One Patient, One Doctor, One Year
“A gripping, illuminating book . . . Dr. Stein is drawn, in an almost Sherlock Holmesian way, toward trying to fathom and analyze addicts’ behavior. . . . hauntingly and successfully, Stein lets readers make a doctor’s experiences their own.” — New York Times
“Beautifully told… [with] great insight, empathy and compassion.” — Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner, My Own Country, and Cutting for Stone
The Addict is the powerful and revealing narrative of Dr. Michael Stein’s year-long treatment of a young woman addicted to Vicodin. Dr. Stein has followed up his award winning book The Lonely Patient with “a useful, sensible, and often inspiring guide to how the medical profession does—and should—treat the sick, and the sick at heart.” (Francine Prose, O magazine)
288 pages; ISBN 9780061970870
Title: The Addict
Author: Michael Stein
Wednesday, April 16
It had rained the first week in April that year, and though the reappearance of the sun raised the temperature to only forty-five New England degrees, it made me hopeful again. My new patient sat on her black Converse high-tops, her legs tucked under, as if she was trying to keep herself from running away. She appeared to be in her late twenties and was wearing a loose gray sweater over a pink and green polka-dot blouse. With her chin tipped into her collar, eyes toward the floor, she appeared shy, or embarrassed. She was tall but slight and had rolled up her sleeves to the elbows.
"I'm here for your program," she said. "You still have openings, right?" Her soft voice gave me an impression of politeness.
Sixty minutes isn't enough time to learn a patient's complicated history so I was happy to start at a gallop. I was grateful she required no transition from the general cheerfulness of just meeting each other to the serious conversation, filled with effort and nervousness and specifics, that would constitute the rest of the hour. The answer to her first question was a simple yes or no.
"Yes, I do," I answered, as if we were getting married, which in some sense, we were; from that moment forward, our time together would, like any pair's, get snagged on expectations, hopes, and fears, mixed with promise and excitement.
My exam room also serves as my office in the hospital clinic. At the far end, just past the examining table, is a large window with a fifth-floor view of the neighborhood and the two multifamily triple-deckers whose owners seem determined to hold on despite the encroachment of hospital buildings and parking lots. This window gives the room an unusual brightness every season, particularly on spring mornings. My new patient had chosen the metal chair whose bent rods and plain plastic seat and back offered, really, just the ideogram of a chair. This uncomfortable seat does not give the exam room a sense of well-being. I'd recently thought of bringing in a chair from home, my mother's old chair, which my wife had reupholstered in maroon velvet for my birthday. But I hadn't gotten around to it. On the wall behind the patient's chair is a large photograph of vines that my brother-in-law, an artist, had computer-manipulated into the shape of a man kneeling. There are books on the shelves above my desk—textbooks about renal and heart disease, dermatology primers with pictures of common eruptions, guidebooks for how to examine the knee and the shoulder—but I have no pictures of my children under glass, no diplomas in thin black frames on the walls; I've never liked that. Along the opposite wall, there is a small chrome sink next to which I keep square packages of bandages, paper-doll white, and cellophaned rolls of gauze in perfect soft cylinders along the back of the counter. The cabinet above is a cave of supplies, sticks, scalpels, and screw-lid cups hiding in the dark in undisturbed neatness, nothing loose, shaggy, or irregular.
By 11:00 a.m. on that Wednesday, I had already seen three patients, listened to their uncertain stories, examined them, come up with plausible explanations for their symptoms, tried to bestow comfort, and made plans to see them again. I am an internist, a doctor for adults with heart disease, high blood pressure, headaches, hepatitis, and other ailments and illnesses. I take histories and perform physicals. Taking a medical history has a discipline to it, but it's also like listening to gossip where the only topic is the patient who tells stories about herself. On the other hand, the physical, examining a vulnerable and tender body, trying to know its secret past of wounds and scars is exhausting. Physicals confirm histories, but also provide information that patients can't, or won't, communicate. Of course, what doctors don't know about patients, after an hour, even after a year of providing care, is endless. Too often, we are wholly unprepared for what we learn along the way.
What patients don't know about me might be vaster but matters not at all. They expect to know little; few ever ask if I have children (I do) or where I went on vacation (I rarely leave home for more than four days), or even where I'd trained, my history of successes and failures. In my twenty years of practice, it has been the rare patient who mentions that they know I am a writer, even though several of my books are for sale in the hospital gift shop.
When I look at patients, I immediately wonder, where, physically, the damage is. Although she was dressed like a teenager, Ms. Lucy Fields had turned twenty-nine recently—her date of birth was stamped on the upper-right corner of her purple chart, which lay open on my desk. She looked healthy—there were no physical signs of illness. Her mouth had a determined shape.
"Can you tell me a little about yourself?" I asked.
Sitting sideways, studying the back of my dark-stained office door and giving me only her profile, she shifted on the metal chair, keeping her feet tucked. She had put her tiny black purse, a white paper coffee cup, and a blue plastic bag with a drawstring on the floor beside her chair. Pretty with her long, black hair that she parted in the middle and pale blue eyes, she was not pretty enough to create envy among the nursing assistants who were known to judge each of my patients. She looked like a girl I went to high school with who always covered herself densely in layers. There is often something in a patient's character or looks or choice of words that binds me to them from the start. Without this connection, I am just a man in a white costume, and they are merely strangers asking me to guarantee they'll live forever.