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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘NYU’

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: The Blue Chair

Bellevue Hospital, and the Bellevue Hospital residents provide medical care for the New York City prisoners who are housed at Riker’s Island. This is actually quite an opportunity, especially for a child of suburbia like yours truly. It’s not as if I had never come across people in the criminal justice system prior to my Bellevue days, it’s just that I didn’t have such routine and regular contact.I don’t remember exactly, but there are at least three or four entire floors at Bellevue dedicated to the care of Riker’s Island inmates who have medical problems. One or two are for the criminally insane, and others who have some degree of mental illness. The remaining two floors house prisoners with problems as varied at coronary artery disease and pink eye. As disconcerting as it was for someone like me to enter a locked ward, the accommodations at Bellevue were at least a full order of magnitude nicer than those at Riker’s Island. This provided an interesting opportunity for Riker’s Island inmates to create a medical reason to leave The Rock, and created a very interesting learning opportunity for all of the residents  to discern real from not so real.

This  might have been the most fun part of my entire residency experience.

People who have something to gain from having an eye problem all seem to have the exact same complaint: “I can’t see.” Sometimes it’s “I can’t see out of my right (or left) eye,” and sometimes it’s simply “I can’t see.” The savvier the patient, the more subtle the symptom. The trick as the doctor on call is to simply demonstrate that their vision is substantially better than what they are describing. Oh yeah, it’s important to do so in such a way that you don’t make them too very angry; you don’t want to become a Bellevue Hospital “target” yourself!

Every resident develops a repertoire tricks that he or she will use, a go–to list that tends to work for the majority of the malingering patients. To be truthful, especially when caring for children, sometimes the patient is actually convinced that he or she really CAN’T see. The kids are really pretty easy, though. I found, and frankly continue to find, that even with my limited attention span (often described as being slightly shorter than that of your average gnat) that I have more patience than almost any child under the age of 18. Most eye charts will start with a 20/10 line, and then move through 20/12, 20/15, and then several to many 20/20 lines. If you start at 20/10, by the time you get the 20/25 or 20/30 that line looks absolutely enormous! I think I’m batting about .997 in kids with 20/400 vision in the ER who “miraculously” and up with 20/25 vision in the exam room.

Folks who have something to gain from being diagnosed with visual loss weren’t always wards of the state or city. Occasionally there would be people who stood to gain from being diagnosed with profound visual loss for other, less existential reasons than wanting a ticket out of Riker’s Island. My favorite was a Hispanic woman who came with an entourage of family members, her complaint being complete and total loss of vision in both eyes from some vague and poorly defined trauma suffered at the hands of a landlord who was trying to evict the her from a rent–subsidized apartment. Her examination was totally unremarkable. Everything about her eyes was so  normal it was eerie. My suspicions were high because she just didn’t seem all that distraught over her new blindness, you know? There’s an instrument called an indirect ophthalmoscope which is used to examine the peripheral retina. The light we use can be cranked up to a level which is quite frankly rather painful. I explained to my patient through her translator that I was terribly sympathetic, and very concerned about how she would ever be able to survive if she was  evicted, what with her being totally blind and all. I just had this one last test to do, to look at her retina. With phasersset on stun I started to examine her eyes with the light cranked up. She started screaming in Spanish. What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Remember, now, this is a woman who has no light perception, everything in her world is black. Her son grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. “Turn that light off. It’s too bright. It’s hurting her eyes!” Yup, just another satisfied patient.

The prisoners really were the most fun, though. You had to be on your toes because some of them were actually quite dangerous. If the corrections officers were chatting amongst themselves in the waiting room you could be pretty sure that the patient in your exam chair was nonviolent. If, however, there was a corrections officer standing roughly 1/2 inch from each arm of the patient, well, that was one you had to worry about. But the prisoners got it, they got that this was a game. If they could beat me they got a stay at the Bellevue Hilton. On the other hand, if I got the best of them, it was back to Riker’s Island. The guys who complained of decreased vision in just one I were actually not too difficult to fool. Again, all I had to do was prove that the vision and the supposedly “blind” I was normal. We quote discovered” all kinds of sight threatening needs for a new pair of glasses at two o’clock in the morning in the Bellevue consultation room.

The guys who complained of decreased or lost vision in both eyes were more challenging and therefore more fun. Can’t see anything at all? Piece of cake. All I have to do was prove that they had locked on to some image. There must be three dozen prisoners who complained of total loss of vision in both eyes who headed back to Riker’s Island one minute after entering my consultation room after they leaned over to pick up the $10 bill that I put on a footstool of the exam chair. Did you know that your pupils constrict when you focus on an image inside arm’s-length? You can imagine how handy that three-year-old Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue came in, and how many prisoners learned about accommodative pupillary construction after looking at THAT picture of Christie Brinkley.

There is one story out of all of my adventures with the Riker’s Island prisoners that stands apart. It was July, and I was doing my duty helping out the new first-year resident on one of his first nights on call. We got a call from the ER about this terrified patient who had lost vision in both of his eyes; he was defenseless. Dave, now a world famous pediatric ophthalmologist, was really unsure of how to proceed so I told him that we would do it together. We sat back and watched very carefully as the prisoner entered the room. He was totally on his own, not assisted in the least by the corrections officers. He managed to navigate around all of the little articles I had placed between the door and examination chair, not hitting a single one. He found the chair, turned just like you or I would, and sat down. His examination was perfect, naturally. After putting drops in his eyes to dilate his pupils this is what I said: “I can see that you are terribly frightened sir, and frankly I can’t blame you. I’m very concerned about your vision, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that you are alright. I just put some drops into your eyes so that your pupils will dilate. Dr. Granet and I will then examine your retinas once the drops have worked. We are going to talk about what we’ve seen so far. Please go back into the hallway and take a seat in the blue chair, and we’ll come and get you in just a few minutes.” The prisoner left the room, once again navigating the “mine field” without incident.

Dave bowed his head, a little tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head. “There’s only one blue chair out there, isn’t there?” He smiled as he strolled over to the door. Sure enough, there was our patient, very calmly sitting in the single blue chair, surrounded by a dozen empty red ones!

We had to invite the corrections officers into the exam room when we explained our findings.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: Saving A Target Part I

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: targets, and people who hit targets. At Bellevue Hospital we took care of the targets.

I’m not sure if they still use these terms, but I take full credit for the original use of “target” to describe the victims of violence who came to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room. As an ophthalmology resident I was on call every fifth night, and because I lived outside of the city I actually have to spend each on-call night in the hospital. The bad news, of course, is that I didn’t get to sleep in my own bed. The good news was that I developed a more friendly relationship with the ER attendings, fellows, and residents, as well as the nursing and clerical staff. I also developed a very easy relationship with the prison guards from Riker’s Island. The term was coined, and the game was set when I sauntered into the ER in the wee hours of some morning and asked out loud to no one in particular: “okay, where’s the target?!”

Whether it was primary care or specialty care clinics like our ophthalmology division, Bellevue Hospital was where people who fell through the holes in the safety net went for their medical care. Pretty much everyone received care that they couldn’t receive anywhere else, so it was easy to feel good about the contribution that you were making, even as a resident. It would be difficult to pick out the person I helped the most over my three years in New York except for young Jean, the target from France who I saved one night while covering the ER.

It was around midnight and I was seeing an older woman who was complaining of flashes and floaters. A Latina, my patient spoke not a word of English, so I was delighted to make the acquaintance of her daughter, a lovely woman roughly my age who accompanied her mom and acted as translator. I excused myself when the phone rang. “We gotta target from Rikers for ya Darrell. Not a word of English.” Send ‘em right up was my response, pretty confident that my new friend the patient’s daughter would be able to translate for what I expected to be a Riker’s Island prisoner who spoke nothing but Spanish. Imagine my surprise when a rather thin, soft, artsy looking boy of 20 or so from France shuffled into our waiting room, his right eye black and blue and swollen tight.

The target part was pretty much standard fare, punched in the eye, but everything else was totally out of place. The visual was just wrong on more levels than I could describe. My new best friend said she knew little bit of French so I sent her out to chat with Jean while I examined her mother’s retina. Our French lad was clearly not much of a threat; the unwritten communication between the doctors and the writers Island guards told us as much, the guards chatting between themselves at the other end of the room. These two particular guards, a man and a woman who were not part of the normal Bellevue Hospital crew, would actually become a pretty important part of saving this target.

I finished up with my older woman, reassuring both her and her daughter that the flashes and floaters were nothing to be alarmed by, and that they would eventually go away. I asked her daughter what she had discovered, and with a sad, slow shake of the head she started to tell the story.

Jean, our target, had been in the United States for less than 24 hours. He was to visit friends, and had arrived a day earlier than a bilingual friend, another young Frenchman who would be the tour guide and connector for a group of kids in New York City. Rather naïve and not the least bit street–savvy, Jean decided that he would go on a walking tour of the city around Penn Station. This was back in the mid-1980s, and Jean came from a very fashion conscious family. It was cold in the city and he was wearing a fancy, team logo jacket, the kind the gangbangers in the city were wearing at the time. Sure enough, he happened upon a group of gangbangers very early in his travels.

The leader of this street corner group told Jean that he admired his jacket. He admired it so much, in fact, that he thought Jean should give him the jacket. Jean, of course, had absolutely no idea what the gangbanger was saying;  he only spoke French. The gangbanger pulled a knife and threatened Jean. Amazingly, Jeann took away the knife and stabbed the gang banger! When the police arrived and asked what had happened Jeann stood mute while the gangbanger screamed that John had tried to kill him. Unable to tell his side of the story–the street cops didn’t speak French– he was arrested for attempted murder and sent to Riker’s Island.

Now jacketless but still otherwise fully clothed, our target found himself in a holding cell at Rikers. It turns out that he was also rather fashionably shod, wearing brand-new leather sneakers that were all the rage at the time. You know, the kind of sneakers the gangbangers wore. Not too surprisingly his cell mates, at least some of them, were gangbangers. One of them approached Jean and proclaimed his admiration for these brand-new sneakers. Jean, of course, had no idea what he was talking about, seeing as he still didn’t speak a word of English. When it became clear that the gang banger was demanding his shoes Jean refused. The gangbanger cold-cocked him in the right eye and another target was off to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room.

With the exception of this fascinating story taking care of Jean was otherwise standard target fare. After prying open his swollen eyelids I was able to determine that his eye was intact and that no damage to his vision would ensue. But now what? What do I do with this thin, soft, French speaking 21-year-old all alone in New York City. I decided that I would help this one. If I ever made a difference, I would make a difference for this one.  This target, the recipient of violence he neither deserved nor sought, this was the one target, that one patient I would help outside of the professional help I gave everyone else.

How? What could I do? What did this young man need? There it was! What this young man needed was help telling his story. I was in the middle of the biggest hospital in the biggest city in America. Surely I could do this. Little did I know…