It’s presentation day in history class. I’m next up to present my speech on “Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence on the development of modern warfare.” I’m underprepared. I’m nervous. I need to do well to get an A in the class. My crush is in the audience. I’m shaking in my seat worrying about all of the possible horrible outcomes. It’s finally my turn. I muster up the courage to stand up and walk to the front of the class. I start to speak and everyone laughs. I look down. I’m naked — exposed.
Sound familiar? Of course, it’s a basic and popular dream after all. Why is it a popular dream? Because it’s a popular fear. It’s all about vulnerability, a fear we all share. It’s incredibly normal for an animal species to prevent exposing themselves to attack, emotional or physical. That’s what vulnerability is. And that’s what it’s like to go to a doctor.
My brother was in a major accident and it was the most traumatic experience of my life.
I got a call from my older brother Marco at 4 in the morning one night. The only thing he said was “Ivan, where are you, please come home.” It sounded like he was crying, Marco never cries. I was at a friend’s house down the street so I quickly put on my ankle brace and hobbled home. I found him sitting on the stairs with a new skin color — — blood red. “What happened, is it bad?” he sobbed. He looked like he was mauled by a bear. He had missing teeth, a golf ball-sized bump on his forehead, and scrapes all over his arms and legs. He had been drinking and he had no idea what happened and neither did I. But it didn’t matter, I had to act fast. I took off my flannel and held it to his face to stop the bleeding as I called 911. Luckily, I was right next to a level one trauma center so help arrived quickly and he was under good care. Later, I discovered that he got hurt trying to ride his electric motorcycle while under the influence.
People often try to tell me I saved my brother’s life. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I was helpless. All I did was call for someone more capable to come to save him. I had been an EMT for almost two years at that point and I was starting to feel confident. But, I got complacent and took my foot off the gas. After this, I realized I never wanted to be helpless again. I need to be able to use my knowledge and experience to help people, especially those I love and care for. I already knew I wanted to be a doctor but this experience made me absolutely sure of it. I studied and worked significantly harder after that experience. But this time not to get the A, but to learn so that I’d be ready next time.
A truly traumatic experience to say the least. I felt so many different emotions. Fear, anxiety, sorrow, empathy, stress, but there was one I felt stronger than others — anger. An unexpected emotion, especially for me, and it wasn’t towards Marco. It was towards the doctors that “took care” of him in the Emergency room.
Upon entering the emergency room, Marco was like me in my nightmares. Just like I was standing there naked in front of my classmates, Marco laid on that hospital bed exposed, defenseless, and vulnerable. The doctors didn’t laugh like my classmates, but they might as well have. There was no case of physical or verbal abuse, he was treated quite well medically. But they failed to acknowledge his vulnerability. In his already extremely uncomfortable condition, they made him feel uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Regardless of the context, the words chosen, and the patient, a physician is in a position of power with an undeniably exposed patient. The patient has to show and tell the physician things they may not even tell their closest friends. And the doctor is there to take all the information and help them. To me, this is the epitome of vulnerability. To see this fact be ignored by those that took care of my brother at the hospital genuinely generated an intense pain and elicited a different type of emotion in me. After seeing that, I decided that I would strive to be the best physician I could be by not only never being helpless, but by always acknowledging a patient’s vulnerability and making them feel comfortable.