Firsthand Knowledge

Some things are best learned through experience.

by Alan B. Sanderson, MD

I’m a firm believer in subjecting myself to the same things I put my patients through – within reason, of course. (Admittedly this would be a harder ideal to aspire to if I were a surgeon.) A few months ago I was touring the new MRI machine at the hospital where I work. While I was there the MRI technologist asked, “Hey, Dr. Sanderson, you want to get scanned?”

And I said, “Yeah!” I was on my lunch break, so I had time to do the whole brain MRI protocol. That was my first time in an MRI machine, and it was a fascinating experience. The machine was much louder than I expected, and that hole in the machine starts to feel pretty tight after about 30 minutes. Now I understand why so many patients have a hard time holding still inside the MRI scanner, and why some of them won’t even get inside it to begin with.

The MRI was one of my more recent experiences, but I have been doing things like that since medical school when my classmates and I practiced doing blood draws and ultrasound scans on one another. In residency and fellowship we would practice doing nerve conductions and electomyography, and I have long felt that a trainee should not be allowed to do needle EMG studies on patients until they have had it done on themselves.

Perhaps my most memorable experience with volunteering to have medical procedures was when I donated cerebrospinal fluid for a research study, and ended up with a post-LP headache for 10 days. At that point in my residency I had already performed dozens of lumbar punctures, and had seen several complicating headaches, but I didn’t expect it to happen to me. I didn’t complain, though, because I figured the experience would bring me good karma and would help me to understand and empathize with my patients. It also got me out of two overnight call assignments and a day of resident’s clinic. The headache wasn’t that bad, because the pain would go away completely if I laid flat for long enough. My wife and kids loved having me at home lying on the couch for 10 days, and my kids joined me for mealtimes on the floor. I read the book of Hosea a few times, and I also read most of Diagnosis of Stupor and Coma by Plum and Posner.

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Mealtime on the floor with kids when I had a post-LP headache.

My post-LP headache experience motivated me to learn more about the history of lumbar puncture and its chief complication, the dreaded headache. I was surprised to learn that much had been discovered about what causes the headache and how to prevent it. Using this knowledge I worked to educate my colleagues and to advocate for the use of smaller gauge pencil-point spinal needles, which have a lower complication rate than the needles we were routinely using at the time. In my personal practice I have changed the way I counsel patients both before and after having a lumbar puncture, and I have changed my approach to performing the procedure. Much good has come from this one lumbar puncture and its resulting headache, because I was willing to make myself vulnerable and experience things from the perspective of my patients.

This story can also be thought of as a parable to help us understand why Jesus Christ, the creator of the world and the Great Jehovah of the Old Testament, condescended to live like a man with a body of flesh and bones, suffering all of the physical discomforts of mortal life. Why did he accept such a humble assignment? A prophet in The Book of Mormon named Alma, prophesying around 83 BC, answers this question:

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me. (Alma 7:11-13, emphasis added)

Before he was born on the earth Jesus was already omniscient God, knowing all things, but his experience on earth gave him a greater depth of understanding. He knows what it feels like to resist temptations and suffer pain, exhaustion, hunger, and all other discomforts of life, and this firsthand knowledge of what it is like to live like a mortal gives him a greater power to help and comfort and save us. In short, he became like us because he loved us and wanted us to become like him.

Speaking of Jesus as the great high priest of the new covenant, the writer of Hebrews declared:

15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.

16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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One Response to Firsthand Knowledge

  1. Really enjoyed this essay. I would have to say that I have had similar experiences as a physician. As a pediatric doctor, having a child with health problems really helped me better understand how protective parents feel about their kids as patients. I have now changed my approach and try to make sure parents are completely fully part of the medical decision and that they fully understand everything that is happening to their child.

    Liked by 1 person

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