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I want to see a real doctor!

At 10:15 am Louisa and her husband sat at the waiting room of the GP practice. When I called her surname, I noticed some sign of relief . The couple stood up and followed me into my consultation room. I sat behind my desk and motioned them to enter. After an awkward pause I gestured for the husband to sit opposite me, his wife Louisa then pulled the chair adjacent to my desk and sat down. I looked at her and asked

“Hello Louisa, how can I help you?” 

“Well doctor that is why we are here, she can’t sleep, she needs something to get her to sleep. She wakes up 2 or 3 times a night screaming, having nightmares”. Her husband answered. 

I continued to look at Louisa, she had her arms crossed in front of her, her right fingers plucking the short-sleeves of her beige cardigan, I turned my gaze away from her towards her husband, he was a slender man and when he spoke, a shiny gold tooth of his right upper incisor was visible. I looked at Louisa.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” I asked 

“Her father died 2 weeks ago, she hasn’t slept since, I am concerned that she is going to collapse, she can’t go on like this, that is why we are here so she can sleep” continued her husband. Louisa looked at me then glanced towards the floor. I lowered my head slightly in order to make eye contact with her. 

“I am sorry about the loss of your father. What is an unexpected passing?” I asked 

“No, it wasn’t really unexpected, we knew he was ill, but we did not know it was going to go so quickly” her husband replied. He looked at her.

“I am sorry about that, so I understand you are not sleeping well and having nightmares, could this be part of grief you are experiencing?” 

“I don’t know… that is why we are here, we are not doctors, she needs to sleep, soon she’ll collapse on the floor as well and that can’t happen” exclaimed her husband, his voice slightly raised.

She straightened her back and sat upright, brushed her brow and flicked a stray strand of hair away from her eyes, her hair was pulled tightly behind her. For the next 20 minutes I tried to get to the reason they came and what it is they wanted me to do. This is what I am taught during my general practitioner training. Get the patient to state something along the line of “ the reason I am here doctor is for….” In reality that hardly ever happens. In fact it takes verbal skills and intellectual acrobatic abilities to get patients to talk about the real reason they come to see their GP. 

Today the consultation took various turns, at a certain point I felt I had some control. I spoke about her father and tried to know how he died. Louisa showed feelings as her eyes started to swell with tears. I handed her a box of tissues on my desk. It was placed there 3 weeks ago by my assistant and it dawned on me at that moment that it had not yet been used. The soft top tissue was still flat inside the package. And as Louisa plucked one out, 2 tissues stood erect and the package looked more like a box of tissues. She sat there and wiped her eyes.

“I can see that it is hard for you to talk about your emotions, am I safe to say that you may even bottle them up?” I asked 

She nodded and even smiled briefly back at me.

“It may help to talk to someone about your emotions… We have a nurse practitioner who specialises in talking about things like sadness and grief. We can discuss if this is an option for you at a later point, but from what I understand now, you are not able to sleep, you want to get some rest and you would like some help, in the form of tablets?” 

“I never mentioned tablets or pills! are you even listening?” inflicted the husband. I remained silent. He leaned forward and put his left hand on the desk looked at me and said

“Are you new? You’re here for a short period of time right?” 

I nodded, he then said something I could have predicted

“I want to speak to our real doctor…uhm you know doctor, what’s her name?”

I glanced at the computer screen and recognized the initials NP next to Louisa’s name, the initials of their “real doctor”.

“Nathalie Peters, doctor Peters” I replied.

“Yes, doctor Peters. We want to see her”

“That is fine, that is not a problem at all. I would like to know if I can hear this from Louisa too”. I turned towards her and said “I have asked quite a few questions to better understand the situation, and I would really like to hear some of them from you, could you tell me?”

“What he says…, it’s what he says”. She gestured to him whilst he leaned back in his chair he looked at me and said

“Look, we want to make sure that she does not have cancer, is there like a check-up, or blood tests she can do to catch the disease in advance?” 

“I see, did your father die of cancer?” I asked Louisa.

“Yes, he did, lung cancer, it was everywhere in his body, even her sister a few years ago, she too died of numerous cancers in her body” replied the husband.

“I am really sorry to hear this Louisa, the passing of two family members to cancer is terrible. From what I understand your father died of lung cancer and your sister of breast cancer…”

“See you don’t listen, did I say breast cancer? you are not listening! I said she died of lung cancer and it was all over her body”.  Replied the husband, he leaned forward again, but this time he did not put his hand on the table. There was another silence. I glanced at Louisa, who sat there with her hands folded in front of her, she was rolling the moist tissue in her right hand as if it should suddenly evaporate.

“Yes, you are right, I made a mistake, I am sorry, I assumed it was breast cancer because you mentioned she had it in her body, which I took to be metastasis…”

“Yeah that is what you keep doing, first you assume she needs pills to help her sleep, now you assume her sister has breast cancer, you are not listening”. He glared at me

I knew I messed up. I was 40 minutes behind schedule. I needed to gain back control of this situation. I gestured to Louisa to walk to the examination table, I wanted to examine her to make sure we ‘don’t miss anything’. 

On a normal day, a general physical examination usually takes me about 2 minutes, from the time I put the blood pressure manchet around the patient’s arm, secure the oximeter on a finger to the time I auscultate heart, lungs, palpate the abdomen to feel for tenderness or swelling. If I do an extended examination that includes a neurological one then it could take me another 2 minutes. But with Louisa, my general physical examination took much longer. I unfolded the blood pressure meter from the black bag it stays secure in, took out the manchet and gently placed it around her right upper arm. I then took the oximeter and asked her to show me her left index finger. I secured the oximeter on the finger and pushed the on button. I turned back to the blood pressure meter and inflated it, collapsing the brachial artery that goes under the cubital fossa of her elbow.  Normally I do not visualise the full anatomy of the vessels and muscles during a physical examination, I do it automatically. In this particular situation,  I needed time to repair the mis-communication between Louisa, her husband and me. I released the cuff to deflate it and waited for the first ‘dub dub’ as the brachial artery was released. Her blood pressure was fine, but I decided to redo it again, just to make sure.

“130 over 60. Your blood pressure is perfect” I said.

I leaned over to the oximeter on her left index finger and read out “pulse 86 and 98 percent oxygen your heart beat and the oxygen level in your blood are also normal”. 

Then I auscultated her lungs followed by her heart whilst she sat upright. I asked her to lay back down and felt her tummy, pressed in all four quadrants, she said she did not feel any pain and I was delighted. I also checked her neck and upper shoulders for any swollen glands. There were none. Whilst I performed her physical examination, two thoughts came to my mind. Did I want to repair this relationship, absolutely. Did I want to scream at her husband and tell him to get out of my office because in fact I was talking to Louisa…absolutely! The latter was obviously not something to even contemplate, but I think I would have felt good if I could do that. I realised that in order to get the trust back, I had to go through her husband. I turned to Louisa and said

“Louisa, I have examined you and can say that I am not able to find anything serious at the moment. That is not to say that there are no other examinations we can do to rule out underlying diseases. Before I continue, I just want to say that I hope I am not giving you the impression that I am not listening. I am here to listen, that is my job. I also want you to know that I understand your concerns. You have lost two very important people in your life, they died of cancer. You came here today with your husband to find out if there are any check-ups that can be done to catch cancer early. Before you go down that route, it is important to ask more questions and discuss which type of tests need to be done. Dr Peters is coming back next week. How about I schedule an appointment with you and her for 20 minutes? In the meantime I suggest that you, Louisa, keep a diary of what is going on. It may help you and doctor Peters look for patterns and decide on the next steps to take. And as for the nurse practitioner who specialises in dealing with sadness and grief, let me book an appointment with her on the same day as doctor Peters, that way you won’t need to come back twice. Does that work for you?” I quickly looked at her husband, he replied

“Yes, it does, and if the conversation with the psychology nurse doesn’t go well, you don’t have to go back ok” he said as he looked at his wife. Louisa nodded, took her phone from her bag and typed the date and time of both appointments. She asked me for the name of the psychology nurse practitioner.

“Her name is Melissa” I said. Her husband got up and started walking towards the door.

“What about your sleep, Louisa, do you need something for that? I know I mentioned pills earlier on, what would you like for your sleep issue?” I asked. 

“Can she have tablets then doctor, would that not make her addicted to them, she needs to work again soon you know. She’s been at home for 2 weeks, not able to work and having to deal with her father’s house and moving things, she is so weak and tired. She can’t go on like this, she needs to get back to work. We need food on the table” exclaimed her husband.

“Yes, I can prescribe her 5 tablets of temazepam, which she can take at night”

“Will that make me sleep?” asked Louisa

“Yes, you will be able to sleep and get the rest you need. And no, you will not get addicted, that is why I am prescribing only 5 tablets” 

“Thank you doctor, that would be great, I will try them” she answered

“No problem, again I am sorry for your loss and if anything changes in your health between now and your appointment with doctor Peters, let us know ok.”

“Yes, I will” she smiled and walked towards her husband who stood already by the door.

The couple left, I slumped back in my seat, and looked at the computer screen. It was 11:30 am and there were 4 patients waiting to be seen before my lunch break at 13:00 pm.