Feeling Detached: Lessons from Being a Patient (Again)
It's good to be back in Washington advocating for family medicine. And it's good to see the Capitol again, though my view today is a bit cloudy.
You see, my last visit here ended in an unexpected manner. Not because of a bad meeting or difficult legislators but because of my own health. As I was leaving the White House on Jan. 3, I noticed a new, large floater in my field of vision. By the time I was driving home that night in Colorado, I was seeing flashes of light.
Uh, oh. This was no thunderstorm. As you know, these are potentially symptoms of a detached retina.
After calling my family physician and an ophthalmologist, I was seen emergently and initially diagnosed with a posterior vitreous detachment in my right eye that later progressed to a retinal tear.
Frankly, I was scared. Our eyes are so important to what we do as physicians, not to mention in our everyday lives.
It's said that life teaches us lessons. If we don't learn them the first time, those lessons will be offered again. For me, it had been more than 15 years since I found myself playing the extended role of patient after an airplane crash. That accident eventually led to the loss of both legs below the knees, so I'm no stranger to being on the receiving end of health care.
But once again, I was reminded of how fragile we are and how quickly life can change. In a matter of days, I went from visiting the White House, seeing patients and teaching residents to being a patient in the operating room of my own hospital. Post op meant lying flat on my back, at home alone in a dark house. I went from being on the front lines of our advocacy efforts to being told that I could not read, use a computer, exercise or work.
Like my retina, I was feeling detached.
Fortunately, I have great colleagues at the AAFP who were able to handle my Academy duties, and I have other great colleagues who were able to handle my clinic and teaching duties in Colorado.
I ate even better than normal, as friends, family and colleagues circled the wagons to bring food, entertainment, and good cheer to the house. To keep my mind engaged, they even brought books on tape!
It's funny how sometimes we get so caught up in our lives that we take things for granted. I'm used to being a caregiver. I'm the guy who shows up to offer help. Once again, it was hard for me as a physician to be vulnerable, give up my role as caregiver, and be in a position to ask for help.
The good news is that I'm expecting to recover my vision in time. And I'm back to work, advocating for family medicine in Washington. This week I'm here talking to lawmakers about graduate medical education and the sustainable growth rate formula.
Sure, life offers all of us curveballs. But for family physicians, these setbacks also can remind us of how our lives and our work are so important and so intertwined.
I hope that you can take a moment this week to look around to really "see" your life, family and friends, patients, and those who appreciate you.
Today, I am grateful for the care of my family physician, our subspecialist partners, and to be back in the game for you in Washington, where together we can see and work toward a better future for our patients and our practices. Even if for this short time, I need a little help with accommodation (pun intended).
Jeff Cain, M.D., is the president of the AAFP.
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