The Secret Lives of Doctors


Recently, when my parents came for a visit, a couple things happened that made me realize something important. Even after more than twenty years of my being a doctor, my parents have no idea what my daily life is like. And, it occurred to me that if they have no idea, then surely my patients have no idea either.So, just in case you have any patients out there who are wondering what it looks like on the other side of the curtain, here goes…

Doctors cancel root canals, oil changes and attending children’s soccer games when they know their patients need them.Doctors change their vacation schedule when a patient has scheduled an elective procedure with them several weeks down the road, so as not to inconvenience the patient, even though the patient is retired and may have a bit more flexible schedule.Doctors motor through clinic, surgery, and hospital rounds with a full bladder, an empty tummy and a dry mouth from no fluids for over four hours. Because we can. Because we feel guilty sometimes when we take a moment to ourselves. Because people are waiting.Doctors are just as mortified as you are miffed when our schedule blows up in our faces and we keep you waiting more than ten minutes, let alone more than twenty minutes, even if the reason is because we were in the emergency room/operating room/procedure room doing something to help a patient who was in much worse shape than you.

Doctors worry about you. A lot. Not in a cowering, you might be a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen way. More like in a “Please, Lord, let them heal well despite the fact that they are diabetic and still smoking a pack a day. I know it must be hard for them to quit. I have asked them to stop so many times.” Or, in a “Boy, that specimen looks worrisome to me. I can only hope it will be fine and they won’t need more surgery. I wonder how long it will take the pathologist to let me know?”

Doctors are never talking to their broker, their tailor, their jeweler or their Porsche dealer when they are late. They may be talking to the doctor taking care of their grandmother in a hospital in another state, or their uncle trying to explain their aunt’s bad prognosis that they have just heard, or their spouse explaining why they can’t be at the recital/ballgame/scout meeting tonight.

Doctors are just as grateful as you are (sometimes, more) when your medical news is good.Whether it’s a pathology report that’s benign, your lab results that are now within normal limits, or an x-ray that shows improvement, we are rooting for you like the best cheerleader ever, from the moment we order the test to the moment we get the report. We don’t act like it because we don’t want you to be freaked out at our level of concern. We are taught by our superiors and encouraged by our colleagues to act tough and we think that’s what you want, too. Deep inside, we’re marshmallows.

When the phone or beeper goes off in the middle of the night, we are grateful if our family members are not calling and the emergency room is not calling. We can go back to sleep (sometimes) when it is an easy question that a worried patient has. We hope we were awake enough to fully explain why everything is fine before our head fell back on the pillow.

We are grateful as we end our day that our patients did well, our family is safe and healthy, and we have passed another day of doing our best and “first, doing no harm.” We marvel at the human body one more time. We long to tell you, dear patient, how much we care. We hope you know.

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