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Diary of a Traveling Physician: An Unexpected Patient Encounter Across the Country

Posted on: July 28, 2016

written by

Dr. Val Jones, M.D.

I discovered my current job through my locum tenens work in Idaho. Traveling provides great exposure to a wide variety of practice styles and locations, along with some extraordinary patient stories. This is one of my favorites.

As the new medical director of admissions for St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, Washington, it is my job to review all patient referrals to our hospital. Imagine my astonishment when, while traveling to New Orleans, I received an email about a patient at Tulane Medical Center who was requesting admission to St. Luke’s. This dear lady was from Spokane, but had fallen ill while visiting her family on the other side of the country, in Louisiana.

A Special Kind of “House” Call

I quickly discovered via Google Maps that she was in a hospital bed only three blocks from my hotel room. I called the case manager and nurse at Tulane and asked if it was OK for me to stop by the patient’s room for an interview. They were surprised to hear that a consult physician from Washington was going to meet their patient in person, but thought it would be fine.

Plane wingWhen I arrived, the patient’s son greeted me. He was pacing the halls, worrying about how he was going to get his mom home. There was only one direct flight per week, and it was scheduled for the next day. He had booked the ticket on Southwest Airlines on a lark.

I explained that I was from St. Luke’s, the facility that he hoped would admit his mom for further care.

He was dumbfounded. “What are you doing in New Orleans?” he asked.

“I’m here on a business trip,” I said, “and I heard your mom needed rehab. I wanted to look in on her and make sure she’s ready to transfer home. I reviewed her chart and she seems to be a perfect candidate.”

He smiled and sputtered that he thought the case managers had just sent out the referral request a few hours prior. “How on earth did you get here so quickly?” he marveled.  

I explained that email and digital chart access make a big difference these days and reassured him that his mom would likely be able to catch her flight the next morning.

Making Connections in Louisiana

As I entered the patient’s room, I introduced myself as a doctor from St. Luke’s in Spokane, who had come to see if she was ready for admission. She looked at me with bright, quizzical eyes.

“I thought this was going to take weeks,” she said. “I was in such a state. I prayed that God would find a way to get me home just a few hours ago, and now you’re here. This must be divine intervention.”

I smiled and briefly examined her, noting a PICC line and Foley catheter. She wrote me a list of “must eats” in New Orleans and explained where I could find the best fried oysters and po’boy sandwiches. Her attending physician then came in, accompanied by a medical resident. The resident explained that I was here from the accepting facility in Washington state.

“This never happens,” the attending stated, matter-of-factly.

“It’s a crazy coincidence. I am the admissions director, and I happened to be three blocks from here when I received an email about this patient,” I said. “I reviewed a copy of your medical records and believe she is an excellent rehab candidate. Because I was right around the corner, I figured I’d facilitate her transfer in person. It’d be great if we could leave her lines and tubes in for the trip. … I’d like to give you my card, in case you have other patients who need rehab in Spokane.”

The attending chuckled as she looked at my business card. “I’m not sure how many others we’ll be sending your way.”

“You never know.”

Dr. Val Jones and Patient Patricia Crocker-Fox

Dr. Val Jones and patient Patricia Crocker-Fox in Spokane, WA.

An Exceptionally Happy Ending

The patient transferred to St. Luke’s the very next morning, arriving before I did. She made an excellent recovery, and after three weeks of hard work, she was able to stand and walk again.

She gave me permission to write about this amazing journey, and I had a hospital friend take a photo of us together on her final day at St. Luke’s, next to a full-scale replica of the same Southwest Airlines airplane in which she traveled to us from New Orleans. We use it in our gym to help patients with injuries and disabilities practice getting in and out of airplanes. Southwest Airlines donated it to us some time ago — yet another coincidence!

Stories like these make me glad to be a physician. I love knowing that I may be called upon at any time — wherever I am — to help people in extraordinary ways.

And yes, I did gain about five pounds on my trip. What can I say? I simply had to take my patient’s advice on Cajun delicacies before I flew home!

Do you have an amazing patient story to share? Leave a comment below, and we’ll reach out if it’s a good fit for our blog!

Patient photos courtesy of Dr. Val Jones. All rights reserved.

Dr. Val Jones, M.D.
About Dr. Val Jones, M.D.

Val Jones, M.D., is the President and CEO of Better Health, LLC, a medical blogging network, and a member of Barton's Editorial Board. Dr. Val graduated from medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and is a part-time locum tenens physician. She is currently the Medical Director of Admissions for Saint Luke's Rehabilitation Institute. For more from Dr. Val, check out GetBetterHealth.com.

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