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The Ones You Don’t Forget

Every physician has a few traumatic patient stories forever etched in their minds. My friend Dr. Rob recently blogged about the sad case of a little boy with an ear infection – his bulging red eardrum suggested a common problem requiring antibiotics. Little did anyone know that the bacteria behind the drum would get into his spinal fluid, causing meningitis and rapid death. Another emergency medicine physician tells the story of an elderly woman whose aorta dissected right in front of the medical team, with barely enough time for the trauma surgeon to save her life.

One of my surprising moments occurred when I was an ER resident. A middle aged woman (we’ll call her Lizzy) was sent to the ER in the middle of the afternoon after a near-fainting episode in a pain management clinic. She was fairly well known to the more senior residents and staff (she was a chronic pain patient on multiple medications who came to the ER for frequent generalized pain work ups and rescue doses of her meds). So since this lady had cried wolf a few too many times, she was assigned to me – the newbie.

I had no pre-conceived notions about Lizzy, and hadn’t experienced her exaggerated and benign abdominal pain claims in the past. She was lucid, with a smoker’s cough and mildly disheveled, short hair with dark roots and blond tips. She explained that she had been at her usual pain management appointment when she got up from the waiting room chair to register and almost blacked out. She described feeling lightheaded, and needing to sit back down immediately. The clinic staff called our ER to transfer her for an evaluation.

Lizzy seemed fairly cheerful and unconcerned about her near fainting – as if swooning bought her a free ride to the ER to see her “other doctors.” But still, something didn’t seem right to me about her. She was light skinned, but not pink enough. Her blood pressure was low-normal. She had no particular pain anywhere, though on the levels of narcotics she was taking it would be a miracle if she could feel any pain at all. I decided to watch her, take serial vitals, and order a CBC and Chem 7 to see if there might be any signs of dehydration or anemia.

The second set of vitals showed a slightly lower blood pressure and a slightly higher pulse. She sat on the stretcher, watching the TV without any particular sense of urgency. Since it was an unusually slow afternoon, I got the chance to ask for more details of her medical history. Lizzy described her normal daily activities at the assisted living center, and how she had attended a party where she’d had a bit too much to drink and had fallen on a chair a couple of days ago. She said it hurt at first in her left upper quadrant, but it felt only slightly sore now.

Her CBC came back with a lowish hematocrit, and a third blood pressure reading was trending lower yet. I really wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was getting nervous. I presented the case to my attending (who knew the patient very well) and suggested that we get an abdominal CT to rule out internal bleeding.

He rolled his eyes and sneered at me. “Do you know how many CTs this woman has had already?”

“Um, no…” I winced.

“She gets one every freaking time she’s in here, and it’s always non-specific. Inexperienced residents like you are wasting hospital resources on drug seekers!”

“But she does have some anemia, low blood pressure, and a history of abdominal trauma…” I mumbled.

“She’s always slightly anemic, with low blood pressure – what would YOUR blood pressure be on high dose oxycontin?”

“But she looks pale and she almost fainted…” I tried to continue my argument.

“Alright, Jones… I’m going to let you order the CT as a learning experience for you. This is a teaching hospital, and I guess that means that we can irradiate patients at will. Go ahead… we’ll see what it shows.”

By this time I was really questioning myself. I’d gotten in an argument with one of our attendings who knew this patient intimately and had years of medical experience beyond my own. If I was wrong about her, he’d make me pay for the rest of the year – and tell all the other residents about my poor clinical judgment and wasted hospital resources. I was very nervous, but I just had to follow my instinct.

I sent the woman to the CT scanner with a reassuring pat on the shoulder. She winked at me and disappeared into the radiology suite.

Ten minutes later I was paged by the radiologist, his voice was tense – “Your patient has a splenic laceration, you’d better call in the trauma surgeons. She’s fading fast…”

Before I could put the phone down I heard the trauma team being paged overhead and some surgeons emerged from behind a curtain and started running to the CT scanner, almost knocking me off my feet in the hallway.

As it turns out, the trauma team was able to save Lizzy by removing her spleen. She spent several days in the hospital receiving blood transfusions and recovering from the operation. My attending never mentioned the incident again, though I never forgot Lizzy’s near-death experience. Maybe it was a blessing that I was a “newbie” when I met Lizzy –  my lack of knowledge of her usual behavior allowed me to view her with a fresh eye, and take her complaints seriously. It’s really hard to hit that reset button with every “frequent flier” in the ER – but sometimes it can save a life.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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3 Responses to “The Ones You Don’t Forget”

  1. Kindy says:

    I loved your story. I kind of stumbled on your blog by accident. I have a child with chronic medical problems and know exactly what you mean about how physicians will sometimes overlook things that could potentially be serious.  As a mom, I have to stay on top of things and keep going and going and begging and pleading and nagging and getting second opinions.  Sometimes it gets tiresome, but you do what you have to. 🙂


  2. DrDavid says:

    Great post, Val.  A good reminder that we have to approach each encounter with a patient fresh.  To do otherwise risks missing the real emergencies.

  3. Annie Ilene says:

    That’s wonderful work!  Are you concerned though, about the remark your associate made about the pain medication Oxycontin and how that effected his/her decision making process?  I think too many doctors liberally give out these drugs and then complain of  the patients “drug seeking behaviors”.  Yet when it came time to making a good call or a right diagnosis, the opportunity was missed by this prejedicial attitude, not to mention the huge problem of so much narcotic in the system that the patient does not show the normal signs of pain for the problem they present with.  I doubt this woman would have been alive if it were not for your tremendous instinct and determination.  Unfortunatelly there are not enough of you.  There are too many “overmedicated” people.  Doctors shouldn’t be complaining about this.  They should find the right balance, so that these things do not happen. 

    I really admire your tenacity


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