A physician suffers a betrayal of trust

Back in the grueling training days of my residency, I was the first-hand victim of theft. Not the kind you see on the big screen, where you’re held up at gunpoint, or the kind where your belongings get ransacked. It was worse, at least in the way that it made me feel. I had my handbag stolen from me, right from its usual resting place on the shelf near my work desk by none other than one of my patients, who I had warmly tended to earlier that very afternoon.

It had been a typical day in the outpatient clinic of the Albert Einstein Montefiore division in the Bronx, seeing patient after patient of bountiful ailments. Hypertension — in and out. A pap smear. A cough, another cough and yet another. Diabetes follow-up complete with monofilament exam. A daughter concerned about her aging mom’s memory. The sniffles.

As part of the training — customary in every day’s ritual — there needed to be a signature placed on my work by the doctors in charge, approving my plan. I’d step out of my exam area, walk across the clinic to a separate section of the clinic and wait patiently to present each case. That afternoon, I breezed through it all and felt like quite the star. Breathing a sigh of accomplished relief, I headed for my brown leather handbag, marking the end of my bustling day. But, alas, it wasn’t there.

It had, *poof*, disappeared into thin air.

At first, I felt confused, and searched for it around the room. It seemed like an impossibility that my bag would just go missing, so I kept up an effort, looking around. But it was futile. The more I searched, the more I desperate I became, and even more suspicious. I knew where I’d left it — I had always left it there since the beginning of residency and every day after that.

It took a solid 15 minutes until the truth finally dawned on me, and it was rough when it did.

The nerve.

Who did it? The pap smear? The diabetic? One of the coughs? Was it the emphysematous cough or maybe the allergic one? Who had stolen my bag?

I can’t begin to tell you how it felt. Taken advantage of — to say the least. Knowing I had put in those hours and given that afternoon’s patients my all from holding their hands to peering into this crevice and that to laughing it off when they coughed into my face — you know, to put them at ease and loosen any tension in the air. They were relationships I was fostering, and ones that I considered with seriousness — namely, the patient-physician collaborations.

But clearly, this had not been the case. Someone didn’t deserve my trust.

So what is a physician to do? As I scanned through the names I had seen earlier that day, I tried envisioning who was responsible. Who had looked suspicious, maybe out of place, during our encounter? Who had exploited the bond created, when I got up close to their skin, looking for clues I needed to solve their medical mystery?

I tell you, it would have been easier to land a pointer finger on a random name on that list. That’s how difficult it was to pick out the culprit. I considered, for a moment, the guilty party’s desperation that someone needed my handbag enough to disrespect the sacred place where secrets are exchanged, and I imagined using a digit other than the pointer to express just how I felt.

But then I visualized the guilty one going through my things, and I cringed. They’d find my cash. What would they purchase with it? Maybe some cough drops? Or Mucinex? Oh, how I hoped they’d chose the cold & sinus version — they really did need it. How about my driver’s license or the 5×3 photo of my son? What good would those bring? I wondered if they’d use the gift card to Sephora I received just the month before. Would they purchase the latest in eyeshadow palettes from Urban Decay or — and this is where I really lost it — that coffee card I had been working on so hard to complete. Just two more punches until the coveted free one! How could they have done this to me?

I considered calling them. Each one of them was a suspect in my own imaginary trial. I was judge, jury and even the angry plaintiff. It was, after all, a betrayal of the worst kind. I played out in my head a scene where I’d give them all a chance: confess, or we turn to video footage. Which was, of course, complete nonsense … a figment of my own sleep-deprived imagination. But it didn’t matter that it wasn’t feasible, and I went with it or at least allowed several fantasy-laden moments of the scenario to play out in my head. It would have felt so good to claim it on the phone. “We’ve got the proof, now turn in the goods, and I won’t go to the cops.” That momentary pleasure of palpable fright on the other end of the line, as the guilty party gulps in their fear, would have made for a vengeful ending, and they’d never know it was false.

But that’s where it stopped. I chose to abruptly end my Sherlock Holmes antics. Because none of it mattered.

The fact was, someone needed to steal and didn’t find it beneath them to do it from their very own clinic. What a bad place to be. And with that, I marched myself to the police station, placed a theft report and returned, handbag-less, back to my dorm. There, I tucked in my most valuable possession of them all — my son. And I cuddled up warmly against the other — the husband. I thanked my lucky stars for the things that I still had.

Dana Corriel is an internal medicine physician who blogs at drcorriel.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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