Kayla Simms is a Psychiatry Resident (R1) at McMaster University who graduated from medical school at the University of Ottawa in 2017
Compartmentalization is to medical knowledge as bread is to butter: patients, divided into sub-types; the body, separated by systems; the physician, detached from the pain.
Or so I once thought.
In medical school, I walked into patients’ rooms and stood idly at the bedside, intimately embedding myself into the darkest spaces of strangers’ lives. The bedside, like a carpenter’s work bench, is where I mastered concepts of sound and touch: the absence of bowel sounds auscultated in an obstructed state. The warmth of inflammation against the back of my hand.
The bedside is where I grew accustomed to asking questions like, “How is your pain today?” and learned to de-humanize the experience with the help of a 10-point scale.
But near the end of my medical training, I crossed the bedside’s cold metal barrier.
In the post-operative care unit, as the pain resurfaced beneath the weight of the anesthetics, I found myself unable to quantify the knife-like shooting in my left side to a single number. I pressed call buttons at ungodly hours of the night, requesting bedpans and begging nurses to adjust my pillows. White-coated strangers with tired eyes entered my shared room, examining the surgical incision scantily located beneath my most personal of garments.
It was here – accepting the vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear that came with donning a patient gown – where I understood that the bedside was not a unilateral experience.
In rediscovering medicine, I sought to reconstruct my bedside dynamic to unlearn what I had compartmentalized. I reached across arbitrary barriers to touch hands with strangers and to hold, in my palms, the emotions unmeasurable by a 10-point scale.
Now six months into residency, with the humbled acceptance of a new identity, I know the patient experience taught me more about being a doctor than any lecture, textbook, or case history ever could.
Embracing shared humanity with empathy and without judgment is, after all, what “bedside manner” is truly about.