Reflections From the Front: Chameleon

The Doctor-Patient relationship. On this day I had a guest with me in the office. Harvey was a community observer. I had been asked to work with him so he could better grasp what doctors do for a living. Each patient granted permission for Harvey to be present before our visits. Originally published in Carle Selected Papers, Volume 46, No 1, 2003)




At 7:55 Harvey, the community observer.

By pre-arrangement with the clinic administrator,

And with permission from the patients,

He would be my shadow for the day.


At 8:00 a 78-year-old lady presented with back pain, headaches and fatigue.

Mainly, she needed someone to talk to.

So, I talked with her.


At 9:00 we saw a 21-year-old alcoholic who had fractured his skull while driving drunk.

After two weeks in a coma, two months in rehab, and two months at home

He still had weekly seizures.

Mainly, he wanted me to sign his driver’s license form.

I refused. Firmly, but gently, I hoped.

I urged compliance. I refilled his carbamazepine.

I educated. I quoted favorable statistics.

I asked him to see me again in 3 months.


At 10:00 a 69-year-old man thought I was going to give him a pill for his tremor.

Instead, I told him about Parkinson’s disease.

How I knew he had it.

What we could do about it.

I gave him pamphlets and

The 800 number to call for information.

I told him about Johnny Cash, Janet Reno, Billy Graham, and Barry Goldwater.

I told him about Levo-dopa, the good and the bad.

I gave him a script, my number, and a follow-up appointment.

I told him to bring his wife next time.


At 11:00 a 23-year-old woman, 10 weeks pregnant, told me about her headaches.

In light of her pregnancy, our therapeutic options were limited.

But there were some things we could try.

We could walk her through this, I said.

Call us. We’ll see you often.

Over lunch hour, in the hospital, I met with a family.

Dad was on the ventilator, with no respiratory effort of his own.

His eyes were shut. His pupils were fixed. He did not respond to pain.

We had a long talk.

We prayed. I cried.

I would meet with them again in the morning.


There were ten people to see in the afternoon, all “follow-ups”.

Mainly we were friendly acquaintances, catching up on recent happenings.

I disliked two of them, in the way that we put up with odd relatives.

I cajoled. I confronted. I encouraged. I chuckled. I commiserated.


At 5:00, Harvey laughed long and hard.

“Blazes, Bob,” he said to me,

“You’re a chameleon. How can you be so many things to so many different people?”


I smiled.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

But, I realized, that was part of the appeal of this calling.

On the fly, could you scope out the need

And then figure how to help?


“I don’t always get it right,” I said.

“But on the days that I do, I feel like maybe, what I do matters some.

And I think I feel God smile.”



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