I have posted several complaints about my job, so I thought I’d post a story about why it’s such a cool job after all…
Friday afternoon, I’d wrapped up with my last patient and was looking around to see what else needed doing. A colleague had one of my patients on his schedule (I’d been full up); I was finished with my schedule, so I offered to see her.
So… the patient is an elderly lady that I had seen only once before. The previous visit had been difficult in a heart-rending way – she was deaf, with no hearing aids. Her cataracts make it difficult for her to see with any precision so she can’t really read lips or make out hand-written questions. Further, she seemed determined to conceal her disabilities, so she’d smile, nod, and make agreeable noises in response if anyone spoke to her. Effectively, then, it was impossible to get any information from her about her own health. Her son, who is her caretaker, wasn’t a lot of help – he works long hours so only sees her a couple hours a day.
So amid her attempts to be congenial (patting my knee and saying “I think you’re a sweet person, I really do!”), I practiced my best veterinary medicine, and told the son firmly that he needed to get her a hearing aid. We agreed to meet up again in a few weeks.
Then she developed a nasty bronchitis, and there were several phone calls from the panicked son, unsure whether Mom was delirious or just confused… which led to this follow-up visit.
The good news was that her bronchitis seemed to have resolved, so the main reason for the visit was moot. In addition, I saw a lovely hearing aid poking out of her right ear, giving me hope that she’d be able to participate a bit more in this visit. No such luck. Shouting into the hearing aid didn’t seem to be working – she still gave vague, senseless responses.
So I went about looking her over to be sure the infection was truly gone. Thumped her chest, listened to her lungs, peered into her mouth and nose and the left ear. Then popped out the hearing aid from the right ear, and peered in to see a monumental wall o’ earwax.
Popped the hearing aid back in, put my mouth next to her ear, and hollered “Do you mind if I clean out your ear?”
She nodded politely and smiled.
Unconvinced, I tried again “Your EAR needs CLEANING. Want us to CLEAN it?”
She popped out the hearing aid and handed it to me with a smile, saying “well, they just cleaned it but if you think it’ll help…”
I took it, popped it back in her ear, and tried once more. “Your EAR. I want to clean your EAR!”
She gave a baffled smile and said “Whatever you want, doctor.”
With that dubious consent, we popped the hearing aid back out again and dropped in some wax-softening solution. I went off to take care of other things while my assistant did the irrigation.
When I came back to the room, there she sat, still smiling. I didn’t see the hearing aid anywhere. I asked where it was and got the same blank smile. I looked around for the hearing aid; seeing that I was looking for something, she helpfully started patting her lap and moving things around as if she was looking too – which might have been helpful if she’d any idea what we were looking for. Eventually we found the thing by frisking her pockets. I popped the thing back in, cranked the volume a bit, and said in a normal voice “OK, how’s that?”
The most amazing expression of wonder crossed her face. She looked me full in the face and said in a crisp, precise voice “That’s wonderful!”
Then we had a pleasant conversation with her son (who’d managed to mysteriously disappear for the ear-cleaning ritual then return just in time for the moment of discovery) about scheduling her for cataract surgery. She followed the conversation with delight, participated appropriately, and glowed with joy – until that day, she hadn’t realized that there would be a way to get both hearing and sight back, so she’d been resigned to living out the rest of her life in silent, blurry isolation.
When I helped her to her feet so they could leave, she abruptly threw her arms around me and said “You’re beautiful, you are!” I returned her hug and told her to tell me that when her eyes were fixed, and she laughed all the way to the door.