Monday, March 4, 2013

Taking Things Out of the Ear

Cleaning his ear, a guest removed the Q-tip and saw that the cotton at the tip had disappeared.

Extracting objects from an ear is a satisfying experience for everyone involved. Over thirty years, I’ve removed ten cotton balls and one bug.

Mostly I remove wax. I’ve done this 110 times. Using a curette, one can scoop it out in seconds. Ear-nose-threat specialists use a curette, but I don’t have the nerve, having seen bloody results from attempts by other GPs. I use a large syringe.

All hotel rooms have an ice bucket. I fill it with warm water and set it on the bathroom sink. Warned they are about to get wet, guests remove expensive clothing, drape a towel over their shoulders, and lean over. After filling the syringe, I pull the ear back, rest the tip just inside the opening, and squirt. Most impactions require a dozen attempts or less. A few specks flowing out herald the great moment, and the plug itself may pause coyly at the opening.

“Get ready for the big show!” I announce before delivering the final spray. Guest invariably recoil with horror as a soggy brown lump, often the size of a kidney bean, flies into the sink.

Sometimes I pay a heavy price. Guests who work hard with a Q-tip (a device perfectly designed for pushing wax) confront me with a solid wall of material resting deep inside. Time passes as I refill the bucket and work the syringe. Water drips from the guest. My thumb aches from pushing the plunger. At intervals I stop, either because the guest begs for a rest or to peer inside with my otoscope to check the waxy wall, now glistening but stubbornly immobile. I often joke that when doctors die and go to Hell, they receive a syringe and a patient with an ear sealed with concrete.

During training, doctors learn a rule for procedures that aren’t working (difficult spinal taps, searches for slivers): keep trying. So I persevere, ignoring my throbbing thumb. On two visits, I stopped at the guest’s request. All other ear washes succeeded although a few exceeded fifteen minutes.

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