Many of us go through life choosing to be blissfully oblivious about our health and safety. We ignore the “Apple a day keeps the doctor away,” advice; even when something goes wrong and we force ourselves to go to the doctor, we tend to let the professionals do all the talking. As passive patients, we allow the doctor to have full control over the conversation, allow him or her to make the recommendations and ask the questions. But on an even more worrisome note, we deny that anything could ever go wrong and that we would ever need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of communicating with our doctor in the first place.
I had always been a seemingly healthy – mentally, physically, socially – child. I rarely got sick, I hardly ever needed to visit the doctor; which was fortunate considering my mother’s bouts with seizures and my father’s persistent heart problems. Like many young children, I assumed nothing as bad as what happened to them, could ever happen to me. But, when I hit puberty at an early age, my disillusion was brought to an abrupt halt. I was in sixth grade when my mother began noticing that my posture was getting worse and worse. My parents would yell at me to sit up straight, and when I responded, ‘I am,’ their faces would suddenly reek of concern. Overly cautious, my mother brought me to the pediatrician to do a scoliosis test. She knew the signs for she had a mild case of it herself when she was in her pre-teens. My encounter with the pediatrician was less than helpful. From what little I remember of the visit, when she asked me to bend over, her eyes widened and she gave my mother the name of a highly recommended orthopedic surgeon in our town, sending us on our way.
As a scared, insecure thirteen-year-old girl, the idea of having something wrong with my spine – wrong with me – was petrifying. Appearance is everything to a sixth-grade girl who is desperately trying to find her place in a suddenly mature world. After talks with my mother and researching scoliosis on the internet, I discovered my only options were to wear a brace for a year or more, or surgery – two things I was completely unprepared for. I’d seen more of the inside of hospitals with all my parents’ and grandparents’ health issues than some have seen in a lifetime, the last thing I wanted was to experience it for myself.
Stepping into the orthopedic surgeon’s office for the first time was like stepping into a nightmare from which there was no falling from a high point and jolting myself awake. There were dozens of people in the waiting room, some whose deformities were hidden like mine and others with braces on their legs and walking with canes. As the nurse called out my first name to take me to the x-ray room – mispronouncing it horrendously, might I add – I kept trying to convince myself that this whole endeavor would be a waste of time, that there would be nothing wrong.After the x-rays, I met my doctor for the first time. I’d been expecting an old man who would walk in, refuse to make eye contact with me in my backless robe, and deliver the sad news without any emotion, like many I had seen take care of my parents in the past. Thankfully, I received the opposite. I received Dr. Jonathon Carmouche, the epitome of young, tall, and handsome. He walked in with a smile on his face, began shaking my hand and then my mother’s, seeming eager and pleased to make my acquaintance. Before even addressing my potential ailment, he began asking me about myself - not just what grade I was in -but my interests, my family, and my friends. He seemed to be taking a genuine interest in me as both a patient and a human being
Eventually, he got to the reason for the visit in the first place. He lit up the x-ray of a back with a spine in the shape of an ‘S,’ and told me and my mother that it looked like I had a significant curvature that would need to be corrected. He looked at us, inquisitive, wondering if we had any questions if I had any questions. I could not ask questions. I could not breathe. Feeling like my world had been shattered, I began to cry. Instead of leaving the room or looking away, my doctor apologized and said he understood how I must have been feeling, then offered me a box of tissues. This small act of human kindness proved to me that not all doctors were the same. Not all of them wanted to get in, give a diagnosis, and get out, paying no mind at all to how the patient feels or reacts to the news. Because it was obvious that he truly cared about me, I relaxed. I started to ask questions, interact with him, and the easier it became to talk to my doctor like the human being he is, the easier it was to accept he was not an emotionless robot, and thankfully the easier my condition became to swallow.
Over the next three years, Dr. Carmouche and I developed a very special doctor-patient relationship. As we got to know one another better, I became more and more comfortable speaking with him about concerns about my condition and about my life in general. Instead of being scared of going to appointments, I looked forward to them. My doctor was a busy man with numerous other patients, yet always found extra time to stay and talk with me, without lingering by the door and acting as if he had better places to be. He was always excited to see me and remained ever optimistic about the progress I was making.
It was inevitable that the brace I wore for a year – the brace that required baggy clothes and sweaty night sleeps – would not fix the sixty-degree curve entirely; I would still need surgery. As terrifying as that concept was, the support from my family as well as my doctor enabled me to go into surgery with the confidence that everything would work out. After my nine and a half hour surgery, I emerged a few inches taller, with a straighter spine. He visited me daily during my week in the hospital, checking each time to make sure I wasn’t in too much pain and to encourage me to start walking the day after my surgery. Before I was discharged, I had to do one more x-ray; this time with two titanium rods lining my spine. As my doctor showed my family and I the new and improved x-rays, he went on about how great the surgery went and how I would have no limitations or problems in the future. But if I did, he assured me that he would always be there. He explained that I was to have follow-up appointments, each one fewer and further between. Before leaving, but not before my parents thanked him immensely for everything he’d done, he gave me a hug goodbye.
The last time I saw Dr. Carmouche, it was a very teary goodbye; I was a junior in high school for my last follow-up appointment. Over the years, I was one of his “favorite patients.” He had watched me grow up from a scared little girl in middle school to a confident young woman. Before, I was a child, only a two-year veteran of middle school, meek, self-doubting, and entirely unaware of all that I would accomplish in my high school years to come. I have him to thank for the medical and emotional support it took for me to be the person I am today. It is also because of my experience with Dr. Carmouche, that I chose to focus on the health aspect of communication for my bachelor’s degree.
The encompassment of physical, psychological, and social impacts of an illness or ailment of some kind is widely overlooked by many doctors in the healthcare industry today. As a society, we have come to expect little interaction from our doctors. We refuse to ask questions; we listen to medical jargon we cannot remotely hope to understand, all because we are given the impression by our doctors that anything other than our physical ailment is irrelevant. What many physicians fail to understand is that patients’ emotions are just as significant to a condition as the physical aspects. A positive ‘bedside manner’ is all but obsolete. I was lucky enough to find a doctor who made my priorities – having a straight spine and confidence in myself – his own. My triumphs became his, and this is a rarity among many in the healthcare field nowadays. Unfortunately, there is little we as patients can do to effect the way our physician interacts with us. However, we patients can have just as much power as the doctors. This power stems from simple facets of one-on-one communication. We must ask questions, not be told what is important for us to know about our bodies. We must be assertive and voice our concerns. And we must take an active role in our healthcare until it is the majority of doctors demonstrating the same type of care as Dr. Carmouche did for me; until the majority of doctors are just as invested in patient satisfaction as we are in their ability to heal.