He was a good-looking guy, my next patient. Even before walking into his treatment room to introduce myself, I had overheard the nurses talking about him in their nursing station. "Did you see those brown eyes of his?" his primary nurse said. "And that hair," added a tech, "so wavy and thick." "I like his smile," added a second nurse, one who had helped settle this patient after he arrived by ambulance. I could only have imagined the argument between the nurses as to who would get to be this patient's primary nurse. I had no doubt that lots of pillow fluffing, extra blankets, repeated exams and vitals, and a turkey sandwich were all in his future.
The aggressive, single, newly-graduated nurse won out. Secretly, I had my money on her.
I walked into the room to find a gentleman in his mid-twenties, sitting upright in his cot, in a properly worn hospital gown (I had no doubt the nurse helped him put it on correctly). He seemed tall, six-foot maybe, and weighed around a buck eighty. He was thick-shouldered and clean-cut, in good shape, his brown hair appearing recently-cut. He was modern and hip--tattoos poking out from the sleeves of his gown.
The nurses were right, of course, he was a good-looking guy. In fact, I would have even agreed with their assessment that this patient could have modeled at one point. More for Land's End or Eddie Bauer, though. He would have had to imbibe in plain chicken breasts and no carbs for months to make it into a Hollister or American Eagle ad.
Good-looking or not, this patient was in our ER to be treated. And doing a quick, cursory once-over, I could tell that all was not right. This patient's brown eyes were dilated, tracking my every move, his deer-in-the-headlights glances matching his nervousness. He was breathing rapidly as well, fidgeting with the pulse-ox monitor clipped to his finger. Before I could approach him and introduce myself, his anxiety was revealed in his rapid-fire speaking. "Are you the doctor," he blurted out. "Yes, sir," I answered, "I am your doctor today. I'm Dr. Jim."
He paused to take me in, looking me up-and-down. I remained quiet during his assessment of me. Finally he spoke. "Do you work out?" Of all the questions and comments I was prepared for, this one surprised me. "Yes, sir, I work out. You, too, I take it?" He nodded his head yes. Obviously, physical appearances meant something to this patient.
I decided to gain control of this interview. "Mr. Nalstead," I asked, "what brought you to our ER today. What can we do to help you?"
"I think I'm having a heart attack, Doc."
"Why do you think that?" I asked him. "Are you having chest pain?" He certainly didn't come across as a patient at risk of having a heart attack.
"No," he answered, "but I'm having a hard time breathing. And sometimes I get palpitations, like my heart is going to pound out of my chest."
I reviewed his cardiac risk factors with him. The patient admitted to smoking and his father was being treated for hypertension but never had a heart attack, himself. "What are you doing when you develop this 'hard time breathing?'" I asked him.
"Usually I'm just sitting, Doc, and thinking." "About?" I asked. He continued. "About my kids." "How many do you have?" I asked, guessing, from his age, one or two. "Three," he answered. I wasn't too far off.
"How old are they?" I continued, interested now in his social history. And although it is hard, after working in the ER for so many years, to catch me off-guard, this patient's answer did.
"They are 22 months, 19 months, and 16 months." He paused, staring at me, waiting to see what my reaction would be. I wore my poker face, though. I'm sure he was anticipating what my next question would be. I was no Ob/Gyn, but even I could figure out that this scenario was not possible with just one mother, one woman.
After asking him, he admitted to me that "I had gone through a pretty rough period, yeah." He had three children to three women. In a remarkably short period of time. Currently, none of the three mothers of his children would let him see his kids. Whenever he thought about his kids and his lack of involvement in their lives, he started the rapid breathing, the nervous tremor, and the heart palpitations. Raising my suspicions for an anxiety disorder.
I dug deeper. As it turns out, this patient had had a pretty miserable childhood. A piss-poor father-figure. A mother who cut him down repeatedly. Alcohol and drugs since his early teens. Prison time. Although he denied any recent alcohol or drug abuse to me, I suspected he was teetering on using again. It was a vicious cycle that needed to be broken. And he knew it.
After doing some baseline tests to make sure he was clinically sound, I sat back down with him. His testing results, I assured him, were excellent. "So you don't think I'm having a heart attack, Doc?" he asked me. "I'm sure," I reassured him. We talked a little further about how he had to break his cycle of behavior, though. "You have to," I repeated, sternly, "if not for you, then, for those three little kids out there in our community who don't know their father's love." My words must have gotten to him--I saw the glistening brown eyes well-up before tears spilled onto his cheeks.
We offered him counseling. He took it. We offered him a follow-up appointment with a family doctor who was accepting patients. He took it. I offered him a short-term prescription for a few anxiolytics. Six pills. He took it. He asked me about my social life--and I shared with him that I was married with three kids. "Are they fun?" he asked. I simply nodded my head "yes." In my mind, though, I imagined my life without my kids, a thought that made me shudder.
The patient stared me in the eyes. "I want to do this, Doc. I want to be a good father to my kids." By all appearances, he appeared sincere in wanting to break the cycle he was caught up in. I could only hope.
I left his room, after my last recheck, thinking about all of this patient's problems, problems that were buried deep below a good-looking exterior. On the inside. Hidden from anyone who didn't take the time to uncover the true essence of his person. An exterior that didn't match our society's standards of what we suppose a good-looking person has within them. After all, if a woman is beautiful or a man is good-looking, why would they have any internal turmoil? Why would we think anything but their outer beauty would be matched by their inner beauty? What do they have to be upset about? How could they have any problems?
It goes back to the common thought--physical beauty is temporary, spiritual beauty remains forever. We are all guilty of judging a book by its cover, aren't we? I know I am, despite my awareness of trying not to. However, I have learned, with time, that I find much more pleasure from a book by opening it. Pretty, pretty cover, maybe. But what are the words saying inside?
Thankfully, this patient reminded me that, yeah, I am in my mid-forties, and my body and looks might be fading a bit (some characters in my life would probably argue more than "a bit"), but I have inner peace. I am loved. I give love. If you make me look like an ogre, but guarantee me my love and inner peace, I will take that deal and run with it.
I walked back to my desk. His primary nurse approached me. "Hey," she said, "is it okay if I discharge Mr. Nalstead?" I nodded my head "yes" to her, adding "He is a pretty nice guy, isn't he? I hope he can turn his life around."
She looked at me like I was crazy. "Are you kidding," she said, "he has been in jail and has three kids to three different women! I'm not up for instant motherhood!" She chuckled at her words. I was surprised, this response coming from her, when just a few hours prior she had been thinking this guy was the most glorious specimen to come from the human race.
Scratch below the surface...
As always, big thanks for reading. And a big thank you for your patience with my frequency of posting...