I just marathoned the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. I wasn’t feeling well and I used to really love the show, so I figured it might be interesting to watch with my newly developed understanding of medicine and hospitals. And if the medicine aspect was really terrible, I could always inflate my ego by spotting the inconsistencies. As it turned out, the medicine was not what drew my attention. It was the attitude of the doctors towards their practice. They thrill over the possibility of car accidents and gunshot wounds, the more drastic the injury, the happier they are. Furthermore, the patients are portrayed as being so much less than the doctors, from both the show and character’s perspectives. They are painted as unreasonable, unintelligent, and overly emotional. Maybe, if they are lucky, they get to be a vessel through which the doctors can discover or understand something new. They are nicknamed and ridiculed.
Now, I understand that this is a TV show. Most hospitals are not filled with incredibly attractive doctors working in the same ward, entangled in various incestuous relationships (which just so happens to be the main reason that I continued to watch). But if this dismissive perspective towards the humanity of a patient was strictly fantasy, it would not have made me so uncomfortable and upset.
I, in the medical world, am known as a zebra. My hoofbeats have a more exotic cause than expected. As a result, when I go to the hospital students are called in to look at me. I am extremely photo sensitive, but still, at least 5 different sets of eyes must peer into mine with a bright little light for the sake of learning. Then, they proceed to debate what they see, talking literally over my head.
When a doctor delivers me news, on the rare occasion that they actually have something new to say, they tell me the medicine. Nothing more. No acknowledgment that this may have a drastic affect on my life. And if I have any questions I had better ask quickly because I’m pretty sure doctor’s offices are equipped with time bombs that go off if the rooms are occupied for even a minute after the scheduled end of the appointment.
It’s dehumanizing. It’s frustrating. It makes me want to scream that this could happen to them too, their child, their spouse, their parent. I want them to want me to get better, to fight for me, to care about me. I mean, I’m not looking for friends. Friends don’t give friends rectal exams, or at least I really hope they don’t. But I would like to know that they are on my team, actively rooting for me. Because how are they going to help me, if the answer isn’t simple and they aren’t feeling motivated to find it?
Then again, even though it’s my life, it is also their workplace. And I have yet to encounter a workplace free of gossip and competition. The Residents, fighting so hard for a chance to prove themselves, are not so different from young singers, desperate for a role. And every performer I know gets excited about their first big role, sometimes going a little crazy in an effort to get there. Is it so different, celebrating the chance to examine a rare medical phenomenon? Or feeling let down when you have put in years of sleepless nights and are given a surgery you have performed so often it has become routine?
That doesn’t fully account, however, for the complete dehumanization of patients, both in the real world and on the television screen. One character outlines the situation perfectly when, after updating the families of crash victims, he bursts out, ‘I'm not good with people. They should just let me stick to patients’.
It’s easy to be affronted by this. I know I was, and a part of me still is. After all I, through no fault of my own, I am stuck passing the time sitting on crackling paper in a tied up blue gown, being examined as a collection of body parts. I do not deserve to feel so objectified, no one does. Especially not when I am at my most vulnerable, afraid and in pain.
Moreover, the show portrays the doctors who care about their patients, the ones who get emotionally involved, to be in the wrong. From an incredulous raised eyebrow to official chastisement, it is clear that the doctors must make every effort to remain detached. At first I didn’t understand it. Isn’t it better to get to know the patient? To understand their life, to gain their trust, to put them at ease and get them comfortable sharing with you?
But then I realized. Being accountable for someone’s health is an immense responsibility. It is a weight, a burden to carry. And if you care, if you also bear the burden of that person’s comfort and happiness, that adds to the weight. And if you do the same for their family, and then multiply that by the hundreds of patients that you will see throughout your career, you will be crushed. No human can carry that much weight. And I need my doctor to stand tall. More than that, I need them to tower.
Doctor-Patient care is a minefield. The system isn’t perfect. I don’t even think it’s all that good. But I do understand it. And, strange as it may seem, Grey’s Anatomy has helped me do that.