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Role Reversal: When The Doctor Becomes The Patient

By Dr. Jennifer Chilek, Primary care physician

After years of training and experience, doctors are well suited to assessing physical complaints and taking charge of patient care − but that situation changes dramatically when the doctor becomes the patient.

In early June of this year, I began exhibiting a set of aggressive, debilitating symptoms with little to no advance warning. I became fatigued, nauseous, irritable and had an extreme sensitivity to light and sound. The headaches that accompanied these symptoms were relentless.

While I had my suspicions, I contacted a colleague and described my symptoms to get an impartial assessment. It was determined the symptoms indicated the possibility of meningitis. The recommendation was to get to an emergency room for specific testing − immediately. That’s because meningitis presents in three basic forms: viral, bacterial and aseptic. All three have significant health risks, but viral and bacterial meningitis are more hazardous and life threatening.

After a CT scan, lumbar puncture and other tests done at the emergency room at Apollo Hospital in The Woodlands, it was determined that I had aseptic meningitis, likely caused by a metabolic reaction to pharmaceutical drugs I was given a week or more earlier − an autoimmune response. Like any patient afflicted with a debilitating disorder, my world changed immediately. As I was being admitted to the hospital, I had to contact my patients to let them know I would be unavailable for a prolonged period of time and reach out to colleagues and my practice’s staff to coordinate a plan to assure my patients had access to healthcare during my absence.

Naturally I was concerned about my family and they were concerned about me. I was surprised at the outreach of support from my patients who wished me well in cards, notes and emails. They urged me to take as long as I needed to recover fully.

While I was given a round of antibiotics, there is no medicinal cure for aseptic meningitis. Essentially, one has to accept the symptoms and let time and the human body work through the disease.

In modern medicine, physicians don’t spend nearly as much time in hospitals as doctors did a generation ago. In most cases, patients in a hospital deal with the hospitalist physician and specialists, not their primary care physician.

That’s fine if the patient is well informed about his or her condition and comfortable asking questions about tests, procedures and outcomes. But I was reminded that hospitals can be intimidating as well. It’s a foreign environment for most people.

I was at an advantage in knowing about medical procedures, but I was also challenged because my role in the process was one of patient − not doctor. It’s difficult to let go of responsibility, to let others assess the situation and test results and make a recommendation as to treatment.

Being an informed patient is good, but second-guessing or telling one’s doctor what course of treatment you think is best is, in the long run, often counterproductive.

For the week or so I was a patient at Apollo Hospital, I had the opportunity to observe what patients experience. The food was better than I expected as were the availability of services like cable television, access to the Internet and spa services.

The most enlightening aspect of my stay in the hospital was my interaction with the nursing staff. Unlike the image portrayed in popular culture, nurses are required to do massive amounts of documentation and paperwork − so much so they don’t have as much time to interact with patients as most people would suppose.

That being said, I was extremely impressed with the nursing staff during my stay. They were personable as well as professional and committed to making my experience as pleasant as possible; not because I’m a doctor − most had no idea I was a physician and I don’t think it would have mattered if they did.

After several days at Apollo, my doctor suggested I be transferred to an intensive care unit at another hospital. I resisted because I was both impressed and comfortable where I was. I knew I would be discharged in a few days and saw no reason or advantage to being relocated and starting over for such a short period of time. It was one of the few “suggestions” I made about my treatment regimen.

After being discharged, I was still afflicted with significant symptoms and unable to work. I have spent weeks in a relatively dark, quiet environment as my condition slowly returns to normal. Viewing modern healthcare from the vantage point of a patient puts things in a different perspective. While I have always had empathy for my patients, I am more aware of the potential for frustration and bewilderment of those whose lives are disrupted by illness or injury.

When I return to practice, I am confident I will take more time to make sure patients understand their situation and be more accessible to them if a hospital stay is required. I have faith that area hospitals have excellent physicians and specialists, but it is also important that patients understand what is going on so they can make informed decisions and participate in their recovery.

Being on the other side of healthcare has been an interesting and informative experience. It has reinforced my belief that doctors and patients work best when they work together toward a common goal. But it is the doctor who is in charge − even when the patient is a doctor herself.