The eager Salesman and the stubborn Doctor.

     I really don’t enjoy going into a store with a planned purchase only to get hassled and cajoled into purchasing something different. The fact is, with so much information at our fingertips, I decide ahead of time what I want and the price I’m willing to pay.

     Recently, I dropped my smart phone in the toilet bowl.

(Take 1 minute to laugh at me.)

     This event forced me to run to my wireless store and purchase a new smart phone. Despite having done my research, my anticipated 10 minute purchase turned into a 45 minute battle of wills between an eager salesman and my practical sensibilities.

     He couldn’t have been a nicer guy. In his mid twenties, he had energy and enthusiasm for his job that likely made him very successful. His great attitude won me over and I let him do his sales pitch despite fully knowing I only came in for 1 specific purpose that I wouldn’t veer from. He used numbers, diagrams, compliments, (even mild insults!), jokes, clever colloquial lines all to convince me I was making a huge mistake not heeding his advice. In the end, he relented, went to the back of the store and came back with my phone.

     As he was ringing up my purchase on his tablet,  he made one last ditch effort to win me over. In the process, he asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was a physician and suddenly, the entire tone of our conversation changed.

He paused, gave me a forced smile as I watched the wheels spin in his eyes. For the 1st time I sensed the smallest hesitation in his sales pitch and instead of talking about his product, he came back with this:

“How do you treat vertigo?” 

     I felt bad that I made him expend a lot of energy  knowing he’d fail. I humored him and we switched roles. Standing in a quiet corner of the store, I began asking him all the questions I normally would. After a few minutes of trouble shooting, we changed the symptom description to “disequilibrium” instead of vertigo and I reassured him while encouraging further evaluation with his primary care doctor. He seemed grateful but I couldn’t help notice a morose coming over him.

     He explained to me he always worries about something terrible happening to him just like his sister. I delved further to find out several years prior, his 16 year old sister died of a pulmonary embolism. His voice lost clarity as he fumbled around his tablet muttering how all the bad doctors ( pediatricians, ER etc)  missed the diagnosis. He chuckled recalling how an x-ray went missing but was subsequently found and clearly had abnormal findings. Although I didn’t ask, I presumed the x-ray was later found as part of some litigation process.

     I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to lose a sister when you are a child yourself. I could understand the frustration and anger under his breath that probably took years to soothe. An unexpected death of a loved one is always a tragedy especially when it seems the answers are so obvious and in the hands of the physicians entrusted to figure it out. I felt terrible for him, as he pulled out his own smart phone to show me an old picture of her,

     As objective physicians we always contemplate alternatives. I didn’t know the physicians that treated his sister, but I empathized with them a little bit We are taught very early on in our education that pulmonary embolism is one of the trickiest diagnosis and easy to miss. We are taught about pre-test probabilities and chest pain in a teenager is statistically much less likely to be a life threatening condition. I imagined that could have easily been me, a well meaning physician doing their due diligence and something terrible like this still happening. As a physician, we never get comfortable dealing with the death of a patient. It’s even more difficult when there’s an unexpected death and you’re left wondering what else you could have done. These very personal emotions are occasionally twisted, tossed and turned through malpractice litigation ; a process after which physicians are left confused, numb and questioning their purpose. This is a burden many physicians carry to their own grave, quietly without any expectation of assistance or pity.

     As he finalized my purchase, I completed my thoughts coming to the conclusion that no matter what the circumstances were, he went through a tragic experience and nothing can change that. I was happy to see he survived  and had become a very good salesman with a good attitude and great smile. But on this day he didn’t get the sale he wanted. I regained my connection to the digital world with a new smart phone. I’m hoping he regained the tiniest bit of faith that doctors despite being fallible, listen and care.


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