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Physicians share heartfelt stories for Doctors Day

Physicians touch the lives of many patients. And inevitably, patients touch their lives, too.

For Doctors Day, which we celebrate on Saturday this year, we reached out to the physicians who serve on our medical staff. We asked them about the rewards and challenges of working in the profession. We asked what they wish everyone knew about their work. And we asked them about their patients. As one physician writes, “In many respects, they help me as much as I help them.”

We hope you’ll take a few minutes to read their heartfelt responses below.

Sandra Brown, MD, Gynecology and Infertility

“I think the thing that most people don’t realize about doctors is that the problems of our patients we see go home with us at the end of the day. A physician doesn’t ever really have a day or an evening off. Some problem is always in the back of our minds because we care so much about our patients.”

Joseph Caruso, MD, Family Medicine

“I am fortunate to have spent more than 30 years as a family physician in this community. I am much closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning of it. My practice is made up largely of people that I have taken care of for more than two decades. I have been with these people through intense situations. I have been relied upon to diagnose, treat and teach about many illnesses. I have been able to manage deliveries of hundreds of babies, most of which were routine and simple, but some of which were complicated and frightening. I have provided well care to children and adults, but I also have been involved with the care of serious illnesses and unexpected tragedies. Through it all, my reward has been the sense that people have felt that I made a difference for them in the process. It is gratifying to be able to serve people in a capacity such as this, where trust and confidence are at a premium. I am appreciative of every patient that has ever given me the opportunity to serve them, even if only for one visit and even if it turned out that I was not the right match for them.

“It is not uncommon at this point in my career for patients to ask me about my plans for retirement. In recent weeks, I have had several patients tell me that they are not looking forward to having to find another physician when I retire. Fortunately, I feel that I still have a lot of good years ahead of me. I look forward to the next decade of challenges as a family physician in our community, and I appreciate all of the trust and confidence that I have been shown along the way. Additionally, I am thankful for all of the nurses, medical assistants, therapists, clerical staff, administrators and physician colleagues that have facilitated my efforts along the way.”

Joe Dhaenens, MD, Emergency Medicine

“Working in the emergency department presents new and difficult challenges on a daily basis. Beyond the medical challenges, we face great social challenges. It is very easy to become frustrated with the patient that comes in on an everyday basis for what seems like nothing to the medical staff. We want to tell them that they have no emergency and they are misusing and taking advantage of the system in place.

“What we need to do is realize that we are often the only positive thing in their lives. I like to learn their stories — where they came from, how they got to where they are now, and what their plan is for the future. Many of them are simply looking for someone to talk to. It takes so little from us to give them that little spark of hope. We are a doorway to other resources in the community that can help get them back on their feet.

“One of the greatest joys I get out of working in the ER is seeing that patient who has managed to turn things around, even if just for a little while. I’ve had patients that were near rock bottom who came back proud with their new child, a new job, or a new place to live. That same patient who created so much frustration in the past can come back with so much joy. The things we do for our patients can impact our community in so many ways. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”

Darren Dolly, MD, Obstetrics & Gynecology

“The one thing most people don’t know about being a doctor is that we are full-time students. Even after we graduate from medical school, residency, and sometimes fellowships, we are not done learning. There’s a saying: ‘Fifty percent of what we learn in medical school will be wrong or obsolete in 10 years.’ As the field of medicine and the knowledge evolves, so do we as physicians. This is also why we sub-specialize; it is impossible for one physician to know everything. Even after the visit with the patient ends, and the documentation is complete, we spend many hours weekly reading the latest information, attend conferences and undergo board renewal exams just to stay current.”

Ken Elek, MD, Urgent Care

“The greatest challenge of working as a doctor is balancing work and life. And the greatest reward of working as a doctor is seeing the time you’ve spent helping a patient understand what is going on with them result in a change for the good in their quality of life.”

Ahmed Elmaadawi, MD, Pediatric Psychiatry, Psychiatry

“Most areas of the country don’t have enough psychiatrists to meet the high and ever-growing demand for psychiatric services. It takes time to listen to each patient. I’m always trying to apply cutting-edge research for my patients’ care. It’s rewarding for me when I hear back from patients who survived their struggle with mental illness, and when they tell me ‘I got my life back’ or ‘The cloud was lifted’ or ‘I got my family back.’ People may not know that unlike other medical professions, the field of psychiatry involves caring for patients as well as their families. I also have the responsibility to work closely with members of the community and legislators as an advocate and advisor as we work to enhance mental health services for patients everywhere.”

Samira El-Zind, MD, PA, Pediatric Neurology

“The greatest challenge of being a doctor is how I would like to be available all the time for my patients. Because I see children who are dealing with neurological problems, I feel like I need to be constantly following these patients and their progress. Unfortunately, it is not possible to be working every hour of the day and night. The greatest reward of being a doctor is when I help a patient feel better.”

Christopher Hall, MD, Family Medicine

“A few years back, I saw as a new patient, a 70-year-old woman who had recently moved to the area. She needed a new doctor and my office was close by. Her first appointment was rather unremarkable. She was healthy, but I had the obligatory discussion about her cholesterol, blood pressure and diet. Near the end, she asked if it was OK for her to have a can of beer on Tuesday nights. Tuesday was her bridge night and one of the other ladies drank a can of beer while playing. I thought about it briefly. I didn’t see any problem, so I told her, in my professional opinion, one can of beer was fine. She left happy and I thought about how simple life would be if all I had to do was recommend a beer for my patients. No formulary restrictions or prior authorizations to worry about. It would be the least expensive intervention I recommended all day. Compliance would be near 100 percent, and ALL my patients would leave happy.

“Over the next year or so, I ended up seeing several other ladies from the bridge club. Many even asked if I thought THEY could also have a can of beer on game night. After again, giving my stamp of approval, one woman thanked me. She said with all honesty that I was the best doctor she had ever been to, because I had brought such joy to the weekly bridge club. I never learned this part in medical school or residency, but I suppose being a good doctor means different things to different people.”

Heather Kistka, MD, Neurosurgery

“The greatest challenge of working as a doctor is counseling patients when I do not have a solution to their problem. The greatest reward of working as a doctor is restoring function and relieving pain so my patients can live their lives to their fullest. Patients usually have been missing out on activities they enjoy for quite a while before they come to see me, either because they can’t do them or it just hurts too much. When they are able to do those things again, their whole demeanor and outlook on life changes. Watching that transformation is very rewarding.”

G. Larsen Kneller, MD, Family Medicine

“One thing that most people probably don’t realize about physicians is that most of us are somewhat obsessive-compulsive and perfectionists. We strive to make sure we do everything correctly for a patient, and not miss or forget anything. The number of conditions we in primary care treat and work to prevent has increased dramatically in the last 10 to 20 years and adds to our daily workload.

“The greatest challenge in working as a physician is dealing with insurance companies. Multiple times per day, every day, they are trying to tell me how I should be treating my patients, not only initiating care, but often ongoing care that is doing just fine for the patient and me. It consumes a large piece of time for me and my staff that could be better spent caring for my patients.

“My most memorable experiences are when a patient tells me ‘You saved my life.’ I often respond that I was just doing my job, but it is humbling to know that as a physician I can do something like that. Also, it is very much appreciated when notes of thanks are sent. As in just about every profession, one only tends to hear the complaints.”

Samuel McGrath, MD, Radiation Oncology

“While the profession demands that we as physicians maintain composure in the clinic, it is heart wrenching to see my patients suffer or to have to deliver unfortunate news. Easily, the most difficult part of my job, this is not an uncommon occurrence in the field of oncology nor is it an experience that you just leave behind at the office. That being said, I am inspired on a daily basis by the strength displayed by my patients and the grace with which they handle their difficult circumstances. In many respects, they help me as much as I help them.”

Matthew Misner, MD, Pediatrics

“There is no question that I feel that I have touched the lives of many of my patients and their families, but I always try to keep in mind that my relationship with my pediatric patients is bi-directional and this has allowed me to learn so much about myself. Sometimes the greatest gain is not necessarily in the successes that we have as providers, but in the ‘failures.’ The real question to ask is how do we define failure? For some, the answer might simply be a yes-no result: Did I diagnose correctly then treat accordingly and get the expected result? For me, the answer is not always so clear cut and is much deeper. Here’s an example…

“Years ago, I was called into the office on a weekend. A mother had given birth to her second son, and the family requested that I come to review the statements that the pediatrician currently working in the newborn nursery had made. After arriving at the unit, I was told that the baby looked like he had genetic problems. I performed my exam and spoke to the parents and told them that I disagreed with the initial assessment and did not feel that their son was ‘abnormal.’ Later, I received his initial genetic confirmation study that was normal, but over time, it was confirmed that the baby in fact did have something wrong. He demonstrated failure to thrive, decreased muscular tone, and other concerns. This began a two-year period in which I must have had the patient seen by every specialist that I could, and had every lab and MRI study performed that was available. His parents have since received a rare diagnosis for their son given by a specialist in the United Kingdom. The family and I remain friends to this day and they have never been anything but complementary toward me and my efforts to help them and their son.

“The interaction that I had with this patient was valuable to me in several ways. It allowed me the opportunity to evaluate the events that unfolded with a clearer thought process. What had appeared to be a ‘failure’ of mine in that I unintentionally gave false hope to the parents, was actually an opportunity to gain humility and a different perspective of what it means to be a doctor. Does raw intelligence and demand for success mean that I will ever be free of a few misses? The answer is emphatically NO, and this realization helps me to ground myself in those moments when it may be hard for any provider to ‘know’ what is going on with a patient. I also grew to appreciate this young man, who was my patient, in a way that was much deeper. I know now that I probably wanted him to be ‘perfect’ for his parents in a way that I and most of my colleagues would define as being normal. I now realize that he has brought an immense amount of love and inspiration to both his parents and myself and his ‘abnormalities’ have helped to clear up the only real abnormal aspect that many of us carry — might I suggest our own personal biases.”

Christy O’Malley, MD, Radiologist

“Something most people don’t realize about doctors, and maybe radiologists, specifically, is how much we care. I am a radiologist, so I often don’t have the chance of meeting my ‘patients.’ I read their X-rays, CT scans, mammograms and ultrasounds. I don’t know what color their hair is or the sound of their voice. However, I go to bed thinking about that poor young 41-year-old mother in whom I found breast cancer on a mammogram that day. Or the grandmother hit by a drunk driver whose CT scans I read that night. Or the premature infant with immature lungs who has a long uphill battle ahead, and how frightened her parents must be. I never get to meet these people, and most of them likely have no idea I exist. But I do think about them long after my shift is over as I am hugging my little ones and laying down at night.”

Sunday Osunnuga, MD, Hospitalist

“Walking into the patient’s room, I see 10 family members, two of whom are middle-aged, colorfully dressed women sitting on the patient’s bed rubbing her hair, while the others stare at me suspiciously, wanting to know what will happen to their loved one, asking about her prognosis. Her gaunt and shriveled body lies on the hospital bed, her breathing is labored and she looks almost lifeless, pale, emaciated, with sunken eyes and dry skin.

“The patient and family members speak no English so we get an interpreter. My advice is to place a nasogastric feeding tube and start enteral nutrition; however, after intense discussions, they decide to send the patient to hospice. On day two of admission, the family meets with a hospice coordinator, and after about one hour, all questions are answered and concerns addressed. On the third day, equipment is delivered to the patient’s home.

“We are wrapping up arrangements to begin the discharge plan to home with hospice when my nurse calls me. ‘Dr. Sunday, the family has changed their mind. They want everything done. They want you to do all the tests necessary to make the patient better, to check if she has cancer, to place a nasogastric tube and to begin enteral tube feeding.’ At that moment, I feel a lot of emotions,  anger, frustration and hopelessness about this change of plans. I know this means having to gather all the family members and use an interpreter again. I count to ten and my emotions simmer down.

“Four days have gone by, and the patient’s condition is deteriorating, so we order additional tests – chest X-ray, CT scan, and MRI, and draw more blood. The family arrives and the meeting begins, another round of discussions. I talk, they talk, the interpreter interprets, my pager beeps, my adrenaline level rises, and my frustration and anger are almost palpable. It is already 6 p.m. and I still have six more patients to see. Eventually, we arrive at a compromise. We will continue enteral feeding for two more days and see what happens.

“After our meeting ends, I leave the patient’s room exhausted, frustrated and burned out. I sit in one corner of the hospital and begin to ponder how long I can go on taking care of patients. While deep in my thought, I have a eureka moment. I remember why I wanted to become a doctor. I remember I wanted to take care of the sick and the dying, to care for patients at their most vulnerable moment and those I cannot cure, I comfort. I also remember that I have to feel and manage my emotions and not let them get in the way of giving my best to my patient, which means changing my attitude. For this patient in particular, I realize I have to deal with my implicit bias, be culturally sensitive to her culture, socioeconomic class, language and worldview.

“By 9 p.m., I finish rounding, and I pass by the patient’s room. My nurse motions to me to come in; the patient is dying, and as a few seconds go by, she expires with family members at the bedside. There is a long pause, then they begin to sing, sob and hug each other. Then they turn to me and my nurse, they hug us, thanking us for being so patient, caring, and compassionate. I naturally don’t cry easily, but this time, I cry and they comfort me, and they say, ‘Muchas gracias,’ which in Spanish, means ‘Many thanks to you.’ I console them and ask if they need anything and they say no. Then in my broken Spanish, I ask, ‘Esta?s contento?’ It means ‘Are you satisfied?’ to which they reply, ‘Si?.’ Then they burst out laughing at my broken Spanish. I begin to laugh, too, then I walk out with a big smile on my face, knowing I’ve done my duty with distinction. I have given my best.”

Kathryn Park, MD, Pain Medicine

“The one thing that people forget about doctors is that we are human, too. We have families and emotions. We get sad when a patient passes away. We are happy for a patient’s success and improvement. We are expected to jump in and save the day at any time. We act as superhumans, but that means that we may be seen as having lost part of our humanity. Please remember that we are human, too. That makes all the effort mean more. We love our patients.”

Nikhil Patankar, MD, Pediatric Intensivist

“One of the greatest challenges for me as a doctor is to be part of death and dying discussions with the family. The death of a child is perhaps the worst life experience a parent and family goes through. No matter how many times I have done it, having conversations with the family about their child dying is never easy. I think it is one of the saddest parts of my job. All I can do during this time is to make the parents and family feel comfortable as much as I can and treat every child with respect and dignity.

“The greatest reward of being a pediatric critical care physician is the smile on a child’s face when he or she feels better. Their ‘back to baseline’ personality is always enjoyable to see. This can either be their goofy, silly, mischievous, playful, smiling self or one with a lot of spunk and attitude. All of this is a memorable experience for me. The joy and gratitude on the parents’ faces for helping their child get better is beyond words.”

Nicole Riordan, MD, Emergency Physician

“The thing most people don’t realize about doctors is that we are always learning, whether it’s from our patients or from the latest literature. Even when you think you’ve got it figured out, there’s always something new around the corner. This makes our profession exciting, challenging and humbling.”

Aisha Siddiqui, MD, Gynecology and Obstetrics

I often come across this question “Why would anyone chose to become a doctor?” I don’t know why most doctors chose to become doctors, is it prestige, knowledge, money, desires to help people, desire for acknowledgments, parental pressure? I just know why I chose to become one. Human beings are extraordinary from all other creation. We have an innate need to be useful to others. We have the need to see that our existence is for the benefit for others and we crave this progress.

“Doctors are so lucky, we get to do this every day. As an OBGYN, I get to see a mother bursting with joy while lovingly holding her newborn after experiencing one of the greatest pains. After so many years of being in practice, witnessing moments like this never gets old. Why? Because the joy in her eyes is brand new, so I experience it over and over again. This is the ultimate path to happiness. We all live for the benefit for others, our community and ultimately humanity. Doctors are so lucky.”