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Finding the Real Problem

I was back in my home state of California, working as a nurse in a busy emergency room. We had a regular visitor who tugged at my heart. His name was Billy—a Norman Rockwell type of kid: freckles and tousled blonde hair. He was two years old, and for a year Billy had been in and out of the emergency room with what the doctors diagnosed as asthma.

But the source of the illness was a mystery to the medical staff. He hadn't had it as an infant; there wasn't a family history of asthma; and there weren't obvious signs of allergies that would cause it. But the symptoms seemed to indicate it was asthma. Sometimes we treated him and sent him home, and other times he would end up in the pediatrics intensive care unit because his breathing was so labored.

This continued for about a year, and the staff grew fond of Billy. He came yet another day with breathing difficulties, and one of the medical interns decided, on a lark, to look up Billy's nose. He found a black jellybean that Billy's brother had put there a year before. I'm not going to describe to you what came out with the black jellybean. It wasn't a pretty picture.

We had treated Billy for the wrong condition for almost a year. In light of that circumstance, I put signs on the walls of the emergency room that said, "Look for jellybeans." When you're working in the emergency room, being able to properly diagnose a problem can be the difference between life and death.

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