The city in which I work is probably, I would say, medium-sized. We have our own collection of restaurants, cultural events, sporting arenas with minor-league teams, several hospitals, and four major colleges.
You would think that our city would be large enough to not run into patients whom I have treated in the ER, but this is simply not true. There are way too many places to be recognized.
"Hey, doc," they'll say to me in a Walmart line, "do you remember me? You treated my hemorrhoid in 2003?"
Oh, that's right. Of course I remember you now. NOT! And please, sir, whatever you do, don't show me your buttocks to refresh my memory.
I do seem to have a good memory for people's faces, though, and even a better memory of their illness (as long as it's more recent than 2003!). I am much more likely to remember your heart attack, the cauliflower growth on your ear, your thickened, fungal toenail that grew overnight, or the way you cried when our most-skilled nurse put in your IV (along side your ten inch forearm tattoo!) than remember your name.
And, for the most part, if I am not pressed for time, I do enjoy seeing some of these former patients. They are usually gracious and complimentary--who wouldn't enjoy that? We don't get a chance to follow-up with ER patients like an office-setting practice does, so I appreciate hearing about how they are doing and what worked in successfully treating their illness.
There are, however, a few circumstances where I would rather not be approached.
For one, the gym. I appreciate my gym-time immensely and rely on my workouts to keep me centered. Since I have treated multiple patients who frequent my gym, I usually wear a baseball cap pulled practically down to my upper lip to remain incognito. The only problem with that, besides bumping often into the weights, is I'm not quite sure if people are looking at me because I look familiar to them or because I look like the ultimate dork.
My other issue about the gym is this: if you see me standing naked (pre or post-shower) in the locker room, please let me finish what I am doing (translation--let me get some underwear on!) before you approach and share with me. Especially if I'm bent over drying my toes! I'm not shy, really, but rarely can someone give me a good hemorrhoid or constipation story in less than ten minutes. If it is a heart attack or stroke story, I know I'm committed for a good 20-30 minutes. Let me tell you, I can grow a whole crop of goose bumps like you've never seen in that time!
So, obviously, the gym is out.
My only other issue is that I do not want former patients to share if my kids are with me.
A few years back, I was on a date with my three young kids. Just me and my kids. We had ourselves a nice meal at The Olive Garden and then went to the movies. On our way home, we stopped at the local Target to buy fingernail polish (for Daddy's famous manicures) for the girls.
A woman who works in the pharmacy section of the store is a former patient. In fact, not only have I treated her multiple times, but I have also treated her troubled, teenage children several times. The last time I had seen her was at her daughter's bedside. Unfortunately, her daughter had to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital for further care.
Now, I have never had any bad interactions with this woman or her children and, in fact, I remember having gone out of my way to show them extra kindness because of their many problems. However, as a result, this woman has tailed me through the store on several prior occasions, giving me updates, sometimes graphic, of their follow-ups. I remember being quite uncomfortable, at times, through these conversations.
On this particular day, as the kids and I were holding hands and happily walking through the store, I was hopeful that I wouldn't run into this woman.
Wrong. She spotted us almost instantly.
She came running up to us from behind, startling my kids and myself. I said hello to her and gave her a warm smile. My kids, inherently shy with strangers, crowded for space behind my back. I skipped their introduction.
"I know you'd want to know about my daughter," she started, speaking quite loudly.
"I sure would," I said quietly, kindly, "but maybe another time when I'm not with my kids, okay? We're on a date and just ran in to pick out some fingernail polish. I sure hope she's okay, though."
"Oh, sure, she's okay...now," she answered, gruffly. She didn't stop there, though. She started to tell me, in embarrassingly explicit language and detail, how her daughter had acted-out and had gotten into more recent trouble.
As she spoke, I could feel my protective hackles coming on. My kids cowered into the back of my legs, gripping my pant-legs and tugging me into them.
I interrupted her. "Maam," I repeated, now emphatically , "I am on a date with my kids and, frankly, don't feel comfortable with how you are talking in front of them. They don't need to hear of your daughter's problems."
"Well," this woman said, somewhat affronted, "they need to learn about this stuff sometime." Learn what? I thought. About your daughter's acting-out? Or, from you, how to use a swear word? Either way, I don't think so.
"No, maam," I answered, struggling to keep my cool and smile, "you're wrong. My kids don't need to learn about your family problems. And they don't need to hear such explicit language, from you or anyone. I would never condone this type of language in front of them."
The woman huffed and seemed slighted, but I didn't care. "I wish your family well," I said with sincerity, "but I'd appreciate it if you let us keep moving here. Have a good day." Without waiting for a reply, I eased my hands into my children's backs and guided them onward, toward the make-up aisle.
Although I've seen this woman several more times in Target since that interaction, I have not seen her or her children in the ER since. She does not approach me anymore, either, although several times I have nodded a "hello" to her. I do hope her family is well.
I often wonder if I handled this interaction appropriately but, at the end of the day, I need to protect my kids in the way I deem necessary. They don't deserve the intrusiveness of my job. And they certainly don't need to learn their swear words from Daddy's former ER patients.
Would any of you handled this interaction differently?
There is a silver lining in all of this, though. At least I wasn't standing naked in a locker room when this conversation happened!
As always, big thanks for reading. Next post will be March 3. See you then...