I have become quite good at reading people within the first few minutes of meeting them. It comes with the job, actually. Thirty patients (and their families) a shift and rest assured, after 16 years in the ER, I have been exposed to many different personalities. I am a poker player of sorts, keeping my personal feelings hidden behind my smile while I measure up the alpha male, the needy daughter, and the nosy neighbor, all begging for more attention than the actual patient.
With all the family dynamics swirling around a patient's room, it is important for me to swiftly figure out the who, what, when, where and how so that I can attend to the patient's illness. You would be amazed how just one person can affect the entire ER experience, either positively or negatively.
And in Room 12, that one person happened to be a father of two boy, ages 10 and 12.
I walked into the room to find the ten year-old boy lying on the treatment cot, his forearm bent in the shape of an "L", obviously broken. The nurse was starting an IV to give him some morphine. Sitting in the corner of the room was this patient's twelve year-old brother, his face tear-stained and agonized, looking as hurt if not more than his younger brother. Pacing nervously alongside the patient's cot was their father.
Nothing really too much out of the ordinary.
Except the tension in the room was explosive. Something wasn't adding up.
And then Dad opened his mouth to speak to the son in the corner and it all made sense.
"I hope you're happy, damn it. Just look at your brother's arm. What the hell is wrong with you?"
Whoa, back up here. As the nurse was starting the IV, she looked up in the middle of Dad's rant to give me "the look," a warning that all was not good in this room. I interrupted Dad to introduce myself.
Dad bit his tongue during the introduction, but as soon as I asked what happened, Dad jumped right back in where he left off.
"He's always causing problems...pain in my ass...doesn't care about anyone but himself..."
His rant against his older son continued and the more he spoke, the more his son's shoulders shook from silent sobbing. The younger son with the broken arm sat silent, his pained expression speaking volumes.
The story played out that the two brothers were in the front yard playing soccer. Soon after, bored from kicking the ball, they started tackling one another. It was then that the older brother tackled his younger brother and, in the midst of the tackle, broke his younger brother's arm.
An accident, pure and simple. I could see it, the nurse could see it, and I know as you read this you see it.
Dad didn't see it. And I was finding it difficult to give him some benefit of doubt during his family's stressful crisis.
After several more hurtful insults, I had had enough.
"Come outside into the hallway with me, Dad. We need to talk."
In the hallway, Dad tried to start all over again with how his older son was a "problem child" and always created conflict in their family, but I halted him. Rarely have I met a "problem child" that didn't have a "problem adult" in his life.
I took a deep breath, not wanting to be anything but professional during this conversation. Deep down, though, my insides were screaming. I wanted to grab this guy and shake him, make him take an outside look at what he was doing to his older son.
"Listen, sir, I understand you're upset. But you have the power to make this a better experience for both of your sons right now. As things stand, your words are only making the situation worse."
"But damn it, he's got..."
I stopped him. "I've heard you already. And so has the nurse. And so have both of your sons. What I am asking of you is to go back in the room, find something nice to say to your older son, and then sit on the cot with your younger son and help him get through this visit. I don't want any more negative talk from you while we help your family, okay?"
I stared at him and he was silent. "Okay?" I asked again, more loudly.
He shook his head yes.
We walked back into the room. I looked at Dad. He was ready to talk to the son in the corner.
"See," the father said, "now you got me in trouble. I hope you're happy with yourself."
I was shocked. And angry. And frustrated with this man who, I felt, was clearly not appreciating the blessings of having children.
He looked at my face and, for once, I failed to hide my emotions. He did not say another word while we fixed his son's fracture.
After successfully reducing the broken arm, we sent the younger son to X-Ray for post-reduction films. We had Dad accompany him. I hung back with the older son.
Over popsicles, we got better acquainted. He shared that his dad said "a lot of mean things" to him. Words "that hurt sometimes." He assured me, though, that this was the extent of his father's unkindness. "He treats me okay most of the time," he added.
"You know this isn't your fault, right?"
He thought I meant his brother's broken arm. "But it is. I shouldn't have tackled him so hard."
"No, but that's not your fault, either. Things like this happen between brothers. I'm talking about the angry words you hear from your dad. Some parents love their kids very much but just don't know how to pick the right words to tell them."
He nodded while he looked down at his sneakers. I continued. "I have no doubt that you are a good son and brother." We talked a few more minutes that culminated with a smile from him.
Dad had calmed down before his son was discharged. Prior to leaving, I had an instinct that he wanted to say something to me--something apologetic, by his expression. But he didn't. A part of me, though, could only hope that he had looked in the mirror and didn't like what he had seen.
The nurse planned to arrange follow-up with this family.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts and resources in the ER, life and fate will continue to play out the way they were destined to.
Darn it all.
Next post will be Friday, December 4. See you then...and hats off to the caring nurse who provided more than just good medical care for this family.