Sometimes, a patient will say to me, “You’re the only one who listens to me.” I’m their medical home, but the rest of the medical neighborhood may as well be boarded up. I am the only one they feel they can come to for compassion and attentive listening, and I am the one who needs to advocate for them to be treated like a person. They may have been profiled as an addict, a belligerent patient, or a hypochondriac, and now that label follows them everywhere. The label may even come from the story I or one of my colleagues chose to put in the medical records. As such, that label means that even if they have pneumonia, or a broken leg, or some other obviously serious diagnosis, they get treated as though they are drug-seeking, or crazy. If I accept the label, I have given up. The other day I said to my students, “Even if someone has done something awful, committed a crime or something, that’s not the only thing they’ve ever done. How many of us have never done something ‘bad?’ See the whole picture, not just the label.”

…One of us, just one healer who is willing to put a different label on someone who is marginalized, can change the system. Daring to label someone as human, as worthy of caring, and sharing that opinion with colleagues is contagious. It can make them see below the surface and find the person in the addict or the human being in the angry, difficult patient. I know this is true, because when I have nearly exhausted myself doing exactly this, it has actually worked. I have seen opinions and attitudes change. It isn’t sufficient on its own to rebuild the whole system, but it is the foundation of a whole new system.