5 Minute Read
“Hey Doc, am I officially discharged?” my patient asked as I helped him sign paperwork before leaving the hospital.
“Yessir!” I responded cheerily. “You can go in just a few minutes, just let your nurse come to remove your IV and give you your clothes.”
“So…..” his voice took on a lower tone. “Technically… I’m no longer your patient, right?”
I paused, unsure of where he was going with this, and also hyper-aware of my attending’s presence in the corner of the room, silently observing our interaction. “Uhhm… technically I’d say so, but that depends on how you look at it, I guess.”
He locked eyes with me, then pulled himself up in bed with his right arm, unable to move his left sided extremities due to an injury in the past. “In that case, since you’re not my doctor anymore, go out with me this weekend.”
Months prior, I sat with dozens of other bright-eyed, bushy-tailed interns in orientation, while the program leadership lectured us on professionalism and all the things NOT to do to avoid making patients uncomfortable. They told us it was always safest to have a chaperone in the room when examining sensitive areas like the patients’ breasts or genitals. They told us to avoid accepting gifts or food from patients, and definitely never to accept money. We went over the proper ways to comfort a patient. Offering a box of tissues? Good. Rubbing the patient on their thigh while they cry? Bad.
It had always been hard for me to pay attention during lectures like this, because it all seemed like common sense. I considered myself to be very professional. Honestly, I struggled with memorizing treatment algorithms, thinking through the physiology of the kidney, and even knowing how much potassium to give a patient through their IV when their levels were low… but I had always been great with patients. I wore this fact like a badge of honor. Where others saw a difficult patient, I saw a misunderstood patient. I tried really hard to understand my patients’ point of view, and treat them how I would want to be treated. So… the vast majority of my patients loved me. I took pride in knowing that I was fostering connections with them…in the most professional of ways.
So it actually took me by surprise when my patient hit on me. Looking back, it shouldn’t have. I now understand that people don’t necessarily treat you a certain way because your actions called for it… sometimes they are just doing what they want to do. At the time, however, I blamed myself for most of my patients’ inappropriate actions. Did he think I was flirting with him at some point? Did I do something to make him think I liked him? Did I smile too much? Crap, did he think I touched his thigh ON PURPOSE when I was picking up that gauze I dropped the other day?!
My patient (we’ll call him Nelson) was a dark man in his mid thirties, hospitalized for a bone infection. He had lost his ability to walk in an injury to his left upper and lower extremities a few years prior, and spent most of his time in a wheel-chair while “all the other cats my age still get to jump around and get down!” He spoke with long a’s and o’s, in a way that only someone raised in Bawl-ah-mooor could (Baltimore… if you know, you know). He insisted on struggling to adjust his positioning without any help every time someone entered the room, bracing the rail of the hospital bed with his right arm, and kicking with his right foot to push his body up in the bed.
And when Nelson was first admitted…BOY, was he a handful. From the first day he felt well enough to speak loudly, he began to make loads of demands of all the healthcare staff, frequently yelling down the hall if a nurse didn’t come to his room within 30 seconds of him pressing the call button. Difficult patient. My favorite.
As always, I set out to build rapport with him. His infection was particularly hard to treat, requiring loads of antibiotics and a long hospital stay, so I saw him 6 mornings a week for almost a full month. For the first 48 hours of his hospitalization, I never saw him smile. By the 3rd or 4th day, he had warmed up to me enough to crack a small joke. By the end of the first week, he was telling me stories about his young daughter, and how frustrated he was that could only play with her with his right hand. “Maaaaaaahhhhnnnn, back in the day before the injury? I used to shoot HOOPS. But now, maaahnn, I’m just tryna make it.”
One morning when we thought no one was listening, my co-intern and I were discussing our difficulties finding suitable dates for the upcoming hospital holiday party (we had made a pact that we’d both bring dates we actually liked, ha!). Later on rounds after presenting my plan for Nelson, Dr. A (my attending) said with a smirk, “Great. Are you also going to invite him to come with you to the holiday party?”
Apparently, over the weeks, my attending had started to pick up on the fact that the patient might have a “crush” on me. “Don’t you find it interesting that he only smiles when you’re in the room, Tewa?” he would say, as the rest of the team tried not to laugh.
“That’s just because I listen to his stories,” I’d reply.
“Interestingggg,” Dr. A would say, with a look. “He never tried to tell me any stories!”
So… fast forward back to the start of the story, right after Nelson asked me out. I was silent for a moment too long, mainly trying to figure out why Dr. A. was walking OUT of the patient’s room, trying to hold in a chuckle. Is he really leaving me right now? Really?!
“Listen Doc… well I guess I shouldn’t call you that anymore cause it’ll complicate the picture. You’re not my doctor anymore. You and I BOTH know we been vibin’ over these last few weeks.”
“N…Nelson…I’m flattered b…but –“
He cut me off, “It’s OK! I know what you thinkin’. But trust me! I still be gettin’ women without the use of my left side. I don’t let this keep me down! I mean, it sucks, we talked about that. But I still be talking to women, confident too! This don’t hold me back.”
“That’s great, Nelson. but –“
“OHH,” He said. “You’re wondering… if my left leg don’t work… what about my EQUIPMENT down there huh? It DEFINETELY still wor–“
“Oh-kay!” I interrupted. We are NOT about to have a conversation about your ‘equipment’ right now! “I’m really happy you’re not letting your injury hinder you from living your life. Regarding this weekend, I still think it is inappropriate for us to hang out in that way, I’m sorry.”
“I’m serious. I’m sorry, I’m honestly not interested. But it was nice meeting you, please get home safely!” I said, quickly backing out of the door.
In the hallway, Dr. A’s face was red from trying not to laugh.
“I can’t believe you left me!” I said, pretending to be angry, and then bursting into laughter.
“I did not leave you. You know how to handle yourself. Plus I was right outside listening to every word.” He cackled. “You sure you don’t want to take him to the party?”
Every once in awhile, these stories aren’t about a deep, emotional, lesson. Sometimes it’s just about… avoiding discussing your patient’s ‘equipment’ at the end of a work day. *Shrugs* I couldn’t make this up if i tried!
Until next time,