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The benefits of a clinic visit: How I connected course learning, personal experience and observing a professional

e.schaessens24 April 2020

by Katie Gilchrist

I am an MSc Health Psychology student at UCL. As part of the programme, we are required to attend a clinic for observation. As a brain tumour survivor, a natural choice for me was the Neurosurgery clinic at The Unit of Functional Neurosurgery at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London.

My sense of tumour

In December 2017 I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour called acoustic neuroma and in February 2019 I underwent surgery at The Royal Randwick hospital in Sydney, Australia to have the tumour removed. A consequence of the surgery was being left with grade 6 House-Brackman facial paralysis, single sided deafness and one less vestibular nerve. I spent the first month recuperating from the surgery, practicing walking with one balance nerve and adjusting to losing the hearing in one ear and the loss of facial movement on one side of my face. Seven months after the surgery my husband and I packed up our lives after spending seven years in Australia and moved back to the UK where I started my MSc in Health Psychology at UCL. Following my experience, naturally, I was really excited about spending a morning in a hospital clinic (a mandatory part of the course) and even more excited when I saw there was a neuro clinic!

Feeling empathy for patients

So, recently I attended the clinic at The Unit of Functional Neurosurgery at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London with Prof Ludvic Zrinzo. The clinic specialises in cranial nerve disorders such as hemifacial spasm (involuntary facial twitch) and trigeminal neuralgia (chronic facial pain). What I didn’t realise, when I made my selection, was that the conditions Prof Ludvic Zrinzo works with can present with facial droop or weakness and that for some of the conditions the surgical approach, risks and recovery are very similar to what I had. There were a lot of patients with facial movement issues and their faces looked like mine, asymmetrical smiles and one eye looking frozen open, foreheads not able to move and I felt such empathy for them. It was difficult not to run after them and comfort them but at the same time it was like hearing my own diagnosis over and over again. There were several moments where my eye (only one produces tears) glazed over and I had to concentrate not to show too much emotion as that would have been unprofessional. While it may help the patient to see we are human, it is not good for them to feel our burden which may accidentally transfer to them if we overshare.

Learning from the best

Having met a few surgeons through my own health experience, I was really blown away by Prof Ludvic Zrinzo’s approach to patient care. It was great to see a surgeon putting into practice all the psychology aspects we have learned in class this term; building rapport, explaining in clear language, allowing time for the patient to ask questions as well as all the additional points he covered like asking who was at home to help with care, reminding them to bring partners into appointments and explaining all the options available to them and really emphasising that it was the patients decision. Before each consultation, he explained to the patient who we were (there were three students observing) and he asked if it was ok if we stayed and listened. Only one patient decided at that time it was not ok for us to stay for that appointment and Prof Zrinzo kindly asked us to wait outside. On our return we didn’t ask about the patient and nor did he offer any information. The appointment had taken longer than some and we were playing catch up. I also felt there was an understanding between us that in this instance any discussion was to stay between patient and health professional.

What will I take from this into my future roles?

  1. The importance of asking the patient what they want
    • Did they mind having students in the room?
    • What were their thoughts on which treatment?
  1. The benefits of open dialog
    • Encouraging patients to include family and friends in the conversation
    • Explaining risks and benefits in layman’s terms without provoking fear
    • Asking about family, other health issues, home/work environment
    • Having open discussion with empathy and patience, even if it has been discussed several times previously

Overall, Prof Ludvic Zrinzo had such a great approach and I am so grateful to be able to have observed this. While it was emotional for me it really reaffirmed my desire to help people with health issues and I just wanted to say thank you to UCL and The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery for arranging such a great experience.