Medical fiction question #1: The Disorderly Orderly

I have gotten a great response from my guest post over at the GLA blog about writing a hospital scene. A few of the questions have just been way too specific for me to answer, but this past week I received an email I think I can answer online without giving too much away about the story. I’ve re-phrased a bit, but here’s the gist:

Abbreviated/edited email:

Dear Amitha,

I’m working on a short story that takes place in a hospital. The patient is in the room with his family when an orderly shows up. What does this orderly say?  Does he introduce himself in a friendly way or is the relationship strictly analytical and dry?  How can I avoid clichés when describing this scene? Is a clipboard mandatory? Would they wear scrubs and a stethoscope? Also, what should I avoid in the “doctor-talking” between patients and doctors/nurses/orderlies? Any information or advice you have is appreciated.  And thank you for your help and your time.

-CT

My response:

Dear CT,

My first reaction when reading this was–what the heck is an orderly? I vaguely remembered an old Jerry Lewis movie called The Disorderly Orderly, so I knew this wasn’t a made up word and ended up using wikipedia to find out the answer. :) For those who don’t know, an orderly seems to be a type of medical assistant no longer used in the US health care system, but still exists in other countries. Thus, if your story relies on the existence of an “orderly,” it will be very clear that your story does not take place in the US (whether that is your intention or not, I can’t tell from your email).

Okay, so here goes for the rest of your questions:

1) What does this orderly say?  Does he introduce himself in a friendly way or is the relationship strictly analytical and dry?

Asking whether the orderly is friendly or not is kind of like asking whether a lawyer is friendly or mean, or if a shoe-salesman comes to greet you in a store or not. It depends entirely on the person. This answer is a little bit of a cop-out so I’ll try my best to give you some hints.

How a person talks to a patient also depends slightly on the type of information they need. Naturally if he is someone like a hospital administrator who just needs basic facts to fill out forms–name, birthdate, social security number, etc.–his demeanor will be less engaging, and more fact-based so they can efficiently move on to the next patient. If he is a doctor or a nurse who needs the answer to broader questions–about the history of the patient’s illness, the patient’s medical history, etc.–he will try to be more sympathetic, friendly, and engaging to get more information. It is difficult to get answers from people if they don’t like you.

In general, the professional thing to do when working at a hospital is to be kind and courteous (duh). Doctors and nurses try not to talk down to patients or use too much jargon. Remember that these are real people, so the way they interact with others also depends on their personality, how tired they are, etc.

2) How can I avoid clichés when describing this scene? Is a clipboard mandatory? Would they wear scrubs and a stethoscope?

What a person wears depends on where they work and what their role is. For example, doctors usually don’t wear scrubs, but rather professional attire (pants, blouses, button-down shirts, ties. etc.) unless they are on call or are surgeons who are required to be in the operating room for some reason (and even then it is considered more professional/cleaner to only wear scrubs in the OR). Nurses often wear scrubs no matter where they are in the hospital as do medical assistants because they do handle more..umm..bodily fluids than doctors tend to. But if you were to have a doctor wearing scrubs or a nurse wearing regular pants, this wouldn’t really be “incorrect” either.

Clipboards–if someone needs to fill out forms a lot, they may carry a clipboard, or they might just use the table that’s in every hospital room. It depends again on the person. I used to carry a clipboard as a med student and as a starting out intern, but as I got busier, I quickly realized the clipboard was just something that didn’t fit in my white coat pocket, and thus could potentially be left somewhere on accident. But if you have more of a desk job or something more patient-intake oriented, it would make sense to keep one around.

3) Also, what should I avoid in the “doctor-talking” between patients and doctors/nurses/orderlies?

This question, like #1 above, is difficult to answer, mainly because I don’t really know what you have in mind. I can say that in general, it is unprofessional to talk about a patient in a way they can’t understand in front of the patient. But this doesn’t mean that people don’t do it from time to time.

To make a long story short–you are the one writing your story, not me, so it’s up to decide how people will interact with each other. Likewise, I can’t help you choose which details tell the most about a person. I can only tell you whether things are realistic or not. Deciding what is or isn’t cliché, unfortunately, is up to you.

Got a medical fiction question? Email me: amitha [at] amithaknight [dot] com. (Or just comment on my blog/send me a tweet.) I’ll try my best to answer!

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2 Responses to Medical fiction question #1: The Disorderly Orderly

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