July began in the hospital, with my first week on Internal Medicine. IPIM, or in-patient internal medicine, is our chance to learn how to take care of patients who are admitted to the hospital. We have four weeks spread throughout our third year that consist of 6 days each. The hours are long, and its filled with mountains of reading, thinking about and caring for acutely ill patients.
My first patient presented to the emergency department the day before I arrived with shortness of breath. He was recently discharged from the hospital, after more than 100 days for the same chief complaint. He was back because he was unable to refill the proper medication, and so his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worsened. He needed increasing amounts of oxygen to breath, his legs were swelling, his cough worsening, and his mental status deteriorating. By the time I met him, he was receiving steroid therapy, antibiotics, and more oxygen. I listened to his lungs with my stethoscope, and my novice ears heard wheezes for the first time.
Throughout the week, I would have many firsts.
I had my first patient tell me that I was being mean when I went to examine him. I tried to brush it off, because hey, no one enjoys being in the hospital, and no one enjoys being poked and prodded at 7:30 in the morning.
I had my first patient who wouldn’t talk to me.
I had my first patient who refused almost every recommendation we made. We recommended physical therapy, he refused. We recommended eating his meals sitting up, he refused. We recommended breathing treatments for his COPD, he refused.
Eventually, we got him up for a walk (his first time out of bed in 3 days). His lung sounds, and breathing became easier. He ate dinner in the chair. It felt like we were making progress, and I counted these as small wins.
The fourth day, he returned to his “baseline”, requiring only small amounts of oxygen and the daily medication therapy for COPD that was typical for before his hospitalization. We began to discuss discharge from the hospital.
My patient was experiencing homelessness, and part of the reason he stayed in the hospital so long previously was because social work had difficulties finding someone willing to provide long term care for him. He had been denied from all rehab facilities because of behavioral problems. The case manager recommended that we discharge him to a motel, with medication and oxygen.
The fifth day, social work provided him with a list of motels. He refused to call them. He told me, “you guys are pushing me out of here. I need more time to think.”
It broke my heart to hear him say those words, because what I heard was you don’t care. I worried about whether I was treating him different than my other patients. I worried about if it was true, that I didn’t care. I wondered about what the role the hospital must play in his life. No one likes staying in the hospital, but if it meant a warm bed, food, safety and constant healthcare, then maybe staying in the hospital isn’t so bad.
What is the big picture role of the hospital? As a doctor, I will work to uphold the ethical principle of justice, meaning I will treat individuals fairly, including through equitable allocation of healthcare dollars and resources. By allowing a patient who is medically stable remain in the hospital, am I fairly allocating the resources with which I am entrusted? I struggled to answer this question, because it felt (and still feels) cruel to send someone into a poor living situation, knowing that it most likely won’t go well and they would be back in the hospital again soon. I will also work to uphold the ethical principle of nonmaleficence, or “do no harm”. If I discharged him, would this bring harm to my patient?
On the 6th day, we discharged him, and he was back in the emergency department 3 hours later with shortness of breath.