When filling out my hospital profile, I was asked to list my hobbies. Admittedly, after an eye roll, I wrote theatre and running and adamantly told the staff to please not put my hobbies on the webpage. Like usual, my requests were completely ignored, and my hobbies were listed after my lengthy training and board certifications (data that were much more important in my eyes). To my surprise, one day in clinic I had a woman who sought me out because of my interest in theatre, and another patient specifically came to me because I was a runner. I was more than taken aback when they casually brought it up in clinic, but after reflecting on it, I slowly began to understand. Patients just want what every single person wants in situations that are scary and unknown: a human connection.
Then, it all seemed to make much more sense to me; something that I should have recognized as being a primal need that I have when I cannot be in control. I have no problems admitting my massive fear of flying to both my friends and my patients. Sure, I understood the safety of flying compared with driving and that millions of people do it daily, but I couldn’t get over my anxiety of stepping on a plane. The more people quoted objective stats to me, the more I resisted getting on a plane even more. Despite being well-versed in Bernoulli’s principle, I didn’t know how to fly and I certainly had zero control on a plane. So, I chose to avoid them for over ten years leading to long, boring train trips that sometimes took up to 24 hours to get to interviews.
What I realized through all the flying discussions is that people were trying to connect with me in a completely wrong manner. I may be a logical and intelligent person, but my fear of flying was anything but rational. It was emotional-based, and I needed someone to understand and validate my feelings of fear and anxiety instead of telling me the risks and benefits to flying. Similarly, when I became an attending, I had to figure out how to connect with my patients in one clinic visit to reassure them of their upcoming operation. While each patient is certainly unique, common themes of what was important to them in their care emerged, including what they most feared their life would be like after surgery. I started shifting away from focusing on the standard “risks and benefits” discussion; instead, I started to concentrate more on setting expectations. Being truthful about post-operative pain, the months of fatigue following a large procedure, and needing to find a new “baseline” of normal after a cancer diagnosis soon became the routine talk in my clinic rooms. I realized that setting these expectations relieved their anxiety about what their life would look like once they had made it through the operation.
It took me over ten years to fly after 2001, and it took me five more years to do it without tears or medications. How do I get on the plane now more pseudo-confidently? I make sure that I meet my pilots and talk to them. I can’t tell if they are qualified, or even if they had an adequate night’s sleep, but, like my patients, I want that human connection right before take-off. Understandably, my patients want to see me before surgery and going under anesthesia. For them, that is the last human contact they have, the final reassurance of someone they put their trust into when they no longer can have control. Ironically, I thought it was my education, where I trained, or how many board certifications I had that would build that trust with my patients. Instead, it is just simply being a (running) human that makes me connect with them and establish a doctor-patient rapport.