Our Best Teachers.

Inside the church bookstore were rows of religious icons. Some were the size of newspapers; others were smaller than a deck of cards. Saints, the mother of God, and the Son of Man himself gazed serenely back at me.

The icons made me think of Kelly.[1. Kelly is based on an actual person, but all the details are fiction.] She was the patient of another psychiatrist at the agency. Kelly came to the office every morning and greeted me with the enthusiasm of a puppy chasing a frisbee.

“HELLOOOOOOOO, DR. YANG! How are you? You look wonderful today! The angels above are shining a special light upon you! Have a blessed day!”

How could I not smile with a greeting like that?

One day, Kelly came in wearing a purple backpack. After saying hello, she asked, “Would you like the see my icon?”

Pushing aside the thought of a small pictogram on a computer screen, I nodded. She pulled the backpack off and carefully unzipped the bag. Using her left hand she pulled out a panel of wood about the size of a standard sheet of paper. The lacquered surface reflected the fluorescent lights overhead. A man with a beard and a halo around his head looked back at me.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“That’s St. Christopher,” Kelly said, tilting the icon so she could look at it. “I got it at church last week.”

“Tell me about St. Christopher.”

St. Christopher is the patron saint of travellers. We ask St. Christopher to watch over us and keep us safe. That’s why I always carry him around in my backpack.”

I hadn’t thought about Kelly in months. Upon stepping inside the church bookstore, though, I heard her melodic voice and saw her broad smile with clarity.

I don’t know how many patients I have met. Probably over a thousand. Have I seen two thousand patients yet?

All of those people have helped me become the doctor I am today. They all taught me something about health, illness, diagnosis, treatment, and coping. Some of them wanted nothing to do with me; others wanted me to do something that I could not or would not do. Some of them highlighted my weaknesses; others trusted my strengths.

Practically all of them demonstrated extraordinary patience with me, especially during their times of suffering.

I don’t think I ever thanked Kelly for sharing herself with me. She reinforced the rewards of taking an interest in patients as people. I hope that she continues to find comfort in St. Christopher.

Steve Jobs made a remark during the commencement speech that he made at Stanford:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

I often don’t realize what lessons patients have taught me until months to years have passed. What I learned from one patient may not become apparent until another patient points it out. Sometimes a number of patients are trying to teach me the same lesson and I still don’t get it.

Patients aren’t dots. For doctors, they are some of our best teachers. Let’s not forget that.