A heartfelt appreciation to the readers who shared their personal stories, both devastating and hopeful, on my last post. Your courage to share was felt and your words of wisdom were heard...thank you.
Walking into Room 33, my next patient, who had come to the ER complaining of cough and cold symptoms, seemed just as I had expected. He appeared relaxed on his medical cot, lying back at 45 degrees, facing the room's door, his legs comfortably extended in front of him and his gown tied correctly behind him. He was a few years shy of middle-age and appeared to be in good physical shape. His sandy blond hair, sprinkled with gray, framed his slightly weathered, apprehensive face. Between coughs, he managed to give me a faint smile.
"Hello, Mr. Brown," I said, extending my gloved hand and introducing myself, "I'm Dr. Jim. What can I do to help you in our ER today?"
He coughed before answering in raspy voice. "I had a bad cold about two weeks ago. It lasted about a week before going away." Another cough. "But now," he continued, after taking a deep breath, "it's back. Back with a vengeance, actually." Yet another cough. "I've had three miserable days of this stuff," he said, swirling his hand in front of his runny nose, reddened eyes, and dry lips, "and have tried every over-the counter medicine out there." Cough. "I just don't know what else to do."
As he spoke, my senses were acutely attuned to him. I listened to see if he was speaking full sentences of five or six words or fragmented sentences of just a couple. I listened for audible wheezing. I watched to see if his diaphragm and intercostal rib muscles were struggling, under his gown, in their respiratory effort. I noticed the skin coloring of his arms, the pink of his nails, his reddened, irritated nares, and the slight sheen to his forehead. I listened closely to his cough, to observe if it was of a dry, hacking quality or a wet, congested effort; whether it came in short, interrupted bursts or was continuous and drawn-out. I watched to see how quickly he recovered from these coughing spells.
The patient probably thought that I, standing beside his cot with my stethoscope in hand and a smile on my face, was simply waiting for him to finish his coughing and complete his story. And I was. Of course, I was eager to learn of any other input he might share so that we could get him on the right road to recovery. What Mr. Brown didn't probably realize, though, is that as important as his providing a detailed history may be, these obscure observational moments, wordless and symptom-producing, can provide just as much, if not more, information to a treating physician like myself. I, for one, would much rather hear the cough than have a patient struggle in his description of it. Penile discharges, though? That's another story.
Back to Mr. Brown. Even without doing my physical exam, I suspected he might be suffering from a community-acquired pneumonia. "Sir," I said, touching his shoulder, "I'm going to perform a physical exam now." He nodded his consent. Starting with his head and taking my time, I closely looked in both of his ears (clear), his eyes (slightly bloodshot from his coughing spells), his nasal passages (angry red with significant turbinate swelling), and his throat (red, no exudates or swelling, mild anterior lymphadenopathy). His tongue was dry and his breath smelled of neglect, like skipping a brushing.
Moving the exam along nice and smoothly, I next focused on his torso. "Mr. Brown," I said, "we need to remove your gown so I can listen to your heart sounds and auscultate your lungs." Trying to help, I untied his gown's back tie while he untied his neck. Slowly, he pulled off his gown, somewhat hesitantly. And after he did, I understood his reluctance.
His entire anterior torso, extending from his left shoulder to his chest to his abdomen, was a patchwork of skin-grafting. Thin, transparent, papery patches of transposed skin were bordered by longitudinal, thickened keloid scars. Some of the patches were less transparent and more natural-appearing, some of the scars less protruding and more flesh-colored, but it was obvious that multiple skin-grafts from multiple body sites had been a necessary, life-saving event at some point in Mr. Brown's life.
"I know, I know," he said, watching my eyes closely absorb the view of his torso. "I never remember to mention these skin grafts. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess." He was almost too blase, leading me to believe that these physical scars walked hand-in-hand with his mental scars.
"May I ask what happened, Mr. Brown?"
"It happened when I was young, in elementary school. Believe it or not, I had been playing with matches. No, not on the playground," he chuckled here, "but in my backyard. All I really remember is my shirt catching on fire, a lot of pain, the smell of my skin burning, and then my mother's screaming." He coughed a few times, his face mildly grimacing with the effort.
"I'm so sorry, sir," I said sincerely. Imagine spending a large chunk of your childhood undergoing multiple reconstruction surgeries, missing school and losing friends, at a time when those things matter, in the process. Being treated differently than the healthy kid standing next to you. Not to mention the constant pain. And feelings of lessened-worth. Too many doctors appointments, no sports, lots of dressings. I was letting my mind race in that brief minute.
I looked more closely at this patient. Everything had seemed to change after seeing what was underneath his gown. And now I understood his symptoms even better.
"Sir," I said, "do these scars restrict you when you need to take a really deep breath?" He nodded "yes." I continued. "And do you get a lot of pain from these scars with your coughing spells?" "Doc," the man smiled, "I think you get it. It's been pretty hard with the colds this year, but these scars sure don't make recovering any easier."
I did get it. Because of his torso scars, his thorax, when stressed with illness, couldn't expand as easily as yours or mine. His fibrous scars and skin-grafting, lacking pliancy, prevented him from taking as full a breath as necessary. Kind of similar to being wrapped and squeezed by an anaconda, I would imagine. His work effort, thus, was increased. And not exchanging air in the depths of his lungs, because of this momentous effort needed, would set him up to acquire pneumonia.
Not only this, but now I understood why he probably put a lot of effort and time into staying in decent physical shape. "If I put on even ten pounds," he told me, rubbing the scar tissue around his umbilicus, "I start to hurt right here, from the outward pressure. It seems any weight I gain goes right to my stomach, of course, and not my ass or legs. Hell, I'd even take a double chin. So I really have to be careful with my diet and exercise unless I want to have constant pain." Talk about the pressure of eating right and hitting the gym.
Me? I work out just so I will always look better than my brothers. There is a lot of pressure being the best-looking boy in the family. Clearly, he had better reasons than me to visit the gym.
After finishing Mr. Brown's exam, we got an x-ray, some baseline blood work, and an EKG. His WBC count was slightly elevated, going hand-in-hand with a very early consolidated pneumonia viewed on x-ray. We took no chances--he was placed on a strong antibiotic, given albuterol and atrovent nebulizer treatments and a machine to do the same at home, and, probably most important, he was given a strong cough syrup with hydrocodone to ease the stress that his cough was bringing. He was quite appreciative upon his discharge, his cough lessened and his breathing a little easier.
"Thanks, Doc," he said, after he was dressed, "this was a good visit."
Meeting Mr. Brown initially, everything was just as I had expected. Until we removed his gown. And then, I saw what was underneath--the physical limitations of his body during a time of illness. And underneath this, I was fortunate to learn of his hidden strengths and stoic fortitude that his life experiences taught him. He seemed the better man for it.
I gave this some thought, about how much we all have in common with Mr. Brown. How we show the world what we think they want to see. But underneath, don't we all have something we are hiding, just like Mr. Brown? Something that may even be limiting our full potential? May it be physical. May it be mental. May it be both. More importantly, underneath, buried in doubts, don't we all have more good that we can give this world of ours? If we just get over our fear of showing... What. Lies. Underneath.
Mr. Brown, thank you for trusting me to show me your underneath. It made a difference.
As always, big thanks for reading. I hope this finds you having a good week...