Only Human

My day started unexpectedly with an emotional bomb. My first patient visit was to be a quick new patient physical. Based in outward appearances, she was a healthy, 40-something-year-old Caucasian woman. I ticked through her notes and vital signs: weight, perfect; blood pressure, to goal; labs, normal. I would be in and out—minimal needs and quick patient satisfaction. 

Instead, she chose to share her story in all of its messy, broken glory. The last few years have been filled with the horrors of children with drug addiction, the revelation of sexual abuse, and a shocking death. She couched it with many “I’m really blessed” and reassurances that she had an idyllic family. Yet, the deep loss, betrayals, and grief felt heavy.

Eventually, she was no longer able to keep the stiff upper lip, and she revealed that her picture-perfect family was devastated. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. They had done everything right: loving marriage, stable income, beautiful children, Christian school. Nevertheless, a deep, uncontrollable darkness had come for them. The unsaid question in the room was “How did this happen to us?”

Let’s be clear, I’m a physician. My training emphasized evidence-based diagnosis and treatment. I can treat a heart attack, but I was never prepared for this. How do I care for this woman who is walking through hell? How do I fix deep, habitual brokenness and outright wrong? What do I do when I am powerless?

Sometimes, medicine gives the impression that physicians are gods. Make an esoteric diagnosis, give a wondrous pill, and poof: suffering is alleviated, and lives are saved. Sometimes that is true. Medicine can be necessary and literally lifesaving. I have seen those medical miracles and been a part of a few myself. The façade gives the impression of infallibility and omnipotence. But it is exactly that: a sweet, disappointing façade. I can prescribe pills to change brain chemistry; however, it will not bring back the dead. Part of me wants to rage.

Yes, physicians are highly educated, experts in our own fields. But we are not gods. It is days like this one, with a deeply hurting patient, and stories like hers that reveal my helplessness. I can prescribe a medicine, but I can’t undo a massive car accident. I can’t broker peace between spouses. These are stories that drain and deflate me. It takes all my energy, and I am left exhausted.

Often, there is the pressure to go, go, go, and see the next patient, stay on time. It is the push to pull yourself together and get through it.  Keep patients happy. Don’t make mistakes. In an effort to stay in control, I become short and blunt with patients. The bad news and hard conversations don’t always come out nicely wrapped in a bow. I fall short of the impossibly high bar of 100% patient satisfaction. But how can I be both humane (compassionate) and human (fallable)? Am I allowed to be both?

Today, I have space and take time to breathe, process, and grieve.

This is the place where I am driven once again to admit my personal need for a Savior and a God.

I need someone both compassionate and yet infallible. I need someone to walk through the muck with me yet powerful enough to get me out of it. I need someone to restore all things as they should be. I’m grateful that He is that gracious and compassionate God, and that He is there when I call on Him. After all, I am only human.

Aimee is an Asian American physician, recently married to the love of her life.  She loves deep, honest conversation, being silly with her husband and pondering God’s presence in this broken world.  She is honored to contribute to Red Tent Living, but requests anonymity in respect for her personal and professional privacy. b