March 2, 2012

fuzzy little test tubes

    When my wife was giving birth to our son, it was not an easy birth, which is more than an understatement.  I have no doubts that without modern medicine and the skilled medical team, my wife and son would not have lived through childbirth.  At about the 20th hour of labor, the resident walked in and attempted to work on my wife.  Nothing doing.  "GET MY DOCTOR," she growled through clenched teeth.  This was no time for practicing new techniques.
    It's not talked about much but the way society produces the next generation of doctors is by allowing them to practice and learn on humans.  It's the only way.  Everybody wants new doctors but nobody wants to be the one that the resident or medical student learns on.  Because learning means mistakes.  Some go unnoticed, some are minor inconveniences, some just piss off the patient, but there is the very real chance for dangerous ones, too.
     In my years working as a research scientist, I experimented on animals. And I mean a LOT of animals. Mostly mice, but there were rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and dogs thrown in, too. I had no problem rationalizing it.  I looked at them as "fuzzy little test tubes."  And in that time, I probably did thousands of surgeries.  If I had a "bad day" doing surgery, I could always get another mouse.  They breed like rabbits after all. 
     But now that I'm practicing and learning on humans, that's a whole different game.  "Bad days" take on a whole different meaning when it's a human being's life in your hands.  Intellectually, I know that I won't be perfect, that I'll miss diagnoses, that I'll make the wrong treatment plan.  That's easy to say now but I know when it happens, and it will happen, it'll be a very bitter pill for me to swallow.  These are not "fuzzy little test tubes."  There is obviously a down side to that.  But there's also an upside, which is part of the draw of medicine to me.  Because they are not "fuzzy little test tubes", there is the chance for a deep and profound connection between patient and doctor. 
     I had not expected to experience that until later in my career but I'm starting to catch glimpses of it now.  How often does one get the opportunity to be told by a dying patient, "I am not afraid of death.  I have no regrets.  And if I can help someone become a doctor, that's my way of giving back."  There is a depth to that connection that's just not going to come up very often in the average day.  But doctors seem to be offered that opportunity with at least some regularity.  I'm not so naive as to think it'll happen every day, or that I won't be confronted with far too many patients whom I probably dislike vehemently on a personal level.  But to at least be given that opportunity still beats working with fuzzy little test tubes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow this was amazing to read. I hope you are all doing ok. Thank you for sharing.