I walked into Room 28 to examine a woman who had presented to our emergency department with complaints of abdominal pain. She had initially been examined by our chief resident, who was under my supervision for this particular shift.
Unfortunately, this patient was a "frequent-flier," presenting to our ER multiple times in the past few years. Complicating the matter, she spoke no English. Despite our offers to provide a translator during her visits, she refused. Every time. Instead, she placed that responsibility on her ten year-old daughter's shoulders.
My resident was somewhat flustered by this patient. For one, her multiple visits to our ER were always for chronic issues that, despite significant past work-ups, never amounted to any significant findings. Secondly, the language barrier. When a patient and a physician do not share a common language, there is always a concern that some important fact or angle may be overlooked. In addition, this patient had now been in our country for a few years. During that time, wouldn't you expect her English skills to advance a little bit? I can't picture myself living in France for two years and not learning some French. Yes, no, wine. Those words would roll off my tongue in the first week. This patient, for whatever reasons, seemed to have not made much effort in learning even basic English words.
Which leads us to my resident's biggest frustration. The daughter. And the burden placed on her to translate for her mother. If the patient had come to our ER over thirty times in the past few years, how many times do you think the daughter had been with her? Even conservatively, if the daughter had accompanied her mother on half of those visits, it's still too much. In addition, most of her mother's visits were regarding abdominal pain. Some of the questions asked during history-taking can be very sensitive and specific with this complaint and, yet, the mother wouldn't answer a question unless it was through her daughter.
I walked into the room to find a laughing patient sitting upright in her cot, watching TV. Despite her loose hospital gown, I could appreciate this woman's large size. She appeared very comfortable, though, and in no acute distress. Her daughter sat in a corner chair, also smiling as she looked upward at the TV. She was beautiful. Dark hair, dark eyes, long lashes, and dangling pink gemstone earrings that swayed with her laughter. She wore a pink Hannah Montana sweatshirt. Looking up at the TV, I was not surprised to see the channel was set to The Hannah Montana Show on the Disney channel.
"Hello," I said, holding out my hand to the patient and shaking hers, "I'm Dr. Jim, and I'll be treating you today with Dr. Mary, whom you just met. How are you?"
The patient looked from me to her daughter, who translated everything I had just said. When her daughter was done, the patient turned back to me and silently nodded. I continued focusing on the daughter, holding out my hand and walking around to the other side of the cot where she sat. "You are her daughter?" I asked. She nodded. "What is your name, honey?" "Annabelle," she answered, shyly.
"Annabelle," I said, "we appreciate you being here today to help us with your mother's care. Would your mother want us to call a translator instead, though?" Annabelle translated my words for her mother and returned her mother's response to me. "Absolutely not," Annabelle said.
"Okay, then, Annabelle," I said, "I will ask you all my questions and you can, in turn, ask your mother, okay? If there are any questions you don't feel comfortable with, just tell me and I will call in a translator."
Even this, Annabelle translated for her mother, who's return response, through Annabelle, was "There is no question that my daughter has not already heard."
So, I asked away. Fever? Nausea? Vomiting? Diarrhea? Where is the belly pain? Similar to past episodes? Chest pain? Trauma? I kept it short and sweet. Finally, I briefly asked about any urinary problems or vaginal problems. Annabelle didn't even flinch, asking her mother my questions and relaying her mother's answers. She was a translating pro, albeit at the age of ten. Practice makes perfect, I guess.
After the questions, I performed a physical exam that was stable and unremarkable for any abnormalities. I reviewed a new set of vital signs, also normal. This was all similar to what my chief had found. This patient's blood and urine work had returned prior to my exam, even, and I was armed with the knowledge that all of those results were normal as well.
I explained the results of my exam and the testing to Annabelle, who in turned spoke to her mother about it. The mother seemed genuinely happy. I explained that I was going to call her family doctor and review the results of our exam and testing and would expect her to follow-up for her chronic abdominal complaints in the morning with him. She agreed.
Before leaving, I focused on Annabelle. "You were so helpful today. Did anybody give you any stickers yet? Or a popsicle?" Annabelle didn't answer me but, instead, turned her face from me and toward her mother and started talking in their native language. It took me a minute to realize that she had thought those last questions were directed toward her mother.
"No, no, no, honey," I said, interrupting her and laughing. "Annabelle, I was asking you those questions. Did you get any stickers or a popsicle for being such a big help with your mother's care today?"
"No, Doctor Jim, I didn't," she replied, shyly gazing to the floor with her eyes. Her voice, in English, was quiet and faint; in her native language, fluent and guttural and husky.
"Well, Annabelle, your mother and we are sure lucky to have you translate for us. Thank you very much. Let me go get you some thank-you stickers, okay?" She nodded yes to my words, smiling now, her secondary teeth perfectly white and evenly lined. Her smile lit up the room.
I left the room, hearing Annabelle's explanations to her mother grow faint as I walked down the hallway. While my chief called the mother's doctor, I perused through our sticker collection and picked out about fifteen or so for Annabelle, including some new kitty-cat ones that I couldn't wait to get rid of (sorry, just not a cat fan here). I went to our employee lunch room, where we keep our popsicles, and grabbed Annabelle a bright blue Italian ice. Who doesn't like blue popsicles, right?
As I walked back into their treatment room, my chief resident was just leaving. "Everything all right?" I asked her. "Everything's good," she assured me, "Dr. Smith is going to see Mrs. Demshonova tomorrow at 9 a.m.
Perfect. I walked in and handed Annabelle her well-earned stickers. "Do you like cats, Annabelle? " She answered with a nod, hurriedly scanning through each of the stickers. "And here," I said, pulling the popsicle out from behind my back, "here is a blue popsicle for all your hard work." She looked at her mother who nodded to her, and Annabelle shyly took the popsicle from my hand. I finished. "It sure was nice meeting you, today. Thanks again for all of your help."
As I began retracing my steps out of the room, Annabelle's mother spoke up. "Excuse me, sir," she said, in broken English. I stepped back in and walked towards her cot, surprised to hear her speaking English. "Yes?" I asked. The patient looked from me to Annabelle, who was devouring the popsicle while rechecking the stickers, and back to me again. "Thank you," she said, grabbing my hand and squeezing it. "Thank you," she repeated again, more softly, for good measure.
"You're welcome," I said, returning her transcending smile with my own simple one.
I walked out of that room and realized that this was a good mother. And Annabelle, of course, a good child. Although I wouldn't expect my ten-year old to translate for me, this patient did. Whether is was cultural or not, I don't know. I do feel confident, though, that this mother wasn't being abusive of Annabelle, she just expected a family member to translate for her. A family member who just happened to be ten-year old Annabelle. Nor do I think the mother deliberately abused our ER with so many visits. Again, I simply think she didn't understand the process of following through with her chronic complaints with her family doctor. What do you think?
The patient and her daughter, after being discharged, walked down the hallway toward the exit door. Holding hands.
I walked back to my chief resident. "They turned out to be quite nice in there, didn't they?" I asked. "Yes, they were," the chief said, happy with the outcome.
Hopefully, she learned a little something besides clinical medicine from this case.
I know I did.
As always, big thanks for reading. I hope you all have a nice weekend. Next post will be Monday, May 17. See you then...