Emergency Room Stories: Dr. Tom Sweeney

By+Bill Moor

Dr. Tom Sweeney, an emergency room physician at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, keeps a little black book.

But it has nothing to do with new numbers or old flames. Written in it are some of the funny little stories and unbelievable events that he has witnessed in the ER. “I keep it in case I ever decide to write a book,” Sweeney says.

It could be a best seller – maybe even developed into a television drama about the ER. Oh, wait a minute, Hollywood already did that one pretty well. Not that Sweeney would know. “To be honest, I’ve never really watched ER or the other doctor shows,” he says. “Our shifts vary so much that it’s hard to get hooked on any TV show.”

He sees enough drama on the job anyway. He will flick through his little black book and share some of his stories if you ask nicely.

Sweeney remembers treating a male stab victim with a bit of an attitude. “I asked him why the woman had stabbed him and he said, ‘Because I was strangling her.’” OK.

Then there was the blind guy who came in after a
moped accident. “He was trying to ride while poking his walking stick out in front of the moped. He ended up hitting a curb and impaling himself with his stick.” Ouch!

A fisherman came in one day with a treble hook through his hand and the fish still hooked on it. “I actually was able to resuscitate the fish – a nice bass – before I got the hook out. I had a five-gallon bucket and we filled it with water and the guy was able to take his fish home in it. He was pleased but when I asked him where he caught his bass, he said, ‘I’m not telling.’” That’s gratitude for you.

Sweeney can talk foul as well as fish. He once treated a woman who had been attacked by a naked man wielding a frozen chicken. “The newspaper even wrote it up and mentioned there was no information on the chicken’s condition.”

Dr. Tom Sweeney, an emergency room physician at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, keeps a little black book.

But it has nothing to do with new numbers or old flames. Written in it are some of the funny little stories and unbelievable events that he has witnessed in the ER. “I keep it in case I ever decide to write a book,” Sweeney says.

It could be a best seller – maybe even developed into a television drama about the ER. Oh, wait a minute, Hollywood already did that one pretty well. Not that Sweeney would know. “To be honest, I’ve never really watched ER or the other doctor shows,” he says. “Our shifts vary so much that it’s hard to get hooked on any TV show.”

He sees enough drama on the job anyway. He will flick through his little black book and share some of his stories if you ask nicely.

All of his stories aren’t so funny. Tragedy and turmoil visit the ER on a regular basis. And especially during the wee hours, some of the patients aren’t so nice, either. “Occasionally, it seems like it’s us against them,” Sweeney says. “We’ve had fist fights break out and you can get people in here who grab, punch and spit. My job is to get it settled down and protect our staff. I’ve had to yell, ‘My house, my rules,’ a few times.”

He can usually tell when there is a full moon and he knows business will be brisk on drinking holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Dyngus Day and after Notre Dame football games. “Those kinds of nights can back up the whole system,” Sweeney says. “A person who comes in with something like a fever may have to wait for hours before we can get to him.”

Patience to a lot of patients doesn’t appear to be a virtue anymore. “Everybody wants to see you right away,” he says. “In the earlier days, there was just a curtain between patients so you knew the guy next door was getting CPR and you shut up. Now, a guy may be in an examination room for three hours with a sore toe and he’s mad. But I could be down the hall trying to save someone’s leg.”

What a job. Sweeney, now 52 and the divorced dad of three grown sons, still seems to love it, though. “We like the challenge of trying to take care of any situation that comes in the door,” he says. “There is a certain ownership that goes along with that and it becomes a team thing, too. There is a saying that the ER doctors try to keep the patients alive until 8:05 (a.m.) when the real doctors come in.”

Growing up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Sweeney was a volunteer firefighter in high school and then at the University of Pennsylvania. So he saw his share of banged-up people and emergency situations. But he really didn’t think about being a doctor. “I had a real passion for aviation,” he admits. “I had been accepted to the Naval Academy during my senior year in high school and I really wanted to fly.”

But then some kid goofing around in one of his classes tossed a pen across the room and hit Sweeney in the right eye. He suffered a traumatic cataract, among other things, and his appointment to the Academy had to be withdrawn. “I can still hear my dad out in the hallway pleading to the ophthalmologist, ‘Can’t I just give him one of my eyes?’”

He went on to Penn where he played soccer for four years. His first job was with Merck & Co. in the 1980s. His main focus was on the development of a Hepatitis B vaccine.

When he was 27, he remembered how much he enjoyed biology and learning how the body worked as a high schooler and decided to change his career course. So he enrolled at the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Services in Des Moines. After graduation, he earned a rheumatology fellowship to the Cleveland Clinic.

He was still at the Clinic in 1992 when he met Dr. David Bankoff, a South Bend orthopedic surgeon and the brother of one of Sweeney’s neighbors. “Over Thanksgiving dinner, he told me that they had a real need for rheumatologists in South Bend.”

That sounded like an invitation to Sweeney. He packed up his family and moved here, working as a rheumatologist until 1999. That’s when he decided to put a little more excitement in his life as an ER doctor.

He usually doesn’t regret his decision even though he has his share of frustrations. “There just seems to be a decline in our culture,” admits Sweeney, a Desert Storm veteran as a Naval Reserve officer. “I can count on one hand how many ‘thank you’s’ I get these days. When you do hear one, it does mean a lot.”

When he does have time to chat, he especially enjoys some of the stories from senior citizens – many of them World War II vets and members of the Greatest Generation. “But sometimes, it’s like the invasion of the older people in the ER.” he adds. “They say that every eight years, the number of those over 80 doubles in our country.”

Then there are those who Sweeney calls ER frequent flyers. “Many of these people are addicts who have no place else to go. Often, they just want some attention and it can be a little maddening when we’re really busy.”


He will also mention the five D’s of the ER: The drunks,
the disenfranchised, the doomed, the dumb-a****
and the Domers during those party weekends.


Sweeney can’t help but worry what the future holds for the medical field in general and the ER in particular. “Everybody who doesn’t have insurance comes to the ER,” he continues. “It gives us more business, just not paying business. We have more non-paying patients than paying. If it were like that at McDonald’s, a Big Mac would cost $40. That’s where our healthcare is now.”

He tries to forget all this when he pulls on his scrubs and grabs his stethoscope before a shift. He will even recite a passage from St. Vincent DePaul – “Do not be offended by the appearance of the poor nor the mental gifts which they have received” – before taking on what challenges await him in the waiting room.




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