I’ve always thought that veterinarians have it tough. They see patients who cannot communicate. Their patients don’t speak or complain of symptoms. So veterinarians have to go by what owners have observed and by the physical exam for most of their data.
It’s kind of like a pediatrician or even a Pediatric ER physician. Little kids might not be able to complain. And when they do, they may be very vague, unable to give a good description of what they are feeling.
I recently worked a Pediatric ER shift where I saw a 4 year old patient who was transferred from another facility. The other hospital wanted us to rule out appendicitis because the patient had abdominal pain and a CT scan that was equivocal.
I went in to see this little patient who appeared to be lying comfortably in the gurney watching the TV hanging on the wall. The patient, who I’ll call Joe, didn’t seem to be in pain. So I asked his parents what the problem was. It turns out that Joe had been vomiting — up to 10 times over night — and that was why he was brought in to the ED. I asked if Joe was communicative at home. His parents told me he was.
Was Joe a child who would normally complain of pain like a stomach ache? Yes, they told me. Did Joe ever complain that his stomach was hurting? No, he didn’t.
At this point appendicitis was getting knocked down lower on my differential (list of possible diagnoses). I proceeded to sit down next to Joe and say hello. He stared back at me. I told him I was going to just take a look at his stomach and started to pull back the hospital sheet that was covering his belly.
Almost immediately he pulled it back. Apparently, this kid liked his stomach covered up. I pulled back a little and pressed on his stomach. He started crying. I tried to observe how he was crying — to see if he was just being fussy or if it was really painful. I started pressing on the left side and worked my way to the right lower area of his abdomen (where appendicitis typically presents with pain) and tried to see if his crying intensified as I neared that spot.
I finally gave up and let him cover up his stomach. But I tried one more time. This time, I pressed on his stomach through the sheet. This time Joe did not cry. I was able to press fairly deep all over his stomach without eliciting any cries of pain.
That pretty much did it for me. And, after more discussion with the parents about Joe’s symptoms at home prior to coming in to the hospital, I concluded that appendicitis was not likely in this little patient.
In the adult world, most patients are able to communicate. Sure, I’ve had adults who were unable to communicate with me, but the proportion of patients who can’t communicate is much, much less. I don’t plan on going into pediatrics or emergency medicine. But I can appreciate how difficult it can be at times. And I am thankful that there are people who choose to do it.