I PURCHASED a purple “My Little Pony” at Walmart. I told myself it was to bring a brief smile to a sad little girl’s face. In reality, it was for me. In the overwhelming apparatus that medicine has become, sometimes the patient gets lost. So does the doctor. As the major safety net hospital in our region, my own hospital is arguably better equipped than most to effectively handle the human side of medical care. But even the most experienced institutions face an increasingly uphill battle against the systemic shortfalls of American medicine.
The patient, whom I’ll call Mohammed, was an American citizen, fully employed with health insurance, although with limited English language skills and health literacy. I had been his primary care doctor for seven years, and he came to me about two years ago with a lesion on his scalp after hitting his head on the door. I didn’t know exactly what it was, although my best guess was some sort of post-traumatic injury. I sent him to surgery for another opinion. The surgeon concurred with my diagnosis, but scheduled a biopsy. What I didn’t know was that Mohammed didn’t return for the planned procedure. He was struggling as a new single parent to his two young children who had just arrived from a war-torn African country, while his wife was left behind, her visa delayed by bureaucratic obstacles. He had deferred the biopsy because of his life circumstances without understanding the significance, and without catching anyone’s attention. The ball was dropped, and he fell through the cracks in the mighty apparatus.
Fast-forward eight months to the next time I saw Mohammed...(continues)