She couldn’t have been more than two weeks old, a newborn. Tussling in her mother’s arms just outside the patient’s room, she let out a gurgle of a cry. Her two brothers, twins by the look of it, clung to Mom’s pant leg for answers. Mom was speechless, tears burning lava tracks down her face. Her husband lay splayed as the centerpiece on display. Cords draped his chest, radioing green tachycardia to an overhead monitor. The man’s breathing was a tangle of labored dyspnea, harsh coughing and raw panic. A nurse suctioned his mouth while an intern vultured over his wrist, eagerly attempting his first arterial line.
I surveyed this scene through the unsullied eyes of a medical student, figuratively clinging to my resident’s pant leg for answers. I was young, confused, and scared by the drama. I didn’t know it yet, but by morning light, this “great case” would morph from “a 29-year-old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia complicated by severe community-acquired pneumonia” to one of the most powerful lessons of my career.
A lesson I wasn’t intended to learn.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the “hidden curriculum” is the things we are “taught” when no one thinks they are teaching. It’s not what teachers necessarily say; it’s how they say it, how they act, what they do. It’s nearly always unconscious, unintentional. We learn these things by watching people interact, the inflections and tone of their voices, their bedside manner, the way they treat staff and patients.
This is not just an issue for teaching hospitalists who are imparting these unwitting lessons daily. Rather, it is important to recognize that all of us have been exposed to, and our careers and practices shaped by, these hidden messages. Sometimes these lessons impart such helpful tools as noting how a skilled clinician puts a patient at ease before palpating their abdomen. Other times, the tutorial is less beneficial (e.g. subconsciously teaching bias or impatience). And sometimes the message conveyed is much more malignant.
I, unfortunately, was about to be taught the latter.
The man, stripped of his shirt, his pants, his dignity, winced with the pain of the third radial art-line attempt. He tried to hitch himself up in bed, drawing a scowl from the intern who had to readjust his sterile field—a rebuke from the nurse who got lubricant on her shirt. “Can’t you see that I’m trying to place a catheter in your penis?” she implored. Of course he could—as could I, his family, and much of the ICU. That was part of the lesson.
To be fair, I honestly doubt that anyone in room 118 intended to treat Mr. Davis in such a callous way. They didn’t intend to depersonalize the situation—make him an object, another cog in the wheel of their daily grind. They simply were trying to do their jobs—to save this new admission’s life. A noble intention, indeed.
However, in doing this, they employed a career’s worth of defense mechanisms aimed at fending off the stress of a life-threatening situation. And each of these actions moved them ever so slightly away from the compassion that defines our field and toward the seemingly uncaring automatons they had become.
The Lesson Continues
By now, Mr. Davis was breathing 40 times a minute. A neb of medications, a drip of antibiotics, and a facemask of oxygen did little to prevent his slide. Exposed, shivering, lights reflecting off the paunch of his naked stomach, he cried out for his wife. Coming to him, she was halted by the icy stare of the grizzled charge nurse called in to hold the combatant down. “You’re lucky we even allow you in the ICU with those kids,” she thundered.