Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Not Working

She was the wife of the patient in Room 24, a gentleman in his early sixties seeking treatment for his abdominal pain. She was of slight stature, barely over five feet tall. Her hair, straight and gray and hanging to her shoulders, was tucked behind her ears. The lenses of her glasses were thick, the type that disproportionately magnify the eyes and give them a non-human appearance. Her thin, gold-wired frames seemed to sag from their weight. Between the constant retucking of her hair behind her ears and the adjusting of her glasses, with her right index finger, on her nasal bridge, this woman came across as quite fidgety.

Although I wasn't treating her husband, I was sitting in my hallway seat just between Room 24 and the nurses' station and had heard the nurse mention the "nervous Nellie" wife of the patient in Room 24.

That was the understatement of the year.

I had first noticed her as she walked out of her husband's treatment room and approached the station. "Excuse me," she said to the unit secretary in a soft, feebly voice, "but can someone help me?" "Sure, maam," the secretary answered, "what can we do for you?"

As she spoke, the wife picked some lint off her craft-store sweater, doctored up with sewn-on pom-poms. "Well," she said, "the monitor keeps beeping in my husband's room."

"Okay, maam," the secretary said, "I'll send someone right in." As the woman turned and walked back into the room, the secretary paged Liz, the nurse for Room 24, who, after examining the monitor, found it to be working just fine.

A few minutes later, as I was hunched over a chart while writing on it, I heard someone clear their throat. I looked up to find the patient's wife, moving in to take ownership of my personal space. "Can I help you, maam?" I asked, amused. "Well, yes," she said, again with a crackling, muted voice, "my husband's phone in his room isn't working."

"Oh," I explained, "you just need to dial "9" first and that will give you an outside line." She nodded as I continued. "Do you need to make a call, maam?" "Well, actually, no," she said, hesitantly, "I just want to make sure it's working in case there is an emergency with my husband. You can never be too prepared."

She didn't strike me as the boy scout type.

I gave her a smile before standing to go meet my next patient. She turned and walked away from me, heading back into Room 24. After finishing with the new patient several minutes later, I returned to sit at my computer, only to find Liz shaking her head in frustration. "What's the matter, Liz?" I asked, quite sure that I would know the answer. "Are you having one of those days?"

"That wife is going to be the death of me," she chuckled, good-naturedly. "She just came out and said our counter drawers are broken because when she opened them to see what was inside, they wouldn't 'close right'." It turns out that a safety-latch had caught that prevented the drawers from closing. "What's she doing going through our drawers, anyway?" Liz added.

Well, unfortunate for us, this woman was just getting warmed up. Soon, and in no particular order, she came out to request an extra pillow for her husband (an impossible task in our ER). "Oh," she added a minute later when she came back out, "and another warm blanket, too." She requested coffee for herself. "And a more comfortable chair if you have one." A few minutes later and she was back. "Do you know that the waste basket is almost full and will probably need emptied? Oh, and that red container on the wall looks like it's filled with needles."

Seriously, she had an endless list of issues that soon became quite comical to us, the staff.

"Shouldn't my husband's IV be dripping faster?"
"Do you have an extra pair of those slippers that I can take home?"
"When's the last time someone washed the room's curtain?"
"Can someone look at the mole on my husband's back as long as he's here?"
"Was that a helicopter I heard outside?"
"Do you think we'll be home before Jeopardy starts at 7:30?"
"Are you sure you set the wheel-brakes on the cot (they were)?"
"I think one of the fluorescent bulbs is burned out in the ceiling (it wasn't)."
"The blood pressure cuff is broken, I can't get it to inflate on my arm."

"Your ER still validates parking vouchers, right?"

I found her initiative and gumption to be refreshing. And funny. It was easy for me to be amused by the ongoing antics since I wasn't the one in this woman's line of fire. That would be Liz, who appeared less and less amused with each new request or complaint.

Although this woman consumed much of our energy, we recognized that she was harmless. At one point, the staff pulled the curtains shut and slid the glass doors to the room closed, trying in vain to contain this woman and her nervousness. But slowly, as we all watched closely, she eased the curtain open about two feet, with the utmost caution and silence, before she slid the glass doors open enough for her to poke her head out, looking up the hallway and looking down the hallway, making sure she wasn't missing anything.

Finally, with about twenty minutes left to my shift, this woman approached the nurses' station yet again. "She's coming, she's coming," I heard the secretary hiss to everyone. Suddenly, everyone gave the appearance they were deeply immersed in charting about the many patients they had single-handedly saved that day in the ER. All but me, that is. I wasn't lucky to be holding a chart at the time.

The woman cleared her throat. "Hmmm, hmmm." "Yes, maam," I asked, "may I help you?"

"Yes, you can. I just used that bathroom right there (she pointed to one of our public restrooms just three doors down from her husband's room) and I don't think the motion-control sensor on the paper towel dispenser is working--it only gave me one piece of paper to dry off with."

"Well," I said, the others glancing at us from their eyes' corners to see if I would address this woman's issues or turf them, "how about we go take a look." She couldn't hurt me now that I only had 15 or so minutes left to my shift.

"And you are sure it didn't work?" I asked her as we walked the short distance to the bathroom. "Nope, I'm sure." "And you just used the bathroom right now? Or earlier today?" I asked her, trying to keep her talking and not complaining. "Oh," she answered, "just right now. I came straight to the station to tell you all about it."

We came to the bathroom door, which was loosely shut. We knocked to make sure it was empty. It was. I went in first, opening the door while I flicked on the lights. I took two steps into the bathroom before it hit me.

The smell, that is. It smacked me right in the face. The bathroom utterly stunk in the most primitive, disgusting, and vile way possible. And trust me, those of us who work in the ER are intimately familiar with stink. It has to be something impressive to rile us up.

While I was trying not to vomit in my mouth, the woman spoke. "See, right there," she said, pointing to the motion-controlled paper-towel dispenser, "I couldn't get more than one piece out of that thing." How, I had wondered to myself, was she even able to take a breath in while this fog of stink gripped my neck, suffocating me?

I moved quickly now, my life goal dramatically reduced to making sure the motion-sensor worked before I dropped to the floor and seized, my body's attempt at violently shaking any trace of this stench from my being. At the paper-towel dispenser, I waved my hand three different times in front of the sensor and, each time, a healthy piece of paper towel came out. "Well," said the woman, "I'll be. It does work!" Like a fireman leading a victim from a burning building, I grabbed this woman's hand and pulled her from the bathroom into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind us.

"Are you okay, sir?" she asked me as I bent over to take a deep breath. "I will be," I said dramatically, which was lost on her. I continued. "You said you just used that room, as in just right now." She nodded yes. Why on earth couldn't she have waited ten minutes before coming to us with this complaint?

"Okay, maam," I said, escorting her back to Room 24, "I know you have come out to the nurses' station several times for help, but go ahead and relax in the room a bit with your husband. I'm sure he will be going home shortly."

This was the last I saw of that woman before I left my ER shift (running out the door), eager to get home to change my clothes. I had told Liz exactly what had gone on in that bathroom. "I swear, that woman must have dropped a deuce to shame all deuces," I said. "That little, frail woman?" Liz asked in disbelief. "And she didn't smell it?" "Not once," I said, incredulous, "did she act like she smelled it or was embarrassed by the stench." "Amazing," Liz muttered, stifling her laughter, "she complained this entire visit and then led you to a bathroom she was responsible for smelling up. She had to have known..."

I drove home in my car thinking about this wife. I had, at one point wanted to meet the husband, to see what kind of guy this woman was married to. But, in my haste to leave the ER, I had abandoned that venture.

Since this wife had been very critical of our ER, though, I think it's only fair that I give a little critique of my own.

1. This wife's olfactory senses, well, they ain't workin'.
2. This wife's bowels, well, they are working just fine. Trust me.
3. And finally, if you ever need a bathroom's motion-sensor checked, do not, and I repeat, do not come looking for me. I'm retired.

As always, big thanks for reading. I hope everyone had a great weekend. To the commenters on Bald Is Beautiful, thank you for sharing your stories. I'll see you Wednesday, July 28th. Emma update--she is home and safe and slept 16 straight hours, a house record! Our circle is complete again. Thank you all for your prayers and well-wishes!


Leslie said...

Oh my stars! Dr. Jim, your posts really need some kind of warning on them! I'm at work, which for me means I'm sitting in a hallway surrounded by sleeping teenage boys...I was laughing so hard at your post, I thought I was going to wake them!!!

Because you always manage to make me laugh out loud, or cry...In the future, I think I better discipline myself to only read your posts when I am alone!

Thanks for the laugh though, I needed fact I think I'll read it again, LOL!

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

morning doc! and people think medicine is a glamorous job! ha ha ha ha (sorry, couldn't help myself!) too funny, this post. glad your daughter is home safe and sound and that she had the opportunity!

smiles, bee

Sara said...

Did you check the toilet? It occurs to me that she may have been in such a hurry to alert you to the deficiency of the motion sensor that she may have neglected to flush. As the proud parent of a forgetful four year old, I am qualified to state that the tiniest turd will generate the most awful stink if it's left to swim around for a few minutes.

As for her lack of response, well that is simply because she's a woman. Women tend to take the "what? where? not me!" approach to all bodily stenches.

Chrysalis said...

Glad to read your family is all together again. :)

911RN said...

Dr Jim,

Hilarious- never expected this story to take this turn. Complete surprise.

Glad Emma is home safe, sound and well rested, now. Glad you have your million dollars back:)

kate sweeten said...

I work in a doctor's office that sits in the middle of a very large, very busy hospital...the sheer number of people that come into our office for the sole purpose of going to the bathroom is mind-boggling. Even worse? The smell! Oh, GOD, the smell...there are literally hundreds of public bathrooms scattered around this building, but for some reason, people seem drawn to the idea of taking horrible, horrible craps in the bathroom RIGHT NEXT to my desk.

If it weren't for all of the cans of air freshening spray stashed around here, I probably would've dropped dead by now.

Katie Axelson said...

Now, I've had trouble with paper towel dispensers AND I've had trouble with the smell behind me in the bathroom but never in the same day. :-) How on earth did you have the patience to deal with her? I might have ripped of her head.

Glad to hear Emma's home safely.

<>< Katie

Katie Axelson said...

By the way, both of my sisters and I felt the need to stink up the bathroom yesterday, so if you need a gas mask and some Oust, ours is handy. :-)

<>< K

Kate said...


Have Myelin? said...

you made me laugh! =) thanks!

Old Doc said...

She might have early Alzheimers - loss of sense of smell is an early sign of AD often not identified until other symptoms present years later. Her 'anxiety' may well be a behavioural manifestation of early AD. Other neurodegenerative conditions can also present like this.
Or she just might always have been like this.....!

Ceci said...

How funny! Dr. Jim you have an amazing capability to describe your experiences, its awesome! A little gross nonetheless but at least you know she washed her hands!

Clueless said...

I love your descriptions. As the story opened, I really was reminded how much I enjoy reading you. Never did I expect such an ending though! I'm still laughing at your misfortune.

CharityVL said...

I HATE public restrooms. Oh, gag! And here I thought my 4 children tried my patience in a major way!

The Hopeful Elephant said...

Don't ya just love 'em!

Maybe her cooking was what made the husband sick to begin with...because that is the only thing that could create such a stench. ;)

Glad the circle is complete again. YAY!

kristi said...

OMG, that is nasty!!!

Karen said...

Haha... you get all kinds going through that ER, don't you?

SeaSpray said...

Can you imagine LIVING WITH HER?!

Hilarious post!