Going to work in a different country? Different culture? Different language? Avoid getting tripped up as I did!

I grew up in Belgium and went to medical school in Louvain, Belgium. I came to the USA for my internship and selected a small hospital in upstate New York. What an initial culture shock that was! The first problem was the language. I knew enough "school" English to get by, or so I thought. Talking on the phone was the hardest.

Initially, the nurses in the hospital thought that I was the most conscientious intern they had ever worked with. When I was on duty and the nurses called me on the phone at night, I would always go to the ward, look over the chart, see the patient and then write a note and orders, rather than just handle things over the phone like all the other interns did when called for rather minor matters. Little did the nurses realize that the reason I would get up in the middle of the night and physically go to the ward was due to the fact that I had no idea what they were talking about. I did not understand a word of what the nurses were telling or asking me on the telephone, especially not when they were using even common American abbreviations, like PRN, QID, LMP etc. [PRN (Latin) means as needed; QID (Latin) means four times a day and LMP means last menstrual period]. That problem rapidly resolved as I began to understand more and more of the English medical terms. However, there is a major difference between understanding day-to-day common English and grasping all the idioms and sayings. A rather amusing anecdote will illustrate that.

About two months into my internship, I was on call at night when one of the nurses telephoned me in the early evening. A patient (Mrs X) was having a bad headache and wanted something for it. I was proud that I had understood the problem over the phone and was even more proud that I managed to order something for her headache without having to walk over to the ward. An hour or so later, the same nurse called me for the same patient because she had been constipated and wanted something for it. Again I understood and again I was able to prescribe a laxative over the phone without having to go to see the patient. A while later the same nurse called to let me know that Mrs X was agitated and wanted something for sleep. I understood again and prescribed a sleeping pill. Close to the 11pm shift change the same nurse called me once more: "Dr. LeMaire, I am so sorry to keep bothering you about Mrs X, but she is really a pain in the neck…" Immediately some horrible thought occurred to me. Here is a patient who has a bad headache, is constipated and agitated and now has a pain in her neck. These could all be symptoms of meningitis and here I have been ordering medications over the phone for a potentially serious condition. I broke out in a cold sweat and I told the nurse "I am coming." I ran over to the ward where that patient was hospitalized, went to her room and after introducing myself said "Mrs. X, the nurse tells me that you have a pain in your neck." The rest is history. The patient lodged a complaint about the nurse and me, but we both got off with a minor reprimand and in fact somewhat of a chuckle by the administrator handling the complaint.

Such tripping up by the idioms and sayings can of course happen in any language. Be aware!

Dr. William LeMaire

Authored By DR William LeMaire on Friday 5th June 2015