After many months of online lectures, tele-health physical exams, and learning how to cope with the responsibilities of becoming a health professional during a pandemic, I ventured out back onto the hospital wards for the first time this week. I went to a cardiothoracic unit where most patients had recently undergone an invasive procedure and were being closely monitored during their recovery.
When I first introduced myself to my assigned patient, I explained that I was a second-year medical school student there to practice my history-taking and physical exam skills, and that I hoped to spend the next hour with him getting to know him better. He interrupted me before I could finish, “Excuse me, miss, let me find you a chair to sit in. I don’t know where they all went,” and proceeded to press his “call” button to alert the floor staff that he needed assistance.
He inquired about the chairs to the nursing staff on the floor with no resolve, and so I took a comfortable stance and began my interview. In common practice, I began by inquiring what had brought the patient in initially. I learned about his medical history, which was largely uncomplicated until the summer of 2020, and we shared about how God grants us the gift of forgetfulness to allow us to endure pain. Time after time in our conversation, he would express his frustration with his missing chairs. In the end, this elderly Black man sat in front of me with an assistance device working to keep him and his heart alive, and an infection that had kept him in and out of the hospital for 3 months now – and still, he was the most upset about the chairs that were missing from his room. He was most concerned about his dignity as a patient.
Donna Hicks, a renowned expert on the role of dignity in conflict, defines dignity as the internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things. As social beings, our survival is linked to the quality of our relationships, and honoring dignity in ourselves and others is the foundation of any functional, healthy relationship – whether it be with our patients, our peers, family, friends, etc. However, our evolutionary legacy of self-preservation and systemic oppression often puts us at risk of violating our own and others’ dignity.
My patient, Mr. L spent most of his days in the hospital bed longing for a genuine conversation, and in many ways, the chairs represented connection for him – one that we all crave and are deserving of. Not surprisingly, no one bothered to get a chair and the moment stuck with me. In the Hippocratic oath, we, as health professionals, vow to “remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” As a physician-in-training, medical school has often made me question my own dignity and reckon with how I/we see and acknowledge the dignity of those we interact with every day. We assume the responsibility for managing patients’ care while frequently serving as leaders to apply our unique knowledge-base, skills and training, and to do no harm. Yet our biggest challenge seems to be the most simple one— treating one another with dignity.
The power of dignity gives us the awareness and skills to avoid unknowingly harming others, while allowing us to recognize the fullness within ourselves and our relationships. Racial healing, which is grounded in indigenous circle and community-sustaining practices, recognizes the need to speak truths about past wrongs, including those created by individual and systemic racism, and to address the present consequences. It is an experience and a tool that can facilitate trust and build authentic relationships as we draw on our stories to learn from and with one another about how we can heal, rather than cause harm to ourselves and others.
Every month in our circle, we cultivate and harvest wisdom about what is on our hearts and what dignity feels like. Even if we feel a lack of dignity, in our healing circle we can garner the capacity to imagine what it might feel like together and continue to share that practice in our profession. Join us for our next racial healing circle on Friday, March 19 as we stitch together moments of vulnerability to remind each other of our own value and dignity in a safe space.
A community poem, generated from the collective wisdom in our circle and prompts from our Healing Circle session held on February 19.
Dignity feels like
Sureness of self
Respect from others,
Feeling physically full,
The power of imagining what it could feel like.
My relationship and sense of belonging is grounded in dignity when
It has a name
We are dignified over the conflict over it and the need for it
When it’s chosen and unchosen;
Like the dignity of a child or newborn.
May You Be Happy.
May You Be Safe.
May You Be Well.
I will recognize the fullness in myself and others by
Appreciating that there is no right answer and we are figuring it out;
Holding fullness with mystery,
Even in our own family, with strangers and those we can count with our fingers,
This post was written by Jennifer Dias, a second-year medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.