Inspirational Patients: Pushing Us all To Climb Higher

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the relationships that I am able to develop with my patients.  I very much admire my patients who are engaged in their healthcare.  Many patients face enormous challenges as they battle chronic disease every day.  For many, there is no “day off” from disease.  Cardiac patients must manage complex dosing regimens and some must adapt to physical limitations due to symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain.  Others battle with tobacco addiction and often endure pain and sorrow.   How patients and physicians respond to the everyday ups and downs of disease can sometimes define the course of the illness–rather than have the illness define them.

This weekend, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about a particularly heroic patient.  The patient, Spencer West, is not a cardiac patient.  Mr West was born with a congenital birth defect where his spine and legs did not fuse properly during development.  Shortly after birth, his parents were told that he would never walk and that he would be severely limited in what he could do.  By age 5, he had amputations of both legs below the hip.  Spencer, however, was up to the challenge.  He never used prosthetics and became proficient at getting around on his hands and in a wheelchair.  In high school he was a varsity cheerleader and went on to graduate college.  Recently, he accomplished a feat many of us with four limbs will never even attempt.  Travelling with a small group of friends, he climbed 19,000 feet above sea level to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.  Although faced with overwhelming adversity from the beginning of his life, Spencer made a decision to live a life of “I Can” rather than “I Cannot”.  In climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, Mr West raised over 750,000 dollars to support sustainable water projects in Kenya. Even with his own challenges, he is always looking to make an impact on others.  We, both doctor and patient, can learn a great deal from his example.

(courtesy of

Spencer West has maximized his situation and continues to live life to its fullest.  Despite significant physical impairment, he continues to work to improve the lives of others.  As physicians, we are faced with many challenges albeit none as great as those that Mr West faces.  Government regulations, electronic medical records (EMR), falling revenues and extended work hours can lead to frustration and apathy if we let it.  Instead, we can work to engage our patients.  Inspire compliance and cooperation–set the example for your partners.  When you reach one of those “low moments” (as we all do sometimes) where you are on call and have more EMR notes to complete on the weekend, think of Mr West reaching the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro on his hands.  We need to remember that we are advocates for our patients first and foremost.  It is our job to guide them through the wilderness that is cardiovascular illness and our patients depend on us.  We must find inspiration in our patients as well.  Rejoice in their accomplishments no matter how small: a successful visit where blood pressure and lipids are at target, a follow up where there is a report of smoking cessation or much needed weight loss.

Ten Keys to Finding Inspiration:  (Adapted from painter Sofan Chan and sculptor Rochman Reese).

1. Find enjoyment–Remember the fun in practicing medicine.  You may find it in talking with patients or colleagues.  The key is to have fun while providing excellent care.
2. Find Love–actively put love into your work.  If you love what you do, it will love you back.

3. Trust yourself–Gut instinct and intuition can go a long way towards finding inspiration.  The “little voice” inside one’s head often says prophetic things.

4. Listen–Listen to the “little voice” that is providing the inspiration (see number 3 above).  Don’t dismiss what is being suggested.

5. Believe–Remember Spencer’s “I can” attitude.  Believe that every day you interact with a patient you can make a difference–engage at each and every encounter.

6. Discount naysayers–Don’t listen to those who say “you cannot”.  If you believe that you cannot, you most certainly “will not”.  Our patients deserve better.

7. Avoid negativity–surround yourself with a cast of positive people.  Much more is accomplished. Look to your patients for a smile and or a positive attitude.

8. Acceptance–Accept that there are going to be those “low points” and not every single day is going to be filled with inspiration.  Look to the future on those days. Remember the successes of the past and remember that you love what you do.

9. Take action–Work towards a goal every day.  This feeds the fires of inspiration

10.  Surround yourself with things that inspire–This point seems relatively obvious.

So, there is much we can learn from Spencer West.  If we think carefully, we all have been inspired by someone or something during the course of our lives.  In medicine, it is important to find inspiration in our patients.  Patients trust us to help them deal with life changing diseases.  It is our duty to give them our very best every single day.  We must find inspiration in our work and engage our patients.  Not unlike climbing Mt Kilimanjaro on one’s hands, working in our ever-changing medical landscape requires perseverance and daily inspiration.  Remember the keys listed above.  Climb higher every single day.  Make a difference.  Inspire others.

(courtesy of

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