One of the greatest rewards in health care

When he and I first met, he told me that he had a doctoral degree in psychology, was the CEO of the jail, and could speak 13 languages. To demonstrate, he said, “Hong tong ching chong lai tai!” He then punched the door to his cell and shouted, “GET THE F-CK OUT OF HERE, B-TCH!”

I did.

The next week, he answered my questions about the pencil drawings on his walls.

“My name is John Doe,” he said, the words spilling out of his mouth. “You all think my name is Peter Pan, but it’s not. It’s John Doe. See my name up there?” He pointed at the “John Doe” he had written in two-foot high letters on his cell wall. “That’s my name. My people call me John Doe. I am the leader of all the people. I am the leader of all the Asians. I am half-Asian.”

Nothing about him looked Asian.

More weekly visits occurred.

“I can speak 13 languages,” he said again. “Tingee tongee tai tai –”

“You’re making fun of me,” I interrupted.

“I’m not,” he said, smiling. I’d never seen him smile before.

“No, I’m pretty sure you are.”

“I’m not. Aichee aichee –”

I walked away.

“Hey! I’m a doctor! I own the jail! I CONTROL ALL OF THIS!” he shouted at me.

I kept walking.

One week I was trying to speak to a man in a nearby cell. John Doe was shouting: “The police are pigs! They don’t know anything! I hired all of them! I own them!” His vitriol bounced off of the concrete surfaces of the cell block; I couldn’t hear anything but his reverberating voice.

“Excuse me,” I said to the man. John Doe was still shouting when I arrived at his cell door. He fell silent.

“Could you please not yell for ten minutes so I can talk to another guy here?”

He nodded.

“Thank you,” I said, returning to the man.

Two minutes later, John Doe started yelling again. I sighed.

“That John Doe — he really pushes my buttons. I don’t know what it is about him — people have said and done much worse things, but there’s something about him …” I said in exasperation to my colleagues. “I mean, I know he’s ill, but…!”

He declined to take medications. He followed his own prescriptions of daily showers, three meals with extra fruit if he could get it, and daily bodyweight exercises. He rarely slept.

Another week the same situation occurred again: I wanted to talk to another man in the same cell block as John Doe, who was shouting.

John Doe stopped yelling when he saw me approach his cell.

“Could you please not shout for ten or fifteen minutes so I can talk to another man here?” I asked, resisting the urge to shout at him.

He nodded. I didn’t say “thank you” this time.

I completed my interview with the other man. John Doe remained silent the entire time. I was surprised.

“Thank you for not yelling. I appreciate it,” I said to John Doe on my way out. He nodded.

As I walked out of the cell block, I heard him shouting again.

More weekly visits occurred. John Doe still declined to take medications. He stopped speaking to me in faux-Asian languages, though would occasionally speak in gibberish that I did not understand. He stopped shouting whenever he noticed that I had entered the cell block.

“You’re not a real doctor,” he said one day. “You must be a nurse.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You’re a woman. Women aren’t doctors. Maybe you’re a clinic assistant. A really smart clinic assistant. But you’re not a doctor. Women can’t be doctors. I’m the president of all the doctors and hospitals. I own all the hospitals and jails –”

“OK. Is there anything I can help you with today?”

A few weeks later, John Doe was no longer in jail. A judge declared that he wasn’t competent to stand trial due to his psychiatric symptoms. He went to the state hospital to receive treatment.

More weeks passed. He eventually returned to jail once his competency was restored, but he didn’t return to psychiatric housing. My colleagues who evaluated him upon his return, however, shared news about John Doe with enthusiasm.

“He’s taking meds now and he’s better. He’s polite. He answers questions. He doesn’t talk in fake languages. He doesn’t shout. I mean, he’s not warm or friendly and he doesn’t talk much, but he can hold a conversation. He’s definitely better.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

I wanted to see him. I wanted to see him better.

Despite that, I never did: He would not have found my visit therapeutic or helpful. The only person who would have felt better after that visit was me.

One of the greatest rewards in health care is helping and seeing people get better. This is particularly true when people have severe illnesses. We want to see them better. It gives us hope that other people who have comparable symptoms — symptoms that scare us, worry us, sadden us — will get better, too.

“How will [action x] change your management?” That’s a question we often talk about. If that lab study won’t change what you do, don’t order the lab. If the patient’s answer to your question won’t change how you proceed, don’t ask the question.

John Doe was no longer my patient. He was better. I didn’t need to see him to believe it.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

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