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When The Doctor Drops In

karen dempsey“I had to borrow my wife’s stethoscope,” Dan says, sitting down beside me on my sister Megan’s couch. “You don’t mind if I examine her?”

I pull eight-year-old Liddy closer and she flashes me a look. “You DO mind,” she whispers in my ear. But Dan has an easy way with kids that quickly wins her over.

“This will feel a little cold.” He snakes the stethoscope up under Liddy’s pajama top. “Ready?” I know the moment he presses it to her skin because the two of them raise their eyebrows at each other and smile.

Dan is the chief of pulmonology at a nearby hospital. He arrived at Megan’s house with his wife and son, stepping out of his boots at the front door like any other neighbor.  It’s the day before Thanksgiving.

Liddy was diagnosed with asthma at age three, but she has had a long healthy stretch, free of flare-ups, before this cough. This cough is different.

It has been hanging around for nearly a month despite visits to the pediatrician and faithful use of her inhalers. Then over the weekend—while we were still home in Boston and readying ourselves for this trip—it grew suddenly worse. All night, I sat up holding her as she coughed into my chest. She breathed in the medicine from two different inhalers. We moved around the house from her bed to the glider on the icy front porch, to the bathroom with the steamy shower running. Still, she coughed and coughed.

The pediatrician sent us for a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Liddy stood before a wide white screen, arms extended over her head as a gown three sizes too big dragged the floor. The pediatrician called me an hour later, perplexed and frustrated. Her chest was clear.

“Let’s try a round of antibiotics,” he said. “We need to get her in to see her asthma specialist, and perhaps even a pulmonologist.”

In the meantime, we were flying home to Buffalo, and I had visions of scary coughing fits on the plane and a late night trip to the E.R. if things continued. My sister had another suggestion. Her own daughter’s pulmonologist lived in their neighborhood.

A few texts back and forth, and here we were, talking quietly in Megan’s comfortable living room while Dan’s wife chatted in the kitchen and their son played Minecraft with the boys.

I tell Dan that I think the antibiotics have finally taken hold of whatever is causing the cough.

“I like it when my patients are already feeling better when I see them,” Dan said. And I think with a pang of the patients he usually sees — children with cystic fibrosis.

Dan spends a long time with us, listening to Liddy breathe, reviewing her medical history, suggesting an alternative medication, and showing how to best use it to “make the medicine stick.” He even asked Megan to pull out her iPad so he could show us a website with kid-friendly videos demonstrating how to use an inhaler.

While we’ve had remarkable medical care in Liddy’s lifetime, and her brother’s, this is a memorable visit. By Thanksgiving evening, Liddy is breathing easily – laughing and chasing her cousins through my mom’s house. We have a lot to be grateful for.

As for Liddy, the experience of a house call allowed her to assess her doctor at a different level.

“First I thought he was rude,” she says. “When he asked Megan for hand sanitizer. But then he knew Megan’s dog Jack. And he definitely knew her cat because his family found him when he was a stray kitten.” She thinks for a minute. “I don’t know if he knew their old dog Sam. But I guess that’s okay.” She shrugs, and smiles, and takes off running without another thought.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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This entry was written by Karen Dempsey

About the author: Karen Dempsey has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her @karenedempsey.

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