After earning my master’s in Speech, Language Pathology, I took my first job at The University Of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a massive four-block monstrosity consisting of 4 separate but connected hospitals. Getting lost was only one of my concerns. Learning how to communicate with doctors was my number one fear.
Why? They’re doctors for God’s sake! Geniuses! Really smart people that understand the inner workings of the human body and make tons of money. They know EVERYTHING. Like priests, you call them “doctor”. You can’t do that with your plumber or your friend the exotic dancer, but doctors are so important they don’t even need names!
The first time I spoke with a doctor, I was a mess. They’re very busy people and tend to walk backwards away from you during the conversation. You need to be quick about things and get to the point, something the graduate professors failed to mention in school. To survive in a hospital environment you must learn doctoreeze, which is the same dialect used by the fast talker guy from the old Federal Express commercials.
“Why? I know she’s aspirating. She coughs every time she drinks liquid,” he says smugly, while doing a fox trot backwards down the corridor while checking his pager and drinking coffee.
torecommendforsafefeedingupondischarge (Insert sucking sound of large, almost too late, inhale, here.)
“Look. I ordered speech so you could recommend a discharge diet, not order more tests. Why can’t you just send her home on thickened liquids?”, he asked, disgusted.
“Fine. But it better be done this morning because I want to discharge her this afternoon.”
Later in my career, I learned to say, “Hey, I know. How about I pull out my magic swallow wand and wave it over Mrs. Smith’s head before she leaves to ensure she doesn’t get aspiration pneumonia and die in a month since you spent all that time, energy and money doing that nifty right, radical neck dissection”.
That always went over well.
In defense of the doctors of my past, treating swallowing disorders was new in 1992. Most doctors once educated on the process were very open to the demands of speech therapists. I’m sure docs today don’t even flinch when you request videofluoroscopy, but back then many didn’t understand the importance of seeing the swallowing mechanism in action after a stroke or a long term tracheotomy or due to a progressive neurological condition.
And that was the big lesson for me. Doctors it turned out, weren’t Gods. They didn’t know everything. Sure, they knew a hell of a lot more than me but I quickly realized that I knew a hell of a lot more about swallowing then they did. It was one of those Oprah “Aha Moments” when I realized that no matter whom I’m speaking with there’s probably some topic that I know more about, something I could teach them.
After months of fast talking and quick walking my laziness got the best of me and I learned another interesting tidbit…When talking with doctors, less was actually more. In fact, when talking with anyone, less was more. To be successful at my job all I needed to do was talk less, listen more, assume nothing and the rest would work itself out.
My third big insight came when I realized that the hospital was a great metaphor for life in general. Sure, there’s an obvious food-chain when it comes to hospital employees, but look closely and you’ll realize that if even one link is broken, all can be thrown out of whack. The truth is, even though the surgeon with the fancy degree saved your life, if the high school drop-out with his GED from housekeeping didn’t disinfect the O.R. properly, you’re fucked.
Working with doctors made me a better patient, similar to how waiting on tables made me a better restaurant patron. They taught me to be specific and precise with my verbal communication yet vague enough when documenting in the chart to guarantee insurance coverage.
Working in a hospital taught me how to be a better human being. Seeing people in their most naked, most vulnerable state certainly humbles a person.
After six years of working in hospitals, rehabilitation center and nursing homes, I learned the most important lesson of all – it’s the nurses not the doctors that you really want to impress. The nurse calls the doctor if you stop breathing and makes sure that you get important things like a morphine drip or your bed pan changed. So take it from me, you should always be nice to your doctor but be sure to kiss your nurse’s ass!
I’m really glad that I had an opportunity to work in the medical field. It helped me to be better able to cut through the bullshit when I became interested in alternative health and wellness…