“I’m An Ass. Sue Me.”

Although my training, in both internal medicine and nephrology, was excellent, I was lamentably green for some time when it came to the practical aspects of medicine. I did, however, learn one lesson early on.

One day, I rose from my office chair to greet a new patient who walked in slowly, supported by a cane and holding the arm of a much younger man, who helped her into her seat before taking his. To me, she appeared to be “old,” because in those long-ago days I thought of anyone over sixty-five in such terms. 

 

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Breaking a Frame of Reference

 
When you see one on the subway, get off. When one is coming your way on the sidewalk, cross the street. Despite being a progressive-minded student studying drug policy, this was my frame of mind about drug users outside the research lab. This frame changed after my time at Street Health.

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My Brother Is Dying, and They Won’t Let Me Visit Him

He is dying, and they will not have visitors. He is my closest sibling in age and my closest emotional connection. He’s my big brother who had my back on numerous occasions. Okay, I had his, but less often and less serious, like the time I put him to bed when he came home drunk, after a few beers in high school. 
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The Patient Is Always Listening

“Excuse me? I’m lying right here, ya know. C’mon!” 

The voice came from behind the cloth curtain of the test bay, in a tone of defensive disbelief. It belonged to a patient who had Brugada Syndrome and an implanted defibrillator awaiting her stress test. 

I had been discussing Brugada, the potentially lethal and heritable “sleeping sickness” marked by unheralded syncope (loss of consciousness) and sudden death. My colleague and I were enthusiastically running through the electrocardiographic characteristics, diagnostic uncertainties, defibrillator firings and death rates when the conversation turned to the patient. 

“If she were to drop dead during exercise…” I

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I AM Taking My Medicine

It was 1962. I was in my third year of medical residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, the only charity hospital in the city.

I was in the outpatient clinic, seeing an African-American patient for the first time. I noted that he was on an anticoagulant, Dicoumaral (similar to Coumadin).

His prothrombin time (a test that indicates the level of blood thinning) was very low—in fact, outside of the therapeutic range. When the range is too low (meaning the blood is too thick) or too high (the blood is too thin), the patient is at risk for serious complications

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The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Always occupied with the needs of others, medical students often put their needs and wants aside. Sometimes for an unhealthily long time.
Although the consequences of such self-inhibition are not readily apparent, they can have an insidious impact on academic and clinical performance. But the story I am about to tell is something far worse.
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A Perceived Snub

I ambled with squirrels and rabbits on an urban trail overflowing with chaparral and mossy oak. Early morning bird chatter, drone of bugs in rays of sun, and the crackle of underbrush beneath my feet kept me company. My thoughts wandered brisk as the sound of river water on rock.

A man wearing a holey T-shirt and sweatpants approached me, accompanied by a large German Shepherd. The dog was off leash but seemed friendly. The man had a vacant stare, and as I passed him I gave a perfunctory smile and “Good morning.”

He didn’t even note my existence

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Nurse Ratched, Nurse Lillian

The movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, became popular the year I was working on my hospital’s med/surg psych ward as a nursing student. While this cult classic raised awareness about injustices in mental institutions, the public assumed all administrative nurses were cut from the same cloth as the film’s RN whose name rhymed with wretched. On more than one occasion, I had to restrain myself when someone said, “Bet you’re Nurse Ratched, ha, ha, ha. Only kidding.”
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A Poignant End to Chemotherapy

When Joan was in last week and told me she had just completed chemotherapy for breast cancer, I assumed congratulations were in order. When I smiled and offered them, she suddenly became forlorn and began to cry. And these were not tears of joy.
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Better Is Still an Option

Ella was a surprise sent to me by a geriatrician for osteopathic manipulation (OMT). With knees and back stiffened by osteoarthritis, Ella had found that chiropractic care and her walker kept her mobile enough to get out to family events and church activities. Now she could no longer afford chiropractic care, but visits with me–her family physician–would be covered.

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I’ve Never Been a Mother Before

At thirty-six, I had my first child. Up until then, my focus was on my career to become an ob/gyn physician.

During my pregnancy, I chose a doctor and hospital that were not affliated with my hospital. I wanted to be a patient, not a doctor who happened to be pregnant. I ended up having a scheduled C-section; my child was breech, and no amount of encouragement would change that. 

As soon as my OB walked into the operating room, he loudly announced, “She is an OB too!” And, in an instant, the cat was out

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A Life Lived in Spite of Everything

I was called to the NICU to see a baby who had just born with hydrocephalus. The CT scan showed he had Dandy-Walker syndrome. His teenage parents were told he would be severely handicapped, so they refused permission for a shunt and wanted him to die. The NICU staff was horrified and asked me (the neurologist), “They can’t really do that, can they?” I said no they can’t, and immediately called the hospital lawyer. She brought a judge into the NICU who agreed, obtained legal custody and assigned guardianship to a local advocacy agency. The new guardian authorized the shunt

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