1. ANOTHER BEGINNING
As I pressed my new parking sticker carefully onto my windshield, I paused to consider the enormity of what the small sliver of plastic represented. At the age of twenty-nine, with twenty-four continuous years of education under my belt, I was about to begin what could be called my first real job. My new business card burned in my pocket: "Emily R. Transue, MD, General Internal Medicine." I was starting practice as a primary care physician.
With a laugh, I thought back to the day I'd decided to go to medical school. It was early in my senior year in college; I'd been a biology major, scrambling for a new career path after realizing I didn't want to spend my life at a lab bench. I'd done Parkinson's research with primates, and reasoned that if monkeys were interesting, people must be even more so. I called my grandparents to announce my momentous decision.
"But we hate doctors," my grandmother protested.
Through all my years of medical training, whenever a physician amputated the wrong leg, administered the wrong medication, or made some other terrible mistake, my grandmother would send me a news clipping. I was never sure if these were warnings about what might occur if I applied myself inadequately, or simply further evidence forthe argument that physicians were an untrustworthy lot. During my second year of medical school, she called to tell me that my grandfather had developed atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. It's usually treated with blood thinners, to reduce the risk of a clot forming in the heart and traveling to the brain, and cardioversion, a brief electrical shock to restore the heart rhythm. "They're giving your grandfather rat poison," my grandmother declared. Rat poison is made from warfarin, the same compound used medicinally to thin blood. "Then they're going to electrocute him."
I had to admit that these were precisely the kinds of barbaric things that people in my chosen profession did.
Still, here I was. Absurdly, the parking sticker brought home what my contract, my application for hospital privileges, the ordering of office letterhead and exam room supplies, and all the other events of the past weeks had not. In the eight years since I had started medical school, everything I had done had been temporary. Student clerkships lasted four to eight weeks, residency rotations a month. My year as a chief resident, teaching and helping run the program I had finished the year before, was the longest I had spent in any single role, and even that was clearly defined as transient; my successor was chosen before I'd even started. In all that time I had hung temporary parking placards from my rearview mirror. The sticky teal rectangle on my front window seemed to symbolize the end to transience and the unfamiliar permanence I was entering. After eight years of working toward this role, I had arrived.
A few weeks before, the ink barely dry on my employment contract, I had signed another sheaf of papers, buying a house with my sweetheart, also a doctor starting his first job. Our possessions were still in boxes, the wonder of owning a piece of land and the home that sat on it still fresh. As I finished affixing the parking sticker and walked into the angular brick and glass building of the clinic, I was bursting with the richness and strangeness of my new life. I had ahouse, a job, a piano, two cats, a life partner. I was a long way from Ohio, where I grew up, and from New Hampshire, where I went to medical school. I was far from my family. My brother was doing computer work in Boston; my mother had left her college professor position in Ohio to go to law school in Washington, D.C. Most acutely, I felt my distance from the ones who weren't well: my father, who recently had moved into a nursing home in California, and his parents--the ones who hated doctors--who were close to ninety but still living independently in Pennsylvania in the house where my grandfather grew up.
Nonetheless, I had laid down my roots here, in Seattle. I could feel them in the earth under the maple tree in my new front yard, and even in the glue of the parking sticker. I was about to walk into the clinic and begin to grow roots of another kind, putting on my white coat and meeting strangers who would become my patients, as I grew into my role as their doctor.
I felt the joint tug of responsibility to the people I loved and to the patients I would begin caring for today. I had finished the hard years of residency, the hundred-hour weeks and thirty-six-hour shifts, the drama of the hospital and the emergency room. I had seen a lot of people die or nearly die in those years, and I thought I knew plenty about grief and loss and healing. I little imagined how much more and how differently I would learn in the coming years. Much of this would come from the patients I would care for, not just in the episodic crises of the hospital but in the slower, richer arc of sickness and health that a primary care doctor sees. In parallel, my first years in practice would be tumultuous ones for the people in the world I loved most, and I would see more than I ever had of medicine from the other side.
I could only begin to glimpse all this, as the sliding doors opened to admit me to the cool, quiet air of the clinic. My heart sped with a mix of anxiety and excitement as I stepped inside, savoring the newness, and looking forward to a time when I could savor familiarity instead.
2. FIRST DAYS
The first patient I saw, that first September morning, was a young woman with sciatic back pain. "I bent over to pick up a pile of books and there was this sudden, terrible pain in my back. It shoots down my leg all the way to my foot."
She was uncomfortable, but not in crisis. It was a simple problem; a medical student would have known what to do. I gave her medication to reduce the inflammation and to quiet her pain. I told her which activities she should and shouldn't do, when to expect the pain to get better, and when to call me if it didn't. The interaction went just fine, but I don't know that I had ever been as nervous managing a heart attack or massive stroke as I was with that young woman's sore back. I schooled my voice carefully to keep it from trembling. I double-checked the details of the prescriptions I had written, which looked oddly unfamiliar on the fresh pad printed with my name. The question kept popping into my mind: What if what I'm telling her isn't right? I had to keep reminding myself that it was, that I did know how to do this. I'd had similar conversations many times in training, but afterward I had always gone to present my findings to my supervisor, gotten advice or a stamp of approval. From here on, though I could and often would ask advice of my colleagues, there would be nobody above me. I was on my own. With that first patient, that fact in itself was terrifying.
My second patient had a urinary tract infection, and was a little easier. The third was in for a physical exam, and soon I was so caught up in learning about her history and her concerns that I didn't think to be nervous. By the end of the day the fact that I didn't have to run things by anyone didn't seem so strange. By the end of the first week I had stopped thinking about it.
My clinic is a large, doctor-owned group, which represents almost all the medical specialties. I chose it partly for this, knowing I would have colleagues to talk to, to ask questions of, to learn from. I had completed four years of residency training on top of the four years of medical school. I had passed my specialty boards in Internal Medicine. "It's like being a pediatrician for adults," I explained to friends who didn't know what an internist was. "No kids, no OB, no surgery, but pretty much everything else." I had the tools I needed, but there was lots of practical, day-to-day knowledge I had yet to learn. They call it "practice" for a reason, I reminded myself.
The clinic building was yellow brick and glass, with several wings built at different times. Medical buildings, ever-expanding according to need, have always reminded me of swallows' nests, the structures of one era tacked onto those of the age before. My office was on the second floor in the older part of the building, its window looking out onto a quiet street and the steeple of a nearby church. I had my own medical assistant and would soon hire a receptionist (the title would later change to "patient service representative," roles shifting and evolving like the building, like medicine itself). I had two examination rooms, small and neat but a little dark. After years of rotating through rooms in the resident clinic, I realized to my great delight that these rooms were mine to set up as I chose. I replaced the ugly, industrial mirror in each room with a pretty, modern one, and added a floor lamp. Suddenly the rooms seemed brighter and the note of dinginess was gone. I began to fill the walls with photographs, the plain yellow paint giving way to scenes of mountains and wildflowers. I put fuzzy covers on the cold metal stirrups of my exam tables. After a few weeks I realized that the rooms no longer felt like just exam rooms: they felt like my exam rooms. It was a subtle difference but a transforming one.
As I rearranged and settled into my office and my newly boughthouse, I felt that I was building a home of sorts in both spaces. My new life was beginning to take shape.
The saving grace of starting practice was that I had friends from residency going through the same thing. Periodically we would gather to debrief about the strangeness of this new world.
"I saw this guy in coverage today that I wanted to steal from his regular doctor."
"To have him come to me for primary care. You know? He was just such a nice guy, we had a great chat. If all your patients were that nice, it'd be the perfect job."
I laughed. "I've had people like that. You think, I would smile every time I saw you were coming in." I thought of a sweet seventy-year-old I had seen that day with nosebleeds, anxious to have them stop before she went to Europe with her son. We'd talked about my trips to Europe with my mother, about Italy, about grown children traveling with their mothers. She'd smiled, and as she was leaving she said shyly, "You're nice--" In that moment all the years of work I'd done to get to this job felt worth it.
"It's so weird having such an open schedule. We didn't have this much time for new patients when we were residents, even."
"I know. It's neat, you feel like you really have time to talk."
"Sure. But I find myself doing these ridiculous things, just because I have the time. I feel like I need to do all the health care that people haven't had in the last five years. Someone comes in for sinusitis and I have an empty schedule so suddenly I'm reviewing their whole family history and giving them a tetanus shot and trying to check their prostate. They're like, 'I just wanted antibiotics!'"
I nodded. "I did a Pap smear yesterday on someone who came in with an earache."
He giggled. "Poor people ... ."
"It's kind of like an assault."
"'Leave me alone! I felt bad enough when I came in here.'"
Meantime, I was learning a new kind of medicine. Residency had trained me brilliantly to think of things to worry about; I was not so adept at deciding which of those I needed to take seriously. Much of my training had been in the hospital, where we were dealing with urgent issues and often doing lots of tests at once. The rhythm of clinic medicine was different; few problems were emergencies, and it was usually better to approach the evaluation one step at a time. Furthermore, in contrast to the hospital where almost everyone had something seriously wrong, in clinic half the challenge was figuring out who wasn't sick. The hardest part was often reassuring people that their bodies just needed time to heal on their own.
Though the approach was different, the learning curve was as steep as it had been in residency, those packed years of specialty training after medical school. A lot of the time I felt like I had then: excited, and exhausted, and thrilled to be finally doing something that I'd been training for so long. I wasn't yet efficient at clinic medicine, so the difference between a too-quiet schedule and a too-busy one was only a few patients. I could turn on a dime from feeling restless to feeling overwhelmed. My practice grew quickly, though, and my skills grew with it. I was startled to realize one afternoon that I had comfortably seen more patients in half a day than I had in my entire first week.
Some weeks after that first day, a young woman who looked vaguely familiar came in to have a physical exam. She smiled brightly and told me that her back pain had gone away just when I had said it would. Glancing down at her chart, I realized that she had been my very first patient from my very first day. It seemed much longer ago than it was; I couldn't imagine having been quite so nervous over a simple problem just a month or two earlier. She looked around the room and admired a photograph of a rose from my front yard.
"Looks like you've settled in," she said.
3. CODING AND COMPLIANCE
Seeing patients was easy to get used to, but the financial and administrative side of medicine was considerably more challenging. During my first week I had a long and baffling meeting with the people from a department I had never previously heard of: Coding and Compliance. The Coding and Compliance staff had the unenviable task of teaching me in a few hours how to bill for the work I do. This had barely been addressed in my four years of post-graduate specialty training, much less in medical school. I'd had eight years of medical training, and nobody had acknowledged that this was a business as well as a calling.
The medical billing process is based on codes that are marked down for each visit. There's one type of code for the visit itself, which depends on the visit's length and complexity. There are also codes for procedures: Everything from heart surgery to giving a shot has a distinct code. Each of these is then linked to a separate diagnosis code--what the visit or the procedure was for. This seemed simple enough. But when the Coding and Compliance specialists--Karen and Linda--started talking, nothing they said made sense. I flashed back to a time when I tried to speak French with someone who was Belgian; the words sounded right, but no actual communication occurred. I wondered if, as on that earlier occasion, it would be better to use mimes and hand gestures.
Karen began. "You've got your basics, your E and M's and your preventatives." I took a breath to ask what these were, but she was already continuing. Somewhere I could remember having heard "E and M" before. Random paired letters flashed through my mind--A&P grocery stores, A&W Root Beer, B&O railroad--wait. I had it! "E and M" was "Evaluation and Management," the code for a visit about a problem. I struggled to catch up to what Karen had been saying in themeantime. "Remember that news are different than follow-ups, although if they've been seen by someone else in the clinic in three years they're not a new, unless it wasn't in your specialty. Remember if it's a consult you have to code a 902 series instead of a 992 series. You have to dictate the referring practitioner or it's not a 902. Remember to differentiate a consultation from a referral, although that won't affect you so much, you're a primary care."
What's the difference between a consultation and a referral? I wondered, but her tone suggested I should have learned this on my grandmother's knee, and I was afraid to ask. Then I thought: I'm "a primary care"? I've been through eight years of training, I've been in practice for two days and I already lost the "doctor" from my title?
I wrote down "902/992" on my notepad and hoped it would mean something to me later.
"You can use the V codes, but remember they're not always reimbursed."
"V codes?" I said weakly.
Karen nodded but didn't elaborate. "And when you've got an eight or a nine hundred then you need to remember your E code; nobody likes it but it's important or the claim will get denied."
"Well, they won't pay for anything if they think maybe someone else should be paying it. L and I, or something."
L and I, Labor and Industries! I was thrilled to finally recognize an acronym.
"I'm sorry, you lost me there again. Eight or nine hundred? E?"
Linda sighed as if I were a particularly truculent child. "Eight or nine hundred codes are things like injuries and accidents. E's are circumstances, locations, and causes. Someone has a broken arm, you have to code an E for how it happened--motor vehicle accident, fall--or else it doesn't get paid. Or if it was at home, you code that, versus if it's at work, and then it would go to L and L"
I wrote down, "8-900, E." I was starting to feel a little nauseated.
"But remember the 800 or 900 has to be first, the E is always a secondary code."
"E secondary," I wrote down.
Through most of the process of orienting to the clinic I'd been excited, albeit nervous. Yes, there was a lot to learn, and yes, this would be different from being a resident; but this was it, it was real, it was what I'd been working toward all these years. By the end of the Coding and Compliance lecture I was a quivering wreck. "I can't do it," I announced when I got home. "This whole thing is a terrible mistake. I just can't do it."
My sweetheart, Chris, was going through the same traumas at his own new job. He soothed me. "Of course you can do it. You've done everything else you needed to do, all along the way. You can do this, too."
The nice thing about complete ignorance is that you have reason to treasure every emerging glimmer of competence. I successfully coded my first sore throats and sinus infections, and felt irrationally triumphant. I started to get excited about coding. I thumbed through the massive coding encyclopedia and discovered codes for obscure problems and even more obscure circumstances. Codes for eyeworms and Familial Mediterranean Fever. Codes for falling off a cliff or out of an airplane.
One day I coded a 917.6: "foreign body--superficial--foot--noninfected" and the accompanying procedure code, CPT 28190: "removal--foreign body--superficial--noninfected--foot."
Linking 917.6 to 28190 meant that I removed a splinter.
I added an E849.0 to note that the splinter was acquired at home, not at a place of work or business. I couldn't decide who would be more stunned: my mother, to know how many 917.6/28190/E849.0s she performed when I was a child; or myself at the time I entered medical school, if I had known this was how I would be spending my time and energy.
Luckily my residency friends, also entering practice, were going through the same process. An e-mail arrived from a friend entitled, "Coding seminar."
"911.0: Abrasion, superficial, trunk [includes penis].
"E918: Caught between two objects."
At the end he added: "Really they should put warning signs on zippers."
Despite my flights of coding fancy, I still had trouble with the basics. Reluctantly, I dialed the Coding and Compliance number.
"I have a couple of questions--"
"We can come down."
Linda and Karen arrived with remarkable alacrity, smiling cheerily. They were very pleasant, and very bright; they just didn't speak the same language I did.
They sat down across the desk from me. I'd already figured out that the process would go better if I had a clear question, so I started briskly.
"I'm trying to figure out this whole thing with the preventative exams," I said. "I understand that there's a distinction in billing between a preventative visit and a treatment visit. But I'm confused about what to do when there are elements of both."
"You shouldn't do both in the same visit."
"I understand that ideally they'll be separate. But I can't tell someone, 'I know you've taken the day off from work to come here and see your doctor, but three of the items on your list are preventative and two are nonpreventative, so you'll just have to come back another day.'"
"I know the doctors don't like it," Karen said severely. "But that's the way the system is."
I tried to explain. "The doctors don't like it because it doesn't fit with the way we think. People come in with questions, and we try to address them. These distinctions seem artificial. I'm trying to understand them so I can work with them."
Linda sighed and shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
"Well, there is one thing you can do. If you really have to do both in one visit, you can do a dot-two-five."
"You can code it as preventative and then do a dot-two-five modifier on an E and M." I had confirmed that "E and M" meant "Evaluation and Management," so I didn't have to embarrass myself by asking this.
Karen looked at Linda in alarm, as if she were divulging state secrets.
"It's an extra code you can put behind the preventative code, and then you can bill an E and M for the same visit. Like, if at the end of a physical somebody suddenly had chest pain and then you evaluated them for that."
"So I can do both!"
"Yes," said Linda.
"But," said Karen.
"But most insurances don't take dot-two-five modifiers."
"So what happens if I try to code one?"
"Well, it's legal, you won't have committed insurance fraud. But they'll just pay for one of the two; usually they pick the cheaper one."
"So I can bill for both if I do both, I just won't get paid."
There was a long pause, while I rubbed my throbbing temples.
"Okay. Let me think about all that for a bit." Then again, I thought, I could save myself a lot of headaches and just open a coffee shop instead. There are no dot-two-five modifiers for coffee.
"My other question is simpler. I'm trying to figure out how to bill a physical. I had someone complain last week because I billed for a physical and it wasn't covered. She said her insurance said they would cover a Pap."
Karen stepped to the plate. "A Pap smear is covered under the state Women's Health Initiative."
Linda added, "And a lot of the HMOs will pay for preventative care."
HMO, Health Maintenance Organization, I thought to myself, trying to take comfort in recognizing another acronym.
"A V70.0 is a physical--are you doing the whole thing? Listening to her heart and lungs? Past history, family history? Of course, if she's a return, it's only an update." She's "a return" in the same way that I'm "a primary care," I thought. We all get abbreviated to our billing functions.
"Of course I am. Most of the time in someone young those are pretty simple, but they could turn up something important."
"If you're just doing a Pap you could code a V72.3, gynecological exam with routine cervical Pap."
"So I should code that instead of a V70.0, physical exam?"
"No, V70.0 is better. A V72.3 assumes you're just swabbing her cervix and not doing anything else. There's less compensation." I'd noticed that the word "compensation" was used instead of "payment," as though money changed hands as a kind of apology for our inconvenience.
"But will the insurance pay for a V70.0? Is that covered under the--" I searched for the term. "The Women's Health Initiative?"
"Not necessarily," Linda said. "Some insurances cover it, some don't."
"It's always changing."
"So if I code a V72.3, I don't really get paid for the work I did, but if I code a V70.0, I do, but she might get the bill."
"Or she might not, and there's no way for me to know?"
She nodded again.
"We're surprised that this confuses people?" I asked.
There was a long silence. Finally I looked down at my watch. "I think it's time for me to get back to the easy part of my job--seeing patients."
Luckily I enjoy seeing patients, and by the end of the day I was cheery again, and ready to tackle the coding labyrinth once more. Just before I left for home I got a text message from another friend just starting practice.
"Did you know there's an ICD-9 code for legal execution?"
"Really?" I wrote back.
"E978 covers lethal injection, death by firing squad, electrocution, beheading, and other means not otherwise specified."
"Thanks," I wrote back. "I'm glad to know how to code what I want to do to the person who designed this system."
As a new doctor at my clinic, I was a magnet for advice. Physicians I had never met came up to me to offer gems and pearls of wisdom, things they wished they'd known when they were starting out. They meant well, all of them; but as a cumulative mass the advice became overwhelming. "Don't give anyone narcotics," I was told. In my first days on call I would get dozens of calls from people saying that they just ran out of Percocet, or that the cat ate their codeine or their ex-boyfriend stole their Valium. "There will be people in your office acting out the death scene from La Boheme and telling you you're going to burn in hell if you don't give them Oxycontin. Don't fall for it."
"I had one guy who claimed to be on his way to his wedding," one colleague said. "He said he had a kidney stone and he'd had them before and could I just give him some Vicodin to control the pain through the ceremony. And I was writing out the script when I realized that his tux didn't fit. Nobody gets married in a tux that doesn'tfit. From there the whole thing unraveled. But I tell you, I was this close."
"But some people really do have kidney stones," I said.
"Don't give out anything unless you are holding a positive CT scan."
"I had this nice young woman the other day with kidney stones. She'd had them before--"
He looked at me knowingly. "Let me guess. She was allergic to contrast dye so she couldn't have a scan, or--no--it was under her deductible and she couldn't afford it."
My eyes widened. "There was blood in her urine--"
"People prick their fingers."
"I think she really had them."
"Talk to me in three months."
In three months, she had come back to me four times for narcotic prescriptions. I pushed her harder about getting a scan, or at least obtaining old records documenting her disease--even assuming her story about the stones was real, I didn't want to be missing a diagnosis or treating the wrong thing. She responded with a scathing letter saying that I was hateful and mean and shouldn't be allowed to see patients. Meantime, she'd started calling on the weekends when other docs were on call, with an untrue story about how I'd put her on stronger painkillers than she wanted and asking the on-call doc to call in "something milder." When the prescriptions dried up she left the clinic.
Other advice was about managing calls on nights and weekends. "Send people to the ER," one colleague said. "You get someone calling in the middle of the night and you can't figure out for sure what's going on, just send them in."
"Don't send anyone to the ER unless you absolutely have to," another doc advised. "New docs always think that--worst comes to worst, I'll just send them to the ER--but then you'll be getting calls from the ER docs at two in the morning to say, hey, your patient isfine, or worse yet: they seem okay but they're here so I've decided to admit them, so you'd better come in."
There was advice about managing my staff, my schedule, my office, my colleagues. "Be flexible," some people told me. "Say yes to anything anyone asks you to do, you can always scale back later." "Set firm limits," others said. "Once things spiral out of control you can never get them back in." Some people recommended having a high threshold for referring patients out to specialists, others a low one. Everyone had a horror story from starting practice that they wanted to share. One had gotten so busy so fast he was overwhelmed and ended up being hospitalized with anxiety and depression. Another left her first job because she'd felt ostracized for refusing to work late hours. "Play the game." "Don't be too nice." "You can spoil everything by taking the wrong steps at this stage in your career. It's happened before--it happened to me. It can happen to you."
Then there were the messages sifting in from the insurance companies and from our malpractice insurer. Be efficient, the insurance companies are counting every dollar you spend. Be complete, leave no stone unturned or you'll be susceptible to a lawsuit. One day we had a long meeting about how expensive transcription was and how all the doctors would have to cut down on the length of their dictations. The next day there was a risk-management meeting about how if we didn't document every thought in our heads and every detail and nuance of each conversation with our patients, we were liable to get sued.
"This is crazy!" I complained to Chris. "It can't be done."
"My office had those same two meetings last week," he said.
Every word of advice was well-meant, and undoubtedly they seemed more ominous to me than anyone intended. People were only trying to prevent me from repeating their mistakes. Still, with every hour bringing a new piece of wisdom and each contradicting the last, I wasexhausted and confused. The message seemed to be: There is no way to do it right.
Happily, at last, I came to see this as a blessing as well as a curse. If there was no right answer, I couldn't be expected to have one. As the months went by I made some mistakes, and averted some others. There was a balance to be struck, I realized, between cynicism and gullibility, between offering too much and believing too little. There was usually a line of reasonable medical judgment that fell somewhere between spending a fortune eliminating all uncertainty and saving money by accepting too much. There would be pieces of advice I would take and pieces I would leave, and despite everyone's best intentions, I would have to find my own way.
Sometimes the struggle to say and do the right thing was more comic than painful. My schedule lists each patient's name, the time of their appointment, and the reason they're coming, which in medical terms is called the "chief complaint." The word "complaint" once seemed odd to me; are we saying that everyone who comes in is a complainer? Couldn't we use something less charged, perhaps "chief concern"? Over time, this term slipped into the invisibility of constant use. One afternoon a "complaint" on the schedule caught my eye: "Blood in semen."
The man's name was familiar but I tried vainly to attach it to a face. I recognized him, however, as soon as I walked in the door. Young, pleasant, very personable. I'd seen him just once before, and that time he admitted that he'd never seen a woman doctor. This is one of those things you wish people hadn't said, or that they'd waited to say until later: Hey, isn't it funny, but that first time--. When they say it on the first visit, you can't help but feel edgy, or at least on display.He'd giggled nervously, and I'd put on my Best Professional Demeanor, nodding curtly. ("Don't let him think it matters.") I've forgotten what he was in for that first time--foot fungus? Something simple. We'd gotten through it fine.
Now he was back with blood in his semen, which was more fraught territory. He was trying, though, and I was trying. It was less uncomfortable than the guy the week before who wouldn't meet my eyes at all, but kept laughing nervously and staring at the corners of the room. "My wife made me come in," he'd said. He listed half a dozen concerns without seeming very interested in any of them, and had a hand on the doorknob before he finally blurted out his reason for being there: "My wife thinks you should give me some of that Viagra stuff."
I said, "Do you think that's something you would like to try?"
He said, "My wife would sure appreciate it if you thought so."
The gentleman with blood in his semen was trying not to blush and forcing himself to meet my eyes, even though his eyebrows were twitching wildly and I could see the thought written in bold letters across his forehead: I'm telling the girl doc what's going on with my genitals! He was a decent guy, and he was suppressing the thought as fast as it popped up, probably reminding himself that I had done okay with the foot fungus, or whatever it was.
He said, "I've been having a little pain when I urinate."
I put on my best serious/analytical expression and said, "How long has it been going on?"
"Three weeks, on and off."
"Tell me about your other symptoms."
"Well, a couple of weeks ago there was a drop of blood in my shorts."
I nodded, and he blurted out, "Well, and over the weekend, my wife and I were traveling and--" He looked suddenly confused. "No, that's not important." He paused to regroup. "I had the opportunity to identify that there was blood in my semen."
He was so dismayed, between the problem itself and the embarrassment of talking about it, and I was so anxious to say and do the right thing, that the moment was almost comical. Two adults,generally comfortable and mature, caught in a dizzying display of self-consciousness.
Part of my mind flashed back to when I was a third-year medical student, all of twenty-two years old, and had to do my very first testicular exam as part of a routine physical on a fourteen-year-old boy--I thought he was going to perish of embarrassment on the spot, and I was little better. Another part of me was desperately sifting through my arsenal of words, trying to find the gracious thing to say or do at this moment, to diffuse the tension while acknowledging his anxiety. A final fragment of my mind wanted to step back and note the theatrical situation, both of us trying so hard--as if we were both students, earnestly acting out a pretend clinical scenario. I wanted to step out of character and say, "Wow, this is awkward, isn't it?"
Instead I was putting on my most serious frown--to acknowledge the gravity of the experience for him, to show that I understood how frightening it was to discover blood unexpectedly in one's bodily fluids. Also to reassure him that I was not going to giggle; I suspected this was his deepest darkest fear in this moment--to tell the girl doctor about the blood and have her laugh. Quickly, though, I discarded this expression in favor of a less dark, more analytical sort of frown; I didn't want him to think that I thought that he had cancer, which, of course, was his even deeper darker fear. I worked through different degrees of frown, now strenuously keeping the edges of my lips from rising, since the whole frown conundrum was itself making me want to laugh.
"Have you had any fevers?" I asked blandly.
"No," he said, sounding relieved--whether at giving a negative reply, or just at having a yes/no question to work with, I didn't know.
"Any penile discharge?"
"Any new sexual partners?"
I knew he was married, so I added, "I'm sorry, I have to ask ..."
"No no, it's fine, I understand."
"Any back pain or change in your bowels?"
"Okay, let's have a look at you."
I listened carefully to his heart and lungs, not because they were especially relevant, but because it was easier to move from a more general to a more focused exam, rather than go right for the genitals, as it were. I talked him through what I was checking for, using the male-genital-exam speech I've become practiced at since that first dreadful day with the fourteen-year-old. "Now I'm going to check your testicles. The surface of the testicle should feel like a boiled egg; you should check them yourself periodically, and look for any lumps ... ."
The exam itself was not particularly awkward, after all that. Afterward I left him alone to get dressed while I flopped down on the chair in my office, oddly exhausted and wiping sweat off my brow.
I went back to the exam room and found him looking much more comfortable in his shirt and trousers. I waved him from the exam table to the chair, where he looked more comfortable still.
I explained that he probably had prostatitis. "I thought maybe that was it, he admitted, sounding relieved."I found it on the Web--"
There were a few other things we'd rule out, I explained, but then we'd try some antibiotics and he should get better.
He nodded brightly. I handed him a lab slip and a prescription, and asked if he had any other questions.
"No, I think you've answered everything."
He offered me a hand to shake and only then did I allow myself to smile. "It's good to see you," I said.
"It's good to see you, too."
A month later he was back on my schedule, with no complaint written down this time. Oh, no, I thought. The blood isn't better, and now I've lost all credibility.
Suppressing a cringe, I walked in.
"I fell skiing and twisted my ankle," he announced, with a sheepish smile.
I smiled back. "Let's have a look."
PATIENT BY PATIENT. Copyright © 2008 by Emily R. Transue. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.