My Wednesday off

May 23, 2003

A free day to pamper herself turned into one filled with terror for this physician.

 

My Wednesday off

A free day to pamper herself turned into one filled with terror for this physician.

Kerri M. Peterson, MD
Family Practitioner/Carmel Valley, CA

I'd just begun working a new schedule of four-day weeks with Wednesdays off—a day to indulge and pamper myself. I snuggled into my cozy comforter, set the pillow just right to ease my aching neck, and picked up a novel from the stack beside my bed.

Then the phone rang.

I considered letting the answering machine pick up, figuring I could be paged if anyone really needed me. But then I remembered my pager was downstairs. So I picked up the phone. It was Dorothy, a neighbor I barely knew. I'd exchanged a few words with her last week.

"Hello. Is this Kerri?" Dorothy sounded upset, as if she'd been crying.

"What's up, Dorothy?" I asked, dreading her answer.

"I need you to come over right away," she cried. "And . . . bring some of your doctor stuff."

"My doctor stuff? What do you mean?"

"Come quick" was all she said before she hung up the phone.

Alarmed, I jumped into jeans and a sweatshirt and dashed toward her house. Halfway, I turned around and went back for my car, realizing that I'd need it if this were a real emergency.

I called to Dorothy through the screen door and, getting no answer, let myself in. I followed a trail of fresh blood that led from the bathroom to the kitchen, and found her there rinsing her wrists under the faucet. Blood was everywhere—it soaked several towels, dripped from the countertops, and smeared Dorothy's face and T-shirt.

"What happened?" I cried. As if in response, Dorothy sank unconscious onto the floor. I quickly wrapped towels around her wrists and called 911.

I spent the better part of the day at Dorothy's side. The first person I called was her mother.

"This is Dr. Peterson, your daughter's neighbor. Dorothy's had an accident and has lost a lot of blood. She's stable now, in ICU, but she's in very serious condition."

Dorothy's mother cut me off abruptly.

"What'd she do this time? Slit her wrists? Oh, for Christ's sake! How much more of this do we have to take?"

I was aghast and confused.

"You mean this isn't the first time?"

"God, no! She's been pullin' these tricks since she was 13—cutting on herself, making herself sick, anything to get attention. One time she even rubbed her own excrement into a cut she'd made so it'd get infected. She was in the hospital for two weeks with that one! IV antibiotics, the whole nine yards. She probably was in her glory!"

"Well, she must be in a lot of pain to keep doing this. I think you should come."

"I know I sound callous, but these dramas eat up her father and me. We finally decided we'd had enough. We just don't come anymore. So now you know. Next time, don't bother calling." She hung up, leaving me perplexed and angry.

Next I called one of Dorothy's friends. This time I got a little more sympathy, but still, an indifference that I found difficult to accept.

"Poor Dorothy," she said. "She's a lost soul. She seems okay some days, but then goes into this self-destructive mode. But hey, she's strong. Don't worry about her, Doc."

I wasn't so sure. I didn't know how serious her previous attempts were, but I did know this one was life-threatening.

The picture that was emerging was not a pretty one. On the one hand, I was outraged and incredulous at the lack of feeling on the part of her family and friends. Dorothy obviously needed help, and she wasn't getting it. On the other hand, she'd pushed them to their limits. How much more could they be expected to take?

I went back to her house to clean up. The bloody carving knife in the kitchen sink sent a chill through me. I reflected on my conversations with Dorothy's mother and friend and wondered, was Dorothy really trying to kill herself? Or was this merely another attention-getter that had gone awry? Why had she called me, if she was serious? Should I be angry or grateful?

The answer was clear. Thank God Dorothy did call me. My Wednesday off hadn't turned out as I'd planned, but Dorothy might have died if I hadn't been home. She might not have had the strength to make a second phone call. I took a moment to think about being a physician. Faced with an unexpected crisis, I was able to jump right into it and handle it efficiently, without feeling panicky or overwhelmed. We are truly a privileged few, to be witness to the heights and depths of humanity, in all its vulnerability, fear, and joy. How grateful I am that I'm a physician.

 

Kerri Peterson. My Wednesday off. Medical Economics May 23, 2003;80:77.