Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

A South African Surgeon Treats An American Tourist

Recently I spoke a bit about interaction with foreigners. The impression I left would have been strained to say the least. But as with all things there must be balance.

They were tourists (aren’t they all?) when in the Kruger she developed severe abdominal pain. Her son brought her to hospital.

When they called me, besides the usual clinical history the casualties officer made a point of mentioning to me that they were American and that her son, the one who brought her in, was a physician. Let me take a moment here just to mention a language difference between English and Americaneese. In South African English, a physician is a specialist in internal medicine. In American, it seems, a physician is simply a doctor. At that time I did not know this. None of us did. So when the patient told us her son was a physician we all naturally assumed he was a physician and not just a common or garden variety MD.

I mentally prepared myself for a confrontational family. Usually with non medical first worlders they question you at every turn. A physician (South African definition) traditionally is sceptical of the knife-happy surgeon. I couldn’t help thinking of the internist in scrubs trying to protect his patient from the destructive steel of the blood crazed surgeons. All I could hope for was a benign abdominal cramp which would soon pass.

The patient was in pain. She associated her discomfort with some or other something she had eaten the previous day in the Kruger. But it just seemed too severe. Besides, could anything bad actually come out of the Kruger? She had none of the signs which indicated that she needed immediate surgery. But the pain really bothered me. It nibbled away at the back of my mind. Then came the x-rays. They were worrying. I was looking at a partial obstruction, but the bowel was just too distended. One more thing to quietly eat away at my mind.

Then suddenly the son appeared as if out of nowhere. He greeted me in a friendly manner. I introduced myself as the surgeon. Even after hearing who or rather what I was, he remained friendly. I remained guarded. Afterall I was under the impression I had to do with a physician (when in actual fact I later found out he was only a doctor).

I showed him the x-rays. He could see they were not good. I then went on to tell him I was worried and I felt an operation was in order. At this stage let me mention that a partial bowel obstruction does not need to be operated immediately. It can be left for the next day. But in this case there were just a few too many things eating away quietly at my mind. I had a pretty good idea what this meant. He surprised me. He said that I should do whatever I thought was needed. I did.

The operation went as I expected. I expected necrotic bowel. I resected what was needed and did all the other things that us surgeons do in these circumstances. But when you have necrotic bowel, especially in people with a few years behind their names, the patients tend to be much sicker than they initially looked. This was no exception. We were worried about here generally and her hemodynamics and kidney function specifically. We were worried enough to send her to ICU. The gas monkey even felt the need to leave her intubated. I concurred.

After I had tucked her into bed in ICU I wondered where her son was. It was way after midnight so it was reasonable to expect him also to be neatly tucked into his own bed in one of the many guest houses in nelspruit. But I just felt I’d better check in the ward where his mother would have gone to if she hadn’t ended up in ICU. He was a colleague and besides, he might expect the worst if he found his mother in ICU intubated unexpectedly. I took a stroll to the relevant ward.

I found him and his wife sitting in the scantily lit room where his mother should have ended up patiently waiting for her return. I smiled. I was starting to like them.

I greeted them warmly. I didn’t want them to expect the worst. I then went on to explain that there had been necrotic bowel due to a twist of the bowel and therefore we felt it prudent rather to send her to ICU. I reassured them that she was well and we expected no further unforeseen problems. I warned him that she would be intubated and reassured him we would probably wean the ventilator and extubate her the next day. He was pretty ok with everything but I could see in his eyes the normal amount of stress associated with hearing that your mother needed to be admitted to ICU.

He put a strong face on it. He asked me a few questions and I did my best to reassure him on each point. Then he asked a question I was afraid I would not be able to reassure him on.

“And when we go down to ICU, will we be able to speak to the intensivist?”

“Umm…errr….that would be me.” After all, this was a peripheral town in South Africa. In fact there is no real intensivist in our entire province. Suddenly I felt sorry for these Americans. They were far from home, their mother was very sick and the best they had to look after her in ICU was a mere surgeon. There must have been at least some inkling of a misgiving in their minds. But he didn’t show it. He smiled at me and simply said;

“Ok. Well we’ll see you tomorrow morning then?” I was impressed.

The next morning I did not see them. They must have still been asleep after such a late night, I assumed. However the following few days their involvement really did leave an impression on me. It was also about this time that I realised he was not in fact a physician as I understood the word, but a doctor who was busy specialising in tropical diseases (or some such thing).

Anyway the patient did well. She had the setback of a bit of wound sepsis which, considering everything, I could live with (although I have heard that some people in America want to put it onto a never event list?????). That was soon sorted out and after not too much time she was sent on her merry way.

This case also caused me to be contacted from the States. The patient herself sent a thank-you letter as soon as she got home, as did her son. She then sent a further thank you letter a year later and the year after that.

So, if I left the impression that I have my reservations about treating foreigners, please think of this delightful old lady and her equally wonderful family.

*This blog post was originally published at other things amanzi*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »