The Zebra

“Tom, come take a look at this,” the attending beckons excitedly. I get up from the charting station and walk over to his computer.

A CT scan fills his screen with a very large, obvious abnormality. “This is one of the biggest I have seen in my career,” he says. The patient had developed not only a large mass but a rare one, causing all sorts of systemic anomalies. Given the extent, it would be inoperable.

As we proceed to the patient’s room, the doctor explains the clinical presentation of mass effect on the body. His eyes are wide and flicker with a fiery excitement. He can barely control the rate of his words as he gushes about the various pieces of the unique clinical puzzle in front of him.

“Are you excited?” he asks after he finishes. I reply that it is “interesting,” much to his displeasure. “How could you not be excited? You might not see this ever again in your life.”

But all I could think about was how this mass, this zebra on a CT scan would soon bring our patient to their untimely death.

Within, I watched the attending as he spoke to the patient and their family about the situation. He explained things with such professionalism, clarity and assurance that I could see no better way it could have gone.

Yet it continued to disturb me, his excitement in it all.

Joseph Addison, a poet said: “Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.”

For my attending, who may have seen thousands upon thousands of patients with very similar presentations, this zebra case must have stirred up a renewed sense of adventure, a break from an otherwise regular routine of patients.

Perhaps, it is that hot flush of novelty, that infectious high of our peers that perpetuate our own behaviour.

Too often our fascinations show outwardly as our primary intent. In the process, we forget that the patient has a name, has a right to be treated with dignity, has an illness that still needs to be treated. In the process, we forget that the condition does not define the patient any more than he defines the condition.

It is a strange situation we find ourselves in, to be excited and captivated by our morbid curiosity; on some level, we must in order to learn and improve as clinicians; at the end of the day however, it must come at the expense of someone else’s health. For that, I must always consider the fine line that separates respectful and disrespectful learning.

“Pretty neat findings, eh?” He nudges me. I take a look back at the patient’s room. I watch as the family huddle in an emotional embrace as they come to terms with our news.

“Yeah. It is really interesting,” I mutter bleakly.

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    Mandatory read for anyone like myself who might blog or cover serious maladies.
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