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What happens when a doctor becomes a patient?

Dr. Victor Peralta is a pediatrician of Dominican origin who has been working in New York for more than 30 years. He explains how his view of medicine and life changed when he learned he had cancer.

“Almost eight years ago, I was told I had cancer with metastasis. During a routine checkup, it was discovered by chance that I had colon cancer that had already spread to my liver.” It was 2013, a year that will remain engraved in Dr. Victor Peralta’s memory. 

“It was a surprise because I felt healthy. It was a coincidental discovery.” And yet, that transformed him: he went from being a doctor to being a patient. 

A slowdown in external activity “It’s something that changed my perspective and my life. I was very involved in medical practice, seeing patients six days a week and 8 hours a day, working a lot. I was really very involved, and I didn’t know how it was possible to live without being a doctor.” 

He saw illness as an opportunity

“However, life gives you those opportunities. Apart from pausing my whole medical life, it also reoriented my priorities: (it made me ask myself) what should I stop doing, and what’s really important to me. You see that your perspective on life is more limited and you start to focus on what’s really more important.” 

Dr. Peralta is married and has three daughters. “Both myself and my wife, who was also at the time facing a health problem, decided to stop practicing medicine and focus on taking care of ourselves, to seek our wellbeing in health.”

And so they did: they both worked in private practice and temporarily stopped taking appointments. They didn’t know what was going to happen, but they clearly saw that they themselves were their priority at that point. 

“After a year had passed, when the treatment had finished and was successful for both of us, that allowed us to reanalyze our focus in life. We saw that it would really be good to devote more of our time to our family, and more time to other activities that are no longer so much one-on-one care with patients but with more social implications.”

A life lesson 

Did the disease change his life? Peralta answers the question with conviction: “In terms of my personal life and my way of thinking, obviously an experience as dramatic as facing the possibility of dying—to put it bluntly—changes you; it gives you opportunities to think and change your priorities. And he went on to specify: “Personally, it made me realize that I was not dedicating time to my immediate family. I started to dedicate more time to my parents, my daughters, my siblings, and my wife. That was very positive.”

Professionally, he continues, “the experience of being a patient with a serious and potentially fatal disease, and having to give up the power that you feel—the control that you feel as a doctor—to another doctor and becoming a patient, is a lesson that I don’t wish on anyone but which is very important for a doctor. Because it gives you a perspective on what happens with a patient, because of what happens when they’re in that situation.”

That, the doctor assures, “makes you much more empathetic. It makes you understand what the concerns are, which are so different for each person, because it depends on what each person considers most important. But you start to see the patient’s point of view, their fear, their disease, the anxiety caused by the disease…” 

“Even though sometimes things are not as serious as you think they are,” he says, “then you start to see things from another point of view. As a physician, that is very useful, and very important: to consider what this person I am treating is going through. You see them as a patient, but they’re a person with feelings and fears very different from your own.” 

“It was a lesson,” Dr. Peralta says. He adds, “It’s still a lesson!” 

His work at SOMOS

Dr. Victor Peralta belongs to the SOMOS network of physicians, which serves low-income people in New York. Together with his wife, Dr. Ingrid Felix-Peralta, and their three daughters, he works with SOMOS to fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

His dream today

After his experience with sickness, when asked what dreams he has now, he says, “This is my dream: to try not to be known, not to be interviewed, but rather to help many people without it being recognized.”