Professional distance in medicine is a rotten, malignant lie. At least in MY professional career, it is.
Professional distance is the quality my teachers in medical school promoted as a way to keep a doctor from carrying the stress of the office home with them. They told us we have to learn to keep space between ourselves and our patients. Many students interpreted that as “Don’t care too much, because that makes you hurt too much.”
I tried for a little while. I tried to leave it at the office, to separate my career from my private life. Then I realized something that has changed my career forever.
If I try to maintain distance from my patients, I lose so much of the satisfaction I take in practicing medicine. The bottom line is that if I don’t hurt with my patients, I can’t rejoice with my patients. The intense emotion of medicine is a package deal for me.
Here’s an example of how this works for me. A longterm patient came in yesterday struggling with a very traumatic event. It was a type of trauma that is very personal for me and struck very close to home. She is dealing with pain and loss, guilt and grief and we had a very long intense talk. When she saw me wipe my cheeks, she apologized for making me cry. I told her never to apologize for sharing her pain with me.
I cry with my patients. I also laugh with them and jump up and down and do happy dances in the hallway when they are happy. I cheer for them when things are going well and encourage them when they’re down. Every emotion I feel in my career is a precious gift, even the painful ones.
If I ever let myself grow a callus over my feelings or fear the sad and painful emotions, I’m afraid I’ll lose the joy as well.
If you are my patient and you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, unintended pregnancy, rape, abuse, divorce or the death of a loved one (or any of a hundred other painful things) please don’t hesitate to come in and talk to me about it. I might cry. That’s OK. It won’t be your fault.
It will be my genuine and heartfelt pleasure to help you through it. Just be sure to let me know when you’re celebrating a marriage, a new baby, an adoption, success with weight loss, a job promotion or lottery win! Then we’ll do a silly happy dance together 🙂