By Dr. Kate Scannell, Syndicated columnist
First published in print: 04/14/2013
Some patients seem to lodge forever in my memory, prompted into my consciousness by happenstance cues from the outside world. And others -- those who have variously shaped my identity as a doctor -- steadfastly reside in the forefront of my awareness, routinely accompanying my thoughts and influencing my view of the world.
One of those latter patients was a young woman I met 30 years ago in a Chicago hospital's emergency room. That hospital -- Michael Reese -- no longer exists. But one room within it -- the one in which we met -- remains solidly constructed in my memory, the details of the woman's face, the room's furnishings, the floor tile and wall color all painfully clear.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon, the kind of slow summer day that typically lured Chicagoans to the lake or Navy Pier. I'd been up all night as a medical resident in training, my green scrubs wrinkled, caffeine keeping me afloat.
The young woman was to be my last patient of the day. I grabbed her chart from the ER nurse and read its sparse contents on my way to her room. I learned that she was 18 years old and living in the housing projects adjacent to our hospital. The intake nurse had recorded the patient's chief complaint as "SA" -- letters of unknown significance to me.
But their meaning became instantly clear when I entered the young woman's room. Dressed in a pale hospital gown, she sat rigidly on the edge of the gurney, her legs dangling motionless and barely contacting the floor. Her every facial muscle clenched while tears dropped unceremoniously onto her lap. She stared at a bare patch of wall a few feet away and said nothing when I introduced myself.
Evidence of prior commotion surrounded her stillness. Discarded iodine swabs. Crumpled medical supply wrappers on the desk. Blood-tinged towels beneath the gurney. And "the rape examination kit" wide opened.
On this sunny Chicago afternoon this woman was in our ER, being questioned by police and probed by strange doctors. Blood and cervical samples had been taken from her body, checking for sexually-transmitted infections. A "baseline" pregnancy test was being processed.
The woman's stunned angry silence was as diagnostic of trauma as any "kit" could ever be. Closing her chart and deciding to forgo the usual litany of medical questions, I just sat down and said, "I'm sorry." And then I waited, my chest aching, my own anger expanding.
"I was just coming home from the grocery store," she finally said. "They were waiting for me in the stairwell." (more…)
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April 13, 2013
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