The death of my father six months ago was a truly significant event in my life. Having being dealt a terrible prognostic hand, he had fought bravely but lost swiftly.
The experience has also taught me humility
It was during his illness that it dawned on me – why don’t I lean on my patients for support? If I’m always thinking about my old man why don’t I use that to my advantage?
On a visit to a favourite elderly lady the week after his diagnosis I noticed a book about the Stoke Potteries. She’d lived and worked there and our common knowledge due to my Stoke roots had led to me completely opening up about his illness. She lent me the book for him to read during his chemotherapy. This act of kindness made me realise that my main incentive for being a GP, the ability to truly help someone through the tough times, could actually work both ways, and my patients could help me through this difficult time.
I also realised that sharing my experience could help give them better care. Soon afterwards, I was seeing my frustrating ‘Friday afternoon, 20 problem’ patient who never bonded with me. After three years, it was the death of her mother and my admission of my similar loss that led to a holding of hands, halving of her polypharmacy and acceptance to seek counselling that has seen her make real progress. Surely that’s the epitome of the empathy we seek?
The experience has also taught me humility, which has helped both me and my patients. I found out my father’s diagnosis during surgery and had been short with a very complicated patient just afterwards. On her next visit she asked me how I was. It almost brought me to tears and our subsequent chats have moved her care on substantially.
Other writing competition entries
(Winner) Dr Renee Hoenderkamp: ‘I knew I was breaking every rule’
(2nd place) Dr Helen Cotton: My son’s call for help saved me
(3rd place) Dr Richard Cook: ‘I tried to speak but no words came’
(Runner-up) Dr Celine Inglis: Being a doctor puts you in a strange position for tragedy
(Under-35s winner) Dr Heather Ryan: Sometimes you need to break rules to be kind
Looking after my father during his illness helps me give better care on a practical as well as emotional level. I have booked a patient in to help fill in her blue badge application form knowing how complicated my dad’s was, and she tells me she now thinks of me every time she gets out of her car. Wheelchair assessment forms? No problem. I can tell you everything you about them now and think the ability to do one well in ten minutes should go on my CV.
How do I deal with stubborn overweight patients with crumbling knees? I tell them how my dad’s osteoarthritic pain was practically fixed after he lost three stone at a slimming club. I must have saved the NHS thousands in elective surgery. On that note, public health owes me as well as half of Coventry knows how carb cutting sorted out his blood pressure and diabetes (fewer Staffordshire oatcakes by the way).
I use his nasal congestion as a weapon, telling umpteen patients that they should try everything conservatively to clear their sinuses because steam inhalation does nothing for me but used to clear his pipes a treat.
So who has answered my cry for help? Me, for realising the support a patient can provide, or the patients themselves acting on my verbal and non-verbal cues? Does it matter?
Dr Charlie Averill is a GP in Coventry