How a blanket changed the way I thought about medicine

My sister calls my name three times before I hear her. I am so distracted by the palm trees and the ocean view that I don’t feel her put the car in park. I look up at the “Physician Parking Only” sign straight ahead.

“Hurry up and get out. We’re running late, and I don’t want to have to stay after my shift ends,” she says.

“Don’t you always stay like two hours after anyway?” I ask. She doesn’t look amused. She knows I know the answer. I’ve answered too many of her late night, stressed-out phone calls for me not to. Personally, I’m excited for the possibility of overtime. The more I get to see the better. I grab my bag and, before she locks the door, I remember to take my book. “In case things get slow,” I say. She apparently finds that remark funnier than my last one.

Growing up with an ER physician assistant as a sister, the question of whether I’d follow in her footsteps was not uncommon. Tired of not having an answer, I booked a flight to Miami to visit her and experience ER medicine for myself.

I follow her to the ambulance entrance, admiring her solid-black scrubs. They’re bold, exuding a seriousness I find fitting given her job description, helping to save lives and all. My navy “volunteer” polo and khakis aren’t quite as impactful. At least I had a badge.

We arrive at double doors labeled emergency department. “Try your badge to make sure you’ll have access if I’m not around,” she says.

I swipe. Green light. The doors open. I smile. “Let’s do this,” I say. She rolls her eyes. My heart beats a little faster.

We walk through another set of double doors. It’s cold and dark. The nurse’s station is vacant except for a few sheets of paper and a half-eaten granola bar. My watch says 10:03 a.m. “Didn’t your shift start three minutes ago? Where is everyone?”

“Not sure, but something tells me it’s going to be another long day.” She starts walking. I follow, struggling to keep up with her brisk pace. I lose sight of her, but then I see black scrubs by the nurse’s station.

“It’s crazy back here,” the man behind the desk says. “We had to shut down the A wing until things settle down. Can you lend a hand?” She nods.

“Come on,” my sister says. I follow and watch her exchange brief greetings with other staff members. I’m introduced to one as we walk, my hand left unshaken as he passes by.

We enter a patient room and the young woman’s responses are to the point, just like my sister’s questions.

“Complaint?” my sister asks.

“Abdominal pain,” the woman responds.

“When was the onset?”

“Three days ago.”

“Triggers?”

“Not that I know of.”

My sister orders a lab workup. She’ll be back with the results after a while. The patient is asked to wait.

I follow my sister to the next room. Then the next one. I look at my watch. Four patients in 17 minutes. “It’s crazy how fast you just did that,” I tell her.

“You don’t do it, you fall behind, you stay three more hours,” she responds.

I think about the patients asked to wait. How long will they be here? I don’t ask her. I know she doesn’t have the time to answer.

We see Patient Number 5. The discoloration and malformation of her big toe strangely reminds me of the blackberries I had for breakfast. She’s told that the nail must come off. Podiatry is paged. More waiting.

We see Patient Number 6.

Then 7.

Patient 5 complains about the wait. A nurse disregards her grievance.

Patient 8.

From across the hall, I see Patient 5 leave her room again. The nurses avoid her. She’ll get better once her toe is fixed. Happier.

We visit Number 9.

Patient 10. More labs ordered. No patient has been discharged yet.

Three hours since the page for Patient 5. Podiatry finally comes down. No more waiting. “Want to watch the procedure?” the doctor asks.

“Yes, please,” I say, smiling because, for the first time today, I’ll finally witness medicine. I’ll finally experience the healing that helps people feel happy again.

I am intrigued as the doctor’s steady hand slowly guides the needle into the patient’s nail bed. Digging with a dull metal probe, the doctor loosens the dead tissue and then removes it with one forceful pull of the forceps. The red that fills the newly formed gap matches the rest of her painted toenails. The procedure takes only four minutes. The patient is told to wait again.

We see a few more patients. My sister is called to do a private exam, so I move to the hallway to wait for her. Patient 5 leaves her room once more, but this time she looks my way. She approaches me slowly, her gait arrhythmic as she takes more time stepping on one foot than the other. I look at her face. A slight wince accompanies her treading pattern. Purple pockets under her eyes are a few shades lighter than her toe was. “Can you help me?” she asks.

“I’m only a volunteer, but I can try,” I respond.

“I’ve been so cold today, could I have a blanket?”

I smile. I march to the equipment closet, wait for the green light. As I return, I feel a gentle pressure on my right shoulder. I turn to face her as she says, “You know, you’re the only person who has listened to me today. The first person who has actually helped me.”

I wonder if she sees the surprise on my face. She limps back into her room.

I’m not sure how long I stand there, but a moving figure brings me back. I follow the black scrubs, this time grabbing a blanket on the way.

Anika Morgado is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

Leave a Comment

Most Popular

Get KevinMD's 5 most popular stories.