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Seeing the person before the patient

Rosie Morrow-Okon Sponsored content provided by Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine

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At this point in our medical training, the question on everybody’s lips is: “What kind of physician do you want to be?”

Our well-meaning relatives asked us over winter break. Our friends of the working world use their enviable free time to inquire after our career goals. Though a few of us have an answer, at this stage of the journey, many factors that will help us decide are still unknown.

When I think about this question, what springs to mind is not a specialty, but a set of characteristics I hope to embody.

I spoke to my preceptor in neurology, Dr. Michael Chun, about this subject. As a newly minted doctor, Dr. Chun was drawn to neurology due to the way piecing symptoms together seemed analogous to completing a jigsaw puzzle. He enjoyed the diagnostic process which unfolded largely in his own mind, a world away from patient care in his clinic.

But at a medical conference in Hawaii, during a discussion of multiple sclerosis, he had a vision of one of his patients with that illness. It was a pivotal moment in his medical career – seeing the person instead of only their symptoms. He felt he had to glean all he could from the presentation because his patient was relying on him, watching him as if to say, “Are you getting all this? Can you explain this to me when you come home? It’s overwhelming and isolating for me, and I need you to be present so you can help me through this.”

The walls where Dr. Chun practices are lined with his accolades. He is quiet and modest when I ask about them, but everyone else is quick to sing his praises. The way he practices medicine, holding the patient in his mind’s eye as he moves around the puzzle pieces of their symptoms, has given me a new standard to hold myself to.

I hope to be a physician who sees the person first, and the patient second. I hope to treat people instead of just problems.

And treating does not simply mean curing. In fact, when the problem at hand cannot be cured, that is when physicians like Dr. Chun shine. Neurology, for example, is a field dominated by symptom management and shrouded in mystery, given the complexities of the human brain. So many neurological problems – Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis – are incurable. Therefore, much of the patient experience is not searching for a cure, but creating and sustaining partnerships, minimizing the sense that the patient is without help or guidance.

I am grateful for the excellent role models I have, teachers and faculty, preceptors and fellow classmates, who demonstrate the depths of what it means to be a doctor and how much better this journey to becoming a doctor is when I am not walking alone. I may not know yet what area of medicine I am going to dedicate myself to, but whatever I choose, I know who I am going to be as a physician and servant to those I seek to heal.

This article is part of an ongoing series focusing on Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, written by the medical students themselves. For more information visit
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