National Doctors’ Day 2016: What makes a doctor great?

When I first met my friend Selma in 2008 I did not truly understand what she meant when she would say “a patients’ relationship with their doctor can be very maternal or paternal when you are fighting for your life.”  Despite my lack of insight into this statement, I took her at her word. After all, she had already been fighting cancer for 25 years when I met her. Beyond one abnormal pap smear in my 20’s and an overactive thyroid in my 30’s, my medical life had been relatively uneventful. Who was I to question this? I didn’t even know my doctor’s name. I saw them for 15-20 minutes a year.

Then I turned 40. I started trying to have a baby.  The first fertility specialist I went to was so rude I refused to meet another one until it was one week before my 42nd birthday. My ObGyn said, “Go see Marc Kalan.  He is amazing.” In a state of absolute desperation, I went. There is a lot more to the story which I blogged about quite a bit at my personal webite, Terrilox.

But today is not about my story, it is about my doctor.  Today is National Doctors’ Day — a day where we honor the great doctors’ in our lives — and I am honoring mine. For those of you who are history buffs, the first Doctors’ Day observence was March 30, 1933, in Winder, Georgia. The idea came from Eudora Brown Almond, wife of Dr. Charles B. Almond, and the date chosen was the anniversary of the first use of general anesthesia in surgery: March 30, 1842, in Jefferson, GA.

In the end, I had twin boys who are now two and half.  The elation and gratitude I felt at the end of my infertility journey is not why I write this. When a doctor helps grow the babies, cures the cancer, gets rid of the infection or performs life-saving feats of miraculous achievement — adoration flows freely.

But a great doctor is one who often suffers in silence with you, holding you up and helping you navigate when things are not going as well. When the pregnancy does not take again, when the cancer comes back, when the infection gets worse … when you might not walk again, or run again, or see again. A great doctor is one who looks at you and says this is where we are, let’s work together to get through this. A great doctor gives you all the options and follows your lead, often carrying you through the rough patches and cheering you on through the smooth ones. They commit to being with you to the end — whatever the end of your journey happens to be.

Though my life was never in jeopardy, I was carried through many rough patches. He was the first visitor I had after the boys were born.

If Selma were still here, she would tell you all about her doctor. He was with her through it all — to the very end. He even spoke at her memorial.

Dr. K told me that when he was trying to decide what his speciality would be in medical school he fluctuated between oncology and reproductive endocrinology because of the unique relationship these specialities had with their patients. For my sake I am glad he chose reproductive endocrinology, though I am more than certain he would have been an amazing oncologist. Thank you, Dr. K for being one of the great ones — and thank you to all the other doctors out there carrying patients, holding their hands and walking alongside them though their journey back to health or beyond.

None of us could have done it without you.

Do you have a great doctor?  If so, share with us.

Terry Wilcox is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Patients Rising and Patients Rising NOW.  She is the former Executive and Creative Director of Vital Options International and the creator of the web series Understanding Cancer. Her passion is challenging the entire health care ecosystem to think broadly about the challenges we face while always remaining focused on the patient and the sanctity of their relationship with their doctor. 

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