I See Dead Doctors

October 26, 2009
Alan Berkenwald

I see dead doctors every day when I work as a Hospitalist at my local community hospital...

I see dead doctors every day when I work as a Hospitalist at my local community hospital. Whether rounding on my service, or doing admissions, my patients - all good people whom I've never met before - ask me, "Where is my doctor? Will my doctor be coming in to see me soon?"

It's worse when they say, "Who are you? You call my doctor right now and tell him I'm in the hospital!"

My reply is smooth, soft spoken, and well-practiced. "Your doctor is being called. We will let him know you're here. Because he is so busy he asks doctors, like me, to help him out. I promise you he will know what is going on, and what we plan to do. Perhaps he may come in later to see you."

He never does.

But, these dead doctors wander the hallways late at night when I do my midnight admissions. They hover by the bedside during morning rounds. They appear in patient conversations. They are specters haunting my decisions. They are the ghosts in the computers. Their presence appears on every chart page, labeled specimen, and computer screen, drifting about, a phantom named "Patient's Attending Physician." They never leave my side when I sit with family members.

Occasionally I hear their distant voices, when I call to report their patient's discharge status and plan. Their spirits float, distracted and preoccupied, as I try to communicate with them. A Hospitalist's séance.

In the evolving post modern hospitals of America, I see dead doctors. Their patients never do.