An (un)healthy perspective

For the last week, I've been on a medical placement. I've been in a new town, living on my own and only with my two feet to carry me around. I've had a lot of time to reflect; a lot of quiet time; a disconnection from most everything that is familiar.

Each morning I would wake, walk to the clinic and begin a day of active learning. The day was broken by lunch and finished with a walk home, only to study all that was unknown. Evenings were filled with the sound of voices on TV and phone calls to friends far away before collapsing into slumber. Only to start it all again the next day.

Days here sit in stark contrast to my average day at home, where mornings are filled with news articles and consulting my diary to figure out which events I would like to attend. Days at home are punctuated with unexpected lunch dates with friends after bumping into each other on campus, studying in the library and in lectures, hours devoted to reading in and around my studies. Where my ordinary day is focused very much around connection, time here has been more about observation despite constant interactions with others.

As my focus has been medical, my thoughts have wandered towards attitudes towards health from both the patient and the professional's perspective.

My usual interactions are with "patients" cloaked in hospital gowns streaked with very obvious statements of property and coloured to be conveniently bleached beyond the tolerance of any bug. Many of these patients take on the "sick role", passively allowing health practitioners to poke and prod them. I have a strong recollection of one patient who defied this role, sitting up in a chair (still cloaked in a hospital gown), polished leather loafers on their feet, happily reading the daily paper and staring with disdain when we dared interrupt the gathering of news for a medical examination. Had we been in a cafe and this person dressed not only in their loafers but in typical garb, one could have imagined an accompanying devonshire tea and some highfalutin conversation. The hospital environment seems conducive to medicalising humanity. It is easier to desensitize oneself to the personal story that accompanies each patient, perhaps in some attempt to isolate the cause of illness.

In clinic, however, there is no uniform. The people who come in with health concerns are themselves first and sick second. Their outfit tells a small portion of their story - perhaps which band they enjoy, their workplace or their football team. An individual may come in with a father or a child, a girlfriend or a sibling. Or a combination of the above. Conversations begun in the waiting room are cut short by the call of the health professional and punctuate the consultation. Where poking and prodding of patients in the hospital setting may somewhat alleviate the boredom of waiting, poking and prodding in a clinic situation just increases the time away from whatever ordinary life activity has been disrupted by this medical visit. Few have resigned themselves to the "sick role." Coughs, colds, chronic diseases, cuts or cancer, most want to have a little yarn about what's going on before getting back to the rest of their life.

And rightly so.

Medicine isn't supposed to be about chaining an individual to a Healthcare Plan. It's about making sure an individual has the strength and vitality to do the everyday and strive for contentment. It's about having a strong foundation for everything else that could come up in life - and feeling capable of taking on those challenges. Blood tests and daily medications mean very little unless contextualised to how health influences interaction with the things we love. No amount of study will show me that. Time spent away from my "usual" has been key in re-discovering the humanity of health.

The more time I spend in Medicine, the more important the individual in front of me becomes. Understanding their current complaint only happens in the context of their story. Understanding how to improve their health only happens when their goals become clear. Explaining the meaning of tests and what will happen during them is, of course, important. More important, however, is helping health fit into the paradigm of their future.


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