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Don’t believe everything you read in a medical chart

Continuing on with the car accident theme… A patient came to see me in the clinic. She had been run down by a bike messenger (could it have been my friend with the bleeding leg?) when attempting to step out of a bus onto a cement curb. She had a lot of pain in her shoulder and side, and was taken to the ER where a chest XRay was unremarkable. She was released with a prescription for extra strength Tylenol.

Still in pain, she made an appointment at the hospital’s orthopedic clinic for the next available time slot (she was covered by Medicaid) where she met with a young resident who suspected that she was a drug seeker and sent her away with “reassurance” and more Tylenol.

The woman, knowing that if she came back to the clinic again, she’d probably see a different physician (and could therefore get a second opinion) – made another appointment. The next orthopedic resident read her chart (where the previous resident had written that the patient exhibited drug seeking behavior) and barely listened to the woman’s story. But after the patient insisted he do something, the orthopedist did what most do with “chronic pain patients” – send them to the rehab doc.

And so, nearly 6 weeks after the accident, I met the woman in the rehab clinic. I had read the ortho notes prior to seeing the patients and was nearly convinced from their descriptions that she was a belligerent, drug-seeking nightmare.

The woman was thin and irritable. I asked her why she had come to see me, and she said she thought I was going to do some physical therapy with her. I asked if she could recount the events in her own words, and explain what exactly was troubling her. As the story unfolded, I was saddened by what she described – the endless frustration of being in pain, of being bounced around from one young physician to another in clinics overflowing with patients, and of being labeled as a drug seeker. And all this after a very painful encounter with a hit-and-run bike messenger.

I asked her to describe her pain and point to it exactly. She said it had been slowly improving, but that it hurt most when she breathed in and there was some point tenderness over her 8th, 9th, and 10th ribs. I asked her if she had had a rib series… nope just a chest XRay.

I told the woman I thought it was likely that she had fractured her ribs, and that rib fractures are often hard to see on XRays, especially chest XRays. I also told her that there wasn’t any real treatment for rib fractures, except pain management and time to heal. Her face lit up.

“So you believe me? I’m not crazy?”

“Sure I believe you,” I said. “I’ve fractured ribs in the past and I know how painful it is. When it happened to me no one believed me either. My chest XRay was normal.”

“So what did you do about it,” the patient asked, looking at me compassionately.

“The truth is, I had to sleep sitting up for a week or so, and I breathed very shallowly for a while. Eventually, though, the pain went away on its own.”

“Thank you for listening to me, doc,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Even though there’s nothing I can do about the ribs, I’m glad to know what the pain is from, and that I’m not crazy.”

I wrote a short note in the chart, documenting my impressions. I did not recommend physical therapy for the patient, but to follow up if needed.

Apparently, the woman had one more clinic appointment with the orthopedic team. They read my note and ordered a rib series to confirm the diagnosis. The rib series showed healing fractures of ribs 8, 9, and 10.

I never saw the patient again, but I’m quite sure that explaining her diagnosis was the most therapeutic thing that we did for her.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “Don’t believe everything you read in a medical chart”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A friend of mine is a surgeon and relayed a story to me about a patient that came to her for a breast biopsy of a tiny palpable mass. She was 34 years old, no family history of breast cancer, normal mammogram, normal ultrasound and some a primary care that felt she was somewhat unstable. She sat in her office crying that she was going to die because no one believed her; she was positive it was malignant, she didn’t care what the tests showed. Kristin was hesitant, disbelieving and almost felt it would be unethical to perform a needle biopsy with no real indications for doing so. She said something inside told her to listen to the patient. She did the needle breast biopsy understanding that insurance may not cover it. The patient did have a malignancy. My friend said that as a surgeon, she sometimes had a tendency to tune out patients but learned a very valuable lesson from this young woman. Going forward, she listens to what her patients say and what they think is going on with their body because sometimes they know more than the tests show.

    Thanks for the story, Val!

  2. ValJonesMD says:

    Thanks, Lizzy! I strongly advocate listening to the patient… respectfulness and dialogue go a long way. And many times you learn things that can alter your treatment plan just by listening carefully. Glad your surgeon friend went ahead with the biopsy. :)

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