A sweet little lady was brought to the emergency department by her caregiver after having difficulty breathing at home. She got a few breathing treatments and some steroids and was doing much better an hour or so later.
When I went back in the room to evaluate her, several family members were present.
“Oooh. You got the good doctor. No wonder you’re doing better.”
I thanked them because … obviously they were right … but I mentioned that I didn’t recall seeing their mother in the emergency department before.
“She hasn’t been here in a long time. You took care of our father.”
“Oh. I see. How is he doing?”
“He died a little more than a year ago.”
One of the family members could obviously see the confusion in my face.
“He was dying from cancer and he came to the emergency department many times before he died. One of the last times he was here, he was having trouble swallowing and his mouth was dry. You started the IV on him and gave him some fluids. Got him feeling better. He kept saying that all he wanted was some Juicy Fruit gum. So you went to the vending machine and got him a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. That was all he talked about after that day … how his doctor in the ER went and got him some gum when his mouth was dry.”
At that point, I realized several things.
First, it showed me that patient opinions of medical care can be arbitrary. I was judged as being a “good” doctor because I did something nice for a patient, not because of the medical care I provided. This interaction just reinforces my belief that our current means of rating medical care is woefully inadequate and inappropriate.
Second, this family’s story showed me how small acts of kindness can have a tremendous ripple effect. Something I had long forgotten had made a lasting impact on the patient which in turn made a lasting impact on the family and will probably continue to be a story that is always associated with our emergency department.
Finally, this interaction reiterates a quote from Maya Angelou that I frequently paraphrase when talking to residents and even in some of my lectures: Patients may not remember your medical knowledge and they may not remember your diagnostic acumen, but they will ALWAYS remember how you made them feel.
Pretty good returns for an investment of a 35-cent pack of gum …