Questions from the Audience

I am an Emergency Physician, and I work in a high volume but well staffed Emergency Department. As such, I have a lot of interactions both with the patients, but also with those who accompany the patients. Answering questions is a big part of my job: many are utterly mystified at the body they inhabit and explanations go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and forming a bond between us. I’m not a touchy-feely guy, but I know that if the patient trusts my judgement, when I come and tell them it’s good news or bad they will feel that I care and that they are in good hands.

Yesterday, while draining an abscess, my patient’s family member asked a question for which I was unprepared: “What’s a bacteria?” was the response to my answer about how this infection began. Koch’s Postulates sprang briefly to mind, but if you haven’t even heard of bacteria, where do you start? So, the best thing I could come up with was ‘single celled organisms that live everywhere’.

What would you have said?


Comments

  1. My guess is that if the person didn’t know the word ‘bacteria’, they aren’t going to know the word ‘organism’. When possible, I like to restate things in the vernacular. I think vernacular for bacteria is probably ‘germs’.

    Still, bacteria is a pretty common word. I think that physicians focus on bacteria because it represents a branch-point for decision making. Antibiotic or not. Many viral infections are self-limiting and don’t need medicines.

  2. Germs. Exactly.

    This reminds me of a “Life In Hell” comic, where the young guy is asked by his kid what sex is.

    “You know what f*cking is”? he says.

    “Yeah” says the kid.

    “It’s like that”

  3. Bacteria are germs that are too small to see with just your eyes. Some bacteria are normal to have in your body, while other kinds can cause problems if they grow too much in your body. Bacteria can make you sick.

    (Sorry; I’ve been told so much that “the average adult in America reads below the 8th grade level” that I’ve started to explain things like that! Annoying, isn’t it?)

  4. joan konkle says:

    I think “organism” and “germ” are good initial answers. My guess is, though, that many people still won’t know what you mean. How about “bug” for a second try? Of course it’s nonscientific, but I think it conveys the idea of “nasty thing we must get rid of” to just about everybody.