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Editor's Comments on 'Finding Who We Are in Those for Whom We Care'

 , December 02, 2016

Abraar Karan’s “Finding Who We Are in Those for Whom We Care” is a story about growth—how a single patient can help us grow in so many ways.  Surely we become more sophisticated in recognizing disease and performing physical examination, just as the author became more adept at reading chest x-rays and hearing the distinct crackles of Mrs. Eleanor’s lungs.  But as we reflect on what it really means to deeply care for another person, we grow in more fundamental ways.  As Karan writes, it is ‘the process of becoming a physician” and this pubescent growth can be uneasy.
It is an uncomfortable if familiar reality of medicine that we find ourselves at times unable to improve the health of the dying.  As physicians-in-training, the experience can leave us feeling isolated—growing closer to a patient as their cancer spreads, their infection worsens, their respiratory status declines.  What can be gained in the face of such loss?  While Karan acknowledges that the pain of this frustration stays with us, we are also presented with an opportunity for another kind of growth—namely, self-discovery.  In the tension of truly caring for a dying person, “we learn what we are made of, as doctors, and as humans.”  
And while we learn what we are made of, so too are we formed by what we learn from our patients.  In the closing image of Mrs. Eleanor we see the specifics of a kind and thoughtful woman—a woman who ensures that she compliments the shirt of her caregiver, with a grin on her face, even as her prognosis worsens.  We learn of her dignity and get a sense of her resilience to the very bitterness that we as providers are in danger of feeling as we watch those we care for suffer.  It is in this sense that our patients truly are “our greatest gifts,” and only if we strive to be our best selves will they indeed be “the very mirrors of our own humanity.”

Stephen Raithel