Becoming a doctor means always putting your patients first

Junior doctors are preparing a five day strike

Why do people want to become doctors? The reason must surely be to want to heal people. Yet along the way this idealistic impulse may be lost. Doctors may see themselves simply as service providers; their role may become politicised, as in the current junior doctors’ dispute with the government over pay and conditions; they may be worn down by the longstanding problems of the NHS; or they may put their own expertise before their patients’ needs.

I make these comments as I have just come across two doctors in books I have been reading who didn’t lose their humanity along the way and who recognised that they were in a privileged position of responsibility concerning those in their care. One is mentioned in Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree and refers to the late Dr Steven Kopits who was a paediatrician at the John Hopkins Hospital in the US, specialising in helping dwarfs, children born with achondroplasia and similar conditions.

Parents upset about their child’s dwarfism would be uplifted by his loving response. When he died in 2002 one mother wrote that “I cried more at his funeral than I did for my own father.” Another described him as “the greatest man I have met in my life. Yet another spoke of the “new hope” she came away with from his office, adding that the babies “weren’t patients to him; they were his children.”

The other doctor was Therese Vanier, founder of L’Arche homes in the UK and a pioneer of palliative care. In Ann Shearer’s book, Therese Vanier, she includes many testimonies from Therese’s friends and fellow doctors concerning the care she gave to dying patients at St Christopher’s Hospice. Dr Michael Kearney, a palliative care consultant, spoke for many when he commented, “She taught me…that who we are, rather than what we know or how skilled we are at what we do, is the most powerful medicine we have for those who suffer.”

Another doctor noted her way of “active listening” to dying patients, describing it as a moment of “consummate intimacy”. She was committed to healing “at the psychological, emotional, relational and spiritual level” as well as the medical. “You could even be healed through dying”.

Not all doctors have the particular gifts of Kopits and Vanier. Nevertheless, their example is a spur to reflecting on the vocation of being a doctor.