Medicine From The Trenches

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

In Service, In Reality

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I found out a short time ago, that I am a match for donating a kidney to a colleague. The reality of my choice has been weighing on my mind as I perform my early morning runs through my little mid-western suburban town. I will donate one of my kidneys to help a colleague who is suffering on hemodialysis with many complications. It turns out that his son is also a match but refuses to donate to his father. I can’t refuse being of service to those who need something I can provide.

I did not make this choice lightly, to donate one of my kidneys. I am in robust good health, taking no medications as I run 6-8 miles each morning in the very early morning darkness. At my age, I am something of an anomaly with defying the odds; continuing to challenge myself physically and mentally. At a time when most of my colleagues contemplate retirement, I contemplate my next adventure be it sailing an ocean, flying cross country or running a marathon. In short, physical and mental challenges enrich my life and will continue to enrich my life.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that the timing of this transplant is worrisome for me. Minimally, I will be away from my running and teaching for a few weeks. Runners always worry about losing conditioning if we are not out crossing pavement but I can do other things such as swimming (need to work on my strokes) and biking as I recover. I plan another shot at the marathon distance in the late spring thus I know that this surgery will challenge my training for that run. This recovery will be problematic for me who strives on being as independent as possible.

My service to others is something that is part of me. I grew up in a family of physicians who always pushed me to give as much as I can. We were fortunate to have the advantages of good education and great guidance from our parents and extended family. “To those that much has been given, much is expected,” was ingrained in me as early as I can remember; much of why I chose medicine/surgery as a career. My service to other has recently extended to my study for the priesthood too. I have an opportunity to give a gift that will enable another human to live a high quality life.

While I intellectually understand the physical implications of my choice to donate an organ, I face the mental challenges of this donation with much trepidation. My feelings are not of “what if I need it later” but how can I minimize not being available for my students and patients at this time of the year. We are in the midst of epidemics and the start of a second semester which always bring challenges to those of us in academic medicine. I also didn’t have the wonderful luxury of input from those whose opinions I value most, my touchstones as both are busy with academic duties and so forth.

As I see my students, some now quite comfortable with their clinical duties and some who have made the adjustment to the rigors of the first-year curriculum, I am concerned that my brief absence from teaching may make an impact. Still, my duty to service forces me to recover as fast as possible and be present to guide those who are training under me. These are the thoughts that occupy my meditations on my distance runs these days.

In a time when many are quite self-absorbed, it is my duty as a human being and as a physician to help those who are in the direst of need.  Does that duty to help extend to organ donation? In my mind, it does extend to giving as much as I can for the good of another human being. The last thing that I consider is the effect on me physically as this will be minimal in the long-term scheme of my fortunate life.

My mentor for the priesthood suggested that I speak with the son of my colleague who because of choices made by the father, refuses to donate an organ. My mentor says that my best service extends to make another attempt to heal this family spiritually too. There is much merit to my priest mentor’s input here as there is still a small window of time but a challenge for this fledgling student of theology. In reality, I see many facets to this challenge which I meet as I meet all of my challenges.

My colleague is in need; his family needs him and I am honored to serve both this man and his family. He has much to live for and many depend on him.  In short, his life is very valuable to those who love him. It is those relationships of love and connection that must be preserved as long as possible. I am dedicated to organ donation both living and after death. Organ donation is one more aspect of my life of service to others. My reality is that through my service to others, my life has value and that my value is only through my service. I live a rich life of serenity that is a great gift given to me. I do this because I can do this and will do no less.

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31 January, 2018 Posted by | life in medicine | , , | Leave a comment

Teach Your Eye to See

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In becoming a physician, one of the adjustments that must be made in medical training, is teaching your eye to “see” what needs to be seen. There is no medical test or radiographic imaging study that can replace what the human eye powered by the human brain can see and process by looking at a patient who comes into your care. It’s important to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

One of my favorite exercises this time of year, is to find a point of observation in a crowded shopping mall and observe the shoppers. I look for musculoskeletal pathology in terms of gait abnormalities. I look at who uses those shopping scooters, usually young morbidly obese or elderly people. I look at how parents, children, friends and others interact as they hurry about their shopping. I allow my brain to observe as much as I can in the short period of time that people move past me.

I look at the complete environment of the mall such as the location of security cameras, the noise level, the composition of the floor as well as how many people can pass my observation point. I note the location and characteristics of security guards who are likely observing me as I observe shoppers.

The point of learning to observe is to allow your brain and eyes to focus in order to hone your observational skills. If you set the f number high on the lens of your camera, everything comes into focus. If you set the f number lower, the object in the center of your photo comes into focus but the background is blurred for emphasis on the intended object. This is often how one’s attention can be directed but as a physician, I have to look at everything, much like the higher f number.

Take everything into the context and get a complete picture first but then focus on what needs the most care. Learn to use all of your senses especially your vision and hearing as you put your patient’s story into context. Learn to see posture, gait, and overall affect as you interact with your patients. If family members are present, look at their interactions as well. In short, learn to see the whole picture, evaluate it and see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

In photographing the ordinary document clip on my desk, I see aspects of it that I don’t usually evaluate. I see the shadows along with the background as the clip rests upon it. Today, I never saw the small black dots as I think of my computer desk as only non-reflective gray. Today, as I look at my photo of one of many clips, I see something that I hadn’t noticed before. This is another exercise that I often engage in with my camera which is becoming an extension of my eye.

Along with visual observation, I attempt to hone my mental processing by using my daily morning distance runs to enhance my meditation skills. As I run along, generally after warm up, taking my attention from how my body moves, I allow my mind to go where it will. Thoughts enter and leave or stay with my like a song that I can’t get out of my head. This is a great reason to take 30 minutes each day to do something aerobic for your mind and body.

Along with training my eye to see beyond the ordinary, I strive to train my mind to consider all possibilities. The more possibilities I consider, the better my diagnosis. As my experience in medicine/surgery has increased, I want my mind to absorb as much of those experiences possible. Take some time over these holidays and observe, evaluate and enjoy the processing. Observation is a practiced and honed skill; good for any physician.

18 December, 2017 Posted by | medical school, medicine | | Leave a comment

New Gross Anatomy

Many medical schools have gone from cadaver dissection to prosection to digital dissection in their Gross Anatomy labs. Certainly concerns of inhalation of formalin are removed with digital delivery but hands-on dissection of the human body is quite sacred and tremendously educational for a physician. I also understand that digital dissection is far cheaper than having cadavers for teaching purposes.

With digital dissection, many lose the ability to see the variations possible. When I was in Gross Anatomy Laboratory, it was wonderful when another group shared an anatomic variation or a great dissection with the rest of the class. We could see and touch it. It was the touch with the appreciation for anatomy in three dimensions that was a wonder. That three-dimensional anatomy and seeing structures within context probably crystallized my love and appreciation for the variations I see in surgery on a daily basis.

All human bodies are a wonder to observe, examine and treat. On any given day, each patient with their capacity to heal, is a marvel that can’t be made by man. My study of medicine after study of biochemistry, deepened my appreciation for all that the human body is capable of performing without exception. Dissection and observation with hours of hands-on work only served to deepen that appreciation.

We might argue that digital learning is powerful because the medical student can be in the anatomy lab at any time. Digital anatomy platforms like Anatomatage can move through the body layer by layer but just as something is lost with a text message instead of a phone call, looking but not touching the structures is a loss.

The best use of digital dissection is as an adjunct to dissection of the cadaver. During those hours in the Gross Anatomy lab so many years ago, I carried my Netter Atlas, my Grant Dissector (filled with notes) and my list of structures that I needed to find so that I could see and feel them in all of their dimension.  The experience was profound; deepened my appreciation for those physicians who had spent hours doing the same thing in the quest to learn medicine.

Today, education experts and designers look at teaching and delivery of curriculum as a profit-making entity. Many of these experts have never studied my discipline, practiced medicine/surgery or even taught in a classroom. My duties as a professor are to be leader and coach for my students. I give them the benefit of what my anatomy professors, surgery professors and mentors in medicine passed on to me. Education experts tend to discount experience, one of the essentials of medical practice, and attempt to replace with newer (read cheaper) substitutes.

Yes, digital delivery of curriculum is a great adjunct but it doesn’t replace hands-on experience especially in the Gross Anatomy Lab. Prosections are great but the process of discovery is lost when one does not find structures for oneself. Vivid memories of the dissection of the venous supply of the face remain in my memory today though I seldom perform surgery on the face.

I would hope that those who didn’t get a chance to perform cadaver dissection at least spend some time in the Pathology lab assisting/observing autopsies. The marvel of the human form will not be lost upon you taking the time to do this. Even today, unless you are near a forensic lab, you don’t see too many post-mortem exams taking place. If you have an opportunity to observe one, take advantage and watch. Every structure, normal or abnormal is miraculous.

23 September, 2017 Posted by | academics, medical school | | 5 Comments

Heading into Residency!

It’s that time of the year when many recent medical school graduates are in the heat of getting things organized for the beginning of residency. Residency is the next phase of medical education in the United States and as such, is a period of rapid change and learning. You will be fairly independent in your care of patients; studying in a different manner from your medical school coursework but definitely getting your style of learning and practice honed.

This is a time to drop any pretenses of being the perfect “intern” and let yourself learn and absorb as much knowledge from those in your program who are more experienced. If you have traveled to a position that is different from your fourth-year medical school hospital, you have to learn how the place works as well as how you will work within your locale. When your ward work starts formally, you want to have your organizational system in place, know your way around and have your most important home location settled and ready.

For example, you should have made sure that all of your training licensure materials have been taken care of. You need to make sure you have your paperwork completed long before your program starts “New Resident Orientation”. There will be many details that need to be presented thus you don’t want to add to things by not having your paperwork completed.

For many, USMLE Step 3 will come into play rapidly. For this exam which becomes something of a nuisance for many, myself included, you have to have a date in mind to complete this test. For my residency, which was in General Surgery, I knew that my in-training exam was in January, thus I set a goal of taking Step 3 within the next two months after my in-training exam. I knew that I wanted to place most of my emphasis on my surgery exam, thus I dedicated about 30 minutes per day on reviewing my medicine for Step 3. I set this schedule into my schedule of reading so that it became a habit.

In terms of reading, I asked my second-year residents which books and papers would be best to start my reading for both my in-training exam and Step 3. Again, I wanted to rely on the experience of those who were immediately above me in my program. I also sought the wisdom of my faculty adviser in my baseline reading too. If there was anything that I didn’t count on, it was that I wasn’t able to set up a regular physical conditioning program, something that would have made my PYG-1 year more efficient.

In other posts, I have emphasized the importance of taking care of your physical conditioning. Not only is being in good shape helpful for stress-reduction, good conditioning is most helpful on those very long nights when call seems to go on forever. If you are in good aerobic condition, you perform better even when you are exhausted. Figure out a way to eat well, low fat and low sugar foods along with doing at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five to six days per week. Your rest and your brain with be grateful.

If you haven’t figured out how you will keep track of your patients, look into any system that might work for you. At this time, you can do a little experimentation and make adjustments when you begin seeing patients. I had to alter my patient tracking system from the one I used as a fourth-year medical student because my residency hospital patient tracking/health record system was different. It’s easier to make adjustments than find yourself overwhelmed because you didn’t have a system to begin with.

Make your home your sanctuary of solitude in any way you can. For me, my solitude involved investing in dark curtains in my bedroom that I could close on a bright sunny day post call. I found that I needed the darkness and cool for rest and relaxation. I also found that I functioned best post call when I didn’t encounter another human being for a few hours. Figure what works best for you and stick to it.

I made a schedule for my post call days so that I could do routine chores such as laundry and grocery shopping as part of my relaxation. Grocery stores that were open all night became wonderful for me. I planned my menus for the week, cooked on weekends that I wasn’t on call and kept my freezer stocked with meals that I could pop into the microwave rather than hitting the fast-food establishments. I have continued this practice even today because as I have aged, good nutrition is very important.

I used one of my spare bedrooms as an office. In my home office, I kept my textbooks, computers and study materials, much as I had done in medical school. Since I kept a regular reading schedule, I checked off book chapters and topics as I completed them. Even with a regular reading schedule, I always felt that my fellow residents were better read than I was, even though it probably wasn’t the case.

Finally, I had to schedule in time for my friends and family. Residency is a very hectic time but family/friend time is as important as reading and study time. Most Sundays, if I was able, I attended church if for no other reason, to thank my Higher Power for giving me the strength to stay on top of my work. Find a religious institution in your location and attend once in awhile if you don’t belong to any particular religion. It’s just another outlook and fellowship with people who are likely not hospital folk-good for your brain.

My favorite hobby, outside of sleeping on my rare days off, was going to the movies. My restless brain needed to enjoy some pure entertainment. While television can be tempting at home, especially since you can be in your “jammies”, it was better for me to get out of the house for a couple of hours and watch a movie or attend a concert. Football, lacrosse and soccer were also great getaways for me too.

In conclusion, residency is going to be a time of learning, reading and stress. Most of the stress will be self-imposed because any new situations are stressful for most humans. You will be learning about your patients in depth, trying to anticipate their needs and keeping your senior residents/attendings up to date on how you are caring for the patients on the services.

Again, try not to take yourself too seriously in terms of forgiving yourself for making mistakes but learn from those mistakes. The people who are more experienced on your team only expect that you do your share of the work and that you learn from your mistakes. It turns out that this is a great way to learn what you need and sets you up for getting the best experience for your program.

17 June, 2017 Posted by | intern, life in medicine, relaxation, residency | | Leave a comment

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

Great Post from “Life of a Med Student”

“Beyond the H&P” A Guest post by Jessica Morgan It’s 4:00 pm on a Thursday: time to present at teaching attending rounds. I have prepared my presentation and know about the patient’s pathology, but I can never help myself from being incredibly anxious for these moments. I gather my papers and begin…

via Beyond the H&P — #Lifeofamedstudent

24 March, 2017 Posted by | medical school, residency | | Leave a comment

You Have Matched!

A hearty “Congratulations” to all who matched! This is the next step in your medical career no matter where you matched. On Friday, you will find out where you matched; some taking the news with tears and fears. Make no mistake, if you didn’t match, the future becomes more uncertain but certainly not bleak. As I have stated in other posts, those who didn’t match should be aware of the current S.O.A.P process and should be working on getting a training position for next year.

If you have matched, some things to work on as soon as you can:

  • As soon as you know where you will be training, get in contact with one or two of the senior residents to find out which textbook(s) is (are) the major reading material for your program. Purchase the book(s)(electronic or paper) and start reading.
  • Make a list of the sentinel journals for your specialty and start reviewing articles. You need to practice evidence-based medicine. Getting a head start on your journal reading helps to make journal reading a habit.
  • Start a physical conditioning program if you have been relatively sedentary during medical school. Aerobic exercise (30 minutes per day) can help reduce stress, help with stress and keep you healthy. Make physical exercise a habit along with journal reading. Even on your on-call days, you can walk/run the steps for a quick work out which will keep you more efficient in the long run. You will also sleep better if you are in good condition. Add some strength training too.
  • Find a place to live if you are moving. Don’t put this off because you need to be comfortably in your residence before orientation week in your new hospital. Your home should be simple, convenient for commuting to the hospital, restful and useful for your lifestyle. Though you won’t be spending tons of time at home, you need for your home to be your haven in your off hours. Make sure you have a washer and drying in your residence. You don’t want to be heading to a laundry room when you need to be sleeping.
  • Get your paperwork done for your training license as soon as you get information from your program. Some states have many tasks for you to complete before you can be licensed for training purposes. The sooner you get this done, the better.
  • Take a week or so off but do this long before you start your program. You need to have a bit of fun but using too much time in vacation before you start your PGY-1 year can be a problem too. Complete off time is great but not an escape.
  • When you get your residence, scout out several routes to the hospital so that you know how to get in even if there is a problem with weather, roads and other mishaps. Make sure your car or bicycle is in good repair with a good back-up plan.
  • Learn how to cook and take your meals into the hospital. Trust me, hospital food in most cases, is not great for keeping you healthy. I cooked on my days off, put a week’s worth of meals in the freezer and carried them in for my call days and nights. Good nutrition is key to good learning and training.
  • Learn a good organizational system for your ward work. I used an Excel program complete with dropdown menus for my sign-outs; still use this system. Learn to make check-off sheets to stay on top of your patients and their needs (lab tests, radiographic studies).
  • If you can, arrive a couple of days early to get familiar with your hospital’s physical layout, systems for dictation and record-keeping. Do a recon mission that will save you time in the long run.

Finally, this is a great time of learning and professional development. Having some organization is key to keeping your head in the right place. Enjoy the experience so that you can take advantage of every minute of residency with a positive attitude. Don’t underestimate the value of a smile on your face because you are learning the tools that will make you a good physician.

14 March, 2017 Posted by | medical school, organization, residency | | 5 Comments

The Rosary

I stood there at her bedside seeing the white rosary clasped in her small thin hands. In my church, we don’t have objects such as a rosary as symbols of our faith. Perhaps the Book of Common Prayer comes closest to a rosary as it’s ever present. In the cathedral where I serve, we seldom use the actual books as our services are printed each week for worship along with our hymns. Everything one would need for service is in one’s hand along with instructions as to standing and sitting ease for the many visitors each week. Still, having a rosary in my hand would be wonderful.

As I stood next to her bed, I watched her breathing slow down and become shallow; tangible evidence that her body was dying. On my late evening run, my thoughts were of where one “goes” at death. Perhaps one stays around those loved in life or perhaps one goes. My childhood visions of death, rising souls that are ghostlike but where does that essence of humanness go? As I settled into a chair, I touched her cool hand and touched the white rosary. I always sit with patients who have no family as they become my family. It is my honor as a physician to do so.

She wasn’t even my patient though I did serve in a consulting role in her care. I looked in on her only to be told by the nurse that “they” decided to do nothing. Well, I never decide to “do nothing” because there is always “something” to be done in patient care. I guess, I needed to care for this patient thus there I sat in a familiar role, caring for one who is dying and would die.

When I saw the rosary, I questioned how many times she had said the rosary. I wondered if the rosary brought comfort to this elegant woman. I wondered what the moment of my death would be like? Where would I go? Would I even go? Would I stay? My heart in tears but not sad. My tears are for the people who loved this woman; not here with her in her last hours and minutes of life as we know it. Still, her long fingers, draped by the rosary and her beautiful white hair brushed neatly from her thin face; still the rosary. I made sure that it stayed with her, in her hands as the nurses prepared her body for the morgue.

14 February, 2017 Posted by | life in medicine, practice of medicine | | Leave a comment

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

We Do This

Last evening I was visiting with my classmates in one of the ministry classes that I am taking. As we moved through our discussion of our readings, my classmates nibbled on German Chocolate brownies that I had baked the morning before. I love to bake, therapy for this surgeon, as it is very nice to create something and watch other enjoy it. One of my mates produced a bottle of Benedictine with a supply of glassware; brownies and Benedictine!

One of our discussions in class centered around meeting Jesus. Quite an interesting discussion for a couple of physicians; two of us in the class. I related a story about one of my first patients that I treated as a medical student. This wonderful little patient was affectionately named “Ratso” by my supervising resident at the time. He was a patient in our Veterans Hospital coming in when his lung disease would get out of control.

“Doc, I was holding hands with Jesus”, he exclaimed to me as he began to respond to our treatments. He had been quite disoriented when his blood carbon dioxide level had achieved values that would be incompatible with life for most people. This patient not only had high levels, he turned the corner pretty quickly. “Yes, I will believe you saw Jesus”, I said to him as he clearly recognized me at last. I was seeing Jesus too.

So this is why I do this. For Ratso and the hundreds of others that I treat with care and love. Remember that what we do is like no other profession out there.

9 December, 2016 Posted by | medical school | , | Leave a comment