Posts Tagged ‘When a doctor gets sick’

On the way to becoming a doctor, at The George Washington University School of Medicine.  While there, I had more than a few  imaginary diseases. Photo by Bill Adams, MD.


By Paul Goldfinger, MD, FACC.

I had graduated medical school two years before. Eileen and I were married only 3 years, and we had no children yet. We were excited to move to New York City for my postgraduate training and we got to live in Mt. Sinai’s apartments for house staff.  We were within walking distance of the hospital.  I walked through a long block at the edges of Spanish Harlem and emerged onto Madison Avenue at about 100th Street. There were newsstands, coffee shops, cleaners, and restaurants.  After that it was just two blocks to work.  It really wasn’t work, because being a doctor was so exciting and fascinating.

Eileen was a teacher, and somebody at the school brought in a kitten, and she couldn’t resist.  She named the kitten Sasha.

At the hospital, I became part of a team taking care of one of the “medical floors.”  It was a “teaching service,” so most of the patients were were fascinating or difficult cases.  A chief resident ran the floor, and I was a first year resident in internal medicine. “Attending physicians” were ultimately in charge, and they rounded every day.    The layers of backup were extraordinary.   Everything I ran into was amazing. Most of the patients  had diseases that I never saw in med school.

One evening I was home–a night off.   But all of a sudden I had trouble breathing.  It was mild at first, so I decided to walk over to the hospital.  I had to stop on the way–short of breath. This was worrisome.

I took the elevator to 2 South and walked onto the floor.  An intern took one look at me and called the Chief Resident.   He and two other residents looked alarmed and led me into an empty room where I was quickly examined.   It was frightening to be on that side of the equation.

“Paul, you are wheezing; you have asthma.”   That diagnosis hadn’t popped into my head.  When a doctor is the patient, he becomes like other patients— panicky, fearful, and not thinking clearly.  They gave me a shot of adrenaline and some inhalation therapy and took a history.  How could it be asthma?  My brother had it when he was a young child, but I never did.

John, the CR, said, “It’s the cat!! ”

“OMG—it’s obvious!”

Over the next few hours I returned to “normal.”

We immediately gave Sasha to Eileen’s parents who gave him a good home in New Jersey.   Getting rid of the cat cured me, although after that I discovered other things that could give me asthma, such as dust, dogs, and pollen. I learned a lot about allergies.

I was referred to a Mt. Sinai allergist who said  that the only animal we could have would be an armadillo.

It is ironic, but years before, when my asthmatic younger brother would require the family doctor to visit in the middle of the night to give him oxygen and a shot of adrenaline, I looked on scared and powerfully impressed.   Mel and I shared a bedroom.  The doctor was a big bear of a man, especially in the dark. Years later I thought that I would become an allergist.  Back then I would go with my father to buy goats milk for Mel, because he was allergic to cows milk. If he ate the wrong thing, he would develop horrid hives.

I wish that all doctors could become patients (just for awhile)  because you learn so much about how to be a good physician. There was a movie in 1991 called “The Doctor” starring William Hurt, and it was so good portraying that theme.

Over the years I discovered that physicians don’t always get good medical care.  They try to diagnose and treat themselves, and you had to drag one to a doctor’s office.  Instead they often received “hallway consultations” from colleagues.  They tend to either ignore symptoms or they believe that a headache is a brain tumor.  Medical students are notorious for “getting” every disease that they study.   I think that doctors feel that they can’t get sick; that somehow they are immune.

They say that a doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.  But he is too busy to be sick; too busy keeping his patients forever young.


DYLAN WITH THE BAND.  “Forever Young.”   From the album  The Last Waltz.







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