by Jill Kruse DO
When I was in my third year of medical school, I learned one of my most important lessons. It did not come from a textbook or from a teacher, but from a brief conversation with a patient on hospital rounds.
“How long have you had diabetes?” I asked. It was a simple enough question. Diabetes often progressed with time and the longer it was present, the longer the cumulative damage. I wanted to gauge if his foot infection was a new issue or part of a larger battle that had been going on for months to years. “Thank you,” he said. I was confused. “Thank you for what?” I asked. That was not the expected answer. “For asking me how long I had diabetes and not calling me a diabetic,” he said. For all intents and purposes, for me as a third-year medical student, the questions were identical. I did not realize there would be any significance to the phrase I chose.
My patient continued, “Diabetes is something that I have, not who I am. It does not define me. I am so much more than this disease.” This gentleman’s, my patient’s, comment made me pause. When I walked into his room I had a lot of data about him, but no knowledge of him.
He went on to tell me about his life, his family, his prior job. He spoke of all the things that changed after his diagnosis and all the things that stayed the same. He no longer was the “diabetic in room 26”, a task that I must complete, he was a person who needed my help. He had a name and a rich history that the medical chart did not record. This quick conversation completely changed how I interacted with him for the rest of his stay in the hospital and every patient I have encountered since.
I have a gentle reminder for you and me, like my gentleman gave me all those years ago: you are not a disease or a chronic illness; you are a person who is looking for help to improve your health. It is easy to let a chronic illness become one’s identity and become the only subject discussed at a clinic visit. Remind us that there is so much more to your story, because sometimes we get busy and forget; we are human too.