By Shady S. Shebak, MD
Psychiatry Resident, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Roanoke VA
It was a tiring Friday night. I had been at the hospital all night admitting psychiatrically unstable patients to the psychiatric ward, and was exhausted. The night had barely started… Let me back up a little and start by explaining what “on-call” means. As a resident, and in my case, a psychiatry resident, we have on-call shifts where we stay overnight in the hospital. Basically, in the daytime (from 8:00AM-5:00PM) I work my normal shift, which this month happens to be in the child psychiatry ward. Then at 5:00PM, I start my on-call shift, and stay until 8:00AM the next morning. It’s very tiring, as we are expected to cover any complications that may arise overnight, and admit all new patients, and there are always plenty of new patients that need to be admitted for a variety of reasons. That day I had explained this process to one of my 9 year old child patients. The topic came up because she asked me when I was going home, and I told her I would be going home the next day at 8:00AM and she immediately became concerned. She wanted to know how I would sleep, or eat, or be able to stay up all night. I was actually quite surprised as usually no one thinks twice about it. Usually people just sigh out of relief that it’s not them who are up all night.
Anyhow, I forgot about our conversation and started my call shift, which was looking like it was going to be a very busy night. What happened between starting and finishing my call shift was not as important and is a blur that was eclipsed by what happened at around 8:15AM the next morning as I was ready to head out. I had to walk through the child psychiatry ward, and there was that 9 year old patient getting ready to eat her breakfast. She looked at me and said, “Are you going home to get some rest? Please tell me you will be resting today”. I must say, I was taken aback. I looked at her face which showed deep concern for my well-being. I felt a very warm sensation envelope my heart, and my face lit up with a smile. Here was a patient who had been going through hell, who had several medical conditions, and a psychiatric condition who was showing more concern over my well-being than many people have shown her as she struggled through her various illnesses. She was showing empathy in its most innocent and pure form, and it was beyond touching. I told her “Yes I am going to go home, rest, eat, and enjoy the rest of my Saturday and Sunday, and will see you on Monday”. She said “That’s good, you need to rest and be healthy, and take care of yourself”.
This short conversation really impacted me for the rest of the weekend. It made me feel appreciated, and gave me a lot to think about with regards to empathy, human kindness, innocence, and how we need to foster and cherish these concepts instead of trample on them as we get old and jaded. The professional world, and the adult world seems to be less concerned with these tender emotions than it is with machine-like efficiency, protocols, and reduced rationalism. We take children, and overtime turn them into adults, in the form of our tired selves, and something about that should not sit well with any of us. We too were once children who were vibrant, who cared, and I think sometimes it takes a child to bring us back to that reality. We must encourage and show appreciation for this type of empathy and innocence so as to nurture its continued development and break the cycle of machine-like expectations that we have for one another.