After a morning GI appointment, my mom wanted to get a coffee before she took me to work. We drove to a local coffee shop and I decided to go in with her to grab a tea. We placed our orders, paid, and as we were leaving, I caught a glimpse of a customer sitting at a table and suddenly recognized him.
He was a clinician from my pediatric hospital – someone I had always thought of as particularly kindly, someone who had incredible bedside manner and a great comfort in speaking to me, and someone who I hadn’t seen since high school. Since I knew I would regret it if I didn’t, I walked over and said hi. He promptly hopped up from his chair, reaching out his arms for a hug, and asked how I’d been.
It was this funny moment in which I was no longer a child or a patient but just someone else in a coffee shop – grown, with a hospital ID badge slung around my neck. He couldn’t believe how old I was – “How is it possible you’re done college?” – and grinned at me as I caught him up on my life. I had sent him pictures after I hiked Machu Picchu. He said he’d been to Peru since and thought about me, trying to notice any similarities between my pictures and the Peruvian surroundings. When I told him about graduating with double honors and wanting to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, he looked at me, smirked, and said, “That does not surprise me one bit.”
He said he was going to a meeting with some of my other former clinicians, and asked if he could pass along the full update on me. Of course I said yes, feeling a little like a movie-star that people cared what I was up to. He will always be one of my favorite clinicians. He made me feel as a kid – and in our short coffee shop interaction – like a whole person with more to offer the world than an over-sized medical chart. I believed in myself not only because my parents were supportive, but because at my sickest I had clinicians like him who saw beyond the medicine to the person.
Monday was my first day back to work after a two-week hospital stay. I walked into my office, collected hugs from my lovely co-workers, and set about logging onto the computer and catching up on emails. The fabulous boost of seeing that clinician in the coffee shop stayed with me. At one point during the day, I saw a patient for one of our studies. He was a gentleman in his 70’s and was in the surgical clinic with his wife. Before I stepped into the room, I made sure to look through his chart and get a sense of who he was – not just what surgery he was having – so I could be engaging and receptive to him as a person and not solely as a patient. I had the loveliest conversation with him and his wife, going out of my way to be open, respectful, personable, and accessible. For example, in going over the study questionnaires, I wanted to be transparent and would turn the page around to show him and his wife what the pages looked liked, explaining what I was asking and writing down so that it didn’t seem secretive or hidden. He would laugh and noticeably relax, and as they saw me throughout the day, our relationship continued to grow so that when I see him after his surgery, I will be a familiar face.
This perhaps seems silly to write a post about. But this is what I hope you’ve read between the lines – the person inside the patient matters. You never know who’s sitting in front of you, because it’s never just a person of a certain age with a certain disease. Especially in pediatrics, your patients are like caterpillars waiting to become butterflies – you have future doctors and advocates and economists and dancers and athletes and poets in front of you. You have children who are blossoming into themselves, with diverse talents and abilities. As clinicians for children, you have a unique opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with them as they grow emotionally and physically. Your patients will never forget you – good or bad – but why not make the memories they carry with them about how much you supported them?
Because who knows, you just might run into them in a coffee shop one day.