Dr. Richard Thompson, a Florida consultant on medical administration, lay in a hospital bed, hallucinating, losing weight, ripping out his i.v. tubes.

His doctors said he was having a "psychotic reaction" after a demanding operation. In fact, he had developed meningitis -- his brain had become dangerously inflamed.

He would quite likely be dead today if another doctor, a friend of his, had not come to visit and demanded an accurate diagnosis and vigorous treatment.

For Dr. Thompson, being at the mercy of the medical system -- instead of being the medical system -- was an eye-opening experience. In "When Doctors Get Sick" (to be published in October by Plenum Medical), 50 doctors who became ill tell their own eye-opening stories.

These doctors, suddenly finding themselves on the other side of the stethoscope, tell us: Be careful. And they can help teach us how to cope with the system at its worst.

Dr. Benjamin Felson, emeritus professor of radiology at the University of Cincinnati, calls the American hospital "that most hazardous of places."

Another physician, David Hein of Atlanta, says he will never forget his doctor's advice about the hospital: "He said that this was an excellent facility {but} mistakes and miscalculations occur regardless . . . He warned me to be alert and not hesitate to question or refuse any given treatment or . . . test if I thought there had been a mistake."

Still another patient-physician, "Dr. Maurice Raskin" (some of the contributors used pseudonyms), tells us: "Standards of care vary widely . . . As a patient, I got the impression that we as physicians are aware of only a minority of the sloppy care" that occurs. ::

I quote, it is true, from some of the worst, not the best, experiences of the physicians who contributed to this book. But there are many such bad experiences.

A doctor with a severe intestinal disorder was referred to a celebrated "specialist of specialists," who recommended prednisone, a drug he was already taking. "It was obvious that this doctor had not even assimilated the information of the case . . . The relationship between reputation and quality is not always a positive one."

Another doctor-patient said: "My experience with physicians has been tainted by sloppiness, mild negligence, professional fatigue and disaffection, greed and lack of wisdom."

Dr. Robert Seaver, an internist who had to retire because of serious illness, told how a nurse strapped a set of EKG electrodes to his chest. He saw that one was misplaced. The result, uncorrected, would have been "an erroneous diagnosis of new necrosis," death of heart tissue. "Dr. Raskin" caught a nurse injecting in a nonsterile way into his "central line" -- a catheter into his body -- subjecting him to possible infection.

Several other physician-patients told of unfeeling doctors, of drug effects mistakenly called "new symptoms," of unneeded yet risky tests that could add nothing to treatment decisions.

They, being doctors, were better equipped than you and I to cope with these problems. Yet we can learn from their experiences.

We can learn to: Ask questions whenever we're doubtful. On tests, for example: "Can this test make any difference in the way you treat me?" Say, when we haven't absorbed something, "Tell me about that again. I just didn't get it the other day." Some of the doctor-patients, like any patients, tell how they were given unexpected or disturbing news but at that point "heard" nothing. Be an inquiring patient but not -- if we can help it or unless it's absolutely necessary -- a disagreeable one. Justly or not, these doctors write, a patient's behavior often affects the care. Neither doctors nor nurses like to spend much time with a crab. Try to make friends of the nurses, and all the other workers and volunteers, who enter a hospital room. Especially if you're lucky enough to see the same ones more than once. Doing so may take effort. They too may be under stress. But all can help make the difference between a successful or useless stay. Ask, in almost any illness or disability, about physical therapy and, an important word, rehabilitation. "Do not assume" that every doctor knows much about these, writes one doctor-patient. Try to see to it that all your caregivers know what the others are doing. Often they don't. When you're getting care from a parade of people who don't seem to coordinate, strenuously ask "Who's my doctor?" -- the one doctor who should know the whole story. Perhaps most important of all, have "a doctor" -- a personal doctor, usually a family physician, internist, pediatrician or sometimes a gynecologist -- before illness strikes. A doctor you trust. And one who will keep track of you, even if you have to be handed over to super-specialists.

"How does one find a doctor to trust?" writes Dr. A. Peter Lundin, a Brooklyn kidney specialist who is on regular dialysis -- hooked up to a cleansing machine -- for lack of kidney function.

"My own choice is for an intelligent doctor who keeps up with the latest knowledge . . . who pays attention to his patients when they speak and understands their needs, and who, if the cause of the problem is not obvious, will pursue the right explanation with bulldog tenacity. I want no doctor who shoots from the hip, who uses expediency or acts before having sufficient knowledge of the problem.

". . . My ideal doctor is careful, compassionate and clearly attentive to the primary medical principle: 'First do no harm.' "

In modern medicine, "first do no harm" does not and cannot mean "take no risks." Every treatment, every drug, every test has some risks. Today, Lundin explains, "first do no harm" means "first looking at the disadvantages of any treatment . . . A good scientist knows that a theory must hold up under testing, so he will look for its weak points . . . A physician {should} look at everything a treatment might do, the bad along with the good, and decide if the benefits outweigh the risks."

You and I might not be able to judge a doctor as effectively as a Dr. Lundin, but we can at least get some idea -- and very possibly a pretty good idea -- how well our doctor meets these tests. ::

It is clear, these doctors write, that there are no perfect doctors.

"As patients," writes Dr. Seaver, "we yearn for the magic of the shaman, the wisdom of Maimonides, the omnipotent kindess of our mothers. Such people do not exist."

Yet some of us have occasionally found, in some cases they very nearly do. To write of poor or unfeeling doctors is not to say there are not many good and even outstanding ones.

"As a group, physicians are not heroes, nor should society expect of them heroic sacrifices," writes "Dr. R.F. Spooner," a 30-year-old New England physician who practices medicine despite chronic Crohn's disease, a serious intestinal problem. "If, from day to day, they can perform small acts of heroism with individual patients and family, then perhaps they will have fulfilled their professional obligations.

"My only expectations from a physician and from myself is that we do our job perfectly most of the time and that, when mistakes are made, we have the courage to correct them promptly."

Next Week: Doctors talk about their patients.