I was caring for a woman in the emergency department the other day, and when I was discharging her she thanked me for being kind. I was surprised, because I generally think that part of being a doctor is being kind to all your patients. I tried to wave off her thanks, and she explained: "Most people don't treat Muslims very well, so I thank you for being so nice today." I was at a loss for words. What I wanted to say -what I tried to say - wasn't true: that I couldn't imagine why someone would act that way.
I immediately felt guilty. The woman's complaint had been superficial - a headache - and despite an expensive work up she seem to recover just fine with some time and attention and a Tylenol. She hadn't filled her role as the "sick patient" the way that I wanted her to, and in my mind I had been dismissive. But here she was, thanking me for the kindness that I had shown her.
It is easy in the emergency department to grow jaded quickly, to always think the patients are trying to get something from you that they don't deserve: narcotics, a place to sleep, a turkey sandwich, or just some attention. As the end of my shift grows near, I find my tone of voice loses its softness, and the compassion that I used liberally on my earlier patients now seems to be missing, replaced by efficiency. Sometimes, the patients ARE faking; a lot of the time, they need something from us - whether it's medical or not. Sometimes what they really need is someone to listen and offer a kind word. I'm grateful that this is free and easy to offer. I'm ashamed that sometimes I forget.