Odd spot of locum work aside, I have been out of general practice for a few months now, and a number of people have asked the same thing: “Don’t you miss the patients?”
That’s a tricky one – simply because the gut reaction of “of course I do” gets complicated when I start to think of my years in the consulting room.
I love animals (I picked a rather strange career if I didn’t), and I love the bond, the companionship and the responsibility that comes with them.
Before I had children, my dogs gave me a reason to get up in the morning. Sometimes, particularly early in my career, I very much needed that reason. Dogs, especially – to me, anyway – are possibly the most wondrous things on earth (and I’m including my replica lightsaber in this, just so you know how serious I am).
Life versus work
However, none of those things – the companionship, the bond – come in to play when you’re faced with another person’s pet in a consulting room. The responsibility is there, of course, but it’s a professional, not a personal one.
When I’m faced with a patient, it’s usually because there’s something wrong with it, and the owner is worried about it. The animal is probably scared or nervous, and I’m often looking for the most painful part of it and squeezing/rubbing/sticking needles into it – all of which aren’t really all that conducive to cuddling.
That doesn’t mean you can’t behave with care, gentleness and compassion with your patients – in fact, I think that’s a vitally important part of the job – but it does mean the relationship between you and them is very different to the relationship the owner has with it. As I said, it’s professional, not personal.
In practice, I was never one to run around with a puppy, showing everyone how cute it was, even though I like a lick on the nose from a furry ball of fun as much as anyone. I had a job to do – I was about to give this puppy an injection, and my mind was on what I could do to make the whole thing as stress free as possible.
Give me a kitten when I’m not in my consulting top, and I’ll play with it for hours. Give me one when I’m in it, and I’ll try to work out why it has diarrhoea.
There are patients that push through that professional distance, of course – the ones I still have photos of that make me smile, or the ones I don’t need pictures of because they’ll always be in my memory:
- Megan the boxer, who took her chemotherapy so bravely
- Chloe the diabetic, who seemed to think her monthly check ups were the most exciting thing ever
- Findus the cat, who never once complained despite all the horrible things I had to do to him
- Dave the Jack Russell, who won my heart despite trying to bite me every time I met him – that guy had spirit…
There are many more too, and as I write these (changed) names, and think of those patients, I smile, because it made my life better to know them. But all those memories are tinged with sadness, because in each case, I was involved at the end of their lives. It was a privilege to be, because I could help them and their owners, but I always knew someday I would probably be affected by my relationship with them.
My favourite time to meet my patients was those unexpected times – when I was out walking, for example – and they were able to come bounding up to me and have a cuddle without me worrying I was about to do something nasty to them. I could just enjoy them for the animals they were, rather than having them defined by their diseases.
I wonder if doctors feel similarly towards their human patients? There’s a world of difference between a consulting room and a dinner party, after all.
You see, being a vet or a nurse isn’t about cuddling fluffy bunnies – it’s about reassuring people, relieving suffering, and doing what you can to help worried families – something I was always proud to do.
I have a new job now, of course, and it’s one I am enjoying immensely. One of the best things about it? I still get to reassure, and relieve, and help.