I passed out cold in this Vanderbilt doctor’s office in the 1980s. I’ve never forgotten her reaction.
A brief encounter with a good doctor echoes through the yearsJuly 18, 2018
Elizabeth Szalay, MD, in the 1980s when she was at Vanderbilt. (Photo from Eskind Biomedical Library Special Collections).
At VUMC, the Credo and the Patient and Family Promise provide a cultural framework for the way we treat patients and each other.
When people are here for medical care, or have a family member here for medical care, they may be scared, or anxious, or just lost, and having someone treat them kindly and with respect can go a long way toward making the day better.
In a failed attempt to become physically fit, I took up jogging. My left knee swelled to the size of a cabbage.
What I hadn’t thought of until recently is how making a day better can sort-of make a life better. A kind act can echo through the years.
Let me tell you what got me thinking of the Credo and the Patient and Family Promise in this larger context.
Once, in a failed attempt to become physically fit, I took up jogging. This was a long time ago — by which I mean the 1980s. My wife Sharon and I lived in East Nashville then and some mornings, before I was awake enough to know what I was doing, I would go for a run around the neighborhood.
Soon after I began this dubious practice, I started having periodic knee trouble. One time my left knee swelled to the size of a cabbage and stayed that way for a few days. It was pretty clear I needed to see a doctor.
I called Vanderbilt’s Orthopaedics practice and a young faculty member, Elizabeth Szalay, MD, agreed to see me that day, so I hobbled over to her clinic. She came into the exam room in a blur of ‘80s hair and white coat, shook my hand, and introduced herself. I noted that her last name was pronounced “ZAY-lee.” After we talked for a minute she took a look at my big ridiculous knee.
She noted that it had a bunch of fluid on it and said it would be a good idea to drain the fluid. She left the room, came back with a nurse, and they set about inserting a needle into my knee to reduce it to something more akin to a human-scale leg joint.
About the time this enterprise got underway, I passed out cold.
Really. The drop in blood pressure from the sudden loss of fluid made the room spin, and the next thing I knew, the doctor and the nurse were helping me sit up again after I had regained what passes in me for consciousness.
What I remember is what we now call Credo behavior, or living up to the Patient and Family Promise. Things that at that time hadn’t been written on paper yet, but they were written in the way she treated me that day.
I still remember Dr. Szalay’s concern and how she made sure I was OK before I left the clinic that day with my newly deflated knee. She was kind, and competent, and my knee was fine after that. At some point later, I also decided that knee-friendly swimming might be more healthful for me than spending early mornings dazedly shambling around the East Nashville pavement.
As I say, this all happened in the mid-1980s. Dr. Szalay did not serve on the faculty here very long. She was a native of New Mexico and longed to get back home. She moved back there and built a life and career as a clinician and researcher at the University of New Mexico. In addition to her prominent medical career, she was an artist, musician, hiker, traveler and cherished her husband and family.
I know all of this because it was published in her obituary in the Albuquerque Journal in 2015. It turns out, Dr. Szalay died of pancreatic cancer at age 61.
I knew Dr. Szalay for a few minutes one afternoon decades ago, and I’m positive she barely would have recalled it a month later. But even now, across the years, I remember her kindness. What I remember is what we now call Credo behavior, or living up to the Patient and Family Promise. Things that at that time hadn’t been written on paper yet, but they were written in the way she treated me that day.
I guess we never know how what we do will be remembered. Sometimes, it turns out, we can leave an impression even on those whom we meet only briefly. A great lesson to remember. Thanks, Dr. Szalay.