May 09 2012
By Catherine Burger, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Sometimes the most difficult parts of a job produce the situations you learn the most from. Often doctors will remember their most challenging patients for the rest of their lives and rarely forget what they’ve learned through those interactions. Working at Georgetown public hospital has afforded me a wealth of opportunities such as these in my short time here.
Near the end of a shift one day I saw a patient with chest pain, a thin, uncomfortable-appearing woman in her 50’s. When asked where her pain was she did the classic motion of waving her hand over her entire chest and abdomen, attempting to help me pinpoint where she was hurting. I started with x rays, an ecg and blood tests but unfortunately these would take quite a long time during this busy day. Hoping for faster results, I looked for the ultrasound machine to assist in my work up. After a long search and a battle to keep the battery on, we had it at the bedside. Looking at her heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and great vessels with the ultrasound machine gave me a wealth of information. I could see she had fluid around her heart and one of her lungs. That provided me a clear start that ended up guiding much of my treatment for her. Although getting the ultrasound, using the machine, interpreting the US (no Radiology to help interpret the scans) were all much more difficult than doing the same would have been in the United States, I can honestly say I learned even more from the process than I would have in my home institution. The difficulty in getting the machine caused me to use it as a precious resource, getting every possible use out of it that I could for that patient. Not having Radiology back up or easily obtainable diagnostic tests caused me to fully scrutinize every image, think outside the box, focus on physical exam clues, and tested my confidence in my own ability to obtain and interpret ultrasound findings. On top of all that, I got to teach a group of residents and nurses aspects and uses of ultrasound that they had never seen before. The experience highlighted learning opportunities I take for granted working in the United States and helped me develop my own diagnostic abilities.