Returning from ten days out of town, I took my phone off call-forwarding, unpacked, and prepared to drive to Trader Joe’s for groceries. Before I left, the phone rang with a housecall at the Torrance Marriott, twenty miles distant. The good news was that it was Saturday evening, so freeway traffic was light, and the patient was seventeen, an age when illnesses are rarely complicated. The bad news was that he was Japanese, a people admirable in every respect except for their reluctance to learn English.
As I stepped out of the elevator, a middle-aged Japanese man rose from a chair. “Are you the doctor for the hotel?” he said.
I was delighted. “Yes. Are you going to interpret for me?”
He stepped back in alarm and waved his English-Japanese phrase book. Hiding my disappointment, I followed him to the room. When he began flipping through the booklet, I shook my head and pointed to the phone before dialing the guest’s Japanese insurance service for an interpreter. There followed a lengthy encounter as the phone passed back and forth between me, the parents, and the patient. The young man had suddenly complained of fatigue the previous day. He was otherwise in good health; he had no other symptoms, and I found nothing abnormal on examination. Sudden fatigue is an ominous sign in the elderly but rarely in an adolescent. I suspected an emotional problem, perhaps from the stress of travel. This is hard to explain across both language and culture, made even harder because I didn’t give a medicine. Giving medicine is a universal language; that’s why doctors prescribe even when it isn’t necessary.
Luckily these were Japanese, so they listened to my advice (get a good night’s sleep, continue with their itinerary, call if the problem persisted) with unfailing courtesy, nodding approval, and thanking me effusively as I left.