How becoming a patient made me a better physician

The year I finished my residency in obstetrics and gynecology and began to practice medicine, life was intense, fast-paced and very exciting. The odd feelings of numbness and pain in my back and legs just seemed to be something that came with the long wakeful nights and hard working days. I did not take the time to seek medical care myself because I was too busy and besides, I thought to myself, I was working through it, wasn’t I? Once I had time I would attend to myself. For now I had night call, babies to deliver, surgeries to perform and books to study. I knew my symptoms were strange and hard to understand. I would probably be told they were stress-related and that things would just get better or that they simply did not know what was wrong. That had happened years before when I had first felt the numbness in my legs.

Five years later, during a busy day in the office, I suddenly could not move my leg.  The feeling would come and go, but I knew that I could not ignore it this time. After an evaluation I was told that my symptoms were due to a migraine! They said that I needed to sleep more and take care of myself. Several years later, I found the fatigue and pain to be much worse. I was having trouble walking. I was seen in the ER and had an MRI. Sitting in a neurologist’s office, my husband and I heard the not unexpected diagnosis of multiple sclerosis for the first time. What we had not expected was the moment the doctor said, “So, you need to stop practicing obstetrics and I will see you in a year.” I was stunned.

As a physician, I have had difficult news to deliver and I know how hard it can be. But this was beyond anything I could imagine. This neurologist seemed heartless. He offered no discussion of treatment options or instructions on how I might proceed in my life. In confusion I sought out other neurologists’ care and found that they recommended treatment with disease modulating medications. I stopped practicing obstetrics but continued my practice in gynecology. I found a physician who listened and worked with me to find a medication I could tolerate. She helped me find ways to accommodate to the challenges of MS. Her compassion and sensitivity helped me accept the diagnosis and the changes I needed to make while remaining hopeful about the future. She guided me to accept using a cane and encouraged me to continue my work.

At first, I was shy using my cane and worried that my patients would be put off by my disability. To my surprise, I discovered that using the cane and being open about my diagnosis of MS with my patients actually improved my effectiveness as a physician and enhanced the relationships I had with my patients. I realized that with honesty and a good sense of humor in acknowledging my disability, we could more quickly and effectively discuss their needs and questions. I had a new perspective on patient care that came from experiencing both sides of the exam table.

I also felt more stable and could continue to work. Over the next 15 years, I transitioned from needing to use a cane, to crutches, to a walker and for the last 6 years of my practice I used a scooter. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation on workplace accommodations (electric exam tables and automatic door openers) – as well as the wonderfully open and helpful attitude of my medical partners – allowed me to stay in the game.

My personal experience with illness has given me a newfound respect for how people live with illness and disability. It is essential to find a physician partner in our care who can encourage us to pursue our hopes and goals and stay optimistic. We all have experiences with our health that may be very difficult, but finding a physician who will listen, encourage us and travel the road along with us can be transformative.

Through my personal journey I learned a new level of compassion for the women I took care of. I listened better, I asked better questions and now I am even more appreciative of the partnership between a doctor and his or her patients in navigating life’s challenges.

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Liz Kopin, MD

Liz Kopin, MD, is an obstetrician gynecologist who was diagnosed with MS in 2000. While the MS diagnosis interrupted her practice of obstetrics at age 45, she continued to practice gynecology in Massachusetts for another thirteen years. Now retired, she writes about her experiences and perspective as a mother, physician and human being with MS.