The month of December holds great significance for many people on this planet. Notwithstanding the religious holidays and historical contexts, I would like to think that December offers an unusual opportunity to be frank and open in our expressions of affection, companionship, and friendship. ‘Tis a season of sharing love and gifts with those close to us, a time for good will to all and celebration of humanity.
In this light, it would seem to me that December would be the best month to practice medicine. As circumstances might threaten to distance us from our patients, I hope that now, and in the future, it is possible to shed our oft-misused objectivity and seemingly aloof demeanor in order to share in this more generous exchange. As medical students, we hear our instructors stress the need to form a relationship with our patients, but I wonder how my fellow colleagues might interpret that charge. For many, I suspect that their natural instinct would be to make small talk about sports, TV shows, and other light-hearted insubstantia. That’s a reasonable direction to take, but I think this season affords a welcome opportunity to talk more about family, friends, and plans for celebration – whether those subjects bring happiness, anger, or sadness. True, not all celebrate the winter holidays in the same way or to the same degree. Nonetheless, our society sets aside this time for us to celebrate something, anything meaningful to us, and few would intentionally pass up the opportunity.
This month, I count myself lucky that I will have at least two lengthy clinic sessions and possibly a third shadowing session: if nothing else, I hope to remember each time to ask the patient about their plans for the holidays, be they alone, with family and friends, or a close companion. Last time, our patient commented on his brother being murdered during the course of the history-taking, and I instinctively expressed sympathy upon hearing it. I was surprised, though, that I was the only one to express it, and I thought for a while whether it was inappropriate to do so. In the end, I think it was the right thing to do, regardless of the patient’s feelings for his brother. Are we, as physicians, doomed to always be emotionally detached and separated from an exchange of emotions with our patients? I don’t think it has to be that way. If it is fair to express sympathy and remorse within this relationship, surely it must be fair to share warmth and thoughts of happier occasions?