Houston, Texas, United States
As a second-year medical student, I was supposed to interview patients and physicians about their experiences. Specifically, I was supposed to help find ways for physicians to develop better relationships with their patients. When trying to find patients to interview, I thought: Who would have more experience with medical care than my parents? My father had long-standing heart disease and had seen many doctors many times, so I knew the insight he could give me would be perfect for this assignment. Once I was done studying for the day, I let my brain unknot for twenty minutes before opening my notes and giving him a call.
As he settled in for the interview, he asked me “How have you been?” and said how good it was to hear my voice. He was so excited to talk to me that it made me feel guilty for not calling more often.
The interview began with bland questions like, “Do you feel like you have enough time with the physician?” and “How do you feel about filling out paperwork?” These were leading questions, with similarly bland, predictable answers. It continued until I asked him about his worst experience with a physician. Without hesitation, he launched into a story about his cardiologist.
This was the cardiologist that I had shadowed for months, who had written me a recommendation for medical school and had played a part in my aspirations to go into cardiology.
He told me about how he went in for an ablation, essentially a burning of a part of his heart to correct an irregular rhythm due to atrial fibrillation. The procedure went as planned, and he was sent home. Everything was fine, until the next day when he could not catch his breath.
“I called the office, and they told me that they do not see patients on Friday,” he said. My father emphasized how bad he felt, and they eventually allowed him to come in for a quick visit. “I understand why they would be resistant to someone demanding an appointment, so I did not take it personally. But when I got there, they all acted as though I had ruined their day by needing to come. Everyone glared at me as if I had done something wrong.” He told me the story with an edge of frustration in his voice.
“Eventually, they called me back, and a nurse shuffled through my papers. She asked me if I was still taking one of the drugs, and I said, ‘yes,’” he continued. He added defensively, “No one had told me not to take it.” He had still been taking the medication designed to slow his heart, to keep it from beating too quickly while he was in atrial fibrillation. This medication should have been stopped as soon as his heart was back in rhythm. His heartbeat had slowed, bringing less oxygen to his body, and his lungs had been trying to make up the difference by gasping for more and more air.
This sounded like a medical mistake, or at least a serious failure of communication. It could have been life threatening, and it had happened under the supervision of a man that had been a role model for me.
After a brief pause, my father went on. “Even when they realized what had happened, no one apologized to me. They all treated me as though I was an even bigger hassle than before. The doctor never even talked to me.”
After he had finished recounting his experience, I continued with the interview, murmuring about how awful it was that this had happened. When I had finished with my questions, I dropped my interviewer voice and chatted about other things. But through all that time, my mind was churning with indignation. I understood that mistakes like these were bound to happen.
But when I lay down that night, all I could think of was my father panicking and out of breath, unable to talk with his doctor, and being treated with cold indifference by the office staff who were supposed to help him.
MATTHEW WOOTEN is a 4th year medical student at Texas A&M School of Medicine. He intends on applying to internal medicine programs later this year, with aspirations of becoming a cardiologist. Matthew intends to continue writing throughout his career.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 4 – Fall 2023