Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Little Red Bumps

 “They’re little bumps all over… Sort of red.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“Little red bumps over my body… spots. Some are raised. They sort of itch…”

Americans, even with a college degree, are painfully inarticulate. Can you describe the face of someone familiar? Novelists do it all the time, but I bet you’d have trouble. Words like nodule, pustule, blister, wheal, plaque, ulcer, scale, and fissure are not obscure medical terms. Educated people know what they mean but can’t seem to use them.

If a caller said “I have dozens of one to three millimeter pustules surrounded by a red base, mostly on my back and chest, not so many on my arms and legs,” my diagnosis is “chicken pox.” But “red bumps” is the best many can do.

I’m happy to make diagnoses over the phone, and guests are eager not to pay for a visit. I have little trouble with respiratory infections and upset stomachs, but skin problems frustrate me.

“I worry about bedbugs. Do you think it’s bedbugs?”

“What do they look like?”

“Little red bumps….. Do you think it might be an allergy?”

“Could you be more specific?”

“Bumps…They’re raised, some of them, and they're red….”

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Upside of Cheap Motels

Cheap motels have many advantages from a hotel doctor’s point of view.

Valets are absent, so I can park inside and safely ignore the threatening signs. Security is absent, so elevators respond to whatever floor I push, and I don’t have to explain myself to the front desk. Americans are absent because they can’t afford the fee. I love America but I also love foreign patients. They’re deferential, and they don’t sue.

On the downside, customer service declines with the price of the room. I often need to call in a prescription or consult with the insurance. When I pick up the hotel phone and punch “9” for an outside line, I may hear a busy signal because many hotels require a deposit before opening the phone. If I identify myself as a doctor, larger hotels open the line, but clerks in cheap hotels refuse unless the guest comes down and pays.

Insurers send me to hotels that don’t call, so I take the opportunity to introduce myself. In mainline hotels, staff remember their manners. They smile, listen intently as I make my pitch, agree that my service sounds wonderful, and thank me effusively for my business card. Then they probably forget about me. It’s rare to pick up business, but I always leave feeling good.  

In cheap motels, clerks don’t disguise their lack of interest. “Nobody gets sick,” they say.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Lost in Translation Again

“Spik Spanish?”

Not a phrase I like to hear. Ninety percent of Latin American guests speak enough English to get along, and Hispanic hotel staff are usually available. Unfortunately, this visit occurred at a small Super 8, and the single employee on duty was American. Under these circumstances, I shake my head apologetically and proceed in English.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I asked.

As usual when something exotic like an American doctor appears, there was a substantial audience. Usually someone volunteers to interpret. Sure enough, a man stepped forward. He tapped patient’s abdomen and then whirled his finger around his mouth.

“Is she vomiting?” I asked.

Blank looks from everyone, a bad sign. I waited, hoping someone else would contribute, but the man merely repeated his gestures.

I phoned the insurance agency’s 800 number. Its employees are Hispanic and willing to interpret.

“Would you ask what’s bothering her and tell me what she says?” I said after explaining the situation.

I handed over the phone and the lady began a long monologue. When she finally handed back the phone, I listened to the insurance clerk. “She is sick from eating. She give medicine from Argentina, but it does not help. She wants a medicine to help.”

That was too little information. I tried to be specific. “Would you ask what are her symptoms?”

Another long conversation followed by a short, unsatisfactory translation. Eventually I learned enough to thank the clerk, adding that I would examine the patient and then call back for more interpreting.

At the end I gave instructions and medication, and everyone seemed happy. I always leave with the uneasy feeling that the interpreter has left out a great deal. Fortunately the ailments I encounter are usually easy, and the occasional exception is obvious.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Almost Stiffed

“This is one time the hotel will not be able to charge the bill,” reported the manager one evening when he called about a Middle-Eastern family.

Since I usually collect from the guest, I assured him that that was not a problem.

He connected me to the room where I spoke to someone whose English was not good. The speaker or perhaps someone else had an allergy or maybe a rash that needed a cream. Did I know the proper cream?.... After much to and fro they decided I should come at 11 a.m. the following day.

The guest who answered the door showed me a rash on her neck. It was a simple contact dermatitis. I explained and handed her a tube of cortisone cream. That, of course, was the easy part.

The room was a luxurious suite. The patient was Philippine, so I knew she was a servant. It was disturbing to notice that she was alone. I suspected she did not expect to pay; sure enough, she looked puzzled when I presented my invoice and more puzzled when I explained that the hotel would not pay.

I passed an uncomfortable ten minutes as she noodled with her cell phone, trying to reach her employers. Had they deliberately absented themselves to avoid paying? It might not have been deliberate; sometimes extremely rich people never concern themselves with paying for stuff because it’s always taken care of.

She asked if she could call the hotel. I shrugged, resigned to being stiffed. But it turned out the current manager had no objection to charging the bill.

Monday, September 12, 2016


A worried mother phoned, asking me to see her two year-old who had a fever of 101.

I’d seen the child two days earlier. He had a 101 fever but was not particularly sick, and my exam was normal. I diagnosed a virus, handed over a bottle of Tylenol, and told the mother he might feel under the weather for two or three or four days.

Patients often call after a few days to tell me the illness hasn’t gone away. Sometimes they report a new symptom that gives me pause, but mostly nothing has changed. That was the case this time, so I reassured the mother. Another housecall wasn’t necessary.

People rarely argue with a doctor, so the mother did not disagree with my reassurance. But worry is contagious. No one is perfect, and there was a tiny chance that something terrible was brewing up.

I could have relieved my mind by sending them to a clinic. The doctor would find nothing and reassure the mother. If something terrible happened later, he was the last doctor she had seen, and I would be off the hook. But I didn’t do that, so I worried.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


A young man stood blocking the door.

“I want to see your license,” he said.

I showed him. He examined it suspiciously and didn’t move.

“Get out of the way!” said a voice inside. 

Reluctantly, he let me pass. I approached the patient, apparently the man’s girl friend, who had phoned me because of an earache. As she described her problem, he glowered from the doorway.

“I don’t think you’re a doctor,” he said, interrupting. “Where’s your white coat?”

“Shut up, asshole!” she shouted before turning back to me. “He’s being a jerk. He’s probably a little high. Don’t worry.”  

“You should leave,” he said a few minutes later. Approaching, he delivered a gentle shove to my shoulder. The girl friend cursed and pushed him violently.

“Sorry, but I’m not feeling safe here,” I said. I walked out and went down to the lobby. The woman appeared a minute later, full of apologies, and we finished the consultation.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Insect Bites

A caller was suffering an itchy rash, present for a week. Three companions were also affected. That sounded good. When more than one person has a medical problem, it’s the same problem and not serious.

In the room, all four gathered to show me their skin which revealed the scattered, small pink pustules left by ectoparasites. I use that term to be accurate because not every bug that bites is an “insect.” Spiders, ticks, mites, scorpions, and centipedes aren’t.

Bedbugs (an insect) have become fashionable, but these travelers had been moving frequently from place to place. Where hygiene is reasonable, lice (an insect) limit themselves to hairy areas; I didn’t see any. My diagnosis was scabies, a mite (not an insect) that burrows under the skin. Scabies is hard to catch from clothes or bedding; mostly it requires rubbing against someone else with scabies, and it looked like these young people did a lot of that.