In an earlier post, our Enterprise Chief Medical Officer Dr. Randy Pilgrim shared a story about a patient experience from many years ago that changed his entire perspective as a clinician. We originally published that article as part of an internal provider newsletter this summer. Since that time, several SCP colleagues have shared similar stories of patients who made an important and lasting impression and changed how they practice medicine. One of those is Group Medical Officer, Dr. Ken Heinrich. He gives us a heartwarming account of a mother and her injured child. Thank you, Dr. Heinrich, for sharing your story.

“I’ve had quite a few memorable patient experiences over the years but one that always comes immediately to mind is a case from my last Trauma shift as an EM resident. I should preface this by explaining that several of us had recently been discussing whether having children helps emergency physicians be better doctors. This was an ongoing debate with valid opinions on both sides.

On this particular night, we received a pediatric trauma transfer from another ED. The patient was a neonate with an intracranial hemorrhage. This sort of thing always affected us, no matter the circumstances. Upon receiving the patient, we were told that the mother had fallen asleep while holding the baby, allowing her to fall to the floor, sustaining the head injury.

As you can imagine, people were very upset about this injury and several residents on the team expressed anger (in private) towards the mom. A few wanted to call the Department of Child and Family Services to investigate for possible neglect/abuse. As it happens, I was a new parent with my twins being born the week before. I explained to the other residents my own experiences with sleep deprivation so commonly endured by parents and the narcoleptic-like sleep it frequently produced. The mother of our patient was not only a new parent, but a single parent as well. I could certainly imagine understandable scenarios of exhaustion that might have caused the accident.

Upon further detailed history, we learned as a team that the mother had inadvertently fallen asleep while breastfeeding in a chair that she had previously thought safe. The mother was understandably devastated by the injury and experiencing tremendous guilt. I spent additional time with her, relating to what she must be feeling and reassuring her that the baby appeared to be stable. By the time we were finished, it was morning and our team was preparing for rounds. A second-year EM resident who had been on the team with me pulled me aside to chat before we gathered for rounds. He explained that he learned from me that night how it could be beneficial to have children as an emergency physician (he had been part of the ongoing debate and thought it irrelevant – as did I prior to this episode). He shared with me that he saw how I was able to use my own experiences as a parent to relate to the mother and provide further background for our team. He complimented me on helping the mother and doctors involved in the case to begin to heal.

This experience was 3 months before I was set to graduate, and I learned a valuable lesson I would take with me throughout my career: The ability to empathize with patients and families is crucial in establishing the patient-doctor bond that is such an important component of the treatment process. In a field where we have only a few moments with our patients, this becomes even more relevant. We don’t need to be parents, nor have suffered the same illnesses/injuries. However, we should always search for some common ground and try to understand what our patients must be feeling. While it is often difficult, I now try very hard to remember this lesson and find ways to connect with my patients.“

Kenneth Heinrich, MD FACEP
Group Medical Officer, Medical Director Consulting Services