What Brought You to The Hospital Today?

Hospital corridor like that in blog post of DC widow Marjorie Brimley

In 1971, when my father was a young medical student, he was working with patients at a county hospital in Houston. One day, a woman came in complaining of swollen feet and my dad was in charge of figuring out what was wrong with her.

“So,” my dad began, “what brought you to the hospital today?”

The woman looked right at him and said, “the bus.”

She was not trying to be a smart-ass. She was merely answering my dad’s question. So he tried again. “Well, why did you come to the hospital?”

“My feet are swollen,” she said.

“Any other problems?” he asked.

“Nope,” she replied.

He was a new medical student, but he knew there must be other issues. So, he turned to his textbooks and spent hours looking up all of the reasons that feet can swell. Then he went back to the woman. “Have you been short of breath?” he asked.

“Yes!” she said.

“Do you have a cough?” he asked.

“Yes!” she said.

“Do you have to sleep sitting up? he asked.

“Yes!” she said.

It was then that my dad knew that the woman had heart failure. So he asked her, “have you ever been treated for heart failure?”

“Yes!” she said.

Eventually, as he asked more and more questions about her medical history, my dad found out that the woman had a host of other problems. She was not forthcoming with any of her answers, but when he asked the right questions, he found out critical information that helped him successfully treat her.

It was a good lesson for him as a medical student. The woman had a litany of symptoms. “But,” my dad always says, when he tells this story, “she didn’t tell me any of that when she got to the hospital! She said there was nothing else wrong, but there was!”

Until he asked enough questions, he knew nothing of this woman’s life, except that she had to take the bus to get to the hospital for critical care. He didn’t know her medical history, and moreover, he didn’t know any of her other history either. He didn’t know what job she did or whether she was caring for multiple children on her own or if she was at risk of losing her housing.

All she told him was that her feet were swollen.

My dad told me this story many times growing up. As a child, I thought the moral of the story was that you should tell a doctor everything when you go to the hospital.

But as an adult, I know that’s not really the moral of this story.

I asked my dad about it the other day. “The woman with the swollen feet taught me that I have to ask the right questions,” he said. “I couldn’t just ask ‘what’s wrong’ and then diagnose her. I had to learn how to ask questions as a medical student.”

Because here’s the thing: we don’t know everyone’s story. We can’t.

When I see someone at the grocery store who gruffly and quickly passes me pushing a cart, I might think that person is impolite.

But maybe he’s just lost his job.

When I’m jaywalking a bit, and someone lays on their horn, I might think that person is really uptight.

But maybe her daughter was hit by a car once.

When I’m walking through the building to get to my doctor’s office, and the man in front of me doesn’t hold the door, I may think that person is a jerk.

But maybe he’s going to get some test results that could reveal if the cancer has spread.

I mean, maybe all these people have no excuses. Maybe they never really learned to be warm or polite or compassionate. Maybe they are all just terrible people.

But maybe that person in the supermarket or on the street or at the doctor’s office actually has a story that helps to explain his or her actions. All I can see is the bumped cart or honked horn or slammed door – just like all my dad could see was his patient’s swollen feet.

But that’s not the whole story.

I get it – we can’t ask everyone their story, and honestly, it would be weird if we did. (Can you imagine? “Excuse me, I notice you bumped into me and didn’t say anything. Are you having any problems with your spouse or children that you’d like to share?”) But damn, I often wish that people knew my story. Because there are times when I’ve been up since four am and am just about ready to break from all of the demands on my time and energy and I show up to the grocery store and just cannot smile at the woman blocking the aisle as she takes forever to decide on the type of pasta sauce she wants.

I’m sure, in that moment, that woman looks at me and thinks, “what is wrong with her?”

And you know what? Some days, there is something wrong with me. Something so deep and so intense that even if she asked I wouldn’t be able to fully articulate it.

Some days, all you can see are swollen feet.

But that’s never the whole story.

6 Replies to “What Brought You to The Hospital Today?”

  1. I love your father’s story. I was a dental hygienist for 20 years and my husband was a dentist for 30 years. We both encountered patients who wouldn’t even tell us which tooth was hurting because they felt if we were smart enough to be in our professions, we should be able to figure it out ourselves without their input. 🙂

    But to your larger point here, yes, we all have a backstory that we carry with us every day that is not evident to those who come in contact with us. I’m trying to cut people who are rude (either intentionally or unintentionally) a little more slack, because I know from experience that maybe they’re having a hard day for whatever reason. Especially this time of year which can bring up so many emotions from our pasts.

    1. Oh, yes, I bet you and my dad both have hundreds of stories!

  2. Love this one. So so true. It is a great reminder to always be kind first as we don’t really know. Thanks for sharing. Your Dad is such a wise man!

    1. Yes he is!

  3. I see the world so different now since my wife died. We happen to be in the icu with my wife when our city suffered the effects of an active shooter. Our hospital was only 2 miles from the site and all these patients flooded our unit. No one was allowed in but yours truly was due to being there prior to the lock down. I saw so much tragedy as we happen to have spot number 1 on that floor. It allowed me to process life and death as I could only imagine how these families were dealing or trying to get to their loved ones on the road. A few hours after this senseless act I left the ICU to run to my truck and I see four or five cars speeding into the lot. As I was about to go into cop mode I realized what I may have never have realized before.. they are also dealing with something.. the something that requires me to change how I deal with the world. It has changed me for the better and now I say a short prayer for those i pass in pain or a rush rather than allowing it to bring out a negative in me. As for my backstory I got my huge Polynesian tattoo on my arm and now she and my boys are with me forever and when people see just a slight view of it from under my short sleeve they ask about our story and they love it. Especially from a pretty conservative dad. It for me is better than a photo because you explain the great life you had the hope for the future. Consider getting your ink as they say!!! Love you insight.

    1. This is such an amazing story – and so horrible as well. Thank you so much for sharing it. And I agree – I see the world so differently now.

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