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The Importance of the Physical Exam, Part 3

I was working in the ER late one night when I was asked to see an elderly woman with the chief complaint of “I almost fainted.” This complaint carries with it one of the broadest differential diagnoses known to man. What could be the cause of a near fainting episode in an elderly woman? It could be anything from dehydration, to an irregular heart beat, to anemia, to malnutrition, to a urinary tract infection or pneumonia. Pretty much anything could make one swoon when you come to think of it.

And so I met the lady, perched atop a stretcher in one of the ER bays. She was chipper and friendly with a shock of curly white hair. She was sitting up, conversing comfortably with no pain or any bodily complaints whatsoever. She was absolutely charming, taking the time to notice my own disheveled condition and inquiring as to when I’d had my last meal.

Her blood pressure was a little bit low, but she had no fever, or heart rate abnormalities. She was not over or underweight, she was well-groomed and alert. I really doubted that there was anything wrong with the woman, frankly, and was kind of assuming that she had stood up too quickly and had a vasovagal episode.

But out of habit I began my physical exam, from head to toe – methodically looking for abnormalities of the head, eyes, ears, nose, throat, cranial nerves, chest, lungs, back, skin, range of motion of arms, strength, sensation, heart sounds, and then the abdomen. As I placed my cold hand nonchalantly on her belly, my arm instinctively jerked away almost before my cerebral cortex was able to interpret the input. Oh my gosh, there was a pulsatile abdominal mass, clear as the nose on her face!

I was barely able to compose myself and asked her to excuse me. I bolted straight for the attending’s desk, and white as a sheet with wide eyes I stammered: “the lady in bed 3 has a pulsatile abdominal mass!”

The attending stood up immediately and followed me to the lady’s room and confirmed my diagnosis. She had a dissecting abdominal aortic aneurysm. We called the trauma surgery team and she was taken to the OR minutes later. The dear lady survived the surgery and was discharged home in her usual state of pleasantness. I’ll never forget that physical exam finding, and how taking the time to place my hand on her belly was all that was needed to save her life. If I had gone with my suspicion prior to the exam (that she was fine but maybe had a UTI) I may have wasted the precious few minutes she had (before her artery ruptured) on getting a urine sample!


For other surprising physical exam findings, check out part 1 and part 2.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “The Importance of the Physical Exam, Part 3”

  1. RH Host Melissa says:

    How wonderful Dr. Val that you took the time to do a complete head to toe assessment.  To me, THIS is why it’s so important to have a doctor that has not only knowledge but a compassionate heart as well.  🙂

  2. In Sickness In Health says:

    This is a terrific story.  She was very lucky she wound up on your watch.  


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