I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have been asked what I have learned from my illness. I also get asked what if anything I have learned about the Healthcare System from being a chronic patient that I didn’t learn in all the years I worked as an RN or the years I was in school for my nursing degree. The first few years not much came to mind. But the longer I have had to deal with a chronic illness, the more doctors I have seen, the more insurance companies I have to fight, I have definitely learned some things that my education or work experience NEVER taught me. You may be thinking, how is that even possible, you went through more than 4 years of Nursing Education and worked in the healthcare field for over ten years, how would being chronically ill teach you anything that you didn’t already know? Well that is easy. During nursing school or during all those years I worked in healthcare I wasn’t the patient. I was the caregiver. I didn’t really see what the patients had to deal with just to get the treatments they needed, and I didn’t see the judgment that patients feel from the healthcare staff. I will just be completely honest, you have no idea as a healthcare provider what it is like to be on the other side of that bed until you have been on that side yourself!! So lets just jump right in!
1. The real meaning of a Chronic Illness – One of the BIGGEST things I have learned from my illness seems silly but I want to be honest. I have learned the true meaning of a CHRONIC ILLNESS. When I took care of patients in the hospital who had a chronic illness it NEVER really hit me just what that meant. I never realized exactly what chronic meant and just how much of their lives are impacted by their chronic disease.
2. Sympathy and Empathy – These are entirely different entities. It is very different sympathizing and trying to understand where someone is coming from. Now that I can empathize as both a patient and as a nurse it has changed my outlook as well as how I interacted with patients and their families. I learned how and why chronic illness patients seem more guarded and at times more fearful than your average patient.
3. Use of medical jargon – While I was working as a nurse I never realized just how often medical professionals use medical jargon. Most likely because i was using it to. Luckily I understand most of it as a patient. But when I am having one of my bad migraines it is often hard for me to really understand much of anything. It was those days that made me so much aware of just how often medical terminology is used to explain things to patients and families rather than lay terms.
4. Dealing with judgement – Sadly, through the last six years I’ve had to learn how to deal with judgmental medical staff more than I ever expected. Before I got sick I never realized how quick medical professionals are to judge (myself in the past included). Since being sick with an invisible illness I now know how it feels when people assume things about you based solely on your appearance and not your medical history. Or how it feels when people assume you are drug seeking based on your medical diagnosis before they even come and talk with you. This made a huge impact on me and how I practiced nursing.
5. Being Aware of The Cost of Procedures, Treatments, Treatment Centers & Medications – I’ll be 100% honest and say that when I was working ICU Step Down I was not aware of the cost of probably 95% of the medications and treatment modalities we used for our patients. It wasn’t because I didn’t care, it was simply because I had to know so many other things that this information would take a back seat. On the other side as a patient I am much more aware of what medications cost and how much MRI’s or CT Scans will cost and what my out of pocket will be. Simply because I have to pay for it. I feel like there is a break down between providers and patients on this topic. The providers want the best treatment no matter the cost. But the patient would usually prefer the best treatment for the cost. Learning this as a patient definitely changed things I did in my practice. Because I knew what it was like to hear your new medication was going to cost $25,000.
6. Honoring Time – What I mean by this is that when you’ve asked for something for pain and the nurse says “I’ll be right back,” or “I’ll be in at 5pm” with pain meds. But they don’t come back for 30 minutes or until 5:15 those minutes feel like hours. As a nurse I always tried to get right back or to go when I said I would. But I never truly understood just how long those 10 or 15 minutes I was gone really felt. When you are hurting or feeling sick to your stomach those 15 minutes may feel like 4 hours!
7. Trust the patient/listen to patient regarding what works for them. I think as a medical professional it’s easy to work based on knowledge or experience. But it’s really important to listen to the patient in regards to what works. I’ve learned this because of my migraines. I’ve dealt with them so long that I know what is going to help and what is a waste of time. And I really appreciate the doctors and nurses who listen to me and don’t just throw meds at me because of what they “always give” for migraines.
Needless to say, I have learned so much from being a patient with a chronic illness. I feel like that in some strange way it actually made me a better medical provider. As you can imagine after working in the medical field for many years I have many friends who remain in that field. And due to the things I have experienced with my chronic illness they have been able to learn and improve on the way they practice and treat those they care for who are in similar situations. I will always stand by my feelings that every medical provider should have to be a patient for at least a short period so they can experience things from the other side of the bed. So they can have the full patient experience. Their views on the way they treat patients would be forever changed like mine. That being said, a chronic illness is not something to joke about; however, it has given me a view into a world that I felt I was fully enveloped in, which I had never fully seen before. And for that I will always be grateful.