I have an idealized version of myself. This version of me wakes up early and packs greek yogurt and (homemade) granola into mason jars. I pack gym clothes into my bag. I make coffee with time to spare. I stride out of my apartment at exactly the time that will allow me to be a few minutes early for work.
Then there’s the actual version. Some mornings I would barely pass as a functional traffic cone. Like Neo in the Matrix with, the way you perceive yourself can often be rosier than the truth. In the matrix, Neo’s hair is cut. His clothes fit a bit better. He’s also not being hunted by sentient robot monsters. Perhaps it’s easier on the ego, or perhaps humans are just natural optimists, but it usually helps us to picture things in the best possible light.
Everybody lies. I lie. I’ve lied to doctors flat out. They say that physicians make the worst patients. It’s all true. The ones who know the repercussions of not following medical advice are often the most loathe to adhere to it. 7 day course of antibiotics for my bronchitis? That’s cute. How about 1?
The reason I bring all of this up is that medicine presents you with some very interesting ethical situations, specifically regarding lying and truth telling. In certain instances, you actually get to hold a pure lie detector test in your hand. I recently had one of these experiences with a patient who came to be one of my absolute favorites. I’ll call him Mr. Johnson.
Now, as most people in the medical field can attest, patient histories must be taken with a grain of salt. No matter what the guy slurring his speech, stumbling around your ER with breath that smells like the basement of a prohibition-era speakeasy tells you, it’s a safe bet that he’s been drinking. Taking a history is the start of a conversation. It’s one data point among many.
I was sitting down to take Mr. Johnson’s history. He had just had a heart attack, and I was trying to figure out why. I didn’t have to look very far – he had a history of severe coronary artery disease, he’d received coronary artery stents in the past for prior heart attacks, and had had multiple risk factors – older male, diabetic, history of cigarette smoking. But something else caught my eye looking over his chart: “history of extensive drug use.”
When patients are admitted to the hospital, they are triaged at several levels. The first stage is a triage nurse outside the ER, and the next is an ER physician. Much of the diagnostic workup is ordered in the ER, including quick resulting tests like EKGs and cardiac enzymes. Others take a bit longer to return, like urine drug screens.
When I went to speak to Mr. Johnson, I had the results of his urine drug screen back. Positive for cocaine.
I asked Mr. Johnson what he’d been doing when his chest pain came on. Nothing, he said. Had he been exercising? Nope. What had he been up to right before it came on? Just sitting at home, he said. I continued with the usual questions – where was the pain? Did it radiate? What did it feel like? Had he felt it before? Does he usually get chest pain when he exerts himself?
Now came the moment of truth. “Sir, have you used any drugs recently?”
Of course, I knew the answer already. But there was something more important at stake here. Did he trust me enough to share this info with me? Or had I come across as callow, uncaring; someone who would potentially judge him for this transgression. I had scanned his chart beforehand – no mention of drug use in the ER doc’s history. He hadn’t told anyone yet.
It’s easy to cling to our idealized selves. I was at my own checkup recently, and the doctor asked me how many times per week I exercise. “4-5 times per week.” Lie! He asked me how I’d been eating. “Mostly vegetables, and I’ve been really trying to avoid unnecessary carbs these past few months.” Lie lie lie! What did I have to gain by this? He knows my weight. He knows my cholesterol, my triglycerides. Is it out of self preservation? A refusal to look myself squarely in the mirror?
Mr. Johnson took a long pause before he answered.
I crave patient trust. As an internal medicine resident, I help my patients by altering long term disease progressions. Things like medication adherence, followup appointments, and lifestyle changes are paramount. Not the sexiest stuff, but immensely important. And it requires trust both ways. We trust patients to tell us their story accurately so we can make the right diagnosis and provide the right treatment. And they trust us to have their best interests at heart, to make sure what we tell them to do is worth it, and will actually help them. It’s pretty simple: If I have mutual trust with a patient, I can help them. If not, I probably can’t.
Before Mr. Johnson answered, I spoke up again. I told him, “Look, I’m not here to judge. I just want to know what happened so we can make the best medical decisions. Telling the truth is hard. But what you tell me doesn’t leave the room.”
“Doc, I’ve been clean for 6 years. I used to do everything. Heroin, cocaine, you name it. In and out of rehab. I’m 6 – er, was – 6 years clean, though. I swear. I absolutely swear. ”
“I believe you. What happened yesterday?”
“I messed up. I slipped. Coke. Not mine, though. A friend’s. I went to a party last night. My buddies are in town. From Cleveland…”
I had to know. “Are you…are you a Cavs fan?”
Mr. Johnson cracked a huge grin. He immediately hung his head, trying to look a bit more somber, but he noticed I was smiling too. His grin returned.
“Hail to the King,” he said.
“Amazing series,” I said.
And just like that, we had trust. The time for reminding him that drug use was bad for his heart would come, but not now. We spoke for almost an hour about the NBA finals, his childhood in Cleveland, his medical history. We spoke about his seven brothers and sisters, all of whom are now deceased. We connected. On my last day in the CCU, he asked for me to be his personal doctor.
He eventually had stents placed in his coronary arteries. I told him he’d have to take his blood thinners with Lebron-esque consistency. “I can do that,” he said.
I’m trying to learn from Mr. Johnson. It takes guts to tell someone you were wrong. You, alone, and not someone else. It’s hard to take responsibility for our shortcomings. But perhaps that’s what allows us to change.