don't want no sugar in my coffee

In any modern city, you're liable to get patients who speak a multitude of languages. Fortunately, probably the most multicultural group of people in said city will be its doctors, so you're probably going to have a colleague who speaks whatever language your patient does.

Take last week; I admitted a guy whose primary language was Cantonese. He spoke a very tiny amount of English, but somewhat more than I speak Cantonese. My senior resident that night, by luck, grew up speaking Cantonese and English, so I watched as she got a much more complete history than I could have.

Now, being the culturally sensitive guy I am, I tried to pick up a couple of words. The most important word in any language for me is "pain," (and how fucked up of a statement is that, eh?) and "pain" in Cantonese sounds something like "tong" or "tung"; it's hard to tell exactly because it's an inflective language which all sounds the same to my white-guy ears.

So three days later the guy, who's had a catheter stuck in his penis for a few days (long story), pulls it out. This is more difficult to imagine than you might think, as there's an inflated balloon inside keeping it in place, so it's impossible to pull out a Foley catheter without some bleeding and, er, tearing.

I go up to his room and try to ascertain how much damage there is. I ask him, "where does it hurt?" and he looks confused. I point at his penis (which is only bleeding slightly) and ask him if it hurts, and he looks confused. I dimly remember from when I admitted him that Cantonese for pain is "tong," so I point at his penis and say "tong?" At this point he looks unbelievably befuddled and a little insulted.

After about five minutes of sign language and screaming "tong" he seems to realize what I'm getting at and says, "no, no pain." Whew! I go out and relate this story to my (also Cantonese-speaking) med student, and she starts laughing uncontrollably.

"No, no," she says. "'Tung' is pain. 'Tong' is sugar."

That's right, I spent five minutes pointing at an old guy's wang and yelling "sugar! sugar!" I can't imagine what he thinks of the health care system now.


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