In the 1984 rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, a fictional band discusses the controversy surrounding one of their album covers. “There’s such a fine line between stupid and ...” the lead singer says, realizing where they’d crossed the line of tastefulness. His guitarist finishes his thought, “... and clever,” he says. In life, in rock and roll and in medicine, there is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever. During ...

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The two-page letter of complaint was typed on crested letterhead. The words "utter disappointment" jumped off the page, bold-faced and caps-locked. "The doctors left me to bleed," she wrote, banging on the exclamation key as if she was firing lasers in a game of Space Invaders. "I was hemorrhaging, and they did nothing except pop in and tell me it would stop." The tirade was directed toward me and the ...

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It’s early March. I walk quickly past the ambulance bay, shivering as the doors open. Paramedics push a stretcher into the hall as a limp body gasps for air. “Doc,” the tired man says. “I need help.” “What happened?” I say. “You look terrible.” “My belly is killing me.” He grips his stomach. ”I’m going to pass out.” His pulse is weak, his hands cold. A nurse inserts an IV and turns to me: ...

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John Grover is a nice guy. He's fifty-five, short, a little chubby, and he has a neatly trimmed red beard. He's the kind of guy whose eyes light up the moment you walk into the room; The kind of guy who remembers your kids' names, their ages, and their interests. I'd met him a few times before. He'd come in once to refill his blood pressure medication because he couldn't ...

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Triage Note: Fish hook in eye. No bleeding. Tetanus up to date. It’s a sunny weekend during cottage season. A young woman is rushed into the ER as she cups both hands over her left eye. She’s in shorts, and flip-flops, and she’s hyperventilating. Her friends follow, hands similarly cupped over their mouths. I read the triage note. I’ve never seen this before. I’ve removed dozens of fish hooks -- it’s ...

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It’s 1 a.m., and I’m afraid this guy is going to die. He’s gasping for air, hunched over a table as I poke his chubby back and try to find a rib. Oxygen is flowing through nasal prongs at six liters per minute, and it’s barely making a difference as his oxygen saturation hovers around eighty-five percent (it should be in the high-nineties.) He’s sick, but what’s more worrisome is ...

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I carried it around with me the entire shift. I showed it to my E.R. colleagues, the internists, and even a couple of surgeons. I’d tell them the story. “Never,” one of them said. “Not in twenty-eight years. Never seen that before.” One of them held the small urine jar up to a light and began unscrewing the lid. “Don’t!” I said. “Why not?” “It stinks. You wouldn’t believe how much it stinks. We ...

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It’s almost 7 p.m., and I’m handed the chart of a man in his sixties. “Can you see this one first,” the nurse says, “he needs an ultrasound.” I skim the triage note, which is often like reading the blurb at the back of the DVD. If it says “pain all over for eight months,” it’s not likely to be a hot new rental. Frank Martin (name changed) has been sent from a walk-in ...

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Seconds after I arrive at the ER on a Sunday afternoon, I'm called to see an elderly woman who can't breathe. She's ninety-four, and gurgling for air. On my way, I pass two middle-aged women. They are hovering outside a nearby room, trying to get my attention. One gestures like a traffic guard as she tries to wave me into the room. The other throws up her hands as I ...

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I'm seeing a fifty-something with knee pain when I feel the curtain behind me erupt open. It's Roland, my last patient, and his breath is at my neck: "Why are you being so difficult?" he says. "Why can't you just give me the prescription?" I turn, and wave my hand over Roland's head. "Call security." He's swearing again, and I can hear security's racing footsteps as a code white is called. "I have nothing more to ...

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