Anecdotes from practice: Nothing less, nothing more

In the last five years, readers of this column have been subjected to a variety of medical subjects, mostly serious, covering a variety of illnesses, diseases and traumas. For the holiday season, I am eschewing these sometimes ponderous subjects for selected experiences of (hopefully) greater levity.

So it was, back in Vermont, when two brothers transported a third brother from their dairy farm to the emergency room. The subject patient had a total case of the shakes, was sweaty, and had a rapid pulse – alcohol withdrawal, a beer drinker.

His brothers insisted he consumed two cases daily, 48 times 12 ounces, no stubbies, and he had a beer in hand from mawnin’ milkin’ to evenin’ milkin’. Though experiencing some incredulity, I admitted him to the hospital. I got my nose straight when his medical record revealed a prior admission – when his daily consumption was a case and a half.

One Sunday afternoon, when individually owned pharmacies still existed, I took a phone call from a very distressed woman. She had confused her dog’s pills with her own and had taken an unknown number. She knew neither the pills’ identity nor exactly for what condition they were prescribed. I called local pharmacies, but all had closed. I tried veterinarians. One remembered her (and her dog) and had prescribed a common antibiotic. Again calling the lady, I reassured her – no worries – and, despite all, the dog’s acne had improved.

In the early 1970s, when not deployed, I worked in a Navy dispensary, weekday hours. Upon closing, one medical officer and several corpsman had the duty until reopening in the morning. The most patients I’d seen in 24 hours was 104, piddling compared to the record 144. (one might suspect low acuity). The triage corpsman usually placed the chief complaint atop the record. One such read: “chicken up nose.” Sure enough, we removed a hunk of chicken from way up one nostril, firmly lodged there from a sneeze while eating. He declined to take the chicken home.

In late December 1970, I participated a SERE (survival, escape, resistance, evasion) class near Rangeley, Maine – lead-gray skies spitting snow, below-zero cold, and wind driving the cold from sternum to spine. I was with fellow aircrews, officers and enlisted – more than a few had never seen snow. The goal was to stress them to the limit: harsh conditions, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, interrogation – survival itself. However, I was the medical referee, to “pull” students at the first signs of frostbite or any other debilitating condition. From a heated shack, a few of us viewed students outside, heavily clothed, wearing double-insulated boots, as an “instructor” demonstrated field-dressing small game.

The students’ eyes were wider than saucers: The instructor wore a flannel shirt, no hat, and his gloves were in his back pocket. Concluding his demonstration, he smiled broadly and wished the men well for their coming time in the wild. Proceeding inside, he burst forth with rapid-fire strings of expletives relating to the wind and cold. As he removed his shirt, we gasped – underneath, he wore a torso belt containing a dozen-plus hand warmers. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.