Although the majority of my emergency department time is spent in a local 36-bed trauma center, I continue to work a few shifts each month in the small rural hospital near my childhood hometown, several hours away. It is a great change of pace, treating the local folks, while affording me a chance to spend a few evenings with my father and siblings' families.
Last week, I had to drive through white-out blizzard conditions during my most recent two-hour trip, taking approximately four hours each way because of the weather. White knuckles, breath-holding, tense and contracted muscles, stress headaches, and bouts of complaining to myself in the car--these were all part of the package deal. I imagined the cozy, 12-bed emergency department awaiting my arrival, however, and kept plugging along the icy roads, refusing to abandon my place in the thirty-car line of traffic. Going 20 mph. And braking every five seconds. Yep, good times, as any of you ever caught traveling in a snow storm are familiar with.
Arriving at the small ER, then, I was pleasantly surprised to see the festive decorations that adorned the department. Gold, shimmery garland draped the nursing station. Felt stockings and striped candy canes hung in random fashion along the glass enclosure walls. A Christmas tree was standing tall, twinkling and proud, in a nook of inactive space in the corner. It felt Norman Rockwelly and old-fashioned, and I felt welcomed. 'Tis the season.
The first of my scheduled shifts was quite hectic. From my prime seating in front of the ambulance bay doors, I was able to appreciate the outdoor weather. Blustery gusts of snow and heavy thick blankets of engorged snowflakes descended and tormented, without pause, the small town through the day. Although I felt worry and concern for anyone out in this weather, a blazing fireplace, a good book, and a glass of wine were the only things that would have added to the enjoyment and appreciation I felt for this crazy weather.
Three hours into my shift, though, I remembered what the first snowstorm of the season means to an ER staff. Multiple MVCs (multiple vehicle collisions). First-time-of-the-season shovelers developing chest pain as they try to clear their sidewalks. Frequent falls resulting in contusions and broken bones and lacerations. Cough and cold symptoms magnified tenfold with every ten degree drop. Frostbite. And on...and on...and on...
By mid morning, we were swamped. And I loved it. All twelve beds were filled and the waiting room was starting to spill over. The multiple ambulance runs to pick up and drop off ill patients created a steady, rhythmic sense of humming chaos. Despite the craziness, the staff I was working with (many of them friends from my childhood) continued to smile while pushing onward. I was proud to be part of such a team, their hardwork quite evident. We were providing excellent care in a very efficient manner, discharging and admitting and transferring patients left and right.
So, was it really a surprise to me to find that, eventually, all good things come to an end and this run of busy but gratifying work would be interrupted by something unpleasant? I guess not, although I could still hope, right?
The unpleasantness came early afternoon, in the form of a man's booming, angry voice resonating from the hallway. I had been in Room 2 at the time, examining a new patient, an elderly female with dizziness.
"If you'll excuse me, maam," I said, "I need to go see what's going on in the hallway."
I left her room and shut the sliding glass door. Several nurses were in the hallway already, standing in front of a 60ish man, his mouth moving while he leaned forward into his walker. The obvious source of the angry yelling.
"Excuse me, sir," I said, walking between the nurses and right up to him, "what seems to be the problem?"
If any of you have seen the movies Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men, picture a shorter version of Walter Matthau with slightly more gray hair peeking out from his baseball cap. A pinched-up face. Angry, flaring eyes and a reddened, ruddy complexion. His flannel shirt was untucked from his blue denim pants. And his hands were balled into fists while maintaining his grip on his walker.
Those angry, flaring eyes didn't take long to focus on me. "Who the hell are you?" he asked, practically spitting on me with his disgust.
"I'm Dr. Jim, the emergency room doctor on shift for the day," I said, keeping my cool. "And you are...?" I deliberately left the question open.
"I'm the God-damned boyfriend of Room 6, if any of you lazy sons-of-bitches care," he screamed out, "and I need somebody from this God-damned first-aid station to tell me what the hell is going on with her."
I was surprised at this man's behavior, wondering to myself if he had tipped a few back during lunch. The level of rudeness and obnoxious behavior I encounter through my shifts continues to amaze me. Trying to placate this man would turn out to be an obvious failure.
Room 6, this patient's girlfriend, contained a woman in her 60s who had lingering burping and belching for six months. Today, this day of stormy weather, was the day she decided to pursue her symptoms, for no other reason than just "because I figured it was time to get checked out." She was right to come in, since her EKG revealed signs of heart ischemia that were confirmed by her elevated cardiac enzymes via blood work. I had seen and treated her immediately upon her arrival to our ER, as well as checked-in with her multiple times, making sure her symptoms had resolved and explaining the results of her tests. Currently, the cardiologist was on his way to the ER to make further recommendations.
At no time during this woman's hour stay did a boyfriend present himself. She had been in the room alone.
"Sir, keep your voice down," I told him, "we have a lot of sick patients in this ER today. And when did you get here," I continued, "since I've been in your girlfriend's room multiple times in the past hour."
"Me, too," piped in Marsha, the patient's nurse.
"I just got here," he said, shaking his head in disgust, "and nobody made it a point to explain things to me." He continued to rant and rave, insulting anyone associated with the small rural hospital.
"That's not true," Marsha disputed, "I explained everything I knew to you, just a few minutes ago, after you walked into your girlfriend's room. I even offered you a chair, coffee, a blanket."
"Regardless, sir," I said, proud of Marsha, "you could have asked in a much better way than walking into the hallway and screaming like this for everyone to hear." He eyed me up, surprised at my confronting him on his behavior. "Now," I said, "these are your two choices. Either leave the department and wait in the waiting room, or go back into your girlfriend's room and act like a gentleman. After she answers your questions, I'll be in to answer anything further. With her permission, of course."
There was a standoff. He eyed me. I eyed him. The nurses all held their breath. Finally, he spoke. Or yelled. "Screw you. I'm going to go, God-damn it, and feed her God-damn mutt of a dog. But I'll be back," he said.
Before leaving, he tried one last parting shot. "I envy your God-damn generation," he muttered, "none of you know what hard work is. Not a single one."
Well, I thought back to my 14 hour days working with my father's crews in the woods when I was a teenager. I thought about waking up in my childhood on Saturdays and Sundays to cut and stack firewood and cut grass. I thought about the numerous chores our parents expected of us. I thought about the endless sleepless nights I spent, first studying through college, then medical school, and finally through residency, before some semblance of normalcy finally arrived to my life.
"Sir, you don't know me or any of the nurses, do you?" I asked, sweeping my hand towards them. He nodded "no." "Then how," I continued, "can you say such a rude thing? I would never consider insulting you the way you've insulted our staff. It's not necessary and your bad attitude isn't helping anyone. It's time for you to go."
"Well," he stammered, "even if you aren't lazy, most of your God-damn generation is."
And with that, he continued on his way out of our "first-aid station," decorated to celebrate the joy of the wondrous holiday, shaking his head in disgust until he walked through the waiting room doors.
After he left, our staff regrouped in the nursing station. Amazingly, not one person was affected negatively by this gentleman. Everyone had the good sense to dispel his insults and demeaning behavior without a second thought. "I can only hope," I warned them all, "that I'm not that grouchy when I get older."
I visited Room 6, the girlfriend. She was still clear of all her symptoms, but looked teary-eyed. "I'm so sorry for his behavior," she said, obviously hearing the conversation that had just occurred in the hallway, "he's like that all the time. But Doctor, just so you know, your staff treated me wonderfully today." She assured me, upon my questioning, that she was safe and not being abused physically. She declined any counseling offers. "He's a dog with a big bark and no bite," was how she put it. I wanted to ask her "Why?" Why in the world would she stay with a man so unpleasant, so abrupt and obnoxious? But I didn't. We all have our reasons for living our lives the way we do, and she was no exception. Besides, the world was continuing to revolve and I was needed in several other rooms.
An hour later, Mr. Crank was back. Before even entering his girlfriend's room, he walked himself right through the nursing station, stopping on its edge. "Now what the hell is going on?" he yelled, lifting his walker from the floor before banging it back down, startling me from the chart I was working on.
And the conversation continued as before--him insulting our staff and hospital with vulgar language, me giving him the option of either going to his girlfriend's room or the waiting room. In my book, this was his last chance, and I conveyed it respectfully to him.
He walked to his girlfriend's room, entered it, and shut the glass door behind him. Surprisingly, he was only in there for a minute or two before opening the door, walking into the hallway and out the ER while muttering to himself. Whereas before he had conveyed, with his body language, some misplaced pride, this time while walking past our nursing station he looked like a man who had just been brow-beatened. No doubt, the girlfriend had the last say in this matter.
Throughout this holiday season, we will have many opportunities to spread good cheer and love. Compassion and kindness. And endless smiles. Or, we will have opportunities to spread poison and malignant anger. Hurtful words and deliberate insults. And pinched-up frowns.
The choice is yours. The choice is mine. Just remember to pause and look at the infinite garland, the Christmas trees, the stockings, and the candy canes--all of the beauty of the season that surrounds us. Notice and acknowledge the smiles on the faces you pass. Remember your inner child's spirit and reflect on the deeper meaning of this holiday.
I can only hope your choice fills your heart with warmth.
And I wish for nothing less for Mr. Crank.
As always, big thanks for reading. Despite our respectful attempts to break through Mr. Crank's grumpy exterior, we were unsuccessful. Darn it! I hope this finds you well and ready for the holiday season and all it brings your way...see you early next week.