To maintain the privacy of our first patient we have changed their name and our names.
The First Patient Program, as most of us know, is a program that matches a pair of first year medical students to a real patient who volunteers their time in order to grow our understanding of the patient experience. Through this program, you attend your patient’s medical appointments and get to know your patient as a person. If we recall correctly, the program requirement was something like a minimum of two appointment visits with your first patient.
In the early stages of the year, we had already heard of struggles coming from our classmates regarding reaching patients and having to travel far and wide to attend appointments. At the time, we thought we were lucky because our patient had regularly scheduled treatments at the hospital, which meant that we could visit them whenever we wanted, and just a few steps from the school. What started as fulfilling requirements quickly blossomed into a relationship that we don’t think either party expected. Because we always knew when and where our patient would be for their treatment, we ended up visiting them somewhere between weekly and biweekly for the year.
Our interactions with Stanley consisted of conversations in the waiting room which transitioned into conversations in the treatment room. Stanley had almost everything go wrong with him medically, but his approach and outlook on life was everything right. Stanley shared a lot with us; first his medical history, his triumphs and pitfalls with the healthcare system, his personal opinions on just about anything, and most importantly, his personal life. He shared stories from his childhood, his hobbies, his family life, and his weekend plans. We quickly learned that Stanley was very talented with woodworking and creating realistic Halloween costumes. (He once tried to create an Ironman costume with a working core).
We quickly learned and saw how his chronic illness stood in the way of many aspects of his life. But Stanley wasn’t the type of person to let his illness control his life. He would happily chat away in his usual sarcastic demeanor, all while several needles and tubes traveled from his arms to the machine beside him.
Stanley was very opinionated about the care he received. But he was fair as well. He clearly remembered all of the interactions he had with his physicians over the years. Our teachers often reiterated that “patients have excellent memories”, but this lesson meant much more coming from our patient. Stanley was sometimes critical of physicians who had dismissed him or treated him poorly, but also effusive in his praise of his care providers who took the time to listen to him and show him a little bit of empathy.
We only really knew Stanley for about a year - maybe less, but he taught us so much.
One of the things we remember most clearly about Stanley, is how his routine coffee or tea poured by the circulating volunteer would remain untouched for the entire time we were visiting. We’d often question why he wasn’t drinking it and encourage him to drink his beverage before it got cold. His answer was simple: “I don’t want to be impolite - if you guys don’t have a drink, I don’t want to drink this and make you feel thirsty!” This was coming from the man who already had to restrict his fluid intake for the day for his treatment. From then on, we’d each bring a beverage and so we could drink with Stanley.
Stanley also had a sharp memory. He was always cautious and respectful of our time, reminding us that it was time for us to go to our intramurals, home to make dinner, study, whatever.
One of the first things Stanley told us was to stay the way we were - stay compassionate, caring, and curious about your patients. Take the time to talk to them and listen. He found that the best doctors not only listened to what he had to share regarding his medical history, but could take a step back because they knew he was the expert on his illness, not them.
It’s easy to forget the human side of medicine during the first two years of school. The relationship that we had built with our patient helped us to stay grounded and we learned how it feels to navigate the healthcare system with a chronic disease and a busy schedule.
We found out that Stanley suddenly passed away a few months ago. They say that your first patient death is something you will never forget. Stanley was our first patient, maybe not in the literal sense, but he was and will always be remembered as a kind and thoughtful soul with an unapologetically stark sense of humour. Stanley, thank you for volunteering your time so that we could learn from you.
We will never forget you.
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