An operating room is surprisingly loud.
There’s the surgical attending’s ‘70s rock playlist, the resident asking a hopeless medical student what artery runs through Calot’s triangle, the suctioning of excess blood, and of course the sound of cold air being pumped into the room at what I assume must be absolute zero.
And yet, as I stood in that operating room, all I could hear was the inescapable pounding of my heart in my chest as my intestines raged violently. All I could feel were my sweat-soaked scrubs clinging to my aching body. As I stared at the pale blue drapes covering the patient, I knew if I didn’t get out of there, I would most certainly collapse into the patient’s open abdomen.
I remember the ED triage nurse asking me a question I’d asked patients hundreds of times before: “What brings you in today?”
The other side
Twelve days prior, I had a colonoscopy at an outside facility and my doctor informed me my colon was inflamed, which he believed was due to an inflammatory bowel disease. I told the nurse that while I was on day 10 of my oral steroids, every day felt worse than the day before.
It felt strange being on this side of the hospital. I was surrounded by my peers, patients and instructors. Just that morning I was in this same hallway, talking to patients who were potential surgery candidates. Suddenly I was the one lying in the automated bed with a story to tell.
In a matter of hours, I went from white coat to gray gown. From trying to figure out a diagnosis to hoping they would figure out my diagnosis.
I knew the physicians would gather as much information as possible before providing a reasonable diagnosis. But as I lay there in the hospital bed, all I wanted were answers. I appreciated the doctors taking their time, but understanding it as a student and living it as a patient were two vastly different experiences.
In the coming days, the doctors performed another colonoscopy. This time things looked much worse. Rip-roaring pancolitis. No wonder eating a simple salad felt like shards of glass were shredding my intestines. The daily fevers, night sweats, and unyielding fatigue started to make sense.
Days turned to weeks, and my condition was not improving.
The doctors ruled out infection and went with a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, but the treatments weren’t effective. Nights were difficult. My colon would wait until the clock struck midnight and decide to attack.
In that small, dim hospital room, my thoughts would often turn dark. I’d crawl back into bed after having been to the restroom for the fourth time that evening and start to think about what would happen if I didn’t make it out of here. What if my next room was a cold drawer in the basement?
I’d seen patients with ulcerative colitis, and I knew it was a manageable disease. But when you become the patient, fear is the enemy of faith.
Eventually, the tide began to turn. My doctors started me on a biologic medication that calmed my innards. By the 17th day, I began to regain my strength as my condition slowly improved. I left the hospital on day 20.
I write this to tell you the obvious: Being ill is both difficult and scary.
Managing my disease helped me understand the trials and tribulations people with acute or chronic illnesses go through daily. This experience has been transformative. In medical school, we are taught how to obtain a good history and ask a series of formulated questions, but we don’t always provide the patient with what they actually want—answers.
In the past, it was easy for me to tell a patient, “your lab work and imaging looks good, so you’re doing better,” without consciously recognizing that patients are much more than just their test results and radiology reports. Beyond the science, there is a scared person who is looking for answers in a sea of uncertainty.
At its core, the job of a physician is to heal and prevent disease. It took me laying in a hospital bed to realize I had overlooked another crucial role of a physician—to be a shield for those at their most vulnerable.