Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

End of semester (academic year) thoughts


We have made it through another academic year. We will welcome the Class of 2015 into the fold of graduates (from undergraduate programs, medical school and other graduate programs). I always try to reflect on what has been surprising for me during this past academic year and what goals I will set for myself (as a professor and as a physician) for the upcoming year. I am reminded of my own graduation from medical school with my hopes and fears of the unknown aspects of starting the next chapter in my career/life. Now, many years out, I am very happy that I see that I have challenges ahead, goals ahead and things to reflect upon.

My Surprises

As this year comes to a close, I am surprised that the gaps in delivery of health care to under-served populations is getting worse and not better. I have seen people come into my office with conditions that have been left for years that could have been taken care of in early stages but now are life-threatening. I read many medical journals each week to keep up with new advances yet seeing a patient with end stage renal failure because of untreated/improperly treated hypertension and diabetes is rampant. My colleagues who are on the front lines of treating under-served populations are frustrated with systems that still marginalize their patients, are frustrated with fighting for and not being able to see their patients get even basic medical care.

I am surprised that there is a disconnect between those who are responsible for running health care systems are so dedicated to making a profit that they are comfortable with denying services to people who desperately need them. This disconnect is getting greater. I don’t understand how those CEOs can look only at the “bottom-line” and not see the implications of their decisions. Running a health care system is not like running an oil company or a bank. If patients don’t have access to basic health care, they don’t have life.

I am surprised that many of my colleagues can look at patients and blame them for getting ill. Being sick is not a moral failing but a fact of life in terms of being alive. Yes, one does need to look at lifestyle changes that will enhance health but it’s not a personal or moral failing if patients are not able to make those changes. In this time of economic troubles, many patients simply do not have the financial resources, community resources to make the lifestyle changes that will enhance their health. We also have companies that again, look for providing the cheapest foods (usually fatty and sugary) while making healthier food choices far more expensive. Many of my patients eat from the fast food “dollar menu” not because they want to but because they have to. They are simply making choices that allow them to live indoors and are one pay check away from being homeless.

I am surprised that in this world of so many electronic/web informational resources, my students are less informed rather than being more informed. I say this with a bit of ambivalence because I don’t believe that my students’ lack of information is because that resources are not there but that my students are overloaded and their way of dealing with that overload is to turn-off rather than be selective and critical in their consumption of informational resources.

My Challenges

As a professor, I am charged with providing the critical thinking skills for my students to navigate the world of medical information. We, as physicians, have unprecedented access to the best evidence-based/science-based health care resources in the world. As a scientist/scholar, I am charged with questioning everything that I read regardless of how my information is delivered. Critical thinking and evaluation of the vast amounts of data about populations and individuals is a challenge that I must meet and teach to the next generation of physicians and health care providers. I must and I am constantly striving to evaluate and deliver the best evidence-based medicine based on data and research. I have to be confident that I am making sound decisions and I have to teach how to make sound decisions.

I am challenged to provide preventive strategies to my patients, where they live, that they can incorporate into their lives for the best outcomes. If I overwhelm my patients, they disconnect with preventive strategies and with health care in general. This means that I have to be able to explain what and why I am recommending a treatment strategy and I have to be able to recommend other treatment strategies and why I am not recommending those strategies no matter what they have seen on the telly or read online. I have to keep “one ear to the rail” in terms of what is circulating online and I have to keep the “other ear” to what is sound medical practice.

All of our challenges

Practicing medicine is more difficult today largely because of documentation issues. We are clicking away into our computers with poorly designed electronic medical records systems and filling out duplicate “paper work” late into the evenings after a long day in the clinic where we have been charged with seeing an impossible number of patients (again because our employers want us to turn a profit for them). Our challenge is to provide good delivery of health care but we have little support and assistance to do just that. At the end of the day, even if one has completed all of the documentation, there are few feelings of a “job well-done” and more feelings of “I failed on some many levels today.” Our biggest challenge is to remember that we are not the problem but we can be part of the solution by demanding that our talents and energies be focused on our patients and not on “paperwork”.

Our challenge is to look at anything and everything that we can change from within. We cannot allow a flawed system to push us further away from treating our patients because we can’t even “look them in the eye” because we are typing into a computer. We can’t keep skipping lunch, dinner and priceless interaction with our families and loved ones (our sanity) because we are so tied to trying to keep up. We can’t keep looking at the color, size and sex of a patient and dismissing them as individuals with unique needs. We can’t keep “writing off” whole populations of people because they are difficult to treat and because their culture is so different from ours. We can’t afford to say, “It’s someone else’s job and I will just refer them because they are too complex”.

We have to be challenged to take care of ourselves in terms of spiritual, physical and emotional health. No, self-care can’t be our only focus but we need to look inside of ourselves and figure out what is most important for our health and do things to keep ourselves both physically healthy and emotionally healthy. We can’t allow a very flawed health care system to result in our individual spiritual and physical to deteriorate to the point that we become a liability to ourselves and our patients. We have to learn to be selfish with our time and we have to have some outlets that will nourish us spiritually and emotionally. In short, we are crucial to our patients and we have to keep ourselves healthy and happy. Anything less is not going to work.

We have to learn to question everything. Do not just “take the word” of professors, websites, books, journals and other information resources as the only truth out there. Medicine is based on science and not on faith. You can have faith in your spiritual life (valuable) but you have to have the ability to cast a questioning eye on information in medicine. Look at alternatives and look at alternative solutions. Evaluate everything with a questioning eye. It is fine to question someone who is advocating a treatment and it is incumbent upon the advocate to explain their ideas. If you have questions, get them answered and constantly question others and yourself.

Finally, think about your experiences and learn from them. None of us was born knowing everything and our experiences are always learning opportunities. To evaluate yourself and your learning experiences is a very healthy way to learn to discard  that are not working and to embrace the things that are working well for us. Always looking for a way to do our daily tasks, job and learning in new ways is a great growth exercise. Again, my professors and my colleagues who constantly questioned me make me stronger rather than tearing me down. We all lamented about those “pimp sessions” but in the long run, they are opportunities for growth and reflection. As long as one is alive, there is opportunity for growth and learning; seize those opportunities.



30 April, 2015 Posted by | academics, medicine, stress reduction, success in medical school | 3 Comments

8 Keys To Unlocking Your Inner Happiness

This is an excellent blog for life affirmation. Glad to have found (and linked) to this one. Enjoy! I am constantly looking for good blogs (and posts) that help with keeping the modern medical professional on course. This is great reading during this time of finals for many students. Please enjoy and keep coming back to this great blog.

James Michael Sama

We can spend as much time as we want talking about how men and women ‘should’ act in their relationships or while dating, but one thing will always remain true: The most important relationship you will ever have is with yourself. If that one isn’t healthy, none of your others will be.

For that reason, we need to get our own lives in order first and then be able to share ourselves with someone as a whole, complete person. Happiness is a choice, it comes from within, but sometimes we need to put in work and effort in order to uncover it. What are some of the best methods for doing so?


1. Set consistent, realistic goals for yourself.

Having defined goals is the lifeblood of progress. It gives you something to look forward to as well as to work towards. Goals are the checkpoints along the road of life…

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28 April, 2015 Posted by | medical school | Leave a comment


This is a very nice post on studying tips for Physician Assistant School. These tips work for any professional school thus I am reblogging them.

Pance Prep Pearls

By LaurMG. (Cropped from "File:Frustrated man at a desk.jpg".) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons By LaurMG. (Cropped from “File:Frustrated man at a desk.jpg”.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


As a professor for both clinical and didactic year at 2 PA schools for 12 years, I have seen a lot of students come and go.  PA school is one of the hardest things I have done in my life, but if I had a better roadmap when I was a student, the task would not have been as daunting.  I started undergrad with 4.0 average and upon starting PA school, I quickly learned that what I did to get the 4.0 had to be DRASTICALLY remodeled for PA school or I would have kept drowning.  Here are some tips to help new PA students stay afloat and survive the medical monsoon that is PA school.  Before jumping into tips, one must have a complete understanding of the…

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25 April, 2015 Posted by | medical school | Leave a comment

The Rectal Exam- perhaps a microcosm of health care


And there we were, sitting in orientation in medical school, contemplating our futures as physicians. Sure, there were the warnings, “Look to your left and look to your right…” but we were anxious to get on with the business of becoming physicians. We would change the world one patient at a time and we would have instant intimate relationships with our fellow human beings so that we can solve their health problems and get them on to healthy life styles. As we moved from orientation to our first courses in medical school: Cells and Tissues, Professionalism along with a healthy dose of “you can’t learn it all”, we were introduced to the science of learning how to study the diseases and structures that would make up our careers in the future. Nothing in those preclinical science courses prepared us for some of the intimate probings that we would have to learn to perform on our diverse patient population. For many of us, we lost the art of doing a complete and thorough physical exam largely because we say that we don’t have the time or we don’t want to embarrass the patient because we just met them.

My early experiences

Let’s look at how I learned to perform the rectal exam. My first experience with the rectum was in my studies of gross anatomy, microbiology, histology and pathology. If I even do a mind stretch, I can say that my first experiences were back when I was a child, recently toilet-trained, thanks to my older brother (age 8) who was a master at using the “porcelain convenience”- even at that age, he sat in there for hours reading comics and contemplating his life. I, on the other hand, was fascinated with how things would disappear in the swirl of blue water, never to be present in my life again. Some things, fecal matter, vomitus and urine, were great to get out of my life but my hair brush and toothbrush, things my brother and sister would lovingly flush when they were angry with me, were things that I wanted to keep around but would have to be replaced once they were flushed.

My earliest experiences with urine and feces, by smell, let me know that these were things that were not wanted as keepsakes. My parents were adamant, “Don’t let that dog poop in the house!” “This place smells like an out house, why didn’t you let the dog out when she was at the door?” What was in “dog poop” that was so awful and even more interesting, what was in my fecal material that encouraged me to flush as soon as I detected odor so that I wouldn’t be teased by my siblings? Being a budding scientist, I obtained a sample of my feces (very small sample) and my dog’s feces so that I could examine them closely. I even had a microscope where I examined these items very carefully and made notes. Yes, I grew up in a household with three physicians (my uncle, my aunt and my father) who encouraged me to explore all parts of my environment and log what I saw. I could ask questions or even better, go to the library (we had one in our house) and look up the answers. So, I asked what was in feces and looked for the answer. The encyclopedia and a couple of medical books stated bacteria (accounted for the smell), sloughed intestinal cells and indigestible materials from food that was eaten earlier.

Later experiences

As I moved through my undergraduate coursework (chemistry and math major), I learned about chemical compositions of biologic materials and bacterial physiology. These courses came in handy for my graduate study in biochemistry and molecular biology. There was nothing about the human body that I couldn’t break down into elements and macromolecules; the bacteria, the indigestible materials, the bilirubin and sloughed enterocytes. In short, the process of digestion and peristalsis (loads of study of neurotransmitters), vomiting, formation of urine and feces could be studied scientifically and eventually broken down into biochemistry. Yes, I have found the keys to all things in life and they are chemical elements with chemical characteristics. All things in life could be studied, characterized and explained by their chemical characteristics and properties. This was heady material for a budding biochemistry and molecular biology researcher. I would go on to design my experiments with these elements in mind and a healthy dose of skepticism that all scientists must cultivate. In short, there is likely alternative explanations for what I am observing and I should make sure that I look for them.

Medical School

As I moved into my first year of medical school, we were required to rotate in a clinical area. I chose Emergency Medicine and the Emergency Department because I was pretty sure that I would not be entering Emergency Medicine but I wanted the experience of working in this area without doing a 4th-year elective.  My clinical preceptor wanted us to get the most didactic learning out of our experience but knew that we had only been in medical school for one week (orientation week). He knew that we didn’t have much basic science background, outside of what we had brought into medical school with us. Trust me on this, for the vast majority of us, the pre-med courses in science are a good basis but not enough to understand complex pathology.  He opted to teach us how to elicit a solid history from a patient which is an exercise that anyone can learn without much clinical background. “You want to know why they are here and what convinced them at this point in time, they should head to the Emergency Room”, he told us in the beginning. “Besides, anyone can ask questions and those who don’t have preconceived notions are the best questioners so I want you to dive in and try to figure out what is going on with your patient”.

He taught us the proper form to write up a patient history and most importantly, he taught he to relay clinical historical information to an attending physician in a form that is useful. This was a fabulous experience for me because our medical school was located in an inner city with a very diverse patient population. We had a diversity of ages, sexes and ethnicities with a dose of religious diversity thrown in. Everyone, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sex or religion gets sick and all human beings want their clinical problems solved, especially those that are in the emergency room. As novice history takers, we started out with the patients that had been triaged to the “non-critical” areas which gave them something to do and provided valuable experience for us.

What I learned right away

Patients interact with their gastrointestinal tract on a daily basis and under many different occasions during that daily interaction. When we are frightened, we may have an urge to run but also an urge to defecate. We feel disappointment “in the pit of our stomachs”. We may eat something new that causes the experience of nausea or we may experience nausea and vomiting by eating something that is contaminated or cooked improperly. We can have an allergic reaction to a food or we may have an adverse reaction to a medication that is gastrointestinal from difficulty swallowing a tablet to stomach upset to diarrhea along with rash and swelling. In short, the GI tract can give important information as to the systemic condition of a patient or can give clues that the GI system itself is the source of pathology.

It is up to the physician to ask the patient about gastrointestinal symptoms if they don’t volunteer this information. A patient may tell you that they have a stomach “ache” which may mean that they have nausea, intestinal cramping or heartburn (may be reported as chest pain too). Patients need to be asked about fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea in addition to difficulty swallowing, eructation, changes in the color of their urine/feces (darker colored to lighter colored) with or without mucus or blood streaking.  Are they experiencing bloating, vomiting blood or blood streaks on the bathroom tissue. Is there rectal itching present or increased passage of intestinal gas or a feeling that they are not emptying their bowels completely? Do they have pain with defecation or does defecation relieve their pain? Have they noted a change in the size or odor of their stool? Have they developed problems with certain or all foods that were usually a part of their diet? All of these symptoms especially those that deal with defecation may not be volunteered by the patient.

Cultural Barriers

Some patients, especially young and older men are not going to want to discuss their bowel habits with a female physician. Perhaps their religion will not allow them to speak with a female or they feel embarrassed and will reluctantly give any information at all. I have encountered male patients that would not consent to an examination by me, a female surgeon even though they were in pain from an incarcerated hernia. I make every effort to safely accommodate their wishes but sometimes, especially if I am the only surgeon on call, I have to explain the situation and the danger of delaying the examination.

Some of my physician colleagues will not perform rectal exams on patients. I vividly remember my physical diagnosis professor from medical school saying that the only reason not to perform an indicated rectal exam is that the patient doesn’t have a rectum and you don’t have a finger. Indications for a rectal exam are any suspected acute abdominal pathology or as part of a screening physical examination. I can’t relay the sadness of finding a rectal tumor that has metastasized through the rectal wall that is within the reach of a finger in a patient that hasn’t had a rectal exam in several years. This situation is commonly encountered in elderly nursing home residents especially those who with poor mobility and limited ability to communicate. Often these patients have pages and pages of physical exam findings but “deferred” when it comes to the rectal exam.

Medical Care

Your patients entrust their health in your hands. When it comes to their health, language and cultural barriers on the part of the patient or the physician must not delay or defer good medical practice. It is incumbent upon the physician, who is the professional to present sound clinical reasons for any exam and alleviate any embarrassment on the part of the patient. No, rectal exams are not fun but they are necessary and in some cases, they are life saving. A physician is not performing a rectal exam to make the patient more uncomfortable but to make sure that the patient gets the most complete care possible. To defer a necessary test because one does not want to “bother” the patient is not sound medicine. In today’s world of pushing patients through offices and emergency departments as quickly as possible, to skip something that is warranted is equivalent to not giving care at all. We as physician are entrusted with the care of our patients and in many cases, we have to explain that our care may be uncomfortable or embarrassing but it will be complete and necessary.

The Rectal Exam

As with any aspect of a patient’s examination, we perform what is necessary for the alleviation of a patient’s clinical problem. If a patient stated that they had a sore throat, would you allow them to leave your care without ever looking at their throat? If a patient has gastrointestinal symptoms that warrant a rectal exam, will you allow them to leave your care without performing a rectal exam because they talked you out or it? Will you allow your patient to talk you out of doing what you know is sound medical care?

18 April, 2015 Posted by | medical school, physiology, surgery | , | 1 Comment

Why would anyone want to do this job???

I hurried to get my last notes typed in because I had ordered a CT Scan on a patient with a new fever whose recovery had been very long and complicated.  I had notified the floor that I wanted to be called as soon as the CT Scanner was free and that I would personally accompany this fragile patient to the scanner. He had been making steady progress and had been out of the surgical intensive care unit for two days but still needed plenty of watching and care because of his complicated course. I had spoken with the chief resident earlier this morning and we both agreed that we needed the scan because we were worried that the graft, inserted because of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, might be infected at this point. I finished my note, grabbed a cup of coffee to get through the latter part of the afternoon (my one vice- caffeine but no later than 2pm) and off I went to the floor to check on my patient’s progress.

As I rounded the corner to the surgical floor, I heard the dreaded words “Code Blue CT Scan”. As I burst through the door to the ward, and entered my patient’s room, I saw an empty bed pushed to one side. They had moved my patient to the CT Scanner without notifying me and now I knew that the “code” had to be my patient. I dashed down the back steps glad that gravity allowed me to move even faster and into the back entrance of the CT Scanner. Yes, it was my patient, still on the stretcher and in full arrest. One of the intensive care physicians had already placed an endotracheal tube (for airway and ventilation) while the CT technician was doing chest compressions.

“He just went down as soon as we got here”, said the transporter. The chief resident came in and asked why no one from the surgical staff had been notified that the patient had been moved to the scanner. He pushed a round of drugs into the central line that I had placed and looked at the vital signs on the chart. The monitor, which had now been placed showed ventricular fibrillation which meant that we were going to defibrillate; a slow sinus rhythm with a very low blood pressure. “Let’s get him moved to the ICU”, the intensive care physician said. “We can’t get the scan now”. I  headed back up to the floor, my patient now in the hands of the intensive care staff. I wanted to find his wife and let her know that he would be moving back to the intensive care unit.

I found her sitting in the waiting room of the floor. “Is it him?” she asked me when she saw my face. “Yes, it’s him and he’s being taken back to the intensive care unit right now”, I said. “Let’s go down there so you can see him.” We took the elevator down one floor to the surgical intensive care unit and I asked her to wait until I found where her husband had been taken. When I entered the room, they were pushing drugs, ventilating and performing chest compressions. “I am going to bring his wife in now”, I said. She needs to see him now. The intensivist agreed with me and I brought his wife into the room from the hallway. “Please stop”, she said. “I don’t think that he can take any more”. Immediately, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at the intensivist who said, “Stop everything and give us a moment please.” The frail woman walked over to her husband’s bedside and took his hand. She said, “I have loved you for 45 years and now, it’s time for you to go”. “I will be OK and it’s OK for you to leave now”. The intensivist and I stood in the doorway for a second but then backed out into the hallway. The nurse silenced the alarm which was picking up the very slow heart pattern and then turned off the monitor and left the room.

The wife stood by her husband’s bed for about 3 minutes and then came out into the hall way where we all were gathered. “He was tired of fighting all of this and had given it all”. “I know that he would have kept on fighting but we had so many good years.” ” He’s at peace and I am OK”. This is why this job is very difficult. It’s not difficult for me to get up at 4AM every morning. It’s not difficult for me to read 30 journals each week to keep up with changes in medicine. It’s difficult for me to watch an elderly woman stand at the bedside of her newly deceased husband and tell him that it is OK for him to move on. She and her sons later thanked all of us for everything that we had done.

At the Mortality and Morbidity conference, we presented reviewed findings and concluded that the graft was likely showing early signs of infection with the fever spike but with no post mortem exam, we couldn’t be sure. This is where this job is difficult. Were there any signs that we missed? Could we have moved any faster? Probably not but still, it is difficult not to question every time we looked at that chart and every vital and physical sign that we reviewed. As I keep doing this job, I never allow myself to forget that everything I do affects the lives of my patients and those who love them. The death of a patient is never routine and I remember something of every patient that I have lost.

It’s not just the loss of life because death is very much a part of life. It is what is left behind with me and with the family and friends that are left behind. My chief resident and I talked about this patient with the junior residents and medical students. “What did you feel when you were standing there in the intensive care unit when the wife came in?” “How does that affect you, as a physician and as a fellow human being?” “Do you believe that there is a life after this one?” “Do you think that it is a good idea for a family member to be present when we are resuscitating a loved one?” “Do you want to keep having these types of conversations even if it’s not on the occasion of losing a patient?” They all answered a resounding “Yes”.

7 April, 2015 Posted by | emergency, medical student., medicine, surgery, surgical clerkship | | Leave a comment