22 Oct Losing Touch With the Patient
The New York Times | Pauline W. Chen, MD | October 21 – Several years ago I helped care for a man who had been hospitalized with a severe infection of the abdominal wall. When his primary doctors discovered that the bacteria responsible was resistant to most antibiotics, they quickly isolated him, moving him into a single room with a sign on the door proclaiming “Contact Precautions” and directing visitors to put on gloves, mask and gown before entering.
But garbing up in all those items was not a straightforward exercise. The gowns, vast swaths of baby-yellow polyester, added an insulating and sweat-inducing layer. The masks were either so flimsy they fell off easily or so unyielding they muffled voices and steamed up eyeglasses. And the gloves had such generous finger pockets that the excess latex inevitably got tangled in the loops and ties of the gowns and masks or in the dressing materials and bedding of the patient.
None of these precautions made it easy to examine or even visit him. Most of us were loath to go through the process of gearing up more than we had to; and even his wife of more than 20 years occasionally groaned as she dutifully swathed herself in the protective coverings each day. As the weeks wore on, we clinicians found ourselves minimizing our interactions, designating one team member to suit up and complete the work needed or shouting out updates and questions to the patient from the sterile safety of the doorway.
Increasingly isolated in these ways, he began to withdraw from everyone except his wife. His once daily declarations that he was going to “beat this infection” became less vocal, dimming to whispers, then disappearing altogether. He stopped turning to face us when we called out to him, choosing instead to continue staring blankly at the ceiling.
As his lungs, heart and then kidneys began to fail, his room became crammed with life-support machines and metal poles and pumps metering out intravenous medications. The small space in which he was confined eventually became a space-age pastiche of beeping machines, plastic tubes and wires, and shrouded, faceless, hovering yellow figures.
When he finally died, from cardiac arrest, more than two months later, it was hard not to remember the weeks leading up to his death and to wonder about one thing. In trying so hard to contain the infection, had we lost sight of the person?
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