I had never met her before but I had been told she was originally from the Netherlands. I wanted to make her feel welcome to our place and I had selected an orange face mask to wear. I was told of her arrival and asked my Dutch colleague how to greet and welcome her in Dutch.
A faded washed out looking lady sat in her wheelchair, accompanied by her daughter, son and his wife. Her skin looked translucent and had a slight grey tinge to it. I bent down so that our eyes were level and said.
Hoi daar (Hello there)
She looked up at me with her dull eyes and there was the slightest hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth.
We wheeled her into the bedroom and with great effort and assistance from her son she was able to climb into bed.
I asked what she had done for work, her son could see his mother was too weak and tired to answer and said, “Mum was a nurse, in the last half of her career she worked in mental health.”
She needed a line inserted into her arm, this had been difficult before the chemotherapy had made the veins hide even more.
To put her at ease I talked about my first job after graduation. Psychiatric house officer, where I had to take care of the physical needs of over 40 inpatients. A busy job because a lot of the patients had many physical ailments and were overall people who did not take care of themselves well.
I recounted the first patient I ever examined. A man who was naked and stood in the centre of his bed with his arms outstretched in the crucifix position. He couldn’t follow my instructions as at the time he was incapable of conversing in any of the languages of the Planet Earth.
My next task was to take blood from a patient with suspected Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome. This is a rare but potentially lethal condition that can occur in unlucky patients who are on anti-psychotic medications. Blood tests are needed to confirm the diagnosis. The problem I was faced with was the patient had been in a catatonic state for over a week. He was cast on his bed in the foetal position with both of his arms flexed towards his chest. I wasn’t able to access the veins of his arms at all. The first blood test I ever took as a new doctor was from the patient’s right foot.
These stories elicited a quiet chuckle and another wisp of a smile from my patient, who said, “My patients were always up to many antics. I can see you’ve been up to some yourself.”
I smiled and winked at her as I left her to spend some time with her family.