Monday, May 18, 2015

Do Our Words Hit The Mark?

Loitering in the hallway of my son's school awaiting his parent/teacher conference, I completely forgot that the woman introducing herself and shaking my hand was an alcoholic.  I forgot that she had visited me in the office a decade prior for a consultation.  I forgot all of it.

What I remembered is that we had gone to high school together.  We had grown up in the same city, in the same neighborhood, on the same block.  We were never compatible socially.  She was gregarious and popular, and I quiet and introspective.  We may have nodded familiarly or said hello if we passed on the street, but nothing more.  We were acquaintances by proximity.

We exchanged pleasantries in the school hallway for a few minutes.  Our kids were of a similar age.  She looked happy.  Healthy.  I glanced at my watch and prepared to enter my son's classroom when she stopped me, and asked the question that I assume hand been hanging on her lips the whole time.

You don't remember, do you?

She had come to my office nearly ten years prior for a routine physical.  It was a mid-morning appointment, and as I listened to her heart I recognized the faint odor of alcohol poorly covered by breath mints.  I waited patiently till the end of the appointment, and then gently discussed with her my suspicions.

She was drowning in new motherhood.  Her job was taxing.  She was fighting with her husband.  The alcohol originally was meant to help her unwind at night.  With time, however, she was consuming more and more.  She was hiding her habits from her family and friends.

She was an alcoholic.

Her words cleared the cobwebs in the vaults of my distant memory. I remembered telling her that she wanted to face her alcoholism now for her children.  That she wanted to be healthy when they grew up and needed her.   I handed her a few brochures, gave her a few numbers, and scheduled up a follow up appointment.

I made her promise that she would get help.

As it turns out, she never came back to my office for the follow up.  But that morning she began a long successful journey toward sobriety.

Now, a decade later, she was thanking me for saying the words that launched that journey.

Years into the practice of medicine, I have spoken millions of words in the exam room and forgotten the majority of them.

I humbley hope that some others have similarly hit the mark.


Meredith Gould said...

I love this story for many reasons: that she got into recovery; that something you said and don't even remember saying had such a positive impact; and that she told you about it. Also, that she got into recovery. Did I mention I love that part of the story?

MattLardie said...

Interesting story. It shows how much we listen to our doctors yet why we are afraid to confide in them fully. I would wonder why she never came back. But the fact that she listened and got help is wonderful. It is too bad that a follow up call to her initially couldn't be placed. No blame Doc. I just wish providers had more time and could take a more aggressive approach to issues. You did well.
But medicine in general must find a way to do better.

mwas said...

Success stories that find their way back to us are few and far between. Every so often (usually while in full mom mode with my own boys), a parent will speak to me. Out of the context of the office, I probably appear startled and maybe embarrassed by my own lapse in memory. For a patient to be brave enough to mention something I did and thank me always makes my day, and I will dwell on the honor it is to take care of my community of pediatric patients for the rest of the day. Thanks for sharing your triumph!
Liz Tilt, MD