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Oh, the joys of hospitals…

My dad unexpectedly landed up in the hospital for a leisurely 5 day stay after spiking a fever last Thursday. He had chemotherapy treatment for his Multiple Sclerosis last Monday that effectively wiped out his immune system, making him vulnerable to a whole host of nasty little bugs. I was thankfully home from school last Thursday when he woke up feeling weak…I’ve paid attention enough thus far to know that his BP and pulse were high enough to warrant a ride to the hospital. His neurologist agreed and so off we went…

Aside from being a bit worried about him, the hospital trip lent a nice reminder of what it is like to be a patient. The majority of our medical training is focused on being able to pick out signs and symptoms of anything that deviates from ‘normal’…(although ‘normal’ is a word we are rarely allowed to use). We learn the skills to perform a physical exam, the right questions to ask to elicit a complete history, the terminology to communicate in the medical world, the labs we will soon be ordering, the treatment plans we can one day offer. It can be easy to forget that under all this training, we are learning to help people. And despite those people having problems, the problem is often not the only thing that is troubling the person.

The hospital is a dynamic place, and I learned how it can be very disjointed in the eyes of a patient…or in the eyes of a concerned family member. Providers are constantly moving and there are a whole host of visual and auditory distractions that can be a bit concerning. The cords and devices they hook you up to constantly beep and without knowing what the beeping means, changes in the noises can be alarming. My dad’s oxygen levels kept fluctuating; he has sleep apnea and so in a quick cat nap the alarms would start beeping. He joked that he did several experiments to see what was causing the beeping to change (not believing he had dozed off). He would breathe fast, cough, even hold his breath for up to a minute. Despite alarms to notify the nurses that he was not getting enough oxygen, no one came. It was a good thing he was only pretending! He was most likely the least sick patient in the intermediate care level–his neurologist placed him there for closer monitoring in case the infection turned south quickly. For the first several days, he felt a bit invisible. We kept trying to get him moved to a lower level of care and he was finally given the OK after his fever subsided. After being cleared to transfer to another room one morning, he waited until they finally moved him at hours later at midnight…and then wheel him off to an MRI until 2am. Makes you wonder why they couldn’t have moved him earlier….

His body was weak from the infection; he could barely move. He was uncomfortable, getting a bit stir crazy in the small space that was curtained off for his room, simply downright bummed that he was there, and I’m sure scared as to what his days would be like in the coming weeks. There was more going on than just being sick. We are all thankful that he is feeling much better and moving around in the comfort of our home. The birds missed him especially.

I think I am hyper-attuned to the medical world that surrounded him. I wanted to remember the importance of always putting the patient first. He was well taken care of, but I noticed many small things that could have made a big difference. Medicine is about so much more than fixing. A simple 3 minutes can provide great relief and soothe a patient. Taking that time, if only to provide an update (or even lack of one), to listen to family member’s concerns, or to let them know you haven’t forgotten, means a great deal to the one laying in the hospital bed. I imagine it can be very easy to become jaded, to become numbed to suffering when it is all around you, and to be too swift with a looming busy schedule and high patient load. I know I will fall short at times but I hope to always remember that the patient in front of me could be my father, my mother, my loved one.

It is not a case we are treating; it is a living, palpitating, alas, too often suffering fellow creature.  ~John Brown