The Real Patient Encounter

In the simulation lab where we trained as medical students, all we had to do was grab a tissue and hand it to the patient. Then, like magic, they would thank us. As if that’s all it takes to suddenly make things better!

We also learned to say empathic things like “I know this tough,” “I’m here for you” and “What’s wrong?” And in the simulation lab they worked like magic, too.

But now I’m with a real patient, and I tried all these things, and they just didn’t cut it. She seems so disconnected and isolated.

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Stories on Hold

Ms. Darcey had been my patient for over four years. She was one of those fortunate few who made it to the doctor’s office only for their yearly physical exam. One day she showed up unexpectedly, in a wheelchair, her head tilted to one side. She had arrived at the diagnosis before I could make an attempt.
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Coffee and Miracles

I am sipping the foam off my café latte, holding the cup with both hands because they’re shaking so much. It is early morning and very cold, even for New York, but the waiting room at Mount Sinai Hospital is warm and open to a 10-story atrium courtyard. The Starbucks on the ground floor seems to be the hub of the hospital, as, from the balcony of the waiting room, I watch doctors in scrubs, patients in wheelchairs, Hasidic Jews (identifiable by their curls) in black coats standing in a line that snakes through the lobby.

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The Transition

As a medical student, I would show up to clinic the first day of my rotation and introduce myself to the receptionist. Standing there in the waiting room, conspicuous in my short, white coat, and referring to myself as “the new medical student,” I’d feel the patients’ gaze. The receptionist would wave me to the clinic, and I would sigh with relief.
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Pity Party

Following eye surgery, I was “sentenced” to two weeks of lying face down. But five days in I know without a doubt that something has gone horribly wrong.

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Deciphering the ER Triage Formula

I want to know what the formula is. I’m speaking, of course, of the formula that gets one person back into the emergency room to be seen, while another waits and waits with the sick, cranky, disheveled masses.
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Desperate for Change

It is a mild Sunday afternoon in October, and I am standing in front of a closed reception window, desperate for change. It is the early 1990s, and we don’t yet have cell phones. I have already exhausted my supply of coins, making calls on the public phone hanging on the wall in the ER waiting room. 

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Hope

Who knows how many voices created the cacophony that filled the waiting room that night? Words, wails and whispers gave sound to the gamut of human experiences and emotions. But as I listened, I heard one clear, unwavering note that floated above the clamor.
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Green, White and Sterile

The young, black-haired waiting-room receptionist, in a voice that is pleasant and professional but too loud, instructs those of us who are waiting–grey-haired and balding, strangely like me–where we should go for the next phase of our lives. So many are told to go to the critical-care waiting area that I worry that young black-hair knows no other destination. I have an urge to educate her about the “everything’s fine, no need to worry” waiting area and to speak a little more softly, but I think twice about it since, like all the people working here, she seems so powerful,

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“Hug Lady, Pretty Dress, Crying?”

I am sitting in the all-too-familiar waiting room of my local emergency department on a Saturday night in July. I am here with my daughter, Ashley, who is nineteen but could pass for a typical twelve-year-old—until she starts to talk. Ashley has a rare genetic disorder. On the good days I laugh and say that she will make a great ventriloquist because she talks without ever moving her lips. This is not a good day. She has a fever, a wet cough, and she snuggles up against me.
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