Notes from a Healer

Three Important Things

Brian T. Maurer

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From where I sit behind my desk I can hear him coming down the hall.  His voice pierces the quiet calm of the office.  Layered throughout I hear two additional voices: that of a woman, presumably the boy’s mother, and that of the medical assistant, soft and low.

I have been forewarned about this boy.  Minutes before his pediatrician confided in me that the boy was mildly autistic and rather skittish during examinations.  “He always wants to see only me,” the pediatrician told me.  “I told him that you were my friend, and that you would be gentle with him.  I thought that might calm him down a bit.”  Those were his parting words as he left for his hospital rounds.

Now the boy’s voice surges as the medical assistant attempts to coax him onto the scale to check his weight.  By the sound of things it’s equally difficult to check his blood pressure.  The woman’s voice intervenes, directing the boy to calm down.  Finally, they are ushered into the exam room.  Shortly, the medical assistant appears with the encounter form attached to a clipboard.  “Good luck with this one,” he says, handing me the documents.  “He’s tough.”

I draw myself to my feet.  In a few steps I’m outside the exam room door, then through the doorway into the room.

The boy sits on the exam table; the woman in the chair next to him.  “Hello,” I say, offering him my hand.  “You must be Anthony.”

“That’s me,” he says.  “I need a tissue to blow my nose.”

“Ask politely,” the woman says.  I introduce myself to her, then turn to the boy.

“Your doctor told me you were sick.  Is that true?”

He nods his head.  “I’m sick,” he says.

“What’s the matter?”

“He’s got a lot of congestion in his head and a cough,” the woman says.  “When I looked for his inhaler, I found it was empty.  There were no doses left.  I thought it would be best to have him checked out—just in case.  Technically, he’s still a ward of the state; the adoption hasn’t gone through yet.”

“Oh, you’re adopting him?  Isn’t that nice!”

“Yep, that’s nice,” the boy says.  “What are you going to do to me?”

“Nothing much,” I say, reaching for the otoscope and a tongue blade.  “I’m just going to look into your ears to check for potatoes, look in your throat and listen to your chest.  It won’t hurt.  Is that okay?”

“That’s okay,” the boy says.

He’s a bit squeamish when I reach for his ear.  “It’s all right,” I say in a soft voice.  “It won’t hurt.”

Miraculously, he allows me to peer into his ear canals.  He opens wide and complies with the throat exam.  He lets me feel his neck and listen to his chest.  I pop the stethoscope out of my ears and step back.  “There.  That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

The boy shakes his head.  “No.  That wasn’t so bad.”  Then to the woman seated in the chair, the woman who will soon become his adoptive mother, he says, “He’s a kind man.”

The woman smiles.  “Yes, Anthony.  I think you’re right.  He’s a kind man.”

I write a new prescription for the boy’s inhaler and give instructions to the woman.  “Make sure to continue the therapy until his head cold is over,” I tell her.  “You can call for a follow up appointment sometime next week.”

“Thank you,” the woman says.  Then to the boy she adds, “Say thank you to the kind man, Anthony.”

“Thanks for being a kind man,” Anthony says as he scoots out the door and bounds down the hallway.

The novelist Henry James advised his nephew Willie James to live always by six words:  “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”  In a letter to him James wrote: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

A century later those are still good words to live by.

About the Author

  • Photo of Brian T. MaurerBrian T. Maurer has practiced pediatric medicine as a Physician Assistant for the past three decades.  As a clinician, he has always gravitated toward the humane aspect in patient care—what he calls the soul of medicine.  Over the past decade, Mr. Maurer has explored the illness narrative as a tool to enhance the education of medical students and cultivate an appreciation for the delivery of humane medical care.  His first book, Patients Are a Virtue, recently reviewed in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, is a collection of patient vignettes illustrating what Sir William Osler called “the poetry of the commonplace” in clinical medical practice. Interested readers can read more of the author's writings at his website and blog.

  • Published: December 30, 2013