During my three months temp job in 2010 at a nearby Army Hospital, I was asked to help the Family Medicine Inpatient Team (FMIT) whenever a faculty member was sick or out, which turned out to be fairly often. I enjoyed this because I wanted to work with residents, Family Practice doctors in training. It was very interesting to be at a training program, watch the other faculty and work at a 400 bed hospital instead of my usual 25 bed one.
Two patients needed to be admitted at the same time on our call day, so the second year resident took one and I took the other. The report on mine was an 82 year old male veteran, coughing for three weeks, emergency room diagnosis was pneumonia.
The resident soon caught up with me because her person was too sick and got diverted to the ICU. Mr. T, our gentleman, was a vague historian. He said that he always coughed since he quit smoking 15 years ago and he couldn’t really describe the problem. He’d gotten up at 4:30 to walk around the assisted living; that was normal for him because he used to do the maintenence. He had either felt bad then or after going back to sleep in a chair and waking at 10. “I didn’t feel good. I knew I shouldn’t drive.”
He’d had a heart attack in the past and heart bypass surgery. Records were vague. The radiologist read the chest xrays essentially as, “Looks just like the one 3 months ago but we can’t guarentee that there isn’t a pneumonia or something in there.” He had a slightly elevated white blood cell count, no fever, and by then I did a Mini-mental status exam. He scored 22 out of 30. That could mean right on the edge of moderate dementia, or it could be delerium. I got his permission to call his wife.
“Oh, his memory has been bad since he spent a year in a chair telling them not to amputate his toes. And he was on antibiotics the whole time. He wasn’t the same after that. He just said he didn’t feel right and that he shouldn’t drive.” So his wife called an ambulance.
The third year chief resident came by and wanted to know the admitting diagnosis. “Old guy, don’t know.” was my reply. “Either pneumonia or a urinary tract infection or a heart attack maybe with delerium or dementia or both.”
The second year was helping me put in the computer orders, because I was terrible at it still. She could put them in upside down and asleep. “Why are we admitting him, anyhow? We can’t really find anything wrong, why not just send him home?”
“We can’t send him home because he can’t tell us what’s wrong. He might have an infection but he might not, and he has a really bad heart. If we send him home and he has a heart attack tonight, we would feel really bad. And he might die.”
I was getting a cold. I had planned to ask to work a half day but half the team was out sick so I just worked. But by morning I had no voice and felt awful. I called in sick.
At noon the phone rang. It was the second year. “You know Mr. T, who we admitted last night?”
“Yes,” I said.
“He had that heart attack during the night. Got taken to the cath lab. You made me look really good.” We had worked on the assumption that it could be early in a heart attack though the first labs and the ECG were negative. I had insisted on cardiac monitoring and repeating the enzymes. The resident had finished the note after I left and the night team had gotten the second and abnormal set of enzymes.
82 year olds are tricky. With some memory loss he couldn’t tell us much except that “I don’t feel right.” He was right not to drive and we were right to keep him in the hospital. And if it had all been normal in the morning, I still would not have felt bad about it. The residents are looking for a definitive diagnosis, but sometimes it’s “Old guy, don’t know,” until you do know.