The art of medicine
Wanted: 90 year old patient to look after ailing doctor
I've been ill. For two whole days. Horribly, gut wrenchingly, toilet bowl huggingly, head piercingly ill. For two whole days. So now I know what my patient felt like, right? The one who 'gave' this to me a few days ago when I visited her at home. The one who, in her 90th year, whilst clearly overwhelmed by the practical challenges raised by the physical symptoms I am now so intimately acquainted with, didn't want to fuss, to be a bother, to waste anyone's time.
Unlike that dignified old lady I welcomed fussing, as I welcomed the odd bit of company, albeit entertained at a distance in order not to share my misery further. Because miserable it is, when you can't drink without vomiting painfully and- so it feels- endlessly; when your head hurts so much you don't know how to cope without resource to the ever ready painkillers your fragile stomach will no longer tolerate; and when those you hold most dear, and so often take for granted, are held at arms length in order to limit the household fallout.
Pathetic I know, but an honest account of how I felt. Until that is I thought, as I did many times during those two days, about how much worse it must have been for that lovely, dignified, but very much alone lady in her 90th year. The thought did not make me feel better, did not raise my spirits in any way. Instead it made me feel enormously sad that, whilst I was able to admit her to hospital, I hadn't been able to take away her suffering in any real sense, even if I had taken away her bug and made it, temporarily, my own.
This lady's story, or at least a poor and rather diluted version, was for two brief days replayed in my own body. My experience didn't help me to understand what she had gone though. Rather it reminded me how little I could truly understand, from my relatively robust perspective, of what it means to be ill, and alone, and afraid. One day I'll learn. I can't claim to be looking forward to it. Until then I'll try to remember the lesson my patient taught me this week by letting me take home just a little of what was making her ill.
First posted at
28th February 2009
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