I first became aware of the quality of Russell Eldridge’s doctor-patient relationship as my own patients and their families told me about their experiences under his care. I was particularly appreciative of the compassionate care provided to patients for whom there were no further treatment options. When asked how he has matured as a compassionate physician, he says “I have no real secret- I’ve had to put it together as I go” although he credits growing up working in his father’s drug store as an early career influence. He saw the rewarding relationships between his pharmacist father and their small town neighbors.
He considered engineering as a career due to his love for science and math but his interest in people led him to choose the pre-med track in college. He graduated with a BA in psychology and also did graduate work in psychometric assessment- combining his love of science, math and people. During medical school, he knew he wanted “to be somebody’s doctor” and considered family practice or general internal medicine. He was drawn to oncology for its close relationships with patients as well as the scientific aspects of pharmacologic therapies.
He says “I feel fortunate to have good health and supportive relationships at home. I think it’s important to have other professionals to talk with. Ideally they are in your workplace, but if not then outside the office. I find I can talk to them in a way I can’t to anyone else. That brings up the topic of permission to admit your feelings and discuss that part of cases just like we discuss the medical and scientific aspects of patient care. I don’t think some of us ever learned that.” He and his oncology partners remind each other of the need to set limits and regularly take time off. His partners are all hard workers and have good working relationships that include this important aspect of peer protection, self-care and well-being. He believes health care organizations should spend more time encouraging such collegial relationships.
Elvis Donaldson has been an oncology partner of Eldridge’s for many years and says ‘he truly listens to his patients and is empathic to their needs. His practical, down-to-earth manner makes people feel comfortable. I can’t imagine anybody feeling uncomfortable in conversation with Russ. Even when there is no more treatment available, he explains ‘we will support you and see that you have the highest quality of life possible.’” Lorraine Le Stephens is Eldridge’s office nurse and describes him as ‘kind-hearted’. She adds, “He makes sure he introduces himself to each person in the room- not just the patient. As an oncologist, he knows he is not only taking care of the patient but working with their family member/care provider to care for the patient as a team. Dr. Eldridge always sits down at the patient’s level to talk. He allows the patient to ask questions or discuss concerns, and after taking care of the patient’s needs, he always asks if the family member/care provider has any questions.” He reminds the family caregivers that taking good care of their loved ones includes taking good care of themselves. He reminds them “You don’t have a cape on your back and a big red ‘S’ on your shirt. You are not Superman or Superwoman.”
Andrew Merrill is supervisor of counseling for Hospice of the Bluegrass, where Eldridge provides end-of-life and palliative care in-service for staff. He describes Eldridge’s approach as bridging the gap between aggressive care to prolong life versus supportive and compassionate care. Kim Wilder is administrative director for orthopedics at Baptist Health Lexington, where she has worked as an RN for many years. She says “I love him. He is wonderful with nurses as well as patients.” She recalls being apprehensive 18 years ago having to call and wake Dr. Eldridge at 5 AM about a dangerously low platelet count on an ICU patient on ventilator support. She remembers him saying – “I just want to thank you for calling me about this patient.” This was such an unexpected and welcome response from a doctor, she jokingly recalls wanting to ask, ‘”Are you sure you have an MD after your name?”
Regarding the ways in which he sustains compassion in his life, he says “Home has to be a good place. It’s hard to remain compassionate if home life is a struggle.” He feels fortunate to have found a part of medicine that “fits me”. He explains, “Oncology has scientific and clinical questions that intrigue and stimulate me. At the same time, I’m most comfortable in clinical areas where I get to know the patient as a person. To help learn about the patient as a person, I often ask, “Where did you grow up? Where do you live? What do you do? Who/what matters to you?“
Regarding our responsibility to train and educate medical students and residents to properly balance self-care and patient care, he recalls receiving only a 1 hour lecture on self-care and stress during medical school and nothing in residency. “I think it needs to start early and be a continuous process. I think the first step is to say out loud to all the students that “Yes, it does matter” while we are also teaching them the science and clinical skills they have to master to be a good physician. They need to hear us say ‘If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot be a good doctor.’ I think talking about it and giving them permission to talk about it is a big step in the right direction. We need to show them how NOT to do it, to hopefully avoid those sad stories we occasionally see with burnout, inappropriate responses and behavior, and avoid the isolation many of them end up feeling. It is often assumed they will learn/figure out some of this on their own during the ‘apprenticeship’ of post-grad years, but it needs to be formally addressed in residency programs- especially those in primary care and medical specialties that involve close and long-term relationships.”
Thankfully, those medical students and residents, as well as our professional colleagues and patients, have physicians like Russell Eldridge to guide, mentor and nurture compassion in the practice of medicine.
By John A Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP
Dr. Patterson Chairs the Lexington Medical Society’s Physician Wellness Commission, is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). After 30 years in private family practice in Irvine KY, he now operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations specializing in mindfulness-based approaches to stress-related chronic conditions and burnout prevention for helping professionals. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org