I had a 19 year old patient one night who came in with her boyfriend for “arm pain”. She had her left arm in a sling and she wouldn’t let go of it with her right hand. I went in to check her out after the nurse had her signed in. She was anxious and emotional, and her arm was obviously in pretty terrible pain. She had good sensory function in her fingers, good pulses and capillary refill, but she couldn’t grip my fingers with her left hand. I didn’t think it was due to a physiological defect, it was probably just too painful. It’s hard to explain, but there is a different look to someone who can’t move, as opposed to someone who simply won’t because of the pain.
I asked, “How did this happen?”
She answered, “I was lying in bed and I rolled over and hit my elbow on the wall.”
Her boyfriend cut in, “Yeah, didn’t you say you hit your funny bone? Show him where it hurts baby.”
She pointed to a spot on the ulnar side of her forearm, the bony part about three inches below her elbow. I took the sling off to take a better look. There was a swelling hematoma forming on the surface over her ulna, and the whole area was so tender and she was so hysterical there was no point in doing any more examination. It would only cause her pain and not tell me anything I wouldn’t learn when the x-ray came back.
So I went out to wait for that and talk it over with the ER Doc. See, here’s the thing. It is next to impossible to break a bone knocking your elbow against a wall. Not only that, but when you roll over and smack your elbow against a wall you hit the head of the humerus, and maybe if you are very, very skinny, the very tip of your ulna. Long before you hit hard enough to break a bone, a healthy young woman is going to put her elbow through the plaster or wallboard. Bone is a lot harder. Yeah, it can hurt to jolt the ulnar nerve, what we call the “funny bone”, but it goes away in minutes, it doesn’t break bone, and it certainly doesn’t cause a transverse fracture of the ulna three inches lower. Sure enough, that’s what the x-ray showed. One of the bones of her forearm was cracked right through, but still in place without angulation. This is what we call a defensive injury, meaning it is associated with someone putting a forearm up to ward off a blow to the head.
The ER Doc went in and showed her the x-ray, and asked her boyfriend to step out for a few minutes. He refused. The doctor asked her again how this happened. She said she fell out of bed onto the floor. He explained that didn’t make sense, and asked if someone had maybe hit her in the forearm with a stick or a pipe or something. She denied it. He explained that if she was being hit, or if she remembered anything different eventually she could come back in and we had resources for her. There is an organization here that provides free shelter to women and children in dangerous domestic situations. She said she was fine. She just wanted pain meds and a cast.
So the doctor sent the nurse in to splint the arm and fix the sling so it would work right. I went in to watch and size up the boyfriend. He wouldn’t make eye-contact with me until just as they were leaving, but right at the end I caught his eye and looked him dead on.
There is no proof, of course, and we can’t press charges without her consent. But I believe he is guilty. So I stared him down. Irrationally I wanted him to take a swing at me. He was taller than I am by about four or five inches, and heavier by at least twenty pounds, but I guarantee in a fight I would kill him, because the extent of his courage is beating up on a woman.
But if she won’t stand up for herself, there is nothing I can do for her.