This last weekend was a nightmare, the kind that recedes into the depths of denial and forgetting as quickly as it can. That is the nature of trauma.
My husband collapsed at home from a long-standing medical problem and we were rushed together through the early hours of morning to the hospital emergency room via ambulance. Panicked, of course. Our time in the emergency room was interminable and uncomfortable, though everyone was adequately competent and attentive. Then he was admitted to the adult medical floor with me in tow as wife. I refused to leave his side.
Overnight we had a very good nurse and the next morning a less good one. Sleep was out of the question because (as our patients have often complained) every five minutes someone came in with something preventing sleep. Alone this could bring you to tears. The room was cheerless, alternately ice cold and oppressively hot, the air stale.
The i.v.s hurt him (and hence me); most questions were—appropriately—deferred to the doctor; he would be in the next day, we were told. Probably. Some time. My husband's internist no longer admits his own patients to the hospital, but refers them to the "hospitalists" (hospital doctors), as has now become customary. So the prospect of his soothing presence and analysis was removed. What would this new doctor be like?
We were awake very early, far earlier than we could expect any doctor to make rounds. This meant more waiting, especially painful for my husband because until this doctor saw him, he was not allowed to eat or even drink water. My husband thinks being n.p.o. (nothing by mouth) a fate worse than death, and it was not wearing well.
Finally the specialist came in and introduced himself. I cannot do better to describe it than to say that he was moving at top speed, sat on the edge of his chair as he talked, or paced back and forth. He spoke very, very quickly. One felt intimidated to ask many questions, he clearly did not want them. And as he spoke at top speed, speaking about what he obviously did every day, about things he could do and think about reflexively, without any perceptible caring or empathy, I said to myself "please don't let me be like this, please don't let me be like this, no matter how many patients I have seen with the same problem or in the same medical condition."
Because I am a doctor and was able to listen carefully, I was able to translate for my husband, who was too traumatized to take it all in. Though a very intelligent and competent man who works in the health care field, my husband could barely remember what the specialist had said and what it could mean for him. This alone was a teaching moment. What if I had not been a doctor?What if I had been someone's sweet grandmother, there to hold their hand and bring them food? It occurred to me that there is a job niche waiting out there for people who can translate what is happening to a patient medically even when patient and doctor speak the same language. Translate from the left brain to the right, from detachment to attachment, from competence (which we value) to compassion (which we crave).
The shoe on the other foot nearly always pinches, yet it can sure teach us to walk a better path.