The Power of a Doctor’s Moment of Vulnerability

By | April 30, 2015

As a patient I feel extremely vulnerable going to a doctor. In the outside world I am told verbally, and by way of silent societal pressures, that I should not talk about my chronic pain and health issues, and yet as soon as I enter a doctor’s office I am expected to lay myself bare and share every detail; it is an uncomfortable switch, and often quite difficult for me to do, and yet it is a necessary part of being a patient. My doctor is in an position of power and our relationship can often feel lopsided. Some believe that doctors should have have all the answers; I expect my doctor to have the knowledge and ability to help me with my medical situation, but I also hope for them to sometimes share, or at the very least empathize, with the vulnerability of my experience as a patient.

Living with chronic pain means a life being cycled through the medical system, first to find a diagnosis, then to find a way to incorporate the diagnosis into a medical plan, then to find the appropriate medical professionals, then to, possibly, start the cycle all over again. I have lost track of the diagnosis’ I have been given, the specialists I have seen, and the amount of times I hoped with everything in me that this next appointment would be the one to hit upon the solution. I have laid myself bare, making myself vulnerable not only in the appointments, but during the lead-ups to the appointments and after when I go through a cycle of hope and despair. Several years ago I was given a bit of a respite of this cycle when I had an appointment with my GP and she stated five words that instantly altered our relationship. In an exasperated tone she stated “I have hit a wall”. It may seem like a simple statement, but for me it was filled with comfort and hope.

When my doctor said “I have hit a wall” she allowed herself to be vulnerable in front of me; she admitted that she did not have all the answers. My GP demonstrated her frustration that the medical system she works within could not figure out a way to improve my quality of life. Her tone was filled with frustration and that calmed me; it reminded me that I was not alone in this, that she too shouldered some of the frustration of my cycling through the medical system, that she too wished for me to have improved quality of life. Prior to this statement I knew that my doctor was on my side, but I had never really heard her express so emotionally her frustration, her inability to help.

Some would think that a doctor stating that they have hit a wall and don’t know where to go from that point would be a bad thing, let me tell you why it wasn’t for me. My doctor did not make this comment and then send me on my way, she stated this and continued to work with me to find solutions. She didn’t give up, she simply expressed her frustration. She admitted that she doesn’t have all the answers, as some assume doctors should, but that she would continue to work with me to, hopefully, find the answers. I never felt like our relationship was more of a partnership than in that moment. I felt supported. I felt that she had more empathy for my situation. I felt that I had someone who would be honest with me, even though it made her vulnerable, and I felt ready to move forward with her to find the answers.

I have had experiences in the past where specialists have had no idea what to do with me and so they have referred me to another specialist simply to get me out of their office. I would then go through a waiting period of typically 6-12 months desperately trying to dampen down my hope that this would be the person who could finally help me, only to be told that they have no idea why I was referred to them and that they couldn’t help me. I think of my doctor’s admission that she hit a wall and I appreciate it all the more because she said what so many other medical professionals did not, and do not, feel safe or comfortable saying, that they couldn’t help. It shouldn’t be the sole fault of a medical professional when they can’t help someone with complicated, multiple health issues; sometimes they are the wrong speciality, or the patient’s case is complicated, or the proper test is not available, etc. I think that there needs to be better communication between medical professionals and patients, and I can’t help but wonder if there needs to be more space for vulnerability on both sides. I don’t blame my doctor for not knowing all the answers, I appreciate her for being honest and moving forward with me anyway. I appreciate that she humbled herself in front of me as it made me realize the trusting relationship that we had built. Those five words may have not been what I wanted to hear, but they brought a relief that I wasn’t the only person lost. Following those five words my GP proved that she was dedicated to working with me to get past that wall. That moment of vulnerability was over in seconds and yet it left a lasting impact; I realized that sometimes just having someone in the medical profession on my side is a win within itself.