One of my favorite teachers always says, “walk the path with them” whenever he speaks about relating to patients. This idea is his driving force as he works with the most severely mentally ill in San Bernardino County. Though it may be particularly difficult with this patient population, it can prove challenging in any physician’s career, including my chosen field of family medicine. “Walking the path” includes trying to put yourself in your patients’ shoes whether or not you agree with their healthcare decisions; it also means being empathetic to people in difficult situations. Thinking about this phrase, I recall several times in my life when I have seen this statement come to life.
As a five-year-old, I knew all too well the agonizing pain of frequent otitis media. I would lie on my bed crying with my hand cupped over the offending ear, knowing that if I could only make it to my pediatrician, the pain would be relieved. With gentleness and efficiency he would diagnose and treat. But it was more than just treatment; it was an act of love. Dr. Bryan alleviated my suffering with no charge to my parents due to their difficulty paying. This kindness will forever remind me that I want to pass along the generosity I received.
Other experiences that highlighted the importance of walking the path came from my time teaching kindergarten and high school biology on the island of Majuro in the Marshall Islands. I discovered that “walking the path” means having flexibility and cultural awareness, and taking the time for health education. My position required a quick transition from singing and coloring with my four- to seven-year-olds to explaining basic human anatomy and physiology to a room full of high school students. As I taught them, the students introduced me to the Marshalese culture, rich in traditions handed down through the generations. I adjusted to cultural differences such as week-long funerals and the sometimes surprising meaning of gestures. As I spent more time with the Marshallese, I also realized their desperate need for health education. They constantly drank soda and ate junk food. My teacher’s aide Milla was just one example of the staggering number of type II diabetics on the island. Seeing the consequences of this unhealthy lifestyle has inspired me to become a doctor who takes time to educate.
Later in life another aspect of walking the path was illustrated when I took my 87-year-old great aunt to her family medicine doctor. Despite having esophageal spasm, angina, and atrial fibrillation, what she needed most was someone to listen to her problems. She did not expect anyone to “fix her” or even make significant medication changes, she just wanted a sympathetic ear. “Walking the path” means being a good listener.
I am drawn to family medicine because I believe it provides an ideal opportunity to build relationships, a chance not only to understand what is going on medically but also to relate to the struggles each patient faces on a daily basis. I strive to be the kind of doctor who will do whatever I can to “walk the path” with each of my patients.