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The Hug That May Have Saved A Life

Every once in a while we physicians make an astute (or perhaps lucky) observation that becomes a turning point in a patient’s life.

I’ll never forget the time that I placed a hand on an elderly woman’s belly after she said that she felt a little bit dizzy – the pulsatile abdominal mass that I discovered set in motion a cascade of events that resulted in life-saving surgery for an disecting abdominal  aortic aneurysm (AAA). It was incredibly gratifying to be involved in saving her life – and now anyone who so much as swoons in my vicinity gets a tummy rub! (Yes, Dr. Groopman I know that’s not necessarily a rational response to one lucky “exam finding.”)

Last week I made a fortunate “catch” on the order of the AAA discovery from years ago. I was giving a close friend of mine a hug (he’s significantly taller than I am) when I noticed that his heart was beating rather quickly through his shirt. I instinctively grabbed his wrist to check his pulse, and voilà - it was irregularly irregular. My friend had new onset atrial fibrillation – and although he was initially resistant to my idea of going straight to the ER, I eventually convinced him to come with me. An EKG confirmed my clinical diagnosis, and blood thinners (with Pradaxa) and a rate control agent were administered. He will undergo cardioversion in a couple of weeks. We were both relieved that our intervention may well have averted a stroke, heart failure, or worse.

My peers at the hospital have been poking fun at me for my hug diagnosis, and my reputation as the “hug doctor” now preceeds me. I continue to protest that I do know how to use a stethoscope  - but alas, there have been more requests for stat hugs from me than cardiopulmonary exams.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top this clinical diagnosis, but a life of trying to find my next case of atrial fibrillation through hugging will likely make a few people smile.

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