It’s that strangely timed phone call while you are at work. Too early in the day to be a simple hello, too late to be telling you that you have forgotten your lunch. You answer expecting something to be wrong, and you are right. Your partner’s voice is shaking and upset. They need your help. 

I’ve been on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship a few times in my professional life. My mum having cancer, my dad having emergency surgery, as well as the unfortunate incident during my stag-do that is not for these pages. This time was different. This time the phone call from my wife told me that her brother was critically ill, being cared for in a hospital I know well, by people I know well, by a specialty that I am a part of. This seemed the closest yet.

During the short drive to the hospital, I mentally rehearsed how I should behave. I was there as a supportive husband, a brother in law, a friend. I would act as a translator between the medical speak of the team and my family’s worries. I wasn’t there as an intensive care consultant. All I wanted for him was the best care that the NHS should be providing to all of its patients, not special care. 

As I walked onto the familiar intensive care unit, it felt different. I felt different. It was as if I walked through a set of sliding doors, leaving Dr Matt Morgan on one side and stepping forward in the shoes of the other me. I wasn’t fully a relative yet neither was I fully a doctor. This surprised me. I expected to care most about the facts of medicine. Was he easy to intubate? Is he on the correct ventilator settings? Does he have broad-spectrum antibiotics prescribed? What is the diagnosis? Yet these were not the things at the front of my mind.

Instead, I cared about the greeting that the receptionist gave, how clean the toilets were, whether the doctors pronounced his name correctly. And when I was asked what advice I had for my in-laws, my response also surprised me. I didn’t advise on what tests should be done next, or what procedures he needs to have. Instead, I simply said “Make sure you bring in a photo of him with his son and put it on the end of his bed.” I wanted to short circuit the disease-identity mentality that we are all guilty of in the intensive care unit. I wanted to bring back humanity to counteract the bright digital physiology of critical illness. When you say hello from the other side, it is often the things that you think about the least during a busy clinical shift that you really care about. And so, I think, do patients.

Matt Morgan is honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University, a consultant in intensive care medicine and head of research and development at University Hospital of Wales, and an editor of BMJ OnExamination. He is on twitter: @dr_mattmorgan

Competing interests: None declared.

Read more in Matt’s first book, “Critical – science and stories from the brink of life.” Available to order now www.drmattmorgan.com.