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Sometimes when I’m talking to a patient, I feel like I’m talking to my dad

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

At every 3rd Conversation event, we invite both a clinician and a patient to act as storytellers – to share with us a powerful experience (positive or negative) that they have had within the health care system, to model vulnerability and prepare the rest of the group to connect as humans. We asked a few of our storytellers for permission to reshare their stories with a broader audience. One is below.

Sometimes Talking to a Patient Feels like Talking to My Dad

Andy Goodbred is a clinical faculty member at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Pennsylvania who participated in a 3rd Conversation Spark event in January 2020.

I’m really happy to be with you all. The whole notion of tonight’s event is to reflect on relationships and their effect on who we are as people—as clinicians, and as patients. To do that, I need to tell you about two nights in hospitals.

I remember the first time I smelled a hospital at night. The freshly pungent smell of too-sterile floor cleaning solution, the not-so-fresh smell of coffee that had been brewed during the previous shift, and hand sanitizer. So much hand sanitizer.

I was 15. It was 2 AM, and about an hour prior I’d been nudged awake by my mom.

“Dad’s not feeling well – we need to go to the hospital.”

I don’t remember ever having heard either one of those things said about my dad. I knew this wasn’t good.

It was only in hindsight that I realized what had happened. Dad had literally worked himself into a heart attack. After 11 years in the Navy, Dad had transitioned into civilian nuclear power, and had spent his career making decisions with our family’s best interest in mind, usually at his own expense.

When I was 9, Dad accepted a new job 8 hours from where we were living. He didn’t want to move me in the middle of a school year. So, for a year he drove back and forth on weekends, enduring the monotony of the Pennsylvania Turnpike – drinking coffee, eating fast food, and smoking cigarettes to stay awake. No complaints, but unfortunately, also very little self-care.

There we were, in the hospital, my Dad with a newly-stented coronary artery and a choice. Clean things up and take some time to care for himself or stay on that dead-end road.

Dad chose to change. He quit smoking that day. With the help of our family doctor, who is still a mentor of mine, he ate better and began to exercise. I remember being his taste-tester as we made meals from a heart-healthy cookbook, adjusting the flavors to find the right combination.

After dinner, I’d go for long walks with him. It was November, and I can remember perfectly the bite of the cold air and the swinging beam of our flashlight. Those nights are much of why I love to cook today, and why I still grin like a little kid when I hike in cold weather. It also showed me how important self-care is.

Fast forward to another night in a hospital. Same smells, same sounds of dinging monitors.

This time I was a second-year resident, working toward being a family doctor, and I was on a two-week stint of night work in the ICU. Same time of year as when Dad had his heart attack. We called this vampire shift, because in the winter it meant that you’d go to work in the dark and leave work in the dark. The dark humor of medicine. I was exhausted. My body was screaming for fast food and sleep.

It’s easy to SAY that you’re going to enter a life of service to others AND take care of yourself. It’s more challenging in practice.

So, at that point I had my own choice. Quit? Or, go home, eat two boxes of pizza rolls, drink a beer, and go to sleep? Is that what my Dad would have done? No, because that would have been all about me. And waiting at home for me was my 9-month-old little boy and my amazing wife.

Work is important, but family is the beacon that helps us to know that we are sailing in the right direction. I finished my shift, went home, went for a run, ate real food, and slept.

In the years since, I’ve grown into the role of a family physician, and I’ve had the chance to incorporate the concepts of self-care into my own practice as a doctor and teacher. Sometimes when I’m talking to a patient, especially a middle-aged man with risk factors for heart disease, I feel like I’m talking to my dad. And those relationships, with my dad, and now with my patients, are what bring me here tonight.

*We were happy to learn from Andy that his storytelling work continued beyond The Third Conversation. He contributed a personal reflection in the International Journal of Academic Medicine on his experience providing care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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