One of the best parts of my job is meeting people. You can tell a lot by a patient’s name, age, ethnicity, speech, dress, or number and nature of his or her tattoos. But there is a lot more that you won’t know until you have a conversation, and that’s the part that always surprises me. Every interaction offers an opportunity to learn something unexpected about the patient or about oneself.

I recently met a lovely young patient with chronic pain. She had some challenges, including being morbidly obese and on welfare. She had a scar across her left forearm – a deep, well-executed, self-inflicted wound requiring 16 stitches. She’d done it as a teenager and readily admitted that it was a tough time in her life.

But when I got to asking her social history, she lit up with pride. When she was down on her luck some years ago, she decided to learn sign language. She then started a business to incorporate sign language into programs for children with learning disabilities. That left me in awe but also surprised at myself for being so surprised.

And how about a nun who, in addition to having rheumatoid arthritis, also had complex regional pain syndrome after foot surgery. For a year and a half, all she could talk about was how painful her foot was, how miserable she was – so much so that I dreaded each visit, knowing it would make me feel inadequate. I discovered later on that my one-dimensional view of this person as patient was quite limited. “Nun” is not her job description. Her job is with the Social Justice Advocacy arm of her congregation, and most recently her work has focused on interpreting Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change to make it accessible to congregants. Again, a pleasant surprise.

I was raised Catholic: Heaven and hell, good and evil, Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative. But to be totally postmodern about it, I have a great appreciation for how, unless I walk in another person’s shoes, I will never fully understand them and therefore cannot be the judge of them. In fact, those judgments speak more about me than they do of the patient. What a treat, then, that with each patient interaction I shine a light on my own spirit, and get to know myself a little bit better.

Let me end with a little tribute to Oliver Sacks, who devoted his life to shining a light on the complexities of his patients’ minds: “People will make a life in their own terms, whether they are deaf or colorblind or autistic or whatever. And their world will be quite as rich and interesting and full as our world.”

Dr. Chan practices rheumatology in Pawtucket, R.I.

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