I drove through the snow to Sioux Falls
The place with the old red brick walls
Where it seems it’s the norm
For the staff to be warm
To the vets who walk down those halls.
Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system I can get along with. Assignments in Nome, Alaska, rural Iowa, and suburban Pennsylvania stretched into fall 2015. Since last winter I’ve worked in Alaska and western Nebraska, and taken time to deal with my wife’s (benign) brain tumor. After a moose hunt in Canada, and assignments in western Iowa and southeast Alaska, I’m back home. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.
I heard this joke in 1982: You walk into the patient’s room in the VA and there are three glasses of orange juice on the bedside table. What’s the diagnosis?
The punch line goes, “Patient died 3 days ago.”
Fast forward 20 years. Having suffered for more than 30 years with chronic back pain from ankylosing spondylitis (much like rheumatoid arthritis but affecting the spine) I had started the miracle drug Enbrel a year prior, and finally got an appointment with the Veteran’s Administration rheumatologist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Please do not judge the VA on the delay of care. I separated from the Public Health Service (along with National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the two uniformed services that no one knows) with such anger that I divested myself of certain papers. After the critical regeneration, booking a first-time rheumatology appointment took the same 6 months that it would in the private sector.
I came unprepared for the warmth and caring that flowed from everyone in the institution. I certainly did not expect two secretaries on their lunch break to help a clearly disoriented vet wandering the hallway, nor to do so with such kindness.
Since then I’ve driven once or twice a year back to Sioux Falls to meet with the rheumatologist. Every month or so I get a refrigerated container in the mail worth about $2,500.
The routine includes a lab appointment; if scheduled for 9:00 I can count on being done with the blood draw by 9:02. I have watched the system acquire bits and pieces of efficiency, until it happens as fast as possible without rushing the patient.
I’ve not had a morning doctor’s appointment previously. The blood test itself takes an hour to run, and I can only imagine the clockwork precision behind the scenes.
I sat down to wait. I napped. I read a medical journal I’d brought from home.
I chatted with another vet, one of the moral giants who regularly walk the corridors there. I saw a lot of modified heroes. In the last 15 years I’ve seen the number of women vets steadily increase.
A nurse came out to tell me of the doctor running behind schedule. I told her I understood patient flow, especially in a raging blizzard.
The doctor apologized to me for the delay, too, before anything else. I’d not met her before. Young, energetic, and kind, she has a quiet competence about her along with the extraordinary intelligence that permeates the subspecialty.
We both spoke well of the rheumatologist who preceded her during his semi-retirement, and I thanked her for coming to the VA. We agreed that telemedicine might be the future in a few specialties, but not in rheumatology.
Not until I explained my ankle problem in medicalese did she ask, and I told, of my status as a physician. After that things went much faster.
I spoke briefly of how much I liked locum tenens. But I didn’t give details, so as not to make the next patient wait longer.
Where I’d walked into the building in low visibility, I walked out in bright sunshine. A fierce north wind which ruined gas mileage on the trip up sped me on my way home.