On the other side of the desk

Every day I have conversations with family members about how patients are doing. About how the operation went, what the expected course is. How it will continue, what examinations and blood tests will be done this afternoon. About what the night was like. About the concerns about that or the bright spots. About it being okay. Or not.

Every week I have conversations with patients and their concerned partners and family members about their, what we as doctors so nicely call ‘vulnerability’. Sometimes we very much agree. Then there is no doubt about what it means to be able to get up from the chair with great effort and support from the pushing arms. But sometimes it’s more complicated: then I find the inability to load or unload the dishwasher much more worrying than the patient (“My husband always does that”) and her partner (“I can just do that for her.” ‘).

Almost every week I have conversations about whether that operation is still useful. Whether it is wise to make another scan. Or that it is better to go for as little ‘pain and hassle’ as possible because it is not expected that those medicines or that operation will do any good. Let alone quality of life will add. That we have to accept that we are being overtaken by the disease. That the already so vulnerable body benefits more from rest, love, care and combating complaints than from another new treatment against the disease. That the time has come to no longer treat the disease but the ailments and complaints.

All those conversations are not always satisfying, sometimes difficult, usually longer than planned, often inspiring, always valuable and hopefully on time.

And suddenly I was that relative who was told how the night had gone. My father said ‘I can just do that for her’ and it was better for my mother not to treat the disease but the complaints. And those conversations were rarely satisfying, difficult, often shorter than planned, hardly inspiring and too late. Suddenly I was on the other side of the desk. Suddenly other standards applied, other details were important. And if sitting on the other side of the desk has taught me one thing, it is that as a family member you are unable to say: ‘Don’t do it’ or ‘Maybe you should do nothing, doctor’. That the doctor should take the lead in this: always, explicitly and very clearly.

And oh yes. It taught me something else. That I’d rather stay on my side of the desk for now.