Three Patients Who Helped Me Realize How Special Family Medicine Is


Ashley Boerrigter, Medical Student

Come, be a shadow with me – I’ll show you three patients who helped me realize just how special family medicine is.
A woman in her late 50s is seated in the chair across from us. Her husband, who was not present, had been diagnosed a few months prior with terminal cancer, and his treatment was palliative, not curative. She breaks into heaving sobs when the doctor asks how she is doing with such a burden. He listens to her, hearing her out and giving her space to be completely honest about what she is feeling, and then speaks encouraging words. He hugs her and she holds on for a long time. This interaction taught me about the value of providing safe space for emotional release.

Your feet are sore, and so are mine, as we shift from foot to foot, trying to be forgettable in the corner. A male about 70 years old has struggled with his Type II Diabetes Mellitus for many years. He comes in with his wife today to ask about his big toe, which is the only toe remaining on his right foot and one of only three toes he still has. The doctor gently removes the patient’s Birkenstock sandal from his foot and unwraps the bandage around the hallux. The bottom skin is black and rotting away, the top was red and oozing. The patient looks at you with an almost apologetic smile. The doctor leans in, considers what he sees, then gently replaces the bandage and begins discussing treatment options. This interaction taught me to gently uncover hidden hurts and the powerful good that comes from addressing them respectfully.

Several patients are sitting around in wheelchairs in the nursing home lobby. We stand at the doctor’s side while he speaks with one patient, when the elderly lady next to her motions to us.

“Sweetie,” she said, “Do you have any money?”

“No ma’am, I don’t, I’m sorry,” I reply.

Women of her generation must have lived through hard times, especially during the war, and old habits of pinching pennies stay forever. She reaches into her left pocket and feels around for a minute, pulling out a folded piece of paper. Clearly, that isn’t what she wanted—perhaps she thought she had a dollar bill—so she reaches into her other pocket. From her right pocket, this sweet woman pulls out a pack of half-eaten Belvita breakfast crackers and holds them toward us.

“Here honey,” she says, “Take these.”

My heart simultaneously warms and breaks in half. “Ma’am, I tell you what—those are my absolute favorite breakfast crackers and I have some at home right now. You keep those.”

She returns them to her lap and replies, “Well, okay.” I squeeze her shoulder briefly, look her in the eyes and say thank you, and follow the doctor to the parking lot. This interaction taught me about the generosity of the human soul and the power of small gestures.

To me, family medicine is about connecting with people of all socioeconomic strata, ethnicities, and stages of life. Practicing family medicine provides opportunities to form a relationship with, learn from, and assist individuals whom otherwise I would have never met. Interactions that take place in the exam room are not simply two ships passing in the night. Every so often, they are beautiful and significant collisions that leave the participants changed for good.

6 responses to “Three Patients Who Helped Me Realize How Special Family Medicine Is

  1. Love the way you think Ashley! You will be a wonderful physician!

  2. Beautifully written. So glad you are seeing the bigger picture of treating people and not just their symptoms. A little compassion in any form goes a long way!

  3. Have always known what a special person you are, Ashley! That was a touching read……

  4. So very proud of you, Ashley. You will bless so many people through your ministry in medicine!!! What a gift you are!!

  5. Ashley, I am so proud of you! You will bless many with your knowledge and sweet spirit!

  6. Ashley, you are our star. I love your compassion to serve.

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