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How I became a better doctor.

I became a better doctor on the day I became a cardiac patient. On that day, I experienced the helpless, vulnerable, and needy feelings of a patient's dependency and blind trust of a physician whom I did not know. I suddenly realized how it feels to be a patient.

My entire life, I had always been an athlete in excellent shape. My 7-day-a-week daily schedule included seeing patients, being an expert psychiatric witness for disability cases, playing 2 hours of tennis, walking/running for 1 hour, and ending the night with 1 hour on a stationary bike.

1 get to see my children all the time. I am so fortunate to get to travel with them and play national father-son and father-daughter tennis tournaments. We have been ranked No. 1 in the country many times. I have won 16 gold balls in these tournaments, each symbolic of a U.S. championship.

As a busy board-certified psychiatrist, I had been featured in an article, "Well being: Tennis is doctor's favorite medicine," by Art Carey, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted May 2, 2011. The author discussed my diet and exercise regime, and how I used exercise to stay healthy and to deal with the stress of being a physician.

'Take me to the hospital'

At the end of 2018, I had a complete blood count performed, and the results indicated that I had a lipid panel of a healthy 30-year-old; however, my delusional bubble burst in March 2019. I was the No. 1 seed in a National Father-Daughter Tennis Tournament in Chicago. We were in the semifinal match, we had won the first set, and we were up 3-0.1 fell, hit my head on the net post, and was feeling nauseated. I checked for bleeding and continued playing, though I was not feeling well. Five minutes later, I experienced symptoms of very extreme gastrointestinal pain and nausea. I ran off the tennis court wanting to vomit and get rid of the symptom so I could go back and finish the match. I wanted to play in the finals the following day and try to win the tournament.

The kind, competent, compassionate, and warm tournament director said I looked gray--and he promptly called 911. The paramedics came and said they thought I may be having a heart attack. I was in denial since I had no chest pain and I thought I was super healthy; therefore, I could not be experiencing an acute myocardial infarction. I finally agreed to let technicians perform an EKG, and they told me that I had ST elevation. Reality finally set in and I realized I was having a heart attack. "Take me to the hospital," I said.

At the Chicago hospital where I was taken, I told doctors and staff I was a physician. To my surprise, they did not care. I was not going to get any prioritized treatment. Despite all of my devotion to medicine, I was not even getting their top physician to treat me. I was being evaluated by a resident. I felt even more deflated.

They performed a cardiac catheterization and put in one stent in one vessel in the right cardiac vessel. I had many questions to ask, but everyone seemed very impatient and abrupt with me, acting like this was just a very routine procedure. No one ever adequately answered my questions. I was very disillusioned, and I felt very insignificant, scared, and invisible.

I was discharged a few days later and was told my heart problem was fixed. I was instructed to follow up with a cardiologist in Philadelphia when I got home.

The first night home, I experienced chest pain. I was alarmed and thought my stent may have collapsed, so I went to the emergency room of the Philadelphia area hospital I knew had the best cardiac staff. After another blood test, indicating raised troponin levels, I was informed they needed to perform another cardiac catheterization. I learned I had two more coronary artery blockages, each 95%-99%, in the left ventricle.

I was shocked. How could the doctor in Chicago have made such a significant mistake? What happened? I would never know

The interventional cardiologist in Philadelphia was able to repair one coronary artery, but the other blockage in the LED vessel (yes, the widow maker) had calcified too much for a stent. I would need cardiac bypass surgery. This was very unbelievable to me, and furthermore, I would have to wait 2 long weeks for the anticoagulant effect of the Brilinta to wear off before I could undergo bypass surgery.

While I anxiously waited for the big day, was calling either my cardiologist, surgeon, or his nurse practitioner almost daily with questions and concerns; after all, this was a life-threatening and momentous event. Thankfully, I was met with great patience, understanding, and promptness of detailed answers and explanations by all involved with my cardiac care. The reactions of the staff made me mindful of the importance of really hearing my patients' concerns and addressing their issues in a prompt, nonjudgmental, patient, and genuine manner. I am grateful that my robotic cardiac bypass surgery on March 26, 2019, went very well, and I am now back to work, playing tennis, jogging slowly, and riding my stationary bike.

Changed perspective on practice

I had always thought of myself as a warm, caring, and empathie psychiatrist, but my experience as a cardiac patient made me realize that there is always room for improvement in treating my patients.

Remember, every doctor will become a patient one day, and the reality of illness, injury, and mortality may really hit you hard, as it did me. You may not receive any prioritized treatment and you will know what it feels like to be helpless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of a physician while you regress in the service of the ego and become a patient.

You can be a better doctor now if you are mindful that whatever the physical, emotional, or mental issue facing your patients, the problem may be catastrophic to them. They need your undivided attention. Any problem is a significant event to your presenting patient. Really listen to his or her concerns or questions, and address every one with patience, understanding, and accurate information. Be genuine, empathetic, and nonjudgmental toward your patient so he or she will be open and honest with you. If you follow these lessons, which I learned the hard way, you can become a better doctor.

I followed my doctor's instructions and I started hitting tennis balls gradually I worked myself back into shape and with my daughter Julia Cohen, and we won the USTA National Father Daughter Clay Court Championship in Florida 6 months after I had the heart attack during a national tennis tournament. This is the comeback of the year in tennis!


Caption: Dr. Cohen and his daughter Julia share their excitement after winning the 2019 USTA National Father Daughter Clay Court Championship. He has been a nationally ranked tennis player from age 12 to the present, served as captain of the University of Pennsylvania tennis team, and ranked No. 1 in tennis in the middle states section, and in the country in various categories and times. Dr. Cohen has had a private practice in psychiatry for more than 35 years. He is a former professor of psychiatry, family medicine, and otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Cohen, Richard W.
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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