Always Ask

The woman’s legs were so swollen that the indentation from my thumb squeeze was as deep as half my thumb. Her belly looked pregnant at sixty plus years but a recent ultrasound had shown no fluid and no change in size or texture of her already enlarged liver.

“There may be something else going on, I said. “Have you had any chest pain lately?”

“Well, yes, three weeks ago I had a pain here”, she said, pointing to her left upper chest. “It lasted three days, and I kept waking up and going back to sleep, hoping it would go away.”

“Has your breathing been worse since then?”

“Yes, but I thought it was because my belly got bigger.”

Her EKG showed q-waves in leads III and aVF, new since last winter, a sign of a possible old inferior myocardial infarction.

“It never occurred to me that it could have been a heart attack“, she said. “I should have known better.”

I have found that few people volunteer that they have had serious chest pain, so I ask at every visit with anybody who is at risk. Why is there so much denial about this?

“I didn’t want it to be my heart.” Her classic comment summarized my recurring observation.

I thought of a post I wrote four years ago, called Twenty Questions:

Adrian Bell didn’t look dehydrated, but his diarrhea had come and gone for a week and a half when I saw him a few weeks ago.

“Is anyone else sick with the same thing?” I asked, beginning my usual line of questioning.

“No”, answered Eleanor, his wife.

“Have you had any water to drink from a new or unknown source, or have you traveled away from home?”

“No”, both answered in unison.

“Any new foods that only you ate or that you don’t normally eat? Are you a big milk drinker?” I added, thinking about secondary lactose intolerance.

Still, negative answers.

“Any chills, fever, belly pain…” my questioning continued.


“Have you had any antibiotics prescribed by any other doctor?” I asked, because we have had a flurry of Clostridium Difficile infections in our community, which is something we didn’t have to worry about years ago. We had three cases recently at the nursing home, where Eleanor volunteers.

Still, “no”.

“Anything else going on, even if it seems unrelated?” I finished my questioning as I motioned for Adrian to get up on the exam table.

“I have had some joint pains”, he answered.

After an unremarkable physical exam, I ordered some lab tests, including inflammatory markers, a stool culture and C. Difficile test. I gave dietary instructions and we set up a follow-up appointment for a few days later.

At his follow-up visit, everything was the same and all the tests were normal. I sighed internally.

“Do you think it may be Beaver Fever?” Adrian and Eleanor both leaned towards me. “We’ve heard of an awful lot of people downstate who’ve had that.”

“I haven’t seen a case of giardiasis around here in years. How do you think you may have gotten that?”

“Well, two weeks before this started, I fell in a beaver pond in the woods in back of our property. I was checking out an old four wheeler trail….”

“Fell in a beaver pond…” I kicked myself for not having ordered a test for ova and parasites, but, of course, they can be unreliable.

“I think we’ve got to put you on some medication and do another stool test”, I said, thinking to myself that I now have one more question for future diarrhea assessments.

Medicine is like twenty questions sometimes. If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers.

1 Response to “Always Ask”

  1. 1 mary campion dunn November 20, 2017 at 5:56 pm

    this one is good too… m

    Sent from my iPad


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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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