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When she was too loose with confidential information, pediatrician Patricia Tibbs harmed a colleague. But since then she’s become a trusted confidant for a whole community.
“Dr. Tibbs! Dr. Tibbs!” I hear this frequently as I am trying to wind my way through the grocery store. I have not been able to shop for groceries without some kind of interruption for the last several years now. As I turn around to see who is calling out to me in the middle of the bread isle, I try to visualize a life in which I could shop without interruption.
My musings are interrupted with “Dr. Tibbs, she finally passed it!” I already have a smile on my face as my mind goes into high gear, trying to figure out who is standing before me, who passed it, and what “it” was. Most times, my mind does not fail me. But there have been some close calls in which I have no idea who I am speaking to, much less what the topic is. This, I discovered, is what practicing pediatrics is like in small-town America.
It is not such a small town really; there is a 24-hour Wal-Mart, several restaurants, two local newspapers, and even a Lowes. But, everyone knows everyone else, or at least has heard of their kin, or whom they married, or how they ended up here. Practicing in Ellisville, Miss., makes me privy to a lot of personal details about the lives of the families I deal with. I get to know what the teenagers are up to, whose marriage is in trouble, who is struggling with depression, the course of illness in a family. I see the children in the office, and learn about the struggles in their families, and then I meet them at the soccer field with my children, on Sunday at church, and … at the grocery store.
I am often deeply moved by the trust that these people have placed in me. When they share something personal with me, they’re confident that it will not be all over the town the next day. They know I will do my best to make it better without much ado, and without judgment.
It was not always like that, unfortunately. Some lessons are very painfully learned.
It was a day much like any other; I was going about the business of seeing patients. I was practicing in a large referral center soon after I finished my training. The abscess in Room 3, the fever in 4, and the follow-up in 5. Well, the follow-up in Room 5 was a young mother, the wife of a doctor whom I happened to know. She was very distressed because her baby was just 4 months old and she thought she was pregnant. Her husband was going to be furious, she said. She did not know what she was going to do. I took care of the baby, and comforted her. I encouraged her to get a pregnancy test and confirm the pregnancy first before she worried about what she was going to do. She felt better after we talked, and I reminded her that her husband was not such an ogre after all. She laughed and left the office looking much like she had been crying, her eyes red, and face swollen.
Dr. Crane (not her real name) was in the hallway as my patient left. She turned to me and asked me what that was all about. Without thinking too much about it, I told her that Mrs. Lyon (not her real name) was very upset because she thought she might be pregnant and was not sure how her husband would take it. I figured this was another physician, so I really had not done anything wrong by telling her about the encounter. After all, what happens in the clinic stays in the clinic … doesn’t it?
About one week later, Dr. Lyon was waiting for me in the hallway as I came out of the cafeteria. We went into an empty patient room, and he asked me if his wife had shared with me her suspicion that she might be pregnant. I nodded.
He then proceeded to tell me how Dr. Crane had, in the presence of other physicians, informed everyone how careless some people were, having children like they do not know where they come from, and pointing him out as a wife-beater, seeing as how terrified his wife was about the prospect of him finding out about her pregnancy (which for the record was a false alarm).
By the time he got to the end of this long declaration, he was screaming and there were tears in his eyes. I was so, so sorry. So sorry. I had a lump in my throat, and this nausea that I just did not know what to do with. I was so furious at Dr. Crane that I thought I might do her bodily harm the next time I saw her.
I sat Dr. Lyon down; I looked into his eyes, and simply told him I was so sorry. There was no way to undo what I had done. I tried to make him understand that I meant no harm, and that I valued his esteem more than he could understand. He nodded and left.
I sat there for a long time, and during that time I realized two things. First, I could not control what type of physician Dr. Crane was going to be, and second, I was never going to allow myself to feel this way again. I never saw Mrs. Lyon again. But over the years, and especially since I moved to this small town, I have realized how important it is that I learned that lesson well. I have met a few more “Dr. Cranes” over the years, and I am grateful for the lesson learned that day so early in my career.
Patricia Tibbs, MD, is a pediatrician in Ellisville, Miss. Her special interests are childhood obesity, teen health, and women’s wellness related to balancing work and home life. She is married to Patrick, and has four children.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Physicians Practice.