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I Could Never Be My Son's Doctor

With your own child, there is just too much to lose.

27/07/2016 8:20 AM AEST | Updated July 27, 2016 16:06
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"It takes all my effort to not assume that every cry he makes is a sign he is unwell."

The children of doctors suffer. I never quite understood this phrase until I became a parent. Now that I'm here I know exactly what it means: the worst possible patient is your own child.

Having a baby makes you irrational at a baseline. Having a knowledge of everything that could go wrong is a complete and utter nightmare.

A member of my wife's mothers group once remarked how lucky she was to have a doctor on hand. I suppose, in some ways, this is true. One advantage is that we tend not to panic. And most doctor-parents I know are definitely skeptical of pseudo-scientific advice.

For example, I've never believed that colic was a real diagnosis, so when the little guy learnt to love his lungs we didn't dose him up. It seemed far more plausible that the stress of being out of the womb was normal. That, at least, provided a mild reassurance during those first few horrendous months.

Similarly, I could never believe that he was struggling under the strain of trapped 'wind', as if his tiny weak body was capable of trapping anything at all. He proves this to us regularly, with rampant disregard for the normal conventions of faeces, urine and, my old friend, the shoulder vomit.

I have also encouraged his GP to jab him with every vaccine she can get her hands on. For anyone with any level of health training this is a complete no-brainer. That anybody would choose anything different for their own child continues to perplex me.

Beyond that, it takes all my effort to not assume that every cry he makes is a sign he is unwell. Within my mind swells the 15,000 differential diagnoses I vaguely recall from the four weeks total I spent in medical school doing paediatrics.

My old paeds textbook still sits on the shelf, a Pandora's Box of reasons for me to be anxious. How often I have been tempted to grab it down, blow the dust of a decade's neglect off its cover and pore over the knowledge within. Or I could just do what I always do: consult my esteemed colleague, Dr Google.

In general, I consider myself a fairly relaxed doctor. Keeping a calm head is an inherent part of the job. Throughout my training, there have been stressful events, and the knowledge that there are more stressful events to come. If I couldn't remain objective, I would be remiss in my role as a clinician.

But with a child this is testing, because there is just too much to lose. So if he behaves in a different way, or cries a different cry, or sleeps longer than his usual half-hour effort, I have to force myself to ignore all my training. I have to abandon the risk-averse, diagnostic, over-investigative approach that defines modern medical practice. I have to do this for him, or I would smother him with excessive and unnecessary concern.

Yet the alternative might be worse. There is a risk I may dismiss serious problems by assuming they are all in my head. It is hard to find a balance.

Even so, it seems to be going well. I have seen his colds for what they are. I have let any red patches on his skin settle before jumping to conclusions. We have not yet had a midnight trip to the Emergency Department for a disgruntled reassurance.

How have we managed to get away with it? My wife and I, together. We have to look at every action, every facial expression, every change in his behaviour, and decide as a team when we need to act. But none of that is medical; it's just called being a parent.

My son will never be my patient, and nor should he be. But I will always be his father, there when he needs me. We have been lucky with his health, but I know that all medical luck is fleeting.

If ever he required care we would be with him, by his side, with all the irrational love in the world. For that, being a doctor is completely irrelevant. I can promise him eternal support, because I am his father, and he is my wonderful son.

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