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1 year later..a reflection on when the patient/doctor roles are switched and what it taught me

I came across some social media posts today that reminded me of the start of what has been a challenging but insightful journey for me over the past year. I’ve wanted to post some reflections on what has transpired and this seemed like a good time.

Last April, during my second year of school, I had a spontaneous pneumothorax while sitting and studying. Basically a bubble on the surface of my lung popped for unknown reasons and caused my left lung to collapse. It felt like I was having a heart attack and was the most intense pain i’ve ever felt. I had no idea what was happening at the time, so I said some prayers, called my parents and walked across the street to the hospital. I spent a couple of days in the hospital and after my lung re inflated I went home and got back to school life. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, the same lung collapsed again and I headed back to the hospital. This time, surgery was the next step. So about 1 month before my Step 1 exam, I had surgery done to try and prevent this from happening again. I spent a week in the hospital recovering and was thankful to be hopefully done with this issue. Well, just my luck, an air leak had persisted in my lung and 1 month after my surgery, I woke up one morning to find my lung had collapsed…again. The surgeon put a small Heimlich drain in my chest to try and help suction off the air with the hope that it would finally fix the problem. Fast forward 2 months later, and you can guess what happened next.

While walking out to my car following a day on my pediatrics rotation, I felt that all too familiar pain in my back and knew it had happened again. Yep. My lung had collapsed for the 4th time in 4 months. I went to the IU Methodist hospital ER, told them I knew what was wrong and just needed a chest xray to confirm it. So I was admitted to the hospital again, and was seen by another surgeon, determined to finally undergo another surgical procedure to try and fix this. About 2 weeks after this, I finished my pediatric rotation, took my shelf exam, and once again the roles were reversed and I became the person on the other side of the interactions I was used to having in the hospital.

Fast forward to today, and I have to say I feel extremely blessed. The last surgery went really well and I have been pneumo free for almost 8 months!! I’m back to exercising, in fact I’ve been running more than I ever ran even before all of this happened. I still have a considerable amount of pain from the two surgeries, and I’m sure that will be with me for a long time. But it’s Ok, because I’ve been able to live a ‘normal’ life and continue school without missing any time. I still am struggling with the mental side of what happened. Knowing that my lung could theoretically collapse again at any time can be pretty terrifying. Each time I feel a little bolt of pain come on, I get prepared for what might be next. But this fear is slowing going away as time moves on and I think I’m well on my way to not letting it impact my daily life.

I don’t want any sympathy for what I’ve gone through, as I’m well past that stage of the whole ‘why me’ thing. Sure it’s been tough, but the amount of personal growth during this whole process and the empathy that it has taught me makes me feel almost lucky for having this whole experience. I’ve been on the other side of things that I learn about everyday and this has given me valuable perspective that I hope stays with me for my career and life.

Whenever I go see a patient in the hospital as a student, I remember what it felt like to be woken up at 7am by someone asking me a bunch of questions and I try to be more apologetic of my early morning presence. I remember how it felt to wait all day for your doctor to stop by with an update and I try to never let my patients go an extended period of time not knowing what the plan is. I see patients come into the OR, barely gowned and with a look of worry on their face. I remember that same fear and I try to convey a sense of calm and confidence to them that they are in a good place. I remember how it felt to be injured and in pain, and I still know everyday how it feels to live in discomfort and not feel like your normal healthy self. I see patients throughout these clerkships and I’m thankful that I have this better understanding of what they might be going through. Sure, I’m not dying of anything, and I don’t have a sick child, nor do I have some lifelong chronic condition that requires monthly testing and checkups. But I do have some sense of the emotional strain that being ill or broken can cause. I want to always remember this feeling and use it to motivate me in care of my future patients. I will never know exactly what my patients are feeling but I hope that I can better relate to them and empathize in a way that will strengthen the relationship that I hope to have with them as we work on improving their health and their quality of life.

Don’t get me wrong, it is still really hard at times to empathize with people and I am far from being all the way there. But I’m thankful for everything I’ve experienced this past year and will continue to experience as I know it has at least served to get me further along on that path to where I hope to be some day. I doubt anyone reading has ever had a pneumothorax like me, but surely you’ve at least been sick at some point. Maybe you’ve even been in the hospital or had to undergo a serious surgery. It doesn’t matter how extreme of an event you’ve undergone. We’ve all been there and felt sick or in pain and we can use these past experiences to help become better in being empathetic and more understanding of what our patients are going through. If we are able to understand what our patients are feeling, we can work on establishing a stronger relationship with them and ultimately work to provide better care.

We’ll see what this next year brings. If it happens to include another pneumo or more surgeries, than so be it. I know that whatever happens is meant to happen for a reason and will only serve to strengthen some aspect of my life just as this past year has done.

-Brian

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Author

Brian Sutterer

I am currently in my fourth year and am primarily located at the Indianapolis campus. I spent my first two years at the Terre Haute campus, but relocated to Indy for the final two. My interest in medicine is the field of physical medicine and rehabilitat...