People who have essential tremor (ET) often feel alone and isolated. As their tremors progress, it becomes painfully clear to them that people without ET have no idea what it’s like. When they have doctor appointments, they trust that the doctor knows what he or she is doing, but they rightly expect that the medical professional who has never had “the shakes” has no idea what life with ET is like.
Meet Dr. Eric Sherburn, the neurosurgeon who has ET
This is the story of a neurosurgeon who literally walked in the patient’s shoes. Dr. Eric Sherburn developed ET when he was in college. It was very minor and sporadic at first, so he largely ignored it, thinking it was a sign of nervousness or anxiety. When he was in medical school, he fell in love with neurosurgery, and knew it was exactly what he wanted to do.
Now, all surgery relies on steadiness of hand,–nowhere more so than in brain surgery. However, during his residency his tremors were noticed, and he was asked to see a movement disorder specialist. Within six months, he was diagnosed with ET. He started taking Primidone, and in his case, it initially calmed his tremors down so he could continue neurosurgery.
When he finished school and received his MD and license, he joined a community neurosurgery practice in Tulsa, OK. As you can imagine, Dr. Sherburn had to make personal and professional adjustments over the next 15 years of tremor progression. There were challenges: he was denied disability insurance for two years, he had to take increasing medication, and eventually he had to give up doing cranial (inside the skull) surgery.
Finally, he knew that he was losing patients, while the other doctors in his practice did not. When he realized it was because of his tremors, he was devastated. It was a nightmare. Over time, he was happily able to restructure his career. You can read his full story here.
A happy ending and the ultimate empathy
Despite the compromised he had to make, today Dr. Sherburn enjoys professional satisfaction as he continues to be able to help people. While his work is now focused on concussion/brain trauma patients, they surely experience a strong connection with him if he shares his personal experience and vulnerability. As one doctor wrote after her own experience of being a surgery patient, “Everybody experiences things differently. To provide the best support, there has to be some level of personalization…”1
Dr. Sherburn, and other doctors who literally go through a diagnostic and treatment experience similar to what they are treating patients for, are given the gift of extending the ultimate empathy to their patients.
Doctors tend to be compassionate. They care about their patients and want to make them better, and patients are more drawn to doctors whose caring comes across. Surveys routinely show that the actual clinical aspects of seeing a doctor are less important than how the patient feels he or she was treated. In one survey where doctors were asked if they took time to understand the patient and explain things well, 51% said yes. In the same survey, when patients were polled, only 34% said they thought their doctors were doing this.
There are many movies, books, blogs, etc. about doctors who suddenly find themselves in the patient’s position. It’s often an eye-opening experience to be poked, prodded, sent for a biopsy, wait for results, and if treatment is needed, weigh one’s options.
Just as important, living through the spectrum of emotions that patients go through can be illuminating. From the patient’s viewpoint, when a doctor says, “I know just how you feel,” is truly credible if the patient knows that this physician has actually been through it.
However, it is rare (and painfully ironic) for a doctor to have the same condition as his or her patient. Therefore, physicians must do what they can to imagine themselves in the place of their patients. This can help establish a much-needed bridge in the doctor-patient relationship.
For someone with ET, their doctor’s sincere compassion can be emotionally healing in the midst of feeling vulnerable, misunderstood, and alone.
1 Tammy Worth. “Put yourself in your patient’s shoes.” Renal & Urology News, Mar. 27, 2018. https://www.renalandurologynews.com/practice-management/practice-management-talking-to-patients-about-surgery/article/753920/