Consult-Liaison Education Lessons Medicine Observations

Red Herring (III).

In medical parlance my patient was called “a poor historian”. When this phrase appears in the chart, it means that the doctor who was conducting the interview believed that the patient could not communicate effectively. Perhaps the patient made no sense (Doctor: “Where do you hurt?” Patient: “Pain in the lettuce!”) or the patient’s report contained many contradictions (Patient with dementia at minute two: “I always take my blood pressure medicine.” Minute twelve: “I can’t remember the last time I picked up my medicines from the pharmacy.”)

In regards to my patient, she made little sense when she spoke. This, however, was not due to problems with her grammar or vocabulary.

She always said that she was fine.

She, however, was not fine.

She had lost over fifty pounds in the past year. When asked about her weight, she said that it was fine. She was vomiting on a near daily basis for the past few months. When asked about her health, she said that it was fine. When asked specifically about vomiting, she said that was fine. When asked how many times she had vomited in the past day, she said, “Three times.”

When asked to repeat what we had just spoken about, she said, “I’m fine.” Only with additional prodding was she able to parrot back the conversation.

She had huffed toluene in her former life, which destroyed many cells in her brain. We suspected this was the primary reason why she was “a poor historian”. She never seemed like she was fully present. This wasn’t willful behavior. It’s just the way she was.

For all of her problems with communication, though, some things carried over from her past: She was courteous and gracious. Whether waking up from a nap in the busy clubhouse, waiting for her worker at the office, or sitting in the lobby of her building, she’d flash a toothy grin at me and greet, “Hello! How are yoooou?” as if we had known each other for years.

Good manners go a long way.

Someone else had escorted her to the emergency room prior to her first hospitalization. We initially suspected that she had an eating disorder that led to her weight loss. During that hospitalization, however, she received two units of blood. And that doesn’t usually happen to people who vomit to lose weight.

The medical doctors abruptly discharged her from the hospital. No psychiatrist evaluated her while she was there. No follow-up medical appointments were scheduled for her. No one had an explanation for her weight loss.

Her weight only decreased further. Every week, I asked her to step on the scale in the office.

“I want my weight to be 100 pounds,” she said.

“What’s going to happen if your weight goes below 100 pounds?” I sternly asked.

“I have to go to the hospital.”

“Do you want to go to the hospital?”


“So how much do you want to weigh?”

“130 pounds.”

She kept vomiting. Even though she continued to order fried chicken and pizza when out and sat down for meals at her residence, she continued to vomit.

“Are you making yourself throw up?”


“When does it happen?”

“After I eat.”

“Do you have pain anywhere?”


I had no idea how much faith to put into her answers. However, there was no incentive for her to lie, as we used her weight as the benchmark for hospitalization.

“What’s your favorite thing to eat?”

Her face blossomed into a smile.


“What kind of cookies?”

She thought about this. “Oreos.”

“I want you to eat at least half a package of Oreo cookies every day.”

She smiled even more. “Every day?”

“Every day.”

“That’s not really healthy, is it?” the patient’s worker asked. He, too, was worried about the patient’s health, though questioned the prudence of my suggestion.

“It’s not, but she needs to eat something. I just want to train her to eat something regularly.”

As far as we know, my patient never did this.

(Part three of an ongoing series.)