As a student known to sleep through a larger portion of my immunology lectures, the material, for me personally, lacked a little oomph. IgM. APC. CD28. C4b2a3b. A litany of cells, cytokines, and receptor molecules with unimaginative names and, often, even less enticing tasks that sounded more like a roll call for Star Wars characters. Little did I know, however, that the lessons imprinted on me in immunology translated to a much broader message.
Our biological well-being relies on the body’s meticulous ability to distinguish between the innate and the foreign. Thus, recognizing our own self is a lesson imbued to us by our own immune system. If the crux of good health relies on our body’s ability to recognize the “self” from “non-self” then being a good doctor, in my opinion, is about recognizing one’s own motives, perceptions, and attitudes against the backdrop of competing interests.
While conducting a research study on undertreated pain in sickle cell patients in a small middle-income nation, I interviewed around 40 sickle cell patients. After several long weeks of talking to patients, they all seemed to blend together as one in my head. However, one particular patient would always stick out in my mind. William, as I’ll call him, was rather gaunt and scraggly when he walked into the clinic where I was conducting interviews. His uncharacteristically hollow and worn face spoke volumes about his disposition and how mismanaged his pain was as a result of his disease.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t his face or his stature that made him more noticeable in my mind, but rather something about his eyes. There was a glaring yellowish tone within them, signs of full-blown jaundice, a common symptom of the disease, but even that was far from what made them distinctive. It was, instead, the dejected look he carried about him, a man who lost that sustaining spark to carry on. More so than his body, it was his spirit that was crippled. Continue reading