Janet Levatin, MD
One of my assignments as a pediatric resident was working in the weekly continuity clinic. The continuity clinic experience was supposed to simulate the experience of working as a full-fledged doctor in a primary care setting. While residents usually do one month stints in various sections of the hospital, such as the emergency room, the intensive care unit, the newborn nursery, and the regular inpatient wards, residents would work 3-4 hours every week in continuity clinic for the entire three years of their residency training. Each young doctor developed a roster of patients that they followed over those years.
My continuity clinic was held every Wednesday on the fourth floor of University Hospital, in Newark, New Jersey. The Hospital was, and probably still is, in the middle of a very tough neighborhood. Each day I drove from the Vailsburg section of Newark where I lived to the hospital, which was closer to downtown. I passed through block after block of abandoned buildings, aging high-rise housing projects, and a countless number of cold-water flats (so-called because they had no hot running water). My continuity clinic patients came from these neighborhoods. It was obvious their lives were not easy. They needed whatever help they could get.
The clinic was run and supervised by Dr. Susan, a wonderful and very experienced pediatrician. She was such a kind woman. She always took time to speak in a friendly and encouraging manner to the patients. She always complimented the babies, saying things to each mother like, “She is such a beautiful baby! You must be so proud of her,” or, “What beautiful skin your baby has.” Her aim was to lift the spirits of our patients. She was always sincere and caring.
Dr. Susan also took the time to nurture and coach us as young, developing pediatricians. She always remembered to smile and compliment us. She helped us learn both tangible, technical medical skills and the more abstract skills of empathy, compassion, and kindness. Once when I was down about a personal problem, she dropped what she was doing to sit down, talk with me, and give me some much-needed advice.
Whereas good diagnostic and therapeutic skills are important for healing the body, the intangible but very real qualities of kindness, compassion, and empathy are important for healing and nurturing the spirit. As doctors, we need to cultivate and develop these characteristics within ourselves if we want to be true healers.
In this age of electronic health records, vaccine mandates, and the 12-minute appointment, much of the humanity and most of the healing that should be at the core of healthcare are gone. I encourage people to seek out integrative, holistic, and functional centers where these qualities can still be found.
I always try to remember to compliment parents on the good choices they have made and the great parenting skills they have mastered. I encourage people to think about what they can do to improve their health, and the health of their children, going forward rather than dwelling on past decisions they made that were less than optimal. I know that practicing kindness, compassion, and empathy are healing for the patients and necessary for my own spiritual development. While I do not always get it right, I try. I encourage all doctors to do the same.