Welcome to “Tales of Survival,” a new feature of Clinical Correlations. Bellevue Hospital, the nation’s oldest public hospital and the heart of our residency program, provides unique and unforgettable training for new physicians. It is probably safe to say that every resident who trains at Bellevue graduates with a lifetime of stories about the experience. “Tales of Survival” was created to convey some of those experiences.
Written by Michael Tanner MD
It was back in the early Nineties. I was a young attending, enjoying a quiet rice pudding down in the coffee shop on a slow afternoon when my beeper went off.
“It’s Nolan. I’m at Bellevue.”
My old friend Tom Nolan formed the Detectives Club in third grade. In fifth grade he had decided on a career in the FBI. When he discovered the Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler at age 13, his fate was sealed. He was now working for the Manhattan DA’s office and spoke primarily in monosyllables.
“Hey Tom. As a Psych patient or on business?”
“My partner’s been shot.”
“That’s terrible! Where is he—ICU or on the floor?”
“He’s on Trauma. Fifteen West, bed 7B. It would mean a lot to him if you could come up and take a look at him.”
“I’ll be right up.”
I got off the elevator on fifteen and went into the bathroom to spruce up a bit. I combed my hair and straightened my tie and white coat. Then I headed over to the west side, marshalling all my newly acquired powers of attending-level charisma.
When I walked into the room there was a middle-aged African-American man lying in bed in no apparent distress, two cops, Tom, and a couple of family members. Tom introduced me.
“This is Dr. Tanner. We go way back.”
“I’m very sorry about this. How are you doing?”
“I guess I’ll be okay.”
“May I take a look?”
“Sure.” The patient pulled down the sheet to reveal a recently changed dressing covering half of his lateral right thigh. I didn’t examine the wound.
I said: “Did they catch the guy who did it?”
There was a pause.
The silence persisted.
Then I heard the sound that someone’s nasopharynx makes when there is so much pressure in the system that air is threatening to come blasting back out through the Eustachian tubes.
“Yeah, I think they nabbed him,” said one of the cops.
The room burst into laughter.
“He’s been brought before the bar of justice,” said the other cop. Big laughs.
The first cop, on a roll: “The citizens of the city can all sleep a little easier tonight knowing that the perpetrator has been apprehended.”
Confused, I looked at the patient, who was squirming.
He looked me right in the eye. “I shot myself,” he said miserably.
Certain things started making sense to me. Usually when a cop gets shot and brought to Bellevue, the whole ground floor is a sea of blue uniforms, press conferences, excitement… This guy was up on 15, and the vibe was not exactly Fallen Hero. They hadn’t even given the poor man a single room.
I gave Tom an “Et tu, Brute?” look and said, “Oh! Tom didn’t tell me.”
I told him to get well soon and got out of there.
The moral of the story:
1. Don’t go into the room without knowing the patient.
2. If you’re going to say something really stupid, it’s better if there isn’t family there.