My favorite part of medicine is interacting with patients. My second favorite part is fitting the puzzle together, piecing all of the various bits of data from history, exam, labs and the literature to form a coherent image. For some providers, I suppose, that is the most exciting part. Dr. House comes to mind as an example of that disease oriented provider. Others are all about the procedures. They just enjoy getting hands on the patients, physically manipulating the diseased part, and providing healing that way. I suppose that category would include most surgeons. I find, however, that most patient encounters do not require much puzzling. Most are actually quite straightforward. Hardly of my patient encounters require procedures, although they are fun when they happen. However, every patient encounter includes an encounter with another human being. Sometimes these encounters are memorable, sometimes not. Sometimes they are fun, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes there is good rapport, and sometimes it seems that you are speaking totally different languages. Regardless, the encounter is always an encounter with the ineffable other of a human being who is not myself.
Tacoma is known for having a very high percentage of Asian populations. In fact, South Tacoma Way, one of my favorite strips for Asian cuisine, is informally called “South Korea Way.” Street signs are even labeled in Korean. Being a Special Forces soldier, my training includes a foreign language, which, in my case, is Korean. I would not say that I am fluent. I can order food, exchange pleasantries, and maybe chat a little bit about C. S. Lewis’ book “The Four Loves,” (I memorized a good deal of vocabulary for that book when I was preparing for my Korean speaking and listening test). It is not, however, to allow me to hold a conversation with ease with a native Korean speaker.
Several of my patients over the last two weeks were older Korean ladies, wives of Korean war veterans. I usually enjoy chatting with them a little, enough to say “Hello, how are you doing, where does it hurt?” One patient, in particular, was a very sad looking Korean lady who complained of fatigue, tiredness, pain, and heartburn. We talked with her for quite some time trying to come up with a list of her complaints and prioritize them, but she was a very listless and haphazard historian and she complained of confusion. Finally I asked, in Korean, “Sunsengnim (term of respect), do you get confused talking in Korean?” Her eyes widened and she repeated my question back to me in more correct vocabulary. I asked about her Korean friends, and she shook her head sadly.
“I not trusting Hanguk (Korean) peoples, they not sharing feeling. They nod yes, yes, when talk but later they like this behind you back,” she made a blabbing gesture with her hand. I asked if she had any American friends and she said, “I no likey Miguk (Americans) either. They just talking talking saying whatever come in they head. I not like that.”
While the doctor typed his note we chatted about this and that, and she slowly became more and more at ease. It was more “konglish” than either Korean or English. I learned that she was very lonely, and almost always sad. Her house had been broken into (she lived alone) and she just felt nervous and unsafe. She gave me an impromptu lesson in Korean language, history and folklore, and explained why the Korean number 4 “sa” is considered unlucky. I very much doubt we were able to provide any lasting relief for her symptoms, as I strongly suspect most of them had a behavioral or social health basis. She was a sad, lonely old lady, and she needed a friend and a hug more than she needed pain medications, but her fears and isolation kept her from those, so pain medication was all she could understand. However, she seemed to be put at ease by my broken attempts to speak and listen to her in her own language, and there was even something like a half ghost of a smile on her face when we shook hands goodbye.
Was that a good interaction? A positive one? I would not classify it as such, objectively. We learned very little to point our way to a treatment plan, and I do not have much hope that her symptoms will ever be resolved strictly by medicine. However, the attempt to reach out to her was just a little less negative than it otherwise would have been, and I think therefore it was more than worth it.
Another Korean lady the same day came in for coughing and post nasal drip, but she refused to believe that she had allergies. She was very upset at not being able to see her regular doctor (who was on maternity leave) and she denied ever having taken allergy medicine that her doctor had prescribed her. “I throw that medicine away, because I not like takey the pills!” It was hard not to laugh. She was about four feet tall and about two inches in diameter and bound and determined that something was wrong with her, because she could not stop coughing or sneezing, but it was NOT allergies! Bless her heart!
No amount of cajoling in English or Korean could convince her that, yes, in fact she very likely did have allergies, and it was perfectly normal and treatable. We tried to get her to promise at least to try the allergy medicine. When she would not we tried to sneak it into her medicine list without telling her what it was for! We said, “Oh, that’s to make you sniffles stop,” which was true, but she would have none of it. “I not takey the pills.”
Finally when the visit was over she stood up and said, “Thisa better working. You not makey me better I go to Korean doctor!” I felt like saying, “Fine! Go to a Korean doctor! What sense does it make to come to a western doctor and then refuse to take western medicines?” She never got angry, she just laughed at us like we were too ridiculous for believing that she was so weak that things like allergies and pills could apply to her. She did, however, tell us most emphatically that kimchi was going to keep us young and healthy and that I was going to live longer than the doctor because I loved kimchi and he “only likey the pizza!” He had never said that he didn’t like kimchi, he simply had never tried it, but in her mind that lumped him in with all the other pizza eating Miguks!
I cannot get angry at patients like that. I love their eccentricity, and I respect their autonomy. God bless them, if they want to grow old and cantankerous and get their kicks out of making fun of western medicine, more power to them. I hope I have enough spark left in me when I am old to be grumpy and funny like that.
The patients I feel sorry for are like the 60 year old man who came in for a regular checkup. In the course of the interview he mentioned having a new feeling of shortness of breath whenever he walked up hill. This prompted a deeper interview, a physical exam, an EKG, and the end result was that he was going home with a bottle of nitro, a bottle of baby aspirin, and a follow up appointment for an exercise stress test. As the appointment progressed and the diagnosis took shape, I could see the growing possibility reflected in his face and posture. His shoulders sank, more and more, his face became more and more bewildered, distant, afraid. It was a relief when the doctor finally said the word: “Heart disease.”
“We need to make sure you don’t have heart disease.” Amazing how we all knew that was what we were talking about, but we were reluctant to say it.
“Are you doing okay?” I asked.
He looked up at me. “I guess. It’s just I have a lot going on at home. I have family troubles, and my dad is not doing too well, and now this.”
“A hell of a thing,” I said.
“A hell of a thing” He agreed. His dad’s brothers had died in their early sixties of heart attacks. His face fell even further when he found that he could not work out until after the stress test, because of the risk of having another incident. “I can’t go to the gym?” His build spoke for itself. Despite his slight beer gut, his shoulders and arms were thick and powerful. He had been lifting his entire life. Now he would have to give it up, perhaps for a very long time, perhaps forever. Not only that, but because Viagra reacts synergistically with nitroglycerin, and can cause a catastrophic drop in blood pressure, he could not take Viagra until after the stress test, when we would have a better plan.
He looked at the doctor. He looked at me. “No weight lifting? And now you tell me no sex? Doc, what’s the point?”
At times like this you feel guilty about the clock, ticking away, reminding us that his appointment was only supposed to last twenty minutes, and that is long since up. How do you kick him out the door so the next patient can come in and tell us all about his acne and how it is affecting his social life?
I might be getting old, or maybe my parents were just poor and backwards (poor they certainly were) but it never would have occurred to them to take us to the doctor for acne, especially not acne so mild as to be invisible under long, thick black hair. There were a dozen or so cystic comadones around the hairline on his forehead, and another dozen along his hairline in the back. This rates a trip to the doctor?
And yet, it is a big deal to him. It never was to me, (I could have cared less for popularity at that age) and that may make it difficult to relate. One hopes that he grows to be a little less concerned about such things as he gets older and gains perspective, but he is not older. He is a teenager. This is where he is, this is important, and in its own way it is as devastating to him as a tumor would be to me. Why should I allow my age and experience to deprive me of empathy for his lack of age and experience? Would not that be shallow mindedness without even the excuse of youth and ignorance? And how difficult is it to prescribe some erythromycin face wash and an exfoliant? We sympathize with many, many older patients who are just as silly, and with less excuse. Certainly in my life many, many older and wiser people have put up with my ignorance and silliness. Shall I refuse to do the same for him?
So I resisted the urge to write him a script for “soap and water” or “a nice cup of man the heck up!” and provided one for face wash instead. I wish him well at his next high school social function. He was a nice kid, after all.
In reviewing these patient encounters I find it very difficult to classify them as “positive” or “negative.” That is more or less to be expected. Any encounter with another human being is essentially an encounter with the unknown. We do not hear the other perfectly, we do not communicate perfectly. The best I think we may expect of ourselves is the continual effort to be present; beyond all filters, preconceptions, contexts and languages, present for the other to be the other. Is it possible? Probably not. It is a worthy effort, I think, for only thus is any real meeting possible between humans. So, in any encounter, there is always more that could have been achieved, or less that could have been said badly, or some aspect that could have been improved. It is never perfect. The mistake, I think, is to try to reduce it to a technique. Technique is a tool, body language, active listening, participatory conversation techniques, or what have you. The essence, however, is goodwill towards the other. It is goodwill that will overcome all barriers, and hopefully shine through our clumsy, inept attempts at using our various languages, to communicate with something essential in the other person. On that level, perhaps we may even hope that some kind of real healing might occur.