The Prison Ward

I rotated through Charity Hospital during my Internal Medicine rotation as a Tulane University third year medical student. This was July 2005 – I was in the last group of medical students to work at Charity. The weekend after I completed this clerkship, Hurricane Katrina changed everything. However, during my short time at Charity I had experiences that I will never forget. Specifically I remember the men’s prison ward. There was one patient on our service located there and the attending and I made our way up to see him. After being checked in by guards and going through 2 secure gates we reached the ward. It was a long room with row of beds against both walls – a total of 20 or 30 beds with about 4-5 feet between each bed. Each man was shackled to his hospital bed. There were wooden wheelchairs up against the back wall. (Yes, 2005 and wooden wheelchairs.) The man we were going to see had cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. Just to give some perspective, according to UpToDate, in the United States as a whole, the incidence of ATL (Adult T cell leukemia-lymphoma) is approximately 0.05 cases per 100,000 people. Even before we got to his bed I was in disbelief, feeling as if I had been transported back to an earlier time in medicine. Our patient was a large African-American man, maybe 250 lbs. However, his face did not show his size – there was no evidence of strength in him. He needed help to sit up in bed and as he did so he left a layer of skin on the sheets. We listened to his heart and lungs but were generally there to let him know that his doctors are here and he has not been forgotten. At this point, he has likely passed away, but he continues to not be forgotten, at least by me. He served a vital role in my medical education in teaching me to never stigmatize illness. I never showed that his condition grossed me out and I focused that visit on exuding empathy to the best of my ability. I continue to use that skill regularly in my current practice. There is no use to adding to a patient’s shame and part of our job is to maintain a person’s humanity and dignity as best we can.

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