Role change: When journalists turn into patients

From the start, I kept a journalist’s sharp eye trained on the nurses’ hands. Did hospital workers pull on fresh gloves before touching me?

How many of them asked for my birth date? Did they grill me about what condition brought me to this pre-surgery unit at 5:30 a.m.?

Some patients get annoyed at such inquiries. Not me.

As a health care writer, I’ve written too many stories about hospital-acquired infections, wrong-side surgeries, even wrong-patient surgeries in which a patient lost a healthy gallbladder or unscathed knee.

So go right ahead and ask me again: The procedure will remove the cataract in which eye?

Last month, I walked into a Los Angeles area hospital for cataract surgery that I had successfully postponed for years.

Eye cataracts are so common that more than half of all Americans will have had a cataract or surgery by the time they turn 80.

Like many people, however, I cringed at the notion of eye surgery. It didn’t help that I knew so much—too much—about all that can go wrong in an operating room.

Such skepticism can dog health care journalists, who in turn dog their own physicians. One ex-colleague recently told me how he interrogated his doctor (“Just how many times have you performed this procedure?” “Have you ever made a mistake?”) before he agreed to a simple colonoscopy.

So how do we learn to sit back and simply be a patient? It’s not easy.

Like my mother, I had developed cataracts early, my vision slowly blurring in both eyes.

Proteins in the eyes’ natural lenses were clumping together, casting a haze over my computer screen and the pages of books and magazines.

I sought out a respected ophthalmologist who improved my vision with new eyeglass lenses that cost a total of $357, compared to surgery that can cost $10,000 per eye. I appreciated his philosophy that surgery shouldn’t necessarily be the first option.

But in time, the left-eye cataract grew larger. Driving at night became a voyage through a fantastical light show, wide beams shooting from every streetlight and the headlights of approaching cars.

My doctor and I agreed it was time to act, and he referred me to a surgeon colleague.

Of course, I looked up state records on infection rates at the hospital where the surgery would be performed. I researched success rates and potential complications.

My surgeon impressed me by detailing those complications at our first meeting, answering my barrage of questions.

Yet I still felt awkward arriving at the pre-surgery suite without a notebook and pen in hand, no article to report and write. Instead I pulled on the lavender gown a nurse handed me and climbed into bed.

When the nurses and doctors stopped at a bedside table to study my records, I wanted to stand behind them and read the records myself.

But they had a job to do, and by now I trusted them.

Besides, the lavender gown was a welcome distraction. A nurse inserted a white hose, and suddenly the gown began filling with warm air. This must be a new-fangled replacement for heated blankets.

The journalist in me wondered briefly how much this gown cost.

But at that moment, in my warm pod with the sedative kicking in, I couldn’t care less.

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