“In illness…words give out their scent… at last we grasp the meaning, it is all having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostril…” Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill” (1930) Taped to my telephone receiver is a message. Under ‘reason for call’, the word “Urgent” is checked. I […]
A Medical Humanist's Notes
So, how does someone find themselves creating the role of a medical humanist? I can tell you that there were signs a long time ago. As a little girl I’d often position myself to overhear conversations between adults, usually family and friends. I would repeat what I heard to my mother but she usually dismissed what I reported. She’d often say, “They didn’t say that. Don’t make trouble.” Somehow, I never gave up on naming “the elephant in the room” when I saw one. In my adult years I came to understand that my mother was trying to protect me from learning about the harsh realities of life.
I recall a patient’s husband recounting what his wife’s oncologist said when her cancer progressed and was no longer curable. The doctor told her to adjust her outlook “to living with cancer rather than dying from cancer.” At the time of that conversation, I was involved in his wife’s care in my role of medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington, VT. Her husband told me that “I not only provided a bridge between the doctor and the patient but also between the patient’s present and future.” These were humbling words but I say them because of how difficult it is to live in “no man’s land.” What I did for this patient and her husband was document their concerns about the oncologist’s statement so it could be addressed at their next office visit. Words are words but the experience of hearing them can be something entirely different.
Until it becomes something a patient must think about firsthand, the word “prognosis” can seem unfamiliar, even abstract. Many patients feel uncertain about what their prognosis actually means, even after speaking to doctors.
I recently found an email that dates back to 2000, when I was a medical humanist at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. It struck me how the concern expressed by this patient is as timely today as it was back then.
A recent New York Times article “Cancer Patients Are at High Risk of Depression and Suicide, Studies Say” (Jessica Wapner, March 28, 2022) noted that “five percent of patients were diagnosed with depression after a cancer diagnosis, and the same was true for anxiety.” From my experience, this is a low estimate. For anyone who has faced cancer, it’s certainly not a surprise to read that depression and anxiety are side-effects. However, for oncologists focusing on treating the disease, psychological adjustment problems may not be in the forefront of their minds.
The importance of recognizing a patient’s perspective in weighing healthcare decisions is gaining more traction, evidenced by an increasing number of articles in medical journals that refer to the “patient’s voice” in describing how one’s personal experience of illness influences treatment choices and setting goals of care. There’s also a movement called “Narrative Medicine,” which encourages healthcare providers to listen carefully to the patient’s story in helping to better understand the circumstances in which illness is occurring. And, I’m sure we’ve all noticed how it’s become popular for healthcare organizations to use slogans that declare they offer “patient-centered care.”
I was recently digging through piles of papers when a copy of a patient’s written response to one of the chapter exercises in SpeakSooner: A Patient’s Guide to Difficult Conversations (Guide) caught my attention. The answer to the question “What do you need from your healthcare team” stopped me in my tracks. The patient wrote in capital letters, “RESPECT OUR INTELLECT. RESPECT OUR CAPACITY.”
As a medical humanist, I think about barriers and solutions to effective communication between patients and healthcare providers. We understand that patients facing serious illness are frightened and overwhelmed by an uncertain future, no less entering a world that speaks a foreign language. It is not unusual for patients to be silent as they try to absorb what is happening to them.
In 1999, oncologist Dr. Letha Mills, psychologist Dr. Bernard Bandman, patient Patricia Barr and I, a medical humanist, were invited to present a lecture at Brown Medical School. The topic was “Humanism in Medicine.” Our intent was to identify barriers and solutions to the practice of humanistic medical care.