The Miracle Worker Gets a Hug

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The tension between the desire to provide the best care and the system putting up road blocks was building the entire day. As the surgeon advocating for my patient, it felt like the smoldering rapidly progressed to full on conflagration. And yet, the patient and his family were calm and full of grace.

On morning rounds, I told my patient that his hernia remained reduced but there was an area along the bowel that had been stuck the prior evening that looked worrisome on CT scan. His vitals, exam, and blood work were reassuring, I explained. There was no imminent rush, no immediate threat to bowel or life. However, it made sense to get this done as soon as possible. The patient, and his wife at the bedside, understood. I had explained a clear set of options for what to do about the hernia depending on a) how the bowel looked when we put the cameras in and b) based on my understanding of his baseline co-morbidities. He was a smoker with a chronic cough that exacerbated his hernia. I spent a little bit of time counseling him that this might be an ideal time to quit. Anything to ameliorate the cough during the recovery process and beyond would reduce the chance of recurrence.

Those words “as soon as possible” resonated in my head as the wait for OR time dragged on all day.  Circumstances were at a systems level well beyond my control; the absence of an immediate life threat meant I had no real leverage other than rants about patient satisfaction and costs of prolonged length of stay. This meant nothing given that there were patients who truly needed life or limb saving interventions, including one of my own who arrived at 5pm with free air.

This patient was too stable.

I had run up to his bedside a few times during the day with updates to the effect of “not sure yet…but you continue to look good…as soon as possible” He and his family–thankfully–were remarkably affable while I was becoming more and more agitated at the OR inefficiency in between urgent cases.

[I could write a dissertation on OR efficiency, or lack of it. And, certainly this is not a problem limited to my workplace. But that’s not what this blog is about.]

I was not on call that night. The OR could finally accommodate the case in the late evening. It went as well as could have been expected. The bowel looked great. The patient got the best case scenario of the options I had presented to him some 16 hours previously.

When I went to talk to the patient’s wife afterward in the waiting area it was almost midnight. She was exhausted from a day of anticipation. From two hours of anxiously waiting while her husband was in the OR. She gave me a giant hug and thanked me so profusely for sticking by him. “I know you have been here since so early this morning,” she said. In the moment of that most genuine embrace, the fire went out and the frustration of the day slipped away.

The next day, in preparation for discharge, the patient was exuberant. “You’re a miracle worker doc!” he exclaimed. “I’m done with the butts now. Forever. Thanks to you. And you fixed my hernia. You’re a miracle worker.”

It took me a while to figure it out since it’s been forever since someone referred to cigarettes as butts to me. The miracle was not that I fixed the hernia. It was that for the first time in 50 years he was motivated to quit smoking. His wife would stop too, she told me that day.

It was a tough day at work but this lovely couple thought I was a miracle worker deserving of a hug despite it all. No anger. No bitterness. Just genuine gratitude, a case that went textbook well, and some preventative medicine to boot. What more could a beleaguered surgeon ask for?

[Posted with patient’s permission.]

Hey Doc!

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“Hey Doc!” I heard the patient say as I blazed by Bed A.

Bed A is the ‘door’ bed. My patient was in Bed B, the ‘window’ bed. I had just met him; it was a new inpatient consult. For all the rules and regulations surrounding patient confidentiality, the curtains between beds do little to protect privacy since inevitably there will be audible conversations about symptoms, diagnosis, and management between patients and the doctors, nurses, or family who visit them.

The residents had already seen the patient in Bed B and were reviewing his case in detail with me between OR cases. I looked at my watch, contemplated typical OR turnover time for a moment, and decided we had enough time to get the consult done.

When I got to Bed B, I introduced myself to the patient and sat at the edge of his bed. I explained that I had already reviewed his story, lab data, and imaging and confirmed these facts. I stood briefly to perform my physical exam before beginning to scrawl on an index card. I simplistically portrayed the complex anatomic relationships between the liver, the gallbladder, and the pancreas and the series of tubes (the biliary tree) that connect these organs. I described how stones form when the balance of three ingredients (bile salts, lecithin, and cholesterol) in the viscous fluid (bile) made by the liver, and stored in the gallbladder, gets off kilter and how those stones can then cause blockages at various points along that biliary tree. I showed the patient where his problem was and used hash marks to explain the operation and what would be removed.

Before getting my patient’s signature on the consent form, I made sure any questions were answered and asked if he wanted me to call a family member to summarize the details. He said no and signed.

Conversations like this take time. Whether it is the 4 patients per 15 minute block in clinic or the patient who I am rushing to see between OR cases, I invariably feel pressed for time when talking to patients. But I do what I have to do, often skipping meals or holding in bodily functions while incorporating a brisk walking speed to keep up with competing demands, none of which seem to incentivize having thoughtful and thorough conversations with patients and/or their families.

After telling the patient in Bed B that I would see him in the pre-op holding area the following day, I upped my walking pace so I could run back down to the OR to my next patient. I had already taken too long and was anticipating the reprimand of the OR board. And that’s when I heard the patient in Bed A.

“Hey Doc!”

“Ugh” I thought to myself, “I really don’t have the time to find this guy’s nurse for his pain meds or to figure out how to keep his IV from beeping…”

But how could I not stop? He was addressing me directly so I paused and turned to him from the threshold to the room.

“Hey Doc! It ain’t none of my business or anything but I just wanted to say that there would be a lot less fear in healthcare if all doctors explained things the way you do.”

I was humbled by this man’s feedback. I hoped my residents were listening, both to the man in Bed A and to what had just transpired before Bed B.

I find it very irritating when students or residents peel away or talk among themselves, as if they are sick of hearing what I have to say, while I am having conversations with our patients. To me, modeling doctor-patient communication is my greatest gift to them as a teacher and a mentor. I want them to listen, to observe, to understand that every encounter is a chance to learn.

As we hustled back to the OR, I turned to the residents and proudly said “For as much pride as we surgeons take in doing the perfect operation or nailing a difficult diagnosis, what happened back there might have been the highlight of my career.”