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Essay: A Doctor's Empathy Has Its Limits


In the years before I went to medical school, I worked as a nurse’s aide. Early one morning, one of the surgeons dropped by the Emergency Room in a particularly good mood. The ER doctor asked him why he was so happy.“It was the first night in a week that I did not get a 2:30 a.m. phone call from Mrs. Swanson,” he replied. I pretended to work but kept listening.

“Really? Why does she call you at night?”

“Well, it seems that since being discharged from the hospital, she hasn’t been sleeping well at all. I prescribed medication, relaxation, exercise, dietary change … anything I could think of … but she could not sleep! She was spending hours each night roaming throughout her house.”

“And ...?”

“And so, when she couldn’t sleep, she would call me at home at 2:30 a.m. and tell me how miserable she was! Every night, the phone would ring and there she would be!”

“What would she say?”

“Not much. Same thing every night. 'Doctor, are you asleep? I can’t sleep, Doctor! Can’t you give me something? I feel so tired, Doctor! When will I sleep?’ I was running out of ideas.”

The ER doctor thought for a second. “Why didn’t you tell her to call in the morning?”

“I did tell her that, of course. It just didn’t make any difference.”

They stood silently for a while. I'm not certain what the surgeon was thinking, but I'm certain the ER doctor was trying to come up with other treatment options. The absurdity of the situation percolated for a few moments; they both pictured the bleary-eyed woman forlornly padding around in robe and slippers repeatedly checking the clock and finally picking up the phone to make her nightly call.  

The ER doctor spoke: “But you said you slept through the night last night …”

“No, I didn’t say that. What I said was, ‘I didn’t get a call at 2:30 a.m ...'"

The ER doctor was confused. “What do you mean?”

“I mean she didn’t call me.”

“Oh, no! You didn’t …”

“Of course I did! At 3:00 a.m., my alarm went off. I picked up the phone and called her! ‘Were you sleeping, Mrs. Swanson? You were? Oh, that's wonderful! I'm so happy for you! I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay! Uninterrupted sleep is so refreshing, don't you think? Well, good night!’ She mumbled something in return. I'm pretty confident that will be our last nighttime phone conversation!”

The ER doctor shook his head. The surgeon grinned and pushed the metal plate on the wall and the ER doors slid apart. He was humming as he headed down the corridor towards the elevator that would take him to the operating room where he would start his day.

Lake Effect essayist Doctor Bruce Campbell is a head and neck cancer surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.  He also writes about his experiences in his blog, “Reflections in a Head Mirror.”

Bruce Campbell
Bruce Campbell , M.D., was torn between career objectives in college, eventually choosing medicine over a life in radio. He is a Head and Neck Cancer Surgeon at the Medical College of Wisconsin, holding faculty appointments in the Department of Otolaryngology and the Center for Bioethics & Medical Humanities.