When A Doctor Becomes A Patient

Today a good friend of mine asked me about an event that occurred approximately 20 years ago.

It changed my life, but most importantly It changed the way I interact with my patients.

20 years ago, I became a patient but not just any patient, I got very, very sick–critically ill.

Suddenly, I went from being fine, doing my regular duties as a surgery resident, to require a complex operation for a huge mass blocking my esophagus.

But there is a famous phrase "Doctors are the worse patients", well in my case it was true because I developed all kind of complications.

So you understand the magnitude of the problem, I was hospitalized for 1 month and a leave of absence for 1.5 months after discharge.

So what did I get out of this experience of being in the other side... as a patient?

  1. We all forget that we are human beings and illness and death are going to happen to us.
  2. Life is short. Until that time, I had focused so much in my career that forgot about all my hobbies–my love for music and judo that bring me joy.
  3. It's scary to feel so close to death. Obviously the uncertainty of "what happens after we die?"
  4. Leaving my ex with my little one by themselves was just unbearable. This was maybe the most difficult feeling to handle.
  5. Leaving my parents behind, at that time they were already very fragile from the health stand point.
  6. And a very important one...What is being a patient like?
    In other words, I experienced enormous amount of pain, temp of 104F, food intolerance, lost 50 pounds, had all kind of drains and tubes hanging from my body. And one thing that sometimes we, physicians do not realize is how difficult is that initial period after discharge. In my case, I was too weak, scarily weak. This extreme weakness was so scary because it made me wonder: Can I go back to continue my training in surgery?

Furthermore should I continue with my career goal which was to become a cardiac surgeon? Which added 2 or 3 more years after finishing general surgery. Was it worthwhile to continue after all I almost died?

I almost gave up but I am glad that I fought and pushed through it, but so thankful I didn't because I am sure that this experience allowed me to better understand the drama of being a patient and appreciate the gift of life!