation and the world -- and an ambitious and compassionate approach.

The nurse (Cindy Davis) and the physicians (Marty Raber and Patrick Hwu) featured were all intimately connected to their patients, striving to do everything in their power and professional scope to understand their patients in all possible dimensions, and most of all to help. The mission was personal to each of them, and this is how things go around here.

feelingsman.jpgI wrote in an earlier post about the concept of buoyancy (the force that keeps us afloat) and some of the factors that this force has in each of us. To me, compassion is derived from the combination of our own buoyancy plus empathy (the process of understanding and being sensitive to the experience and feelings of another). As such, it's important to bring something of ourselves in order to be fully compassionate.

The idea of sharing something intimate, as a physician, can be humanizing and helpful to our patients. This was discussed in the New York Times wellness blog, and there was a strong acknowledgement that it can be an important and useful feature in caring for patients (as long as the intent and ultimate focus is squarely with the patient).

As I sit in my office and watch the storms approach here in Houston, I think I understand a bit better why I might have shared something intimate with a patient about my Dad. 


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