The Color of Courage

In the small town Emergency Department where I do my clinical hours, we see a lot of hurting people.

By definition, an emergency room is the go-to place for patients with lacerations, who just had a fender-bender on the icy streets and need an x-ray to make sure there’s no serious injury, or the endless stream of parents of kids with earaches and croupy coughs.

But there’s also the tougher cases. Not medically tough. But
emotionally tough.

The addicts hoping that their story this time will result in a prescription for narcotics. The person with mental health issues that we really don’t have a solution for. The homeless person who just really wishes they could get a warm shower and a safe place to sleep for a single night, but doesn’t have anything physically wrong to justify an admission.

Sometimes, its those emotionally tough cases where I learn the most. About the sort of doctor I choose to be. About how to listen with compassion. And even how to get along with medical professionals who have a very different view of respect than I do.

I’ll call him Sam. We were handed a thick stack of paperwork that showed all the different times Sam had been in area Emergency Departments in the last while. Four times in just the last month.

Sam is a heroin addict. And people like Sam seem to spark some of the most unprofessional attitudes I ever see in the field of medicine.

Sam was in pain. Sam thought he had a deep muscle abscess in his left shoulder, because it felt as awful as his right shoulder had felt recently when he’d required surgery to drain a seriously infected abscess caused by shooting drugs deep into  his muscles.

I watched as my mentor listened intensely, respectfully, while Sam explained where he hurt.  I watched him order tests, then go back and have a conversation with Sam about the results (thankfully not yet showing a deep infection).

Then I was amazed as Sam said, “So doc, can you prescribe xxx for me? I really want to kick. I really want to get clean. I’ve done it before, I know I relapsed, but I really want to do it right this time. Can you help me?”

And without a hint of judgment or condescension, my mentor immediately replied, “Yes, I can do that for you.”

Sure, Sam might not make it. He may change his mind ten minutes after he walks out of our Emergency Department. But for that moment, Sam was heard, he was treated with respect owed to every human being, and he was given hope.

And that’s just one of many reasons I love medicine, and is a picture of the sort of doctor I hope to be.

If you’re hurting, reach out. Some of us care. Deeply. And are willing to act.

If someone reaches out to you when they are hurting, hear them. Listen intently. And always offer hope.