It’s funny what people can live their lives with thinking it’s just normal–that everyone operates on the same assumptions. If it’s always how it’s been for you, how can you know any better?
Three patients reminded me of this fact.
The first is a teenage Russian mother. Her 4-month old adorable little baby had a terrible case of eczema. She was seen in the ER a week ago, given some medications, and told to get a pediatrician at a local clinic. A week later, she shows up in the ER again. For the eczema. There are mutterings and under-the-breath annoyed words spoken–what the hell is she doing back here with her baby’s eczema? This is not an emergency. We ask her why she didn’t go to the clinic, as instructed, and she says, “I went there and they said I was going to have to wait 3 hours.” We say, “Well, yeah, you’re going to have to wait, it’s a clinic. But if you make an appointment, you’ll be able to get in faster.” She kind of nods, and we kind of stand there for an extra beat, hoping she gets it. We re-iterate to her that we cannot manage the kid–she needs to see a dermatologist, and get a referral from her pediatrician. Once we explained how referrals work, I think she figured it out.
My instincts were to think, “What, is she stupid, does she not understand how doctors work? Does she not realize this isn’t an emergency? Is she just lazy and abusing the system?” But the more I thought about it, I think she just honestly didn’t know how the medical system works. She didn’t know how to get care, or how to get a pediatrician, or get help for her baby, so she went to the one place she knows there will be doctors: the ER.
The next is a 30-something administrative clerk at a law firm, with an exquisitely tender ingrown toenail. Ouch. She tells me she gets these rarely, and I ask, “How rare is rarely?” and she shrugs, “Oh, about once a year or so.” (She usually gets a pedicure, but was too busy with the holidays to get one this year.) She has special clippers to prevent it from happening. She is bewildered when I tell her that I think that’s pretty frequent–that most people don’t get them so regularly. “They don’t?” I tell her there are ways to remove the nail matrix causing the ingrown toenail, and suggest she ask her doctor about it.
Again: she’s had ingrown toenails since she was a kid, and just thought it was your normal, everyday thing. Maybe her family had them too, so the notion was enforced. (This also supports my theory that “All families are weird,” because you’ll hear someone describing what traditions they do for Christmas, or birthdays, or whatever, and you think it’s totally bizarre because it’s not how your family does things.)
The last is a 24 year-old student with a chronic cough. He’s got a pretty good family history of atopy and a brother with asthma. He describes the coughing fits as generally after exercising, like running on a cold day–but sometimes even after weird things like drinking a Slurpee too quickly. They last for a good hour or so–but as far as he can remember, he’s had them his whole life.
Now you may be thinking that these patients are just uneducated about their disease, or don’t have a whole lot of medical knowledge or background. But this last one is nothing of the sort. Turns out he’s a medical student. Turns out his father is a doctor. His mother is a former nurse.
Turns out that it’s me, and my cough-variant asthma.
I had no idea–no freaking clue–that other people didn’t cough and cough and cough like me–I just thought that was normal human behavior, a normal reaction to exercise, or cold air, or… Slurpees. It wasn’t until I was reading about asthma that it finally hit me, Mr. Medical Student.
Don’t make assumptions about what you know, what you think you know, or what you think your patients know. Educate, educate, educate, and if something doesn’t seem “normal” or “right,” there’s probably a good reason (or maybe you’re the weird one, and there’s no good reason at all).
Ahh, medical ambiguity.