Dead doctors and AAA batteries


This one’s about a dead cell
That leaked, and corroded as well
I got over that quirk,
And made the thing work
After only a very short spell

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations. After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time position with a Community Health Center. I have just returned from a one month locums assignment in Petersburg, Alaska.
In 1989, my then-partner said, “Well, it’s like when you make rounds on Christmas. You start early, you put a Dictaphone in your pocket and you go like mad.”
Sitting at a stoplight on the way home I thought about what he’d said and decided to round as efficiently as possible every day. Later on, when I started doing the hospital work for my group, I started to carry a dictating machine to save time. The alternative required finding a telephone, and entering the following digitally: physician number, dictation type (progress note, discharge summary, etc.), and patient medical record number. As years passed each hospital required more info and developed more pauses before dictation could actually start. Both hospitals shift their equipment every 2-3 years, requiring purchase of a new dictating machine, generally for about $600. With every passing year that purchase brings an increased efficiency over phone documentation.
The last of the handwritten progress notes died two years ago. By then I had figured out how to dictate while walking from patient to patient.
This morning I slipped my hospital-specific digital recorder in my pocket and started rounds at 7:00AM, finding the machine would not turn on. As always, I looked to battery replacement as the first fix, and the pediatric head nurse brought me two new AAA cells, but to no avail. While I grumbled, she took the batteries to the recycling bin, commenting that, as one had leaked, much time must have passed since last I used the machine.
New in mid-January, those batteries saw scant use till late February and no use after; I thought neither period qualified as a long time. I removed the new cells and spotted corrosion on one of the terminals. I went to work with a pencil eraser, cleaning the metal to shininess. I recalled how, in previous years, I repaired so many tiny tapes with scalpel, forceps, and Scotch tape I almost wrote an article, Microsurgery for Microcassettes.
I know batteries go bad, but I have never seen a battery go from new to leaking in less than three months.
Then, with the digital recorder working well, I started on rounds.
At lunch in the Doctors’ lounge, I sat down to a conversation in full swing on the subject of death. One of our ophthalmologists passed away a couple of weeks ago without warning. Then we all remembered the cardiologist who died young on a treadmill, and the orthopedist who died, gratuitously, of colon cancer. In short order we shifted the topic to nature vs. nurture in the realm of colon cancer, heart attacks, alcoholism and cirrhosis.
While the other docs talked, I ate hospital chicken and rice, and thought about batteries leaking and corroding after premature failure. And I rejoiced in the time I’ve spent doing locum tenens.
Carpe diem.

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