About ten years ago I was working in a level I trauma center in Minneapolis. During one particularly busy shift, I got an important lesson about medicine from a special patient. Mrs. S had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and presented to the ED with fever and hematemesis. Mrs. S was sick, and she knew it.

I was overseeing about eight patient rooms at that time, and was scrambling around trying to stay on top of everything. I had briefly stopped in Mrs. S’s room to check on her and give her an update on her labs. When I turned to leave Mrs. S stopped me and said, “Wait!”

I asked if she had any questions about what I had just explained. She replied, “No, I understand everything. But I just need you to be with me right now. I’m scared.” She reach out her hand and beckoned me to come sit with her.

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Hearing those words was like a splash of cold water on my face. I had gotten so distracted by the trees that I forgot to look at the forest. Here was a 50-something year old woman who knew that she was dealing with a serious illness and that she might not win her battle. But more than lab updates or medications, at that moment she needed to be comforted and to know she wasn’t alone. So I turned back, pulled up a chair, and sat and held her hand.

She talked to me about her family, and how frightened she was she might leave them. She explained how she didn’t want them to worry about her. Mrs. S worried more for how her illness might impact her loved ones than any physical discomfort she might be feeling. Basically, she needed someone to offer the most important aspect of care that we often have to offer: comfort for the soul.

After a short while, her husband arrived and I was able to get back to my other patients. The walls didn’t fall in while I stayed with her for that short time, and everyone received the care they needed. More importantly, I was able to snap out of my tunnel vision and treat the whole person, not just her symptoms or labs.

I am so thankful for the incredible insight Ms. S showed in knowing what she really needed at that moment, and for having the courage to ask for it. All these years later, I remember her and the important lesson she taught me that day: Patients need us to see them as people first.

And although understanding the intricacies of different disease states certainly is crucial to what we do, we must never forget we are treating people that are connected to the world. I have tried to keep this lesson in the forefront of my mind, and I feel it has made me a better PA than I would otherwise have been. So I’d like to say a big thank you to Mrs. S for taking the time and having the patience to teach me this important lesson.

Raquel DeCamp, PA-C, practices in Atlanta, GA.

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