Running Out the Clock

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In our ongoing 'Doctor-in-Training' series, time is of the essence in more ways than one for a medical student conducting a routine physical on an elderly patient

I’m running out of time. It was right there on the vital signs monitor clock: 30 minutes left to finish the patient’s history and do her physical. And here she was, a real talker, expounding on the pros and cons of Obamacare. I pressed ahead with my questions about her health, not rushing her, but taking advantage of her pauses to steer the conversation in the direction of the information I needed to present in less than an hour to my supervising doctor.

A classmate and I had been assigned to this patient–I’ll call her Mrs. G.–as part of our course on the physical exam. She lay in her bed on the inpatient cardiac ward, frail under gown and blanket, an IV dribbling into her arm. We worked systematically, with lots of ground to cover. At this stage of our medical education, year two, nothing we do is for the patient’s benefit. Not the barrage of questions, not the poking and prodding for findings we’re only just beginning to understand. It’s all for our training. We find our patients catch-as-catch can. Sometimes one of our physician teachers will ask a patient to let us perform an examination. Other times the nurses tell us which of their charges that day are the nicest, and we ask those patients to put up with us. Invariably, they do. Though sicker than sick, they generously act as guinea pigs so we can learn the skills to help our future patients.

Mrs. G. was hoarse but still chatty as she answered our questions about her heart problems. “Have you experienced any palpitations?” I asked. “Only twice. Right before I came to the hospital, and the first time I saw my husband,” she deadpanned. They’d been married, she said, 63 years. As my classmate and I prepared to move from taking the history to doing the physical exam, it struck me that Mrs. G. was doing me a favor—allowing me to learn by practicing my budding physical exam skills on her frail form. And she was even entertaining. But I couldn’t repay her with the open-ended listening she was clearly hoping for. It’s starting, I found myself thinking. This is why everyone says doctors are always in a rush.

She was still talking. “They say I may go down in days,” she said. “I’m just hoping to get to Christmas with my grandkids.”

It was a mental slap on the wrist. I’m running out of time? I thought. My cheeks warm, I contemplated how few hours she could have left on this earth. A few hundred, probably. If she was lucky. And yet, here she was, spending one of those hours helping me grow into a doctor.

TIME A Brief History Of

Ticker-Tape Parades

Bettmann / CORBIS Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy rides on a car with wife Jackie in a ticker-tape parade, Oct. 19, 1960

Fresh off their 27th World Series win, the New York Yankees will take a victory lap through lower Manhattan on the morning of Nov. 6. It will be their record-setting ninth trip down the so-called Canyon of Heroes, the skyscraper-lined stretch from the island’s southern tip to City Hall. And if past ticker-tape parades for sports champions are any guide, they can expect to be showered with up to 50 tons of confetti and shredded paper.

The stock ticker — a machine that tracked financial data over telegraph lines and stamped it on strips called ticker tape for the sound the printing made — had barely been around two decades before Wall Streeters realized that throwing its ribbony paper out the window was a fun way to celebrate. They first did it on Oct. 29, 1886, inspired by the ceremony to dedicate the Statue of Liberty. The practice was still a novelty 10 years later, when the New York Times reported that office workers had “hit on a new and effective scheme of adding to the decorations” at a parade for presidential candidate William McKinley by unfurling hundreds of ticker-tape reels out the window.

By 1899 two million people turned out to make Admiral George Dewey, hero of the battle of Manila Bay, the first individual honored with a ticker-tape parade. Former President Teddy Roosevelt got one in 1910 upon returning from his African safari. But it wasn’t until 1919, when Grover Whalen was made New York City’s official greeter, that ticker-tape parades took off: from 1919 to 1953 he reportedly threw 86 of them, many at the urging of the State Department. The luminaries he feted in his early years included Albert Einstein in 1921 — the only scientist ever honored with a ticker-tape parade — as well as the U.S. Olympic team in 1924 and Charles Lindbergh in 1927. By then, of course, the tradition had spread: thousands of Chicagoans showered boxer Gene Tunney with paper that year when he arrived in the city to defend his world title; Boston and St. Louis have also held ticker-tape parades, though New York remains their heartland.

In those early years, curmudgeons did their best to rain on the parade. A 1904 letter to the editor urged the New York Times to speak out against the “evil” practice, suggesting that parade horses spooked by falling ticker tape might plow into the crowd on the sidewalk and cause “disaster.” (A few years later, an overzealous reveler reportedly neglected to tear the pages out of a phone book and instead threw the whole thing out the window; it struck a passerby and knocked him unconscious.) By 1926, New York Stock Exchange officials had grown concerned about the cost of tossing miles of ticker tape out the window any time someone important came to town: they considered buying confetti to distribute to employees but decided against it. In 1932, another irate Times letter writer demanded that lobbing paper be “promptly and strictly banned,” to be replaced by tossing flowers or waving handkerchiefs, the more dignified customs of “civilized cities” in Europe and South America.

The complaints had all but vanished, however, by 1945, when V-J day prompted the most lavish ticker-tape parade in history. Revelers celebrating the Allied victory over Japan filled the air with cloth, feathers, hat trimmings, paper and confetti. On Aug. 14, 1945, 3,000 street sweepers worked through the night to clean it up, only to have their efforts undone when the merriment continued the next morning. All told, merrymakers flung 5,438 tons of material on New York City’s streets.

The 1954 parade honoring the New York Giants’ National League pennant win was smaller, but as the first one to celebrate a local New York team it set a precedent. The Yankees got their first parade seven years later, to mark the start of their new season — despite the fact that they had lost the 1960 World Series to Pittsburgh.

By the late 1960s, the stock exchange was upgrading to electronic boards, leaving them little use for ticker tape. The parades dwindled: there was only a handful in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s saw a brief resurgence: among the highlights was the 1998 fete honoring John Glenn for becoming the oldest person to go into space, at age 77. Coming 36 years after his first one, it put him in an élite club of multiple-parade honorees, including Amelia Earhart, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. But there have been only two parades this decade — one for the Yankees fresh off their World Series victory in 2000, and one for the Giants after they won the Superbowl last year. Until now.

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