Finding the Meaning in Medicine

As healthcare providers what do you find meaningful about your work?

I remember the face of an elderly African American woman who was dying of pancreatic cancer.  Although she was loved by the family whose children she had raised, she was often alone in her hospital room during the busy work week.  Her cancer was advanced.  Her frail, emaciated frame looked tiny in the huge hospital bed. She did not have the energy to get out of bed or the appetite to eat.  It was clear to all of us caring for her that any attempt at aggressive treatments were more likely to cause harm than benefit.

I remember the moment I kneeled down next to her bed to talk with her about how we could best care for her during the time that was left.  Her eyes were luminous, beautiful, her gaze resting softly on mine with a gentle smile on her face.  She was gracious in her response to the news I had to share, appreciative of all the care she had received and would continue to receive with hospice support.  She was radiant.  I was not her primary care physician.  Although I had only known her a few days, the sense of connection in that moment was profound.

I may not always remember the names of patients like her, but I remember their faces, their stories, and the moments of connection that fill my soul and remind me why I want to continue to practice medicine.

In this Annals article the authors asked internists to write a brief account of a work-related experience that they found meaningful. They studied the 83 stories by means of narrative analysis and identified 3 major themes: a fundamental change in the doctor’s perspective, sense of connection with patients, and a difference made in someone’s life. They note that nearly all the doctors described nontechnical, humanistic interactions with patients as experiences that fulfilled them and reaffirmed their commitment to medicine.

Paying attention to these moments, reflecting on them with gratitude whether through journaling or discussing them with colleagues, is one important way to stay connected to the meaning in our work.