Conversation between a doctor and an intern in the surgical ward and ‘first do no harm’…not nothing!


So this is the conversation that I overheard.  It’s pretty short and sweet, but it speaks volumes and explains EVERYTHING about why I was treated so badly this day, and what is wrong with doctors and ERs and hospitals.

I was finally in a bed. Finally warm, and as comfortable as one can be, in a hospital after a very long wait in the ER.  The curtains were drawn right around, and the voices were coming from the doctors station, a few metres away.

The doctors were doing a handover. The female voice was clearly the junior. I think she was the intern that was so lovely to me the next morning.

The other voice was older. A man.  He was clearly senior. He was handing over for the night. Whether he was going for a sleep and returning, or leaving for the day, I’m not sure.  But he was running through the patients, the interesting cases, what had happened on the ward that day.

It was routine and then he said:

“There was one consult that I didn’t get around to today.  And if YOU don’t get to it tomorrow, I would highly recommend that as well”

I tuned in.

I wasn’t really paying attention before that point. I couldn’t sleep, but I was drifting.  Happy to have a bed at last.  It was around 11pm I think.

“There’s a girl with ‘chronic abdominal pain’”

Dripping sarcasm on the ‘chronic abdominal pain’.

“She’s got chronic upper right side abdominal pain.  CT is clean.  Gallbladder is fine. There’s nothing wrong with her.  She wanted me to come down and rule out appendicitis.”

He laughed and laughed at that point.    I assume that’s because generally appendicitis pain is lower right quadrant, not upper. But I’m only guessing what was going through his mind, or what he found so incredibly funny about a young girl in pain.

The female voice asked what he thought the problem was.

He said:

“She says she’s in chronic pain. Chronic pain!  She’s only 19!  How can she possibly have chronic pain?”

Again huge sarcasm on the ‘chronic pain’ and the ‘19’.

He continued.

“They told me she’s down there saying her consultant wanted her to come to hospital to get checked out.  Her consultant wants me to rule out appendicitis.  In her upper right quadrant.”

He laughed.  Again heavy on the sarcasm on ‘consultant’.

“How would she like me to do that?  I should have gone down and asked her.  I’m sure she knows.“  He laughed again.  “She’s got pages and pages of stuff printed out from google.  Says she’s been in pain since she was 16.  16!  No one has chronic pain at her age.”

His tone made it clear she was a complete waste of his precious time and incredible surgical skills.

I started to feel sick to the stomach.

There was a 19 year old girl in the ER or on another ward that had been waiting for a surgical consult all day.  She was in pain. She had been in pain for three years.  Three years of being ignored, and laughed at, I’ll wager.  She was still waiting. She would be waiting forever for this doctor, and many others like him, to take her seriously.

He had left her waiting purposefully. He had CHOSEN not to get around to that consult. And he was advising this intern to ‘not get around to’ her as well.  Passing on his filthy attitude to the next generation of doctors.

Ok, she could be a hypochondriac. So what if she is? She still needed to be seen!

At the least, she needed reassurance and compassion. If she’s a frequent flyer and there is truly nothing physically wrong with her, she still needs treatment.  Psychological treatment perhaps.  But that’s not an interesting case, and it’s NOT surgical, so this surgeon wasn’t interested in helping.  He was above all of that.

On the other hand, it’s far more likely that she IS in pain.  All those pages of google articles?  To me, that’s a sign of desperation, not a psychosomatic illness!  What would YOU do if you were in pain and no one believed you?  You’d google. You’d research. You’d look and act like you were obsessed and you would be desperate for answers because you just want the pain to stop!

This girl sounded familiar and very probably genuinely in pain to me.  Imagine, being that young and being in that much pain.  And being treated like that!  Being ignored.  Being ridiculed.

The conversation that I was listening to explained every story of bad treatment from doctors I’ve ever heard. It’s endemic.  It’s passed on from doctor to doctor.  I so wish I’d tried to record it on my phone. Have proof.  It’s appalling and it is in direct contraction of ‘first, do no harm’, one of the fundamental principles taught to medical students.

Ignoring someone who tells you they are in pain is doing harm.  Doing nothing can be doing harm.  Ridiculing and demeaning a person is doing harm.

I wish I could stay that I tore back the curtain and lined up that surgeon with a steely glare and told him all of that stuff that I just wrote down.  Explained to him the life of chronic pain and how disgustingly the system treated you if you had something that wasn’t quite ‘text book’.  If your bloodwork wasn’t quite typical.  If your scans didn’t show much.  I wish I’d talked to him and made him understand and that he then contritely went down to see that girl then and there.

But that’s a fairy tale.  I wasn’t at all strong. I lay there and listened. I did nothing.  I felt terrible for her, but I did nothing.

I hope the intern went and saw her.  If she’s the same intern (and I believe she was) then I am sure she went and did the consult.

But I wish I had said something.

That surgeon would not have listened to me.  That surgeon will never listen to anyone.  But I wish I’d tried.


  1. I have stood up to consultants, believe me it is not easy. But at least I sleep at night. With a clear conscience, I did my best for all of those I cared for. What a pompous self opinionated ass. Kick his butt all the way out of the hospital.

    • I am very glad that there are people like you who stand up to the God complex doctors. You are brave and strong and have very likely saved lives. Thank you.

  2. It may not be too late to do something. You could always put in a complaint in writing, ok you can’t prove it, it was hearsay, but it would be down in black and white and maybe, just maybe someone would then watch him, listen to him, maybe even ask the intern if she can corroborate the complaint. Especially after your own personal experience with your consultant at the same ER. People like this are in the wrong job, period. I do hope the young girl got the help she needed.


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