Ramblins’ from the Hills & Hollers: When a veteran patient helps teach healthcare

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Steve Oden

By Steve Oden

Heart health checkups are a good idea for anyone with a history of cardiac problems, former smokers or anyone suffering from stress. Especially among the rural residents of Appalachia, heart disease is killer.
We are 17-percent more prone to cardiac problems than the national average and experience higher heart-related mortality than our urban neighbors.
Since my heart attack 15 years ago, I’ve scheduled an appointment with my cardiologist for a spring tune-up, mainly consisting of an electrocardiogram (EKG), blood pressure analysis and discussion of my medicine, weight and exercise regimen.
My heart doctor’s assistants are familiar. They’re kind and helpful, patient when listening to my jokes or when I’m kidding with them about having to shave chest hair off old men so the EKG leads can be attached. The years have passed, and some have retired to be replaced by new assistants fresh out of school.
During my last visit, I realized the need to be understanding with these newbies. They’re learning through interaction with the patients and developing their bedside manner. Whenever you’re new to a job, flustering things can happen.
After I was taken to an exam room, a new assistant entered to take my blood pressure. An old hand at this procedure, I started to take off my shirt. She assured me it was unnecessary, attached the cuff and pumped it up. Listening with the stethoscope, she let the pressure bleed off and counted.
Then she did it again. After third and fourth attempts, she said, “I can’t hear anything.”
Never one to pass up an opportunity to jest, I replied, “Must mean I am dead. You ever watched zombie movies?”
She didn’t laugh and pumped up the cuff again. Same result. She excused herself and went to find someone to help. A lady who had taken my pressure many times entered and rearranged the cuff, pumped and listened. “Doing good with your blood pressure, Mr. Oden,” she bragged, reporting the number.
The new assistant looked crestfallen and embarrassed. She had a chance to redeem herself with the EKG, however. Her first glimpse of my chest hair, which some have compared to shag carpet, caused her eyes to open wide. I expected her to produce a razor and perform a dry shave at the sites where the 10 leads would attach.
I was wrong. She slapped on the adhesive sensors and scurried from the room to view the monitor. It was a no-go. Too much hair in the way. I steeled myself as the leads were ripped off and the sensors relocated and pressed down extra-hard just to make sure.
Nope. Nada. Nothing. This time, individual leads were ripped up and replaced. It was a form of torture that last until all 10 had been checked. Then, all the sensors were removed and replaced again. My skin burned, and I groaned, ready to scrape all the hair off my chest with a rusty spoon if it would help the cause.
Bless her soul, the new assistant finally figured out the problem, removed the leads (ugh) again and placed them where the EKG functioned perfectly. I had my consultation with the doctor. We mainly talked about books and politics. Then I was out the door with a glowing heart health report.
At home, my wife, Karen, asked how it went. I took off my shirt and showed her the patches of red skin, where chest hair had been pulled out by the roots.
“Good grief! Did someone run over you with a lawnmower?”
“Not at all. I helped advance the real-world experience of a new medical professional whose future efforts will save lives,” I said, proud that a few hairs were a small price to pay for the care she would provide to heart patients over her career.
“She might not remember me in a couple of years, but I bet this doctor’s assistant will never forget my chest.”