Sat | Apr 20, 2019

Garth Rattray | Patients, the unsung heroes

Published:Monday | October 15, 2018 | 12:42 AM

National Heroes Day is a time to remember and pay homage to our national heroes. It is also the day that we openly acknowledge those among us who have earned national honours and awards.

A hero is defined as “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. And, courage is defined as “bravery, the ability to do something that frightens one”. People often confuse bravery with fearlessness, but sometimes they may be exact opposites.

A person who appears fearless in the face of danger, even though he or she is experiencing fear inside, is brave or courageous. However, a person who does not experience fear (out of ignorance or foolhardiness) when doing something or facing a situation is not courageous because he or she is not acting in spite of fear.

Having to face medical situations can be terrifying. Even a routine trip to the doctor can conjure up scary situations of bad findings on examination or bad results from investigations.

Several people get worked up as soon as they see a physician, and this can impact their resting blood pressure and pulse-rate readings significantly - the so-called ‘white coat syndrome’.

In general, people don’t like having to go to the doctor. Even doctors don’t like going to the doctor.

There are several uncomfortable issues with seeing medical personnel. You have to be totally honest because your life may depend on it. You will probably have to be examined and sometimes that entails the examination of very private parts. This is usually embarrassing, even though you know deep inside that doctors and nurses have seen everything that you might possibly have, but it’s different because it’s yours.

During the physical exam, patients keenly observe the face of the examiner for subtle facial features that betray a bad finding. Every grunt, sigh, deep breath, clearing of the throat, groan could mean that the doc has discovered something horribly wrong with you, so you observe with bated breath.

And if you do any investigation, there’s always the worry that it may reveal something that will cause suffering and death. Going to a doctor always takes courage, especially if there is something that’s seriously bothering you.

My greatest inspiration comes from patients who must face life-and-death situations.

Unfortunately, every doctor inevitably comes across life-threatening and terminal diseases. No doctor finds breaking that kind of news to any patient easy to do. There’s no other situation as deeply emotional as telling a patient that he/she has an aggressive cancer.

The bravery of people facing criminals in gun battles or life-and-death struggles is often extolled, but no one recognises the courage that it takes to absorb horrendous news about your health and march bravely forward to face whatever may come.

Some retreat and choose to ignore or deny their problem. However, I always tell patients that, if they ignore the problem, the problem will not ignore them. If they ignore the problem, they deny themselves a fighting chance. Sooner or later, it always catches up to them.

I recall having to tell an elderly lady that we found a cancer that had already spread to her liver. To my astonishment, she thanked me and explained that, at last, someone could tell her what was going wrong and she appreciated that very much. To this very day, I can recall her smiling face as she tried to console me because I could not hide my distress at feeling helpless in the face of her terminal illness.

On National Heroes Day, we should broadly acknowledge all the brave, unknown souls that are embroiled in struggles with illnesses that can or will disable, maim, punish or kill them. They deserve our good wishes and prayers.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and