Doctor’s Perspective: Who is the Patient in Your Eyes?
This patient in the hospital lies here in bland robes, inside sterile, square walls — patient number 9. There is too much white here: white curtains, white beds, white vases, white hair, white phlegm, glassy white stares. Even the memories are whitened.
Nonchalantly, as a medical student on an internship, I note down his vitals and report to the doctor in-charge. He has pancreatic cancer and is currently receiving chemotherapy. I reach out for my oncology book, taking this as an opportunity to review the same topic for my exams since his live example helps me in making learning associations.
I glance at the patient again. His eyes are dark and his nose is aquiline. His presence stirs something in me, something I cannot identify right away. The aura he exudes is familiar.
Despite the graying hair and frail frame, there is a stoic reserve about him; the spirit is as still and sturdy as oak. I casually check my board again. It reads, ‘Mr. Mehmood’. A rush of adrenaline.
I scan for more detail: not his medical history this time, but his address. It’s the same neighborhood I had lived in 10 years ago. In a moment, it all comes back. I feel teleported to those childhood summers that seem to always linger at the shoreline of our consciousness…
Hair still cut in bouncy fringes, the 8-year-old me zoomed through neighborhood gullies, an imitation of Indiana Jones. In the endless afternoons of my childhood, the neighborhood was a jungle and in every corner lurked an adventure. Marble blocks in the communal park were actually gravestones of all the secret agents in its blood-soaked, secret history; that dark old mansion in street number 5 was inhabited by cobras. Mrs. Alvi next door had always wanted a baby, and on being denied had decided to become a sorceress.
Against the haze of this long-past phantasmagoria, I remember pedaling past Professor Mehmood’s modest bungalow. Sometimes he would be on the porch, surveying the bounties of the good Lord, his white shalwar-kameez flapping quietly against the wind. I remember peering at him with awe. He was a man of values. He was a man of mathematics.
He was the professor of my uncles, of my heroes at that time. In my world, he constituted the idea of ‘intellect’, embodied it for the first time. He was, after all, the first ‘professor’ I knew. The cryptic wonder of vibrant comic books or of the pixie magic of Enid Blyton were nothing before this broad-shouldered man, with his dark, slanting eyes and fine nose, who dabbled in the far more esoteric arts otherwise known as ‘university mathematics’.
So much has changed since then; I have changed, my heroes have changed, my concept of magic has changed. And in this whirl of change, so much has been forgotten. My family soon moved to a different house in a new neighborhood. Most importantly, however, I had grown up — the magic was gone, memories faded and the thrill attenuated.
Patient number 9 is but a case picture in medicine: a trace on the ECG, a beep, a tube, a file in the CT scans directory. But for me, he is Professor Mehmood. He evokes a kaleidoscope of memories. Memories long-since white-washed now come back.
My white coat still on, I see him now with different eyes. The wondrous eyes of an 8-year-old whose fledgling neurons were beginning to grasp a new idea, a new world — what does wisdom mean? He personified greatness, depth and academics. The cryptic wonders of clinical protocols or the magic of pharmacology are nothing before the esoteric arts Mr. Mehmood has dabbled in.
He is not just the patient on bed 9 anymore, but something greater, something fascinating. I genuinely feel for him more.
I wonder how often we, as doctors, would truly ‘see’ our patients differently had we known them personally. They wouldn’t just be peculiar sets of functions and dysfunctions or case scenarios anymore that we must fix politely. Maybe, in a flash, they could turn out to be something much more interesting than even Indiana Jones.
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