In what may have been his most memorable moment, former teen pop heartthrob Aaron Carter once said, “The main thing in life is not to be afraid of being human.”
I agree. And, surely, one of the best things about the practice of narrative medicine is that it allows doctors to reveal that they are just as human as the rest of us – capable of egregious mistakes as well as heroic deeds.
Hugh Silk’s “The Power of a Handshake” (Intima, Spring 2015) discusses the importance of conveying solidarity and respect to all of his patients through carefully orchestrated physical touch. As he goes about the business of delivering medical care to prisoners, Silk notes that, “We should be judged by the care we offer to the least of our patients,” and wonders whether he is measuring up.
After speaking with a terminally ill prisoner about end-of-life options, Silk gives himself credit when the prisoner thanks him for listening, understanding, and sharing information in a compassionate and clear manner. “We are eye-to-eye for a moment,” writes Silk of their parting handshake. “The embrace is firmer now and we are both offering more through this symbolic contact. Today I feel I have measured up. Tomorrow, we shall see.”
In stark contrast, Vik Reddy’s “Stuck,” (Intima, Spring 2015) reveals what happens when a young doctor messes up, putting both himself and his patient at risk. As a surgical intern, Reddy confidently assures his superior that he will immediately install the central line needed to treat an ICU patient’s horrific burns – and then admits to the reader that he hasn’t a clue. “No one had ever taught me exactly how to place a central line,” he writes. “I had watched some of my senior residents place them…and hoped that pantomiming them would make me more comfortable.”
Reddy goes on to describe how he compounded ignorance with poor judgment. Instead of using a smaller “seeker” needle to determine the placement of the central line in the femoral artery, he jumps ahead to the next step. “The patient was thin, and the artery seemed so superficial, that I decided to forego the seeker needle and use the (larger) introducer needle immediately,” he tells us. Bad idea! As bright red blood fills the needle, he realizes his error. “Shit!” he writes, “I hit the artery.”
Reddy then sticks himself with the now-bloody introducer needle, which means he has to leave the burn patient to a nurse’s care while the hospital lab test’s Reddy’s blood to make sure he hasn’t been infected with a HIV or Hepatitis C.
Although everything ends well—someone else eventually places the central line—Reddy is left to contemplate his mistakes (“I should have used the seeker needle. I should have been paying more attention”). Emotionally, we are much more in sync with Dr. Reddy than with Dr. Silk, since who among us has never royally screwed up?
The bottom line is that all of us have a piece of Aaron Carter inside us, and it feels heartening to be reminded that we aren’t the only ones.
Nelly Edmondson is a graduate of the Narrative Medicine Master's program at Columbia University. She also is an award-winning editor and writer with extensive experience covering medical topics for print and online outlets. In addition to serving as a staff editor at publications such as Weight Watchers Magazine and the Ladies’ Home Journal, she has written articles for the The New York Times, Parents, MAMM Magazine, as well as medical-school websites and publications such as Einstein Magazine, and The Chironian. http://www.nellyedmondson.com
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine