My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Kathleen Sandness, MD, FACP.
If you had to use a single word to describe what Dr. Kathleen Sandness does for a living without making any reference to the field of medicine, it would be “connect.” In an increasingly isolated world, Dr. Sandness shares her life in spades. In a small town like Pittsburg, Kansas, it comes with the territory, particularly if you are one of the community’s most popular doctors. “I have the opportunity to participate in people’s lives in many ways,” she says. “In a time when people are growing more and more distant from one another, I interact with people and sometimes I get to make a difference in their lives. As their primary physician, I am given responsibility for the most precious thing they have, their health. It’s like holding an egg … they hand it to me with the hope that I will handle it with care. I consider that an honor.”
In 16 years of practice, Dr. Sandness has held a lot of eggs. It has earned her a reputation within the community of respect and dependability. It has also guaranteed her job security. “As an internist, especially in a smaller community like mine, you’re sought after,” she explains. For most of her patients, she is an executor of sorts, giving the final word on treatments and diagnoses. “My patients often will come to me after they’ve seen a specialist or gone to the Mayo Clinic and say ‘What do you think?’” She says patients do this as much out of need as out of trust because they need someone to talk to them about their overall health. “Patients like to be talked to,” she says. “Sometimes doctors can make the mistake of focusing on just the organ or the symptom, rather than the patient as a whole—there’s a lack of communication. Having several doctors with no primary physician is a lot like trying to run an airport without an air traffic control tower.”
One of the joys of practicing internal medicine is having long-lasting relationships with patients, which in some cases can last a lifetime. Several years ago, Dr. Sandness visited with a new patient, an elderly woman who was very quiet and reluctant to engage in conversation. Dr. Sandness was having trouble striking a common chord with the woman until one day when she learned that the woman had a dog named Horatio, whom she adored. Dr. Sandness, an animal lover herself, was finally able to make a connection. Things were smooth sailing from there, and the two quickly became good friends. Then one day the woman had a bad fall and suffered fractures in her back. When she needed someone to take in Horatio while she recovered, Dr. Sandness was the first in line. She is also the first one her patients call in the middle of the night. “Sometimes it can be a challenge, in the middle of the night when something goes wrong and it’s something you’re not specifically trained to handle, and you wish you had a consultant nearby to call but you don’t, so you have to be prepared for things,” she explains. “But it is good for me because it makes me keep my skills honed.”
She says she feels as though she has a fulfilling life as an internist because of the positive interactions she has with people, but that there are times when dedication is accompanied by heartache. “Sometimes it’s hard to let go, to say goodbye,” she says. “Probably the hardest thing is to lose a younger patient before you thought you would. Sometimes it just happens because you didn’t know a patient was at risk. You have to accept the fact that you’re not always going to know, that you’re not God.”
A Free Life
When she isn’t treating patients, Dr. Sandness enjoys her life on the farm that she shares with her husband. They have horses, cattle, dogs, and even their own fox hunt. She enjoys riding and fox hunting, and says being an internist allows her the freedom to spend time doing each. Her office is located just a few minutes from where she lives. Dr. Sandness is indeed living “the good life,” and when you talk to her, you can hear the happiness in her voice. Her decision to pursue internal medicine was not one she made alone. Originally from Texas, Dr. Sandness moved to Kansas to train horses, but her path soon changed when she met Wesley Sandness, the Dean of the School of Education at Pittsburg State. After marrying, Sandness guided her back to college to complete her undergraduate degree in Science with the goal of going to medical school. Dr. Sandness then attended medical school at the University of Kansas, where she also completed her residency. She says she revered the internists who taught her. “I had incredible teachers, and I was totally in awe of how smart they were,” she recalls. “I remember during my residency, when they had a difficult problem and needed it sorted out, it was always the internists they called in. That’s when I knew that internists were the best and the brightest. These were the people I thought were the greatest and I wanted to emulate them.”
For Dr. Sandness, the satisfaction of practicing internal medicine has only grown stronger through the years. She has an air of pure contentment, as though she is exactly where she wants to be in life. “Practicing internal medicine is a grand and fulfilling career,” she says, “and with knowledge comes freedom. Because I’m Board certified, I could go anywhere in the world, have a job and be respected. It’s a wonderful way to live.”
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