Sometimes, when you’re responsible for others, it’s your job to let them be unfair to you

When I was an intern, in one of the first months of my residency, I walked into a patient room to see a child who was being admitted to the hospital. I had barely closed the door before the child’s mother started yelling at me. She was angry that they’d been waiting so long. She was angry because she felt like her child had been mishandled before admission. She was angry that he was in pain, and that no one had given him anything for it.

I was stunned. I had literally only learned about this patient five minutes before I had walked in the room. It had taken me only that amount of time to cross the hospital to see them. I started to defend myself, saying that it was unfair that she was angry at me. None of this was my fault.

This… did not defuse the situation. She lost it on me, screaming that we’d screwed up, that she was tired of being jerked around, and she wasn’t going to listen to excuses. I, being an idiot, tried to argue further. After all, she was blaming me for things I couldn’t control. Meanwhile, her child was in pain and crying in the bed.

I took a patient history as best I could, did a cursory exam, and left to place orders. Then I went to talk to my senior resident. I relayed to him about how ridiculous I thought it was that this mother treated me this way. I went on and on about how unfair it was. I said, “I try so hard to be a good doctor. I don’t understand why she was so unhappy with me.”

He said something which stuck with me, many years later. “She’s got a kid in the hospital, and you’re worried that she doesn’t like you?”

This poor woman was probably panicked out of her mind. She didn’t know what was wrong with her son. She felt like doctors had been screwing up left and right. Her child was crying, in pain, and she couldn’t make it go away. Of course she was angry; of course, she had to take it out on someone.

It was my job to be the receptacle for that anger. Over the course of my (limited) clinical practice, I have let countless parents yell at me. Almost every single time, I thought they were wrong on the facts, but I didn’t care. The only way I could help them was to let them get out their frustration. I’m a big boy. I’m a doctor. I can handle it.

This lesson has served me well as a parent, too. Many times, my children have been frustrated by school, by friends, or even by me or my wife. They snap. I could choose to fight with them, to prove to them that they’re wrong and I’m right. I could “win”. But I know I’ll lose in the end. Because sometimes people are just angry or upset, and they need to vent. I’m their dad. It’s my job. We’ll settle the facts at a later time. The world won’t end in the meantime because I “lost” an argument.

I’ve been watching a lot of news recently where people feel the need to fight. To respond. To be “right”. I don’t know who coined the phrase, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” but it’s a mantra in our house. I try very, very hard in my personal life to make it the latter.

When you hold the power, sometimes you have to let others unload on you. It’s the only way to help some people; it’s all they have left. If you can’t handle that, don’t ever put yourself in the position of being responsible for other people’s lives. This applies to more than just medicine, of course.


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