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To the bedside manner born


A month ago, a pulmonary embolism put me in UNC hospital for a week. In my supine journey from the emergency room to ICU to Critical Care to what is known as The Floor, I encountered a diversity of doctors. Every morning a pack of them gathered at the foot of my bed, the specialist silently presiding, the residents questioning and explaining, the students staring. They seemed disconcerted when I commented on my treatment and asked questions of my own, but they always answered with respect.

In the ICU, I privately dubbed the two specialists Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They were always together and spoke in turn. After a night made hellish by a stress-induced attack of cystitis, Dr. Dum entered my room, remarking to Dr. Dee: "She had a very good night."

"Excuse me," I said. "She is in the room, and she had a bloody awful night." I then described the combination of criminal indifference and bureaucratic chaos that had turned an easily treated infection into 18 hours of unnecessary agony.

Dr. Dee apologized, but Dr. Dum said defensively, "I was only referring to your cardio-pulmonary condition." This tendency to view a patient as a featureless collection of organs was characteristic of most of the specialists I met. But not true of Dr. Pomp.

On my second day on The Floor, a tweedy, middle-aged man strode in, leaned against the sink, folded his arms and began asking questions. He wore neither white coat nor name tag, so thinking he might be a wandering lunatic, I said, "And who are you?"

"I am Dr. Pomp," he said, "the pulmonary specialist." He proceeded to interview me, not about medical matters, but about my life, my work and my education, which seemed to puzzle him. I told him I had always hated school, and that I was mostly self-educated by omnivorous reading and an insatiable curiosity. We argued amicably about this.

"It isn't that you hate school," he said, "but that you never found the right one." Clearly, to a man who had spent half his life studying, my eclectic approach to education was troubling.

It cheered me greatly that even in my St. Sebastian-like state, pierced by IV needles and bound by blood pressure cuffs, this odd, gentle man treated me as though I still had my wits and the ability to use them.

Drs. Dee and Dum could learn a lot from Dr. Pomp. While they are probably good technicians, he has the ability to see people whole.

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