Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

Hospital Haiku

“hospital moonlight

cacophony of machines

teardrops cascading”

As we come to the end of National Physician’s Week and today, National Physician’s Day, I related this haiku from one of my most gifted and amazing friends. Some years back, he suffered a  critical and life-threatening illness that resulted in profound changes in his life with some time in the intensive care unit. This illness changed a man who is talented beyond belief, a brilliant creative genius and professor in ways that few of us can relate or even imagine. Still today, he’s affected by his illness and the events that surrounded it.

I share this haiku because it brings to mind, something that we as physicians must always remember about our patients. They place their health, their trust and many of the most intimate aspects of their lives in our hands. With our hands, we have to care for them; relate to them, in many ways hold them, and be mindful of the honor and privilege of having them place their lives in our care.

As such, we also have to be mindful that illness changes their reality and in many cases their lives profoundly especially when they are critically ill. We have to reach out and extend more comfort over the “cacophony of machines” that becomes the background of their intensive care and sometimes hospital care experience. We have to block that “cacophony” whenever and wherever we can.

I remember watching a tear roll down the side of the face of one of my ICU patients who appeared comatose. The nurses were bathing him and chatting with each other as they turned him. I saw the tear; asked them to speak with him over the ICU noise background. I asked them to play music in his room and I always held his hand when I entered the room to examine him. I am sure that my soul could feel his soul even though he didn’t ever speak to me. I never saw that tear again, after we began speaking and focusing on him, holding his hand, touching his face, and playing his favorite music even though he did not recover from his illness.

I seek to connect with my patients without exception as that is my honor as a physician/surgeon. I spent years learning the science and techniques of medicine and surgery but in these, the later years of my clinical practice, my focus is on the art of medical practice. Within that art is my chance to give some of my heart to those who have placed their trust in me (and my training). I strive to be more human and more comforting. To do less of the science and more of the art is great joy for me. My joy is in the connections; kind of strange for a surgeon.

On this National Doctor’s Day, I am honored to be a physician and grateful for all that this profession has given me. This profession has given me far more than I can give back but I will spend as much time as possible giving as much as I can to those who are in my care.

30 March, 2017 Posted by | medical school, medicine, practice of medicine | , , | 2 Comments

If I could change one thing in the lives of those around me…

I would ask them to stop comparing themselves to others. Don’t compare your grades, your scores, your running times or anything else to anyone except you. Strive to be the best you that you can be looking at the past for experience and to the future for achieving goals. In these days of social media, when everyone is busy scanning what others are doing on sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, look only into the mirror and be content with the miraculous person that you see staring back at you.

Your wiles and abilities have enabled you to navigate your life so far. Your experiences can allow you to toss what doesn’t work and hold onto what does work. Your goals can give you a reason not to hit the “Snooze” button in the morning but they also give you a heading for progress. If you express gratitude for what you have learned/mastered and keep you eyes on your goals, there is little time for envy, jealousy and other negatives that can hinder your progress.

I always know that there will be others who are faster, richer, thinner, smarter and more beautiful that me. I applaud them, celebrate them but I am so grateful for being able to breathe air, run my race and figure out my “stuff” these days. I am healthy, happy and blissfully loving life as I touch my students and patients lives. In short, I connect with humanity and love every second of those connections as they come.

A great and free gift to all of us is the ability to look around and lend a helping hand to anyone in need. The greatest joys come from helping others without the expectation of receiving something in return. On any day and at any time, one can choose to change one’s thinking about any situation; reach out and just connect with those in need. In today’s world, the needs are great and dire.

So in the early days of this new year, look at yourself and be thankful/grateful while looking around to see who you might help at any moment. Wear a smile (cheap accessory) and savor every moment of life as they move by. These are free gifts!

3 January, 2017 Posted by | medical school, medicine | | 1 Comment

In Today’s Climate…

Over the past couple of weeks, I have listened to the speeches at both political conventions along with the news reports of law enforcement officer killings/GSW injuries and civilian killings/injuries. Watching and reading new media reports have to be taken within the context of one’s experiences. My experiences have been as the daughter of immigrants, a biracial woman, a physician and a theological student. My heart breaks for those who are suffering and those who suffer. My oath, the Hippocratic Oath, that I swore many times as a medical student and now physician compels me to alleviate suffering wherever I find it.

The suffering may be physical or mental as many seek out our help in getting and keep them healthy. We, by our training, have to find, by any means necessary, a method of navigating the health care systems under which we practice as well as the political/social climate that we encounter. Sometimes that navigation can be as simple as a touch, a connection and sometimes that navigation involves working with every resource at our disposal to give the best care that we can achieve. My hope, my prayers, my experiences and my training have giving me insight.

I want to recount an experience that happened to me as a fourth-year medical student. I was returning home, driving a small red Mazda hatchback automobile, from a shift at one of the large city hospitals of my medical school affiliations. It was late at night, I was exhausted, ran out to my car in scrubs throwing my short white consultation jacket with hospital identification card and my stethoscope on the front seat along with my purse and overnight bag. As I drove through the rain-soaked city streets of this depressed neighborhood, I saw the reflection of police lights in my rearview mirror. I immediately pulled over to the side (I wasn’t speeding because of the weather) and stopped as required by law.

The police car pulled in behind me with two young officers getting out of the car quickly with their weapons drawn. For a split second, it took me in my exhaustion fog, I couldn’t believe that the weapons were aimed at me. I sat very still, keeping both of my hands on the steering wheel as one of the officers shined a flashlight on me; the other pointing his gun through the open window on the passenger side. “Get out of the car and put your hands on the roof.” one of them shouted.

I slowly opened the door, tears beginning to form in my eyes and shaking quickly overtaking me. I complied with his request stating the my identification and automobile registration were in my purse on the passenger side. I said that I was a medical student on my way home but the officer kept yelling at me to spread my legs and “shut up”. I couldn’t stop shaking (I even shake now as I remember how frightened I was). “This car is reported stolen,” he kept shouting in my ear. He began to pat me down. “This is a huge mistake,” I said in a shaky voice. “Please check my identification and look at my hospital cards,”I said.

It seemed like hours but in a few minutes, another police car pulled up with another older officer getting out. “What are you doing?” he asked. “We have the car and suspect in custody”. I was crying from fear and exhaustion. The officers immediately put their weapons back into their holsters as the other policeman said that I was free to go. I was so petrified that I couldn’t put the car in gear for a couple of seconds. I finally drove off slowly weeping uncontrollably.

What would have happened if one of those guns had discharged by accident? I would be dead by mistake. What would have happened if the other police car had not arrived? I would have been arrested most likely. It was a mistake but the first two policemen didn’t show any indication that they would check my identification. It was my first experience of being stopped by the police and not given the benefit of just being treated as a fellow human being.

As I read and hear of stories of any persons being stopped by the police, I still feel that fear from so long ago. I haven’t been stopped since then and I interact with police on a daily basis as I perform my job in surgery. Those interactions are always professional and quite polite but when I see their service weapons, I always remember that stop. I react to police officers through the lens of my experiences as I suspect all people do.

I have infinite respect for police officers as they have very difficult jobs under very dangerous circumstances. I have spent many hours with two detectives in the gang-violence division of my local police precinct learning about gang symbols and gang culture, rampant in the city that I practice in. I want to understand and stem this violence, treat its victims as they frequently end up in the trauma bay. Largely the street gangs in my city are involved in turf wars and drugs. The motorcycle gangs run in the suburbs dealing in drugs and human trafficking, another scourge of city and suburban living.

So today, I end up on the roof of my hospital, being thankful for my life and all I encounter in my practice of medicine/surgery. I always pray for insight, guidance and the ability to give the best to every patient/family member/loved one that I can give. I meditate during my distance runs, post-call in the bright sunshine of the early afternoons, as we are living in a climate of increased polarization by community leaders and populations today. I pray that I continue to live in the “gray areas” and not become jaded or polarized to the violence. I pray to continue to seek insight and solutions to the troubles of those I serve and treat; always remembering that the practice of medicine is my greatest privilege.

Yes, I swore that Hippocratic Oath as a medical student, as a graduate physician and I keep remembering it. I didn’t know back as a medical student, what I was swearing to but I know now, how difficult this profession can be. There are times of despair, depression for me as the hours tick past 30 and hope in humanity as I move thorough my theological studies. As the years have gone by, I am more of a “believer” and more spiritual than when I began this journey. I learn each day and I am grateful for the learning. When I look back, I would not change a single experience, even those that have frightened me.

 

29 July, 2016 Posted by | medical school, medicine, practice of medicine | | 2 Comments

One Week to Go to My First Marathon

What have I learned about myself? With every mile that I have run in my training runs, I have learned that I have a mental toughness that I found quite elusive a couple of weeks ago. Now, I have learned to face my mental “demons” with calm reserve, much the same as I approach a difficult case or patient.

I had found myself sinking, for lack of a better word, into a spiral of self-doubt and mental vulnerability. My mental shenanigans cost me a wonderful friend but I now move forward with every step and pick up the pace without fear. I can’t reason why I spiraled a bit over my academic work but I did and it’s done. From here on out, I deal from a position of strength rather than questioning myself and my motives.

This past week, I have had the pleasure of thinking long and hard about my medical and academic career. After many years of practice, I believe that self-examination is not an entirely bad exercise but I have also learned that I cannot ask anyone else to “walk in my shoes” or “understand” the things that can send me into self-doubt. My questions were not about my training or my ability but about how I handle adversity in matters that I didn’t fully understand.

Yes, I have plenty of regrets that I lost the friendship of a gifted colleague but I discovered new insight into myself and new support from unexpected colleagues and friends. I took the time today on my last long run, to think of each of my friends and thank them as I ran. I am very grateful for their friendship and I know that I will continue to move forward professionally and personally.

I thought about setting goals and achieving those goals. Certainly, there is no guarantee that I will finish my first (and only) marathon race next week but I feel calm and physically prepared. Mentally, I am in a state of surprise in that I have been able to train for this race and that I will have the toughness to make the needed adjustments to my pace and form that will allow me to complete the distance.

This training has make me something of a philosopher in terms of what I see and hear around me. I have taken great pleasure in simple things like a wonderful warm shower or that drink of water when I have pushed myself to the brink of dehydration. I have tended to avoid the “sports” drinks because I haven’t felt the need for sugar/salt loading. Plain water, not too hot or too cold, has been my best friend.

My training has increased my need for rest and sleep. For most of my career, I have had a love/hate relationship with the number of hours of sleep that I require. Most days, I cannot sleep more than 5 hours but with my increased running mileage, I have moved into the six to seven hour range. More sleep has allowed my body to rest and heal for the pounding that the increased mileage required.

With the end of the school year, I am looking forward to taking a week or so off and heading to California for some much-needed relaxation. I love being near the Pacific Ocean, smelling the salt in the air and just watching the fog cover the Golden Gate Bridge from the deck of where I stay in the Bay area. I have also completed my longest and best runs up and down the hills of San Francisco, a place of unrivaled beauty and wonder.

Finally, I know that I cannot be “all things to all people” and I just need to let things fall as they will. For a surgeon who is quite used to affecting something definitive in most cases, letting go is a new feeling for me. Most of the time, things just work themselves out and I am the instrument. This has been the best part of my marathon training; seeing how I am an instrument of my training and experience.

This training for a marathon has been something of a metaphor for life for me. I set this goal and I have made some progress toward it in some manner over the past year. Though I didn’t reach the distances that one typically associates with distance running, I am very grateful for every step as I have moved along. Yes, I know I am a very secure middle-distance runner but stretching the distance has been good experience for me. With the stretch has come great self-knowledge.

 

8 May, 2016 Posted by | medical school, medicine, practice of medicine, relaxation, stress reduction | , | Leave a comment

New Beginnings!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) presentation for young women (ages 7-9) from the inner city. I watched wide-eyed young people explore experiments with wonder and discovery. For many of these children, this was the first exposure to science at this level. Each young woman more excited to see the next and the next station. I found myself just enjoying their pure joy and excitement in learning new materials; with much encouragement from the professors (male and female) in attendance. I brought some of my surgical instruments with me combined with photos of them in use in the operating room. The whole experience was joyful and wonderful for me. I found myself back in primary school, excited at the prospect of all of the new knowledge that was in front of me. It made my heart glad once again.

This past week, I was notified by one of my colleagues who works in the Information Technology field, that she has been accepted into Physician Assistant school, the culmination of several years of careful preparation to change into a completely different field. The sheer joy that she expresses with the prospect of entering medicine is visceral. Once again, I saw and felt the same joy as seeing those young woman who dream of something far beyond their everyday worlds. It’s a great feeling. I was taken back to the time when I received that first medical school acceptance, something that I didn’t anticipate was possible yet was in my hand.

Many folks are in the residency application process, the medical school acceptance process, the university acceptance process and other changes from their present state. I would invite you to dream big but enjoy the process, even the uncertainty. From my vantage point after years of practicing medicine I can say that there is nothing better than solving problems for my patients and their families. I can say that to have the privilege of the practice of medicine, in spite of the flaws in our health care systems, is still quite magical.

I can also say that the privilege of teaching those who seek to first prepare themselves to enter this profession is one of the greatest gifts for me. Just recently, a colleague, one of the greatest academics that I will ever know, said that the hours I spend in office are a sign of a “true academic”. These words from him touched my heart like no others. My response is that at this point, as I am teaching physical exam skills, my students need my presence and my guidance at this critical time. In short, I remember wanting as many “skill-checks” from my physical exam professors in medical school as I could find. I always thought I was worrying them but now I know that as true professors of medicine, they welcomed my presence.

As I watch young women daring to dream, my IT colleague about to enter Physician Assistant school and my wonderful students, some struggling but all “testing ” themselves with new horizons, I find myself grateful, no thankful for being here to witness these new beginnings.

6 March, 2016 Posted by | medical school, medical school admissions, medicine, physician assistant school | , , | Leave a comment

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Introduction

At a luncheon, I listened to one of my primary care colleagues explain the realities of the 20-minute office visit. She happens to be very knowledgeable in treating developmentally challenged pediatric patients but her problems apply to any patient with developmental, physical or intellectual challenges. Like most physicians who are employed by health systems, she has productivity quotas and goals that are set by people who are outside the realities of medicine, usually administrators/business managers.

Medicine is not a Business, even a Home Business

The reality of being the primary care physician who treats patients with cognitive, physical or some combination of both types of challenges is that these patients have needs that will affect every aspect of their office visit. Many times, their transport to the health care location will involve public transportation or some other means adapted for them. Sometimes just getting to the transportation source requires hours of planning by the patient/caregiver only to find that their transportation left early or did not show up at all.

Imagine if it takes 20 minutes for you to dress your special needs daughter, it’s going to take 20-minutes to get that same child undressed for vital sign measurement and evaluation in the physician’s office. Keep in mind, that many special needs patients have behavioral and cognitive issues that prevent them from understanding the vital nature of complete and comprehensive health care assessment. For them, they are out of their secure and familiar environment; in a place where there may be excess and unfamiliar stimulation that will affect their behavior for the rest of the day.

The other reality for the intellectually or physically disabled is that they may have very complex health problems that they may not be able to address or their caregivers may not be able to relate to the physician. Couple this with unfamiliarity of the physician in terms of the diverse needs of this population, just because that physician may not have more than one or two challenged patient sin their practice and the business of medicine has created a situation where problems may not be properly addressed. My solution in terms of wound care for these often fragile patients has been to go to their facility/home but my primary care colleagues do not have the luxury of leaving their clinic to do home visits with any regularity.

Why we entered medicine in the first place

Most of us were trained to solve patient problems by identification of those problems and application of extensive medical knowledge. With the emphasis on getting patients in and out of clinic as rapidly as possible, many problems are never addressed or solved. Imagine if you are not cognitively or physically challenged but are the appointment following or concurrent with the patient who has these issues. Not only will your visit be abbreviated or affected, much of the office staff will be spending time and resources on the patient who needs more help. As a result or dealing with possible frustrations on the part of the needy patient, the physician may not be able to focus on your needs or the needs of other patients in the office because they have been frustrated as they are attempting to give the best care possible to their impaired patients.

At this time, we are better in terms of identifying those with physical and intellectual challenges as opposed to addressing their medical needs. We know that great rewards come with treating these populations especially when we are able to prevent or slow any discovered disease processes. Providing the highest level of care is always paramount in the mind of the primary care physician. To this end, my primary care colleague said the the primary care visit should be longer, because it’s often more comprehensive and the specialist visit should be shorter, because it’s more focused. Regardless  of specialist or primary care, the office visit should reflect the needs of the patient and should not be limited by a “one size fits all” approach to office visit length. Rather than decrease the costs of health care by shunting more bodies through the door, the “numbers” approach likely ends of utilizing more health care dollars because of missed opportunities to address the comprehensive needs of patients.

Those Patients

On another occasion, I listened to a colleague speak about not wanting to treat any patient who would not fit in the chairs of her waiting room. This was her way of stating that she would not treat obese patients. “They bring down my productivity,” she said emphatically. I can’t afford to lose money on treating these types of patients so I made sure that they don’t fit in the chairs in the waiting room if they weigh more than 200 lbs. Imagine if you are a patient who is morbidly obese, more than 100 lbs overweight, who enters a physicians office and can’t find a chair that will accommodate you so that you can attend your office visit.

Imagine the embarrassment if you have to ask for a properly sized chair so that you can sit and even fill out the paperwork to prepare for that visit. Imagine how welcome you would feel if you receive less than respectful and comprehensive care.  The morbidly obese, the developmentally challenged and the mentally challenged individuals in society all have medical issues that need to be addressed. By its nature, morbid obesity is a chronic metabolic problem yet my colleague who makes sure the chairs in her waiting room discriminate against morbidly obese individuals, would treat them differently from the Type I diabetic or the patient with chronic obstructive lung disease. Is is ethically sound to discriminate against a population of patients who are simply seeking, and paying for your services by not accommodating them in your office?

Taking Back Medicine

Imaging a situation where patients get the care that they need without exception. In this situation, the physician determines the patient’s needs and has the time to address those needs. Rather than being pushed by time constraints, the physician (and office staff) would have plenty of time and resources to treat patients with special needs. In truth, patients do not come to physician offices to socialize but come because they need care. It is up to the physician to take back the delivery of that care and set the parameters in which that care is rendered. When a patient receives less than optimal care because of the time constraints placed on the physician, the physician bears the brunt of the criticism. “Those money-grubbing doctors didn’t take time to talk to me”.

As physicians, we need to set the standards of patient care, much the same as we set the standards of practice of medicine. One of those standards needs to be ensuring that the limited resources of primary care physicians are addressed. A good primary care physician can be the resource that decreases health care costs if giving the tools to address all problems in a comprehensive manner that reflects the individual needs of the patients. As specialists, we are often given an advantage at the expense of our primary care colleagues and their vital work. This leads to burn-out and frustration on their part but also leads to increases in health care costs because patient needs are not addressed.

These problems are not solved by increasing the number of mid-level practitioners who often lack the medical knowledge/training to lead the comprehensive care team. While mid-levels can assist with comprehensive patient care, they are not the solution to effective or efficient delivery of comprehensive care. It is the primary care physician who should and does leads the best comprehensive care team and who can provide the most cost-effective care if given the tools and resources for their work. The greatest and most needed resource right now is time to deliver care. The public enjoys greater satisfaction and those of us who are in specialties, are able to obtain the best information to perform our services when the primary care physician can expedite a sound referral. In short, we as physicians need to take back the management of health care and deliver the best health care on our terms as the patient needs not according to a general plan that is even frustrating for relatively healthy people let alone those who have multiple chronic problems.

15 January, 2016 Posted by | medicine, practice of medicine | 4 Comments

The Importance of Saying Goodbye

Introduction

I was consulted to place a chemotherapy port in a young man (age 14) who was going to need extensive chemotherapy in the coming weeks. These requests are not unusual but the lessons that I learned from my experience with this young man are with me today, years later. This was one of my earliest experiences as a newly minted attending physician. My learning curve at that point was so steep that I constantly risked falling backwards as I climbed.

Roger

Roger was a patient in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). He had recently been diagnosed with a fairly aggressive tumor that grew from his liver and pushed on his diaphragm. His presenting complaint has been shoulder pain for which he was worked up extensively. Since Rog, as he asked me to address him, was a volleyball player, the first thoughts were a hidden musculoskeletal shoulder injury but it became obvious as the workup proceeded, that something else caused Rog’s pain. The tumor was identified, biopsied and deemed inoperable as the malignancy had quickly spread throughout his liver. Thus pediatric oncology consulted me to place a port for chemotherapy.

Rog’s parents were adamant that they did not want staff to discuss Rog’s diagnosis (or grim prognosis) with Rog. They wanted no mention of cancer, metastatic disease or death with the patient. Since Rog was 14 years old, his parents wishes were followed by PICU staff whether they agreed with the parents or not. I spoke with Rog and his parents at the same time when I approached them for consent to place the port. Rog knew that he would need extensive intravenous medications over an extended period of time thus having a semi-permanent port would mean the there would be no repeated searches for a vein or multiple punctures if a vein was missed. I explained that I would place the port in the operating room with him practically asleep but definitely fully relaxed. He was fine with the procedure and his parents agreed. The next afternoon, I placed the port without problems.

Off and on over the next couple of weeks, Rog received his daily chemo and medications to mitigate the effects of the chemo. I watched a very athletic young gentleman begin to become frail, thin and jaundiced (yellow tint to skin).  His very lively team mates who came to visit were a stark contrast to the patient who seemed to age before my eyes. I stopped in to say hello to Rog often because we had enjoyed some lacrosse stories together previously. I also always greeted his parents who began to look more desperate with each day of chemo. I was sure that Rog, who was a very astute and sensitive young man, could see the changes in his parents even if they didn’t discuss his disease with him.  Rog’s 8-year-old brother often sat in the waiting room after school for a few minutes with his adored older brother. Charlie was a quite young man with sparkling dark eyes behind round wire-framed glasses and endless dark curly hair.

I always made it a point to ask Charlie about his scene. Charlie loved discussing flying with me and looking at photos of my little twin-engine Cessna plane. “Do you really fly above the clouds?”, he would ask with wider eyes. “Yes, I do get up there at times and I fly through them too but most of the time, I am beneath them, ” I would answer. “What you think is happening to Rog?”, I asked him one day. He said that the knew his brother was very sick and he was glad that he could wait outside in the waiting room because he didn’t like seeing his brother look so sick. He said that he was luckier than Rog because he wasn’t sick. Charlie wasn’t sick but he missed his brother and his world was forever changed by his brother’s sudden illness. Charlie missed his brother very much.

One of the PICU nurses who had also become very close to Rog, stopped by his room when her shift began and ended. She had been a flight attendant in her previous life; sunny smile, soothing voice and the stuff of a 14-year-old man’s dreams. She told us that Rog was worried about his little brother. She said that he wanted to say good bye to his family and brother but his mother wouldn’t let him say anything. She changed the subject when he brought it up. Rog’s favorite nurse decided to get a video camera and allow Rog to speak to his parents and little brother. She said that she didn’t know if she would end up fired from her job but it was clear that this young man knew he was dying and longed to say good by to those he loved. Shortly after Rog filmed his messages to his parents and his brother, he died.

As far as I know, no staff member discussed death or dying with Rog but he knew that he was not going to survive this illness. He didn’t have to be told by his parents. A couple of weeks after Rog died, Rog’s favorite nurse gave Rog’s parents the video tape. They were very grateful to have his last messages. Those precious words were a gift to the people that Rog loved most. Later in PICU rounds, we took the time to allow anyone involved in Rog’s care to speak about their experience with his case. The underlying messages from the fellows, the residents, the nurses and other caregivers was that not discussing Rog’s impending death with him sort of negated the feelings that we all knew Rog experienced. Rog knew that he was dying and desperately wanted to say goodbye to the people who meant the most in his life.

We have to learn to say goodbye

I am not going to criticize Rog’s parents. Their grief began when they were informed of the grave nature of their son’s disease.  Even my own grief in the loss of my husband came suddenly. He was healthy and with me one day and he was gone on the next day. I didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to him. Even today, I am still dealing with my feelings surrounding his death but my experience with losing someone that I loved very much has given me even more compassion for those who are losing loved ones. Dealing with grief and loss is individual and very complicated. When dealing with a prolonged illness, a patient with extensive burns, a major trauma or even a chronically ill loved one, part of my duty to the patient is to take care of their caregivers and in some cases, help them say goodbye to their loved one which starts the healing process for all of us.

Parents who are losing children and children who are losing parents know about death and often want to discuss their feelings surrounding their loved ones illness. In many cases, just listening to what they have to say without judgment is a very powerful act that can benefit both the patient and their family. As physicians, we want to attempt to solve every problem and move on but in the case of critically burned patient or a patient with a limited prognosis, we can’t solve the problem of making everything the way it was before the illness. Even for many physicians, dealing with survivors in these types of cases can result in us bringing those feelings of helplessness home where they can cause problems with our personal relationships.

I make sure to allow staff and family to openly discuss their feelings surrounding a critical patient’s illness. By having a safe place to discuss feelings of helplessness, anger and frustration can allow those feelings to be acknowledged. The simple act of acknowledging one’s feelings about a sad or tragic situation rather than attempting to hide them behind a professional mask. Sometimes as a physician, I have to cry with my patients (families) and pray with my patients (families) which is the best of humanity that I can give them. I can now do that with the staff too because we are as human as our patients. To pretend that Rog’s situation above was not gut-wrenching would have been dishonest because 14-year-old volleyball players are supposed to be worrying about acne and the prom; not worrying about how to say goodby to their parents and little brother because they know they are dying. Rog understood his death in the simplest terms and simply wanted to leave something behind.

Medicine in Today’s World

In today’s world of having to rush through patient encounters and get to the bottom of a diagnosis quickly so that one can move onto the next patient, we cannot lose our humanity. Our patients have much to share with us and as physicians, we are fortunate enough to be in a position to hear what our patients have to say. It is my belief that the profit-driven/cost-cutting world of medicine today where physicians are “burning out” and “dropping out” of medicine because of low job satisfaction is directly due to our loss of connections with our patients. It takes time and a willingness to spend time reaching our patients and their families. In the end, our “gallows humor” doesn’t make for us dealing with tragedy in a healthy manner as physicians are notorious for turning to alcohol and other substances or just repressing those feelings only to have them come out later and pathological for us.  Reversing the trend to spend less time with our patients is probably the best thing that we can do for ourselves as physicians.

I am also convinced that getting back to our humanity and our spirituality in medicine is vital for us as physicians. If we do not care for ourselves spiritually and emotionally, we are likely not going to meet the needs of our patients clinically. Medicine cannot be done by a computer or with “check lists” or pre-written forms. Medicine is done best human being to human being with ourselves open and listening carefully to what our patients have to teach us so that we can help them.

2 August, 2015 Posted by | medicine, practice of medicine | , , | 2 Comments

The Gift of Study

Introduction

Many who read this blog will begin their studies of medicine in a few short weeks while others will move into new roles perhaps with more responsibility and duties. I wanted to take a few lines to write about moving into your new roles be they medical student, intern (PGY-1), resident or attending physician.

Preparation

A mentor from my first days of medical school, actually during orientation, said in his soft southern accent, “Now go out and grab a copy of The New England Journal of Medicine and read it from cover to cover.” “You won’t understand it at first but keep reading it and studying the words of medicine.” Little did he know that he had just added more fodder to my constant journal reading and now had stoked a fire so huge that I could have been consumed in the flames, so to speak. As I look back now, years from those words and others that have shaped my current practice. Listen to those little bits and pieces of wisdom from people who will enter your medical education early on.

For those of you who will begin the study of medicine, your preparation is to open your mind, your ears and to consider the privilege of what you are to undertake. Yes, you will be “sipping from that fire hose of facts and materials” to be mastered but you have been given the gift of being able to study those facts and materials. You may want to allow yourself from time to time to marvel in what you will learn from the application of science to the practice of medicine. In short, take a moment to breath and enjoy the process.

For those who move “up in rank”, take a moment to look back on the things that you have studied. Every time one encounters a familiar concept, there will be new insight. For example, my intern year was spent learning the craft of patient care preoperative, intraoperatively and postoperative. As the weeks went by, I became expert, perhaps efficient in being able handling patient admissions to the hospital post-surgery, from the emergency department or from the clinic. Additionally, I learned to anticipate and manage the needs of those inpatients from their first moments under my care to their discharge from my care. My insight at this point was how my studies of symptoms and signs coupled with science now allowed me to care for my patients and see how amazing the human body and human spirit can be.

On my first rotation, as my learning curve was steepest, I felt as overwhelmed as I felt in my first week of medical school when biochemistry, anatomy and microbiology came flooding at me in torrents. At this point, it seemed that the work of history and physical exam with admission orders, checking tests/studies, checking wounds and discharge summaries would consume me but one week in, I was thriving and looking for every chance to get into the operating room in addition to my ward duties. I could take that moment to appreciate interaction with patients, nursing staff and get to scrub surgical cases. I was “basking in the glow of bright lights while playing with cold steel, “as one of my professors would say.

When I look back, one of my gifts on those first rotations was being assigned as the intern to the chief resident that everyone had whispered being the most difficult in our ranks. I came to appreciate my chief, the only person that I know who is as compulsive and anal as myself when it comes to the practice of surgery, is that I actually found that I could “get down there and nail things” faster than he could after three weeks. He made me stronger, faster, more efficient and more comprehensive. This allowed more time for me to obtain operating time which is why I became a surgeon in the first place. What other surgery interns avoided, I happily sought out. I was also the recipient of more valuable study advice from my chief, “Force yourself to read at least 30 minutes every day, more if you can, and at least 2 hours on the weekends.” There again is that gift of study. I stuffed my pockets with articles, pages from my textbooks and the surgical atlas. Even if I was exhausted, I had something to read or study in the back pocket of my scrub pants.

Performance

Back to my professor of surgical critical care: “Surgeons are not made, they are forged” was one of his favorite quotes to me. I thrived in the forge of residency because I didn’t look at study and learning while performing medical/surgical care as being in some sort of purgatory or prison. I was getting the opportunity to build a solid foundation of knowledge and skill that I would use for the rest of my life. I learned through being forged that I could solve problems and touch a multitude of fellow human beings in ways that others would never appreciate.

My professor would later say at my graduation that I never complained or said that I was tired when he knew that I was the oldest resident in the ranks. (I had attended medical school after graduate school). He said that he found that somewhat remarkable because as he had aged, he felt entitled to complain more and accept less mediocrity. He said that I was a person who accepted everyone as I found them without agenda. (Still one of the most interesting comments that I have heard about myself).

Under the scrutiny of my mentor in residency who like my first chief, was known for having a very challenging personality, read malignant here, I learned the clarity and performance of surgical skill. My mentor (faculty adviser), taught me to waste no movement in honing surgical skills. He loved that I studied as I learned and assimilated what I was taught in craft and theory. Again, back to those study skills.

Little did he know, I cut the spines from my surgical texts, punched holes in the pages so the they would fit in a ring and were more portable than the entire text (Sabiston’s Textbook of Surgery). My best memories of my faculty adviser are of him folded in a lounge chair in the surgical lounge with his Danskos next to his feet grilling me on how to handle this complication and what would happen next as this was more valuable than gold for me.

Even today, the residents, medical students and physician assistant students appreciate my high expectations of them in terms of work and study. I do not subscribe to the practice of berating as a means of teaching but go back to my very tough first chief resident and my faculty mentor in residency who generously gave of themselves to guide me towards performance at the highest level. I don’t have the difficult personality traits that were characteristic of many of my fellow surgeons but I have high expectations of those who have been assigned to me for instruction.

Practice

The gift of the study, and later practice, of medicine (if you are fortunate) is still one of the most divinely mystical and satisfying acts of a lifetime. Even if you are beginning your studies and are not enjoying much patient interaction, try to cultivate a love and appreciation for the gift of study. Those studies will allow mental efficiency which can lead to some of the most intimate and spiritual gifts from one human to another. Appreciate those gifts without complaint because many others will never have the privilege of enjoying them as you have them now.

26 June, 2015 Posted by | academics, medicine, practice of medicine | | 4 Comments

End of semester (academic year) thoughts

Introduction

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

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