Back when I was interviewing for medical school in the mid-80's, I had one interview that was just an in & out same-day trip, with a 1 hour flight each way. So I wore my suit and went to the airport with just my wallet, plane ticket, and keys.
My dad, working in his unofficial capacity as the family travel agent, had found me a cheap ticket on Etohair. This airline (now long defunct) had the interesting approach of unlimited alcohol for all. So, being a Diet Coke and rum aficionado, and a poor college student, and hosting a party that weekend, I pretty much kept asking for another rum & DC at 5 minute intervals and pocketing the little bottles. The flight attendant knew what I was doing, but it's not like anyone else was different. No wonder they folded.
Anyway, after landing I caught a cab to the med school and stopped off in their lobby bathroom.
Looking in the mirror there, I suddenly noticed that my suit pockets were all bulging with little bottles that made it look like I'd been shoplifting. Having a fuck-ton of rum stuffed in your pockets, I realized, was not going to be conducive to a good impression for a guy hoping to become a future doctor.
I stood there, in a public bathroom in the medical school lobby, frantically trying to think. I had no bag to put it in. I didn't want to throw it away, either.
The janitor came in, wondered why I was taking so long to wash my hands, grabbed some toilet paper rolls out of a supply closet, and left.
And suddenly, I had an idea. Hoping no one else came in, I frantically yanked 20 rolls of toilet paper off the closet shelf, piled all the rum in the back, and put the TP in front of it.
I went on with my interview, wondering if the janitor was going to have a wild party at his place that night with my bottles.
After the last interview I ran in there, hoping not to miss my flight.
To my horror, the supply closet door was locked.
Using a credit card and my car key I managed to get it open. As I dug through toilet paper rolls for the rum, the school's dean (who I'd just interviewed with) wandered in, looked at me, and asked if I needed anything.
I mumbled "the stall was out of paper," grabbed a roll, and shut myself in the toilet area. I waited with bated breath while he peed and left (didn't wash his hands, either). Quickly grabbing my precious rum, I was still stuffing it in my pockets as I ran out to hail a cab.
I made my flight. Barely.
My roommate and I had a great party that weekend. We didn't run out of rum.
I've always liked the Muppets. One of my favorite songs is "Rainbow Connection," as performed by Kermit at the beginning of their first movie.
For those of you who don't know it:
Anyway, it may be corny, but the song got me through some shitty times. After I failed the first anatomy test in medical school (big time, too- I was the class low out of 120 people) I went to a used record store and bought the Muppet Movie soundtrack just to listen to that song. In a sappy sort of way it reminded me of why I was there in the first place, and I pulled my shit together, didn't drop out of school, and forged ahead.
Life goes on. Medicine is still fun. I mean, I like what I do. I have to earn a living, so I might as well be doing something I like.
And then, one day a few years back, I was having an ordinary day at the office. And toward the end of it was served with my first malpractice suit.
Nothing will kick the shit out of you faster than that moment. Yes medical students and residents, you WILL get sued. Get used to it. Someone on Sermo recently wrote "I have believed for a long time that unless you are practicing grossly negligent medicine your probability of getting sued is small." This is a remarkably ignorant statement.
Getting sued is like cancer- something that happens to other people. I think all doctors, on a superficial level, know it will likely happen. But you're still blindsided when it happens to you.
Obviously, I'm not going to go into legal details of the case, or who won, or even if it was dismissed. Because none of those are relevant to this post.
And I'm sure there are plenty of patients out there who can write how horrible Dr. Butcher maimed you. I'm sure some of you have legitimate claims. But I'm not writing about you.
Malpractice isn't black or white. It's really mostly shades of gray. I'm not biased against lawyers, in fact- my Dad is one, and sued several doctors for malpractice. But I'm not going to get involved in arguments about lawyers vs. doctors, either.
My point is just my own experience.
People portray doctors as being arrogant or uncaring. And I'm sure some are. But anytime a case goes bad, it's personally devastating for most of us. Even if you did nothing wrong. Sometimes shit happens despite your best efforts.
It hurts. A lot. You do your best day in and day out, and feel awful when things go wrong. And now someone is accusing you of having committed malpractice in your efforts. They tell you not to take it personally, but how can you not? Hell, they even name your spouse in the suit (really, they do).
You see, there is always another doctor out there willing to testify in court (for a nice fee, of course) that what you did wasn't appropriate. He's Dr. Jukebox. You put in money and he'll play whatever tune they want him to (it pays a lot better than seeing patients). The statements from these whores will make you feel like shit, and the legal language used makes you sound on a par with Dr. Mengele.
No amount of medical competence can prevent someone from filing a lawsuit against you. Even if you did nothing wrong, there's always a hungry lawyer willing to take the case. After all, it only costs about $100 to file a suit, the potential payoff is 1/3 of the winnings, and he knows a Dr. Jukebox who will gladly testify that you're incompetent.
Your medical school teachers won't tell you what it's like to be sued, but I will.
It kicks the shit out of you. You lie awake at night wondering if you're going to lose everything you ever worked for. You cry. You think about suicide, but have to go on for your family. With this sword of Damocles hanging over your head, you still have to go to work every day, and do your best for the patients who still depend on you. Some days it's pretty damn hard NOT to start drinking.
And, deep down, you wonder: Am I really incompetent? You question your own judgment. Suddenly every headache patient needs a brain MRI. Every person you see is a time bomb. You start to view them as the enemy.
People use the phrase "defensive medicine" in a derogatory fashion, meaning unnecessary testing doctors order to prevent themselves from being sued. But after it's happened to you, hell, you don't give a fuck how much money the "unnecessary" tests cost. You'll order anything to cover your ass.
And no matter what you did, Dr. Jukebox will testify that it wasn't the right thing. And no amount of literature in your favor will change his "expert" (i.e. well-paid) opinion. The people on the jury deciding your fate aren't medical people.
Even if you win, it still doesn't take away the living hell you and your family are put through for the 3-5 years (yes, years) it takes the case to play out. The sleepless nights, the gray hairs, the stress eating that shortens your time on Earth, and the spouse and kids who worry about you.
And, regardless of the case's outcome, it will forever destroy your Rainbow Connection, and the beliefs that once drove you to dream of being a doctor.
Dr. Grumpy: "How are you doing? It's been about a year since your last appointment."
Mr. Optimist: "Going okay. I've met a great girl, and this could be the one. I mean, she threw me
and my stuff out of her apartment and called the police on me last week,
and I had to live in my car for a few days until I could find a new place, but I think this is part of the road to a stronger
"I think the real issue causing the stress is that she thinks that I think that she thinks that I think that she's under stress. And I'm not under stress. And neither is she. So I don't understand why she thinks I'd think she'd think that I'm under stress, or why I'd think that she'd think that I'd think that she's under stress. I mean, the whole thing is really stressful."
Mike is a great guy. Doing remarkably well even into his late 80's. He's had epilepsy since childhood, which is controlled very well with medications. I've been seeing him since he moved here 15 years ago. He comes in once a year for me to refill his medication. Because he's so stable it's really more of a social visit. We talk about families, baseball, and (his favorite topic) horse racing.
He came in for his annual visit yesterday, and looked awful. He's been diagnosed with metastatic esophageal cancer, way too extensive to operate, so he's just getting palliative treatment.
There was really nothing, from a
neurological view, for me to do. We talked about the usual things, especially his excitement at 2015 having brought the first Triple-Crown winner since 1978. I refilled his medication and sent him out with a
handshake, like I always do.
I know I won't see him again. He probably does, too. On the "next appointment" line I just scribbled "will call" because it seemed cruel to
write the usual "1 year."
Even the easy patients aren't always easy. It's part of the job, but that doesn't mean I like it.
I'm in line at the meat & seafood counter at Local Grocery, waiting to buy something other than tomatoes. Ahead of me is a couple in their late-20's, who are fascinated with the live lobster tank next to the counter.
Counter Guy in his white apron wanders over.
Counter Guy: "Hi, can I help you?"
Mr. Clueless: "Um, we have some questions about the lobsters."
Counter Guy: "Sure. What's up?"
Mrs. Clueless: "How long do they live?"
Counter Guy: "Well, until you're ready to..."
Mr. Clueless: "What do you feed them?"
Counter Guy: "Uh, not sure. The night shift handles that."
Mrs. Clueless: "Can you keep them in a regular tank? We have Tetras already, is that okay?"
Counter Guy: "Um... Not sure. Most people don't keep them alive..."
Mr. & Mrs. Clueless are staring at Counter Guy like he's balancing a Buick on his winkie.
Mr. Clueless: "Why... would you keep a dead pet?"*
Counter Guy: "They're to eat... not for pets."
After 10 seconds or so of silence Mr. & Mrs. Clueless walk away.
Counter Guy: "Uh..."
Dr. Grumpy: "Yeah... I know... I'd like a 1/2 pound of roast beef and a large container of cole slaw."
*How many others out there imagined John Cleese asking that question?
This blog is entirely for entertainment purposes. All posts about patients may be fictional, or be my experience, or were submitted by a reader, or any combination of the above. Factual statements may or may not be accurate.
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Note: I do not answer medical questions. If you are having a medical issue, see your own doctor. For all you know I'm really a Mongolian yak herder and have no medical training at all except in issues regarding the care and feeding of Mongolian yaks.