When the phone rang at 4:30 in the morning, instead of sleepily reaching for the bedside phone, my wife literally jumped out of the bed. With an elderly parent, she is always worried that such late night calls mean bad news. I, on the other hand, have a more sanguine view of life, and try to avoid any such thoughts that might interrupt a good night’s sleep. I had just finished a month of night shifts working overseas so my body clock was all screwed up. So despite being awakened by the sudden activity,
I played as if dead to the world.
“Hello?” my wife said, a hint of fear in her voice. Then a long pause. “How did you get this number?” Another longer pause.
My wife then crawled across the bed, phone in hand, and smacked my shoulder harder than necessary to awaken me. “Do you know a young woman named Erica?” she asked covering the phone.
Talk about a wake-up call. Being the juvenile delinquent that I am, I toyed momentarily with making up some crack like “Is it my girlfriend again? Tell her I’m married.” But even half asleep I’m not that stupid.
“What...on earth...are you talking about?” I said. “Whose calling us at this hour?”
“She’s some young woman who says that she Googled emergency doctors at your hospital and got our home phone number.”
“That’s scary.” I had visions of being stalked by my patients.
“No that’s OK, sweetheart,” my wife said to the caller. “Are you having a medical problem? Do you need to call an ambulance?” Now I was really confused. I guess my wife was convinced that I wasn’t capable of having a girlfriend on the side. In any event, she quickly abandoned her suspicions of me and returned to her motherly tone of voice. “She says that a cat bit her thumb at the animal shelter where she works,” she said, covering the receiver again. “Is it red or swollen,” she asked the caller.
“What are you doing?” I whispered. “You can’t give out medical advice. You don’t know who she is. She might be a stalker. She might have a rip roaring cellulitis that requires IV antibiotics. She might sue you.” But she can’t sue you,” I said to myself. You’re not even a doctor. “Yeah, you’re not even a doctor,” I said with some resentment. “What are you doing giving medical advice? Honey,...”
“Are there any streaks running up your arm?” my wife asked. “Do you have any swollen nodes in your arm pits? Do you have any fever?” I had to admit that I was impressed with her medical competence, despite her lack of training.
“Honey,” I tried again. “You really shouldn’t be giving out medical advice to a stranger over the phone.”
My wife glared at me. She waved her hands at me as if to say ‘Go back to sleep.’
“I’m so sorry it hurts,” she consoled the caller. “Have you taken any ibuprofen?”
“What if she had an allergic reaction,” I warned, lying back like an obedient dog.
“Are all doctors so paranoid?” she asked, covering the phone again. “The poor thing just has a sore finger. I’m just trying to give her a little motherly advice.”
“Tell her to call her own mother,” I said into my pillow. My wife glared again. I enjoyed this call more when she thought I might have a girlfriend. Now she was acting like she was the girl’s best friend.
“Just try soaking it in Epsom salt and see it that helps, OK? And take some ibuprofen. If it doesn’t get any better by morning you can go in to see your doctor. But I don’t think you need to go in to the ER right now. Believe me, you don’t want to go to the ER and sit around for six to eight hours and pay some doctor $500 to give you the same advice that I just gave you for free.”
“Hey,” I sat up indignantly. “You don’t have to talk trash.”
“Good night,” she said politely, hanging up the phone. “It’s true isn’t it? Wouldn’t you have given the same advice?”
“Probably,” I mumbled rolling over and feeling useless. “Except we can’t give advice over the phone.”
“And why not?”
“She might have gas gangrene and go in tomorrow and find that her finger has to be cut off. Then she’ll Google my name again. But this time it will be to get an address where to serve the law suit.”
She looked at me and shook her head sadly. “That doesn’t sound like the Mark I know. Don’t you remember when the neighbor cut his finger with the kitchen knife? You cleaned it and put super glue on it. They never went to the ER. And remember the time you were on the sidelines at the high school football game when that boy dislocated his finger? You put it back, taped it, and sent him back into the game. He didn’t go to the ER either.”
“The first case was the neighbor,” I said defensively. “They weren’t going to sue us, no matter what. Not after their dog bit our kid. And the second case, well, that kid was an All-Stater. We needed him to win the game. But you’re right. Doing what I did was just plain dumb. Doctors can’t do things like that. Maybe you can. But we can’t.”
“Now doesn’t that strike you as odd? The most knowledgeable person in this room is discouraged from giving good sound practical advice, even first aid, out of fear of being sued.”
“I know you’re right,” I said, thinking that if I acquiesced maybe she’d let me go back to sleep. But I couldn’t resist going on.
“Lot’s of doctors would be happy to provide tons of free care to people who can’t pay for it, just like doctors used to do. But they can’t. Either they are restricted by some government regulation or their insurance company is telling them that they will not cover them if they get sued. Either way, it’s just easier to do nothing. I didn’t make it this way. It’s just the world we live in.
I can’t change it.” She was used to my pedantic tone and wasn’t buying a word of it.
“Maybe you can. Have you ever thought about that? Maybe you can do something that will change the way doctors think about patients and make them less fearful of being sued at every corner.”
“Honey, it’s 4:30 in the morning. It’s too late – or early – to start changing the world.” I rolled over to give her the hint that I was going back to sleep.
“I’m not telling you that you have to change the world. I just want you to change how YOU are thinking.” I hate it when she hangs these moral questions out in the air just I’m trying to empty my mind to sleep. I knew she would fall fast asleep and leave me to ponder the question for hours.
“Oh, by the way, did you turn off the oven after dinner,” I said while faking a yawn and closing my eyes. There was silence for several moments. But I knew I had her.
“I know what you’re doing, Buster,” she said as she padded off to the kitchen.