From when I was very young, I knew I wanted to work in the sciences. I was the curious, maybe odd, child that played in the dirt looking for bugs, brought plants home to put in books to press and dry, asked for books on space and the stars. As I grew, I came to realize that I was good at science, namely biology. I had teachers and eventually professors who fostered my love and talent. I knew that I wanted to pursue science as a vocation, and as my time in college rolled on, I wavered between PhD and MD/DO. It was eventually my experience as a patient that solidified my belief that I wanted to be a physician.
My road as a patient started as a simple pain in the butt; in my case, this isn’t just an idiom. I was working full-time as a yoga and rock climbing instructor, at the peak of my physical prowess, when I began having pain in my bottom. It was a sharp, deep pain in the muscle and grew to a pain in my left groin; it shot straight through me. Fitness was my job, so I disregarded it and chalked it up to workout pains. I did this for months. I started to limp — in hindsight, something a 20-something-year-old probably shouldn’t have disregarded. I was finding it harder to maintain normalcy. I was out on a walk with my dog one day when I realized I was hearing clicking and snapping; I couldn’t tell if it was my flip-flop clicking or my hip. I sat down on the curb and cried. Maybe this was something I couldn’t ignore anymore.
I went to one doctor, and eventually two, three, and four. I was bounced around, getting diagnoses from strain to muscular tear to tenosynovitis. The worst one was malingering. One of my doctors speculated that it was a small labral tear and gave me an intra-articular shot of steroids; it did very little. I questioned my sanity during this time, but I pressed on knowing that something wasn’t right. On a whim, I made an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon who specialized in hips.
I showed up at that surgeon’s office, a young, active girl, alone and at the end of her rope. I didn’t know what was happening within my own body and I was scared. It took a short physical exam and an anteroposterior pelvic X-ray for him to diagnose me with a case of overlooked and severe bilateral hip dysplasia. I cried — mostly because I finally had an answer. He specialized in a type of surgery — in hindsight, an incredibly elegant one — called a periacetabular osteotomy. In a strenuous eight-hour surgery, he would cut my pelvic bones in about six places so he could reshape my acetabulum to better hold my femur and prevent the soft tissue damage and extensive muscular pain that was occurring.
The recovery from this surgery comprised the most physically and emotionally taxing season of my life. I spent one week in the hospital, an eon for a young 24-year-old. Physical therapy came twice a day. I had to relearn how to walk; I clearly remember my physical therapist crawling along the hospital floor pushing my left leg along telling me I was doing great as I cried and pushed my walker down the hallway past the hip replacement patients in other rooms. In addition to the physical therapist, the nurses, the various mid-level providers, every member of that staff, was gracious and patient with me. My surgeon came by twice a day every day that week to check in. That team cared for me, held space for me, advocated for me when I had nothing to give, was completely stripped down, wholly dependent on them for my care.
Surgeons, and orthopaedic surgeons, in particular, are not generally known for their gentle demeanors, but my surgeon held me with gentle hands that day and every day afterwards. He led me through a confusing and painful time with grace. We got to know each other well during the weeks leading up to the surgery, and during the long year afterward. He found out that I had a background in biology pre-med and offered to let me shadow him in the clinic, OR, and a hip conference he was attending. It seems the gentle hands that he led me with were not unique to just me; he treated all his patients in the same manner. As a student, he spoke to me respectfully, engaged me, helped to make me feel like part of the team. Day after day, I saw other hip patients with him. Most of them were young, athletic girls like myself who came to him in dire straits. My heart was totally enraptured by this. I liked being able to treat someone with an operation, to give them a tangible solution, and to do it all with a gentle heart and gentle hands that sometimes wield a mallet or sagittal saw.
Now, as a third-year medical student, when I sit on the clinician side of the “table” with a patient across from me, tears in their eyes, at the end of their rope, something inside of me is undeniably stirred up. I see a past version of myself: nervous, desperate, looking for a solution, and an expert to guide them through a complicated season of physical pain and change. I see a chance to hold space for them, to give them answers, provide them treatment — that’s what keeps me at the hospital on long nights, what presses me on to read just one more paper, ask one more question. The joy and fulfillment I gain is the justification I have for missing birthdays, weddings, funerals, and so much of everyday life. The chance to repay the gracious treatment I received all those years ago is what gets me out of bed, kissing my family goodbye in the early mornings, so that I may go to work. I’ve been given the honor of a medical education; knowledge is the bottomless gift that I can continue to give each day. I realize now that the journey as a patient was long, taxing, and expensive in so many ways, but it is one of my greatest gifts. It changed the trajectory for me not only personally, but professionally. It softened my heart and changed my paradigm in a way that few other experiences could. It humbles me, gives me grace, and it only takes tapping on my titanium screws to be reminded of that.
Did your experience as a patient change the way you practice medicine? Did it spark your desire to practice in the first place? Tell us your story in the comments.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz