One Example of Sexism in the Operating Room

Often enough to be considered a pattern, the men in the operating room chose to discuss the annoyance of the hospital’s anti-harassment yearly training videos and anti-harassment policies when I was the only female in the operating room with them or when it was just an older female nurse, them, and me. And while I also find the hospital’s anti-harassment training videos frustrating (for entirely different reasons than my male counterparts), I did not appreciate when a surgeon said he could get tips from the scenarios in the video. I did not appreciate his comment (despite his humorous tone) because the truth is that harassment doesn’t just occur in training videos. It occurs all the time and in all settings of women’s lives.

And I found it interesting that these men were complaining when most of them are fathers of daughters, and many are fathers of young daughters. And if the risks weren’t so high for me, I would have asked them the questions I pose now, “How old do you think your daughter will be when she first gets cat-called so badly she feels unsafe? How long riding public transportation will it take before she has a set of rules she follows because of the physical and verbal harassment she experienced from male passengers?” The use of “when” and not “if” is intentional.

You see, women close to me have been strangled and shoved into walls. I’ve sat by as a younger woman asked for advice from an older woman about what to do because her husband raped her every night. I’ve been called by friends in tears because they were cat-called so badly they were shaken. I’ve sat with women as they hid behind dark glasses waiting to get photos of their bruises to use in court. On my first day of one of my first jobs, my preceptor told me how to use the printer and warned me to be careful of our male boss. He left the company before I had to worry about exactly how careful I had to be. By the time I’d worked in healthcare two years, two of my female friends had been groped by male patients. I’ve only been training in the hospital as a medical student for six months and already two female physicians have taken time out of their busy schedules to have lengthy conversations about how to keep my head up and build my career despite disrespect from male colleagues and male patients.

And the reason I would ask the fathers of young daughters the questions above is because I know they love their daughters. And I know they can’t fathom that they are being exactly the type of men who will get in their daughters’ way as they reach for their dreams. And I would ask the fathers of young daughters these questions to remind them that they cannot protect their daughters from the future. And, truth be told, they will likely never know the harassment episodes of their daughters’ life. And I would ask these questions to recommend that they learn how to respect women so that they can set an example for their daughters of what it’s like to be respected. That way, when their daughters do experience disrespect, they know it is not their shortcomings but the shortcomings of the disrespectful one. In other words, it’s worse to be a daughter of a father who doesn’t know how to respect women because he sets a poor example of the male gender. And the behavior of these men in the operating room made it clear that they still had much to learn about respect despite surgeons being among the most highly educated people around. What an unsettling reality to have so many years of education and still lack competency in a basic principle like respecting all humans.

You can look up the statistics in the US for harassment and rape of women (and other demographics) if you’re curious. It’s an easy Google and the numbers are almost as bad as the news that makes the front page of the newspaper. If you want to get really dark, look up statistics related to intimate partner violence. The numbers are horrific. And the numbers always surprise me because all women are daughters and perhaps sisters, mothers, and partners. Fathers and mothers see the statistics and are inclined to tell their daughters to be careful. To not drink too much. To not wear too revealing clothing. To never set down their drink. To not walk alone at night. To not live on the first floor. To lock their windows and doors. To always go out with friends….the list goes on. But the question I always wonder when I hear these statements of warning is why don’t parents just tell and teach their sons that “no” means “no,” “stop” means “stop,” respect applies to all people regardless of genitalia, and that drunk or not you are responsible for your actions? Because all men are sons, and many are brothers, fathers, and partners. It would seem more helpful to prevent the problem of people harassing others, than react to the problem by telling the victims to avoid harassment.

I also find parents’ lectures of caution stifling because they do not address so many of the manifestations of sexism their daughters will experiences. Yes, there is the risk of rape and physical abuse. But for those women going into competitive or historically male professions many of the troubles we face as women are more subtle and persistent than acts of violence. The times we’re told we’re mean or bossy when a male counterpart with the same behavior is considered strong. The times we’re ignored, spoken over, interrupted, and discredited despite consistently being correct. The times (like in the operating room when men decided to complain about harassment protection for women) when we’re othered and made to feel like demanding respect isn’t a right, but a burden we place on our male counterparts. The times we’re underpromoted, underpaid, and passed over simply because we are women. The times we must dig deeper than our male counterparts not because of shortcomings but because our parents taught their daughter to be cautious and taught their sons to be bold.

And as these fathers of daughters discussed sexual harassment policies as an annoying restraint placed on them, I thought about their daughters. I knew when they’d be cat-called. I knew how long it would take on public transportation before they developed their safety rules. And I hoped for those daughters’ sake that they would have men that set an example of what it’s like to be mutually respected. It had made such a difference for me to coexist with many men who looked at me as a person and not some different creature. You see, it’s helpful to know respect is possible because at times it seems like a fictional concept. I thought about those young daughters one day standing where I was. I sent them strength. As much as I hoped the world would change in the years between us, I wasn’t sure it would because these men I stood with in the operating room would still be here. And their sons who had them as role models would be here too.

And I was once again weary, not so much because of the long hours I was spending studying or the fact that I was scoring equal or better to many of my male counterparts in medical school while also getting cat-called and navigating colleague and patient sexism, but I was weary because these men in the operating room, like so many others, stood in the way of my father’s daughter. They stood in my way because they made things more difficult for me than my brothers simply because of my genitalia. None of this was new or surprising, but it did make the hours in the operating room seem especially long. And if the operating room had been a safer place for me, I would have told these fathers the reason I didn’t like the hospital’s anti-harassment videos was because they were triggering for those of us who have been sexually harassed and spoke of a justice system that I have not found anywhere I’ve worked. And I’ve worked in many places.

In Her Memory

I’ve been thinking about an old Paraguayan woman, La Abuela, who died this year before I was able to return and see her one last time. Her eyes were cloudy and her knees swollen when I last saw her. She hobbled short distances holding onto chairs and walls. She was from an era I have only glimpsed through stories shared while gazing out at the world passing by and over snacks. She wrapped her hair in a scarf each day and worn simple skirts and shirts. And always worn sandals. She was the mother of one of the señoras who took me as a daughter during my years in her community and with whom I still often speak.

La Abuela was alive during the Chaco War (1930s). It was a particularly deadly war for Paraguayans. My and her community in Paraguay has a jail. When she was younger, she used to cook for the jailguards. That was in the era of the Chaco War when the jail was full of Bolivian war prisoners. I guess during that era the prisoners could leave the jail and she used to cook for them too. When I lived there, the jail was still active, but she had long stopped serving the folks who lived and worked there.

She told me how it used to be. It used to be that the only way to get to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, was by canoe down the river that ran around our community. It was hard to come and go during those times. When I lived there, it was a simple 2-hour bus ride into the capital—a journey I made frequently.

She told me that later, once the road was constructed, she used to run a bunkhouse for the bus drivers. She would cook for them. She had one rule, no women in the bunkhouse. And if she found out the bus drivers were sneaking in partners, she’d no longer offer them a bed. She was a woman with strict ideas about how things should be.

And there was a period when she worked in Asunción, cleaning homes. That’s how she and the señora who was a mother to me, learned Spanish. Paraguay is bilingual. But the people of rural areas speak more Guarani than Spanish. And the people of the city speak more Spanish than Guarani. And that’s despite the dictator they had for about 35 years during the middle to end of the 1900s who tried to erase Guarani.

La Abuela endured the dictator, her Guarani remained more robust than her Spanish. It was thanks to her time in Asunción that we could communicate reasonably well in Spanish. She’d reminisce of the order that used to exist under the dictator and the chaos of current times. We did not discuss the disappearances and deaths of the dictator’s time. She was a strong woman and she had seen more sadness than I could fathom. But she was more likely to discuss the wind and recent gossip than sadness long past. 

La Abuela and I shared many afternoons sitting on the porch watching the school children walk by and various neighbors run errands. And she had so many stories of getting up early and working hard. Of her garden. Of cooking. Of milking the cows. Of raising children. Of her neighbor’s parrot who spoke so well and was once stolen and then returned. And the hazy day and mango shade would fade to dusk. We’d sit in the evening, still hot but without the beating sun, and we’d have dinner. And the stories would continue interspersed with many long periods of quiet contemplation.

No one knew exactly how old La Abuela was. She was from an era when records were stored in the family’s memory. She had had too many of her own children to remember her exact birth year after her mother died. But the wrinkles of her face and the grayness of her hair and the curvature of her spine spoke of many years of hard work.

I knew La Abuela was fading before she died because her daughter told me. Her daughter told me when her mother became bedbound. In Paraguay families care for the sick. I knew her daughter was caring for La Abuela. La Abuela had 6 children, but only one daughter. It’s almost always daughters who bear the brunt of caring.

I got the tearful message that La Abuela had died from her daughter not long before I had a huge exam. At the time, I didn’t have much left in me to think about death. But these days I see lots of people La Abuela’s age in the hospital. Recently my team helped several families put loved ones on hospice (care for those likely to die in 6 months, usually less). And while medicine can cure many things, it cannot stop death. And I think about La Abuela’s daughter caring for her in her last days. And I know that the care La Abuela received at the end of her life was equal or better than any hospice care the US has to offer.

I think about the thatched roof and the dirt floor of her home, the wood fire on which she and her daughter cooked with smoke billowing around them, and the stories of the ants and mice that sometimes passed through the house. I find myself smiling. Because as complex and sophisticated as medicine becomes, hope isn’t found in the hospital. It’s found at home and in our hearts.

La Abuela built a home large enough for all her children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, and me to visit peacefully; a home where the mango pits she planted so many years ago were now towering trees offering shade to whoever might need protection from the sun. And as summer slips away I think about that shade waiting for me whenever I can once again visit our community. She won’t be there when I return, but I know her daughter and I will share stories of her life.

Surgeons

I sat waiting for the surgeon I’d work with to arrive at the hospital. Being a medical student involves a lot of waiting. On the wall across from where I sat and next to my surgeon preceptor’s office was a wall of fame, of sorts, of surgeons gone by. The black-and-white photos caught my attention because every single surgeon depicted there was a white male. The irony was that most of the surgeons I would come to respect in the weeks to follow would fit neither or only one of the “white male” descriptors. The surgeon I was waiting for, for example, was neither white nor male. She would single-handedly show me what it meant to be an excellent surgeon.

The operating room is cold. The lights are stark. If you are helping with an operation you “scrub in” (which involves washing your hands in a special way and putting on sterile gloves and a sterile gown). Once scrubbed in, you maintain sterility the entire procedure which includes only touching sterile things and keeping your hands in front of you and between the level of your bellybutton and chest. Bathroom breaks and snack breaks aren’t an option for medical students in the operating room, so I tried my best to do those things before entering the room.

Once the patient is settled on the operating table, they’re put to sleep by anesthesia.  As soon as it’s confirmed that the patient is asleep, their eyelids are closed with tape to protect their eye structures and a tube is placed down their throat to help them breathe.

While the patient is asleep surgery unfolds. All surgeries are done with a team of people, the surgeon is only one member of that team, and the surgery is not successful without every team member. The patient is covered with drapes except for the area where the operation will occur. This is interesting because the humanness of the patient is lost. Their body becomes a workspace once the drapes are placed. It may sound disrespectful, but it isn’t. Rather, the drapes are meant to protect the sterile workspace and maintain patient modesty.

Surgeons are the artists of medicine. Much like carpenters and painters and jewelers and other craftspeople they make their living by using their hands. The difference, however, between surgeons’ hands and carpenters’ hands, for example, is stark. The surgeons’ hands are soft and their fingers nibble while the carpenters’ hands are rough and their fingers strong.

Surgery is all about feel and dexterity. Surgeons tie knots with thin thread to keep arteries from bleeding. They sew with curved needles using plyer-like instruments. During surgery, it’s the surgeon’s hands that impress. Their fingertips can feel the difference between disease and health in tissue. Their hands can somehow hold more tools than you thought possible.

Ask a surgeon about surgery and about the operating room and their eyes become bright. They smile. They draw pictures and use their hands to describe structures. They talk about the neat surgeries and bodies they’ve seen. They talk about how many operations they’ve done. Surgeons are like artists. They love their craft and exude a love for their studio (the operating room).

I would eventually join a surgery led by the surgeon I had waited for by the surgeon wall of fame. A resident and I were helping her. The resident was soon to finish and become an independent practitioner. The surgeon was busy operating; I was holding a camera (used to see inside the abdomen); and the resident was doing something else to help the surgeon. “People will not take you seriously because you are a small female,” the surgeon said to the resident. “Don’t be disheartened. Respect is earned.” The surgeon would go on to discuss the importance of appropriate financial compensation for your work and doing excellent work. I would hear this message about differences and respect several times during my surgery rotation. I would feel why multiple women ahead of me thought they needed to tell me and my colleagues this information. Yet, it wasn’t new information because I, like most others, didn’t make it through my 20s without learning how my different identities help and hinder me.

There are many things that you could die from if it wasn’t for surgeons. But, as lifesaving as surgery is, it is also fraught with risk. Your surgeon can kill you. Having life and death literally in one’s hands is not a light matter, and you see its weight on the shoulders of surgeons when you work with them. The riskiness of surgery is also why the road to becoming a surgeon is a long, hard one. It involves many years filled with unfortunately long workdays. Apart from a grueling training marathon, surgeons have high personal standards for their work. High standards coupled with hard training leave many surgeons with a robust ego.

Egos aren’t all bad. You want a confident, proud surgeon. This is because you want someone who is very good at what they do and who takes pride in their work to operate on you. However, egos can be detrimental too. Too much ego can lead to poor listening skills, lack of self-reflection, and a complete disrespect for others. High-quality surgeons are confident because they are good at their work and love it, proud because they save lives, and humble because they know they are human and will make mistakes. The best surgeons are not only confident, proud, and humble but also curious. Curiosity makes the best surgeons because they not only love operating but, also, dig to the bottom of their patients’ stories, investigate thoroughly any mistake or less-than-perfect outcome, and keep up on the latest research and recommendations in their field.

On our last day working together, the surgeon that made me understand surgery had time to sit with me in her office by the surgeon wall of fame. She gave me some advice and her philosophy on medicine. “It’s nice when patients appreciate your work. You saved their life. But, they don’t have to and that’s not why I do it. I like to help people,” she said. The conversation continued for a bit. “People talk about quality of life. I don’t think it’s fair to say that you don’t want to do surgery because of the quality of life. Quality of life is something you make. For example, right now I pick up lots of call [24-hour shifts]. I do it because I am well compensated but, also, because it is good experience. I like to help people… I like having the cases [surgeries]… But, I won’t pick up call forever. Right now, it makes sense… It’s all about tradeoffs. You can work less and then you make less money… You can set the terms of your work,” she said.

As I left the hospital after my last day working with her, I thought about the surgeon I’d worked with. She was a calm and patient teacher – something that is rare. She had saved many lives. She had seen the inside of the body many times. Her hands could tell the difference between a fat glob and a cancer by feel alone. I’d seen her talking to patients with a patience you don’t find in all surgeons. I’d seen her interacting with all levels of hospital personal with a respect and kindness that was genuine. I’d heard her talk through her clinical reasoning; it was thorough. I’d seen her do surgery; she excelled. She was exactly what I’d call an excellent surgeon. I would have no hesitation sending my patients or family to her because I knew she’d treat them well and operate with precision. She was the first surgeon to go on my mental surgeon wall of fame. After that first day waiting outside her office, I’d decided to construct my own wall of fame (for surgeons and other types of physicians) because the one I’d seen in the hospital was outdated.

Rainy Days

The rain fell. It fell hard. It was a mate drinking kind of day. It was a flood-warning day. And the rain reflected my mood. I’d seen a rainbow just before the rain started. With the rain comes rainbows, but on this rainy day I was feeling the grayness more than the light reflected off the raindrops.

And I thought about a text I’d gotten from a friend not many days before the storm hit my town. She’s a good friend and checks in when the world is in shambles and I’m ignoring the news – which is to say, she checks in whenever something happens in the world I should know about because I almost always ignore the news these days. Despite my efforts at ignorant bliss, I’d heard about some of what she said already. And I felt the same as she: what we were doing seemed pointless when so many people were suffering. And yet, it seemed school would give us skills to better help the world. However, the future is hard to predict.

On this rainy day, I thought about allies and who we can trust. I’d recently seen a patient riddled with cancer. It doesn’t require one moment of school to recognize a dying person. This patient was the picture of death. Their eyes were dull, their movements slow, and their skin ashen. The patient couldn’t eat, yet begged for food, and now their cancer had spread so much that it was making connections between their organs. Their pain was barely controlled. They didn’t desire surgery or treatment; they wanted the pain to stop. They wanted to eat. On one hand, the patient and their healthcare team knew exactly when the pain would stop – the word wasn’t mentioned. The family of the patient, on the other hand, pushed for treatment. Treatment in this case meant prolonging life but not ending the pain and not preventing the eventual end we already knew.

Medicine can’t change fate, nothing can. The family had convinced the patient to continue with treatment, and yet the patient wavered. The patient didn’t want to disappoint their family, but they were so tired. I reflected on their family’s choice to push the patient to continue fighting. I realized that I hope that the folks I call allies are there when I need them, when the going gets tough. And I hope that in the tough moments of my battles they think about what’s best for me, even if it’s not their preference.

I wondered if the betrayal of a family wasn’t so different from the betrayal of a country. In this case, though, the patient wasn’t allowed to pursue their end in peace. The news of Afghanistan was quite the opposite. We’d left so many allies to die perhaps avoidable deaths. And I thought back to the day the Twin Towers fell. I was in 6th grade and now I was in medical school. Seeing images of babies handed to strangers on planes in a hope they’d have a better life didn’t seem like much progress from the smoke and rubble that filled New York City when the towers fell. Politics are complicated, but I wondered about the definition of “progress”; was it simply a fiction invented to instill hope? I wondered about trust; which allies are ones we can trust? I wondered what could have been done differently.

On this rainy day, I thought about the good of the individual and the good of the whole. I’d seen a young patient recently walk away from treatment. It would have been a simple procedure with an 80% chance of completely curing their disease without them even needing to stay in the hospital. Declining treatment is a right. But by saying “no” this patient had most likely condemned themselves to metastatic cancer in under a decade. They’d decided to die of cancer well before they turned 50 because their cancer wasn’t curable once it spread. When they declined treatment, the cancer hadn’t spread yet and we most likely could have cured it.

I weighed my feelings about this patient’s decision against my feelings about people declining COVID vaccines. They were both examples of people making health decisions. It is our right to decide what happens to our bodies. But, choosing to die of cancer compared to choosing to put others at risk of infection feels starkly different. You see, the thing about cancer is you can’t pass it to others. The thing about viruses is that they spread. While you might be just fine after catching COVID; others may die when they’re infected. And it could be you who infects them.

The rain fell and I thought about the nature of the world. I had an exam looming and I wanted to ignore everything else. Like rain drops on a rainy day you don’t have to look that far for sad things in life. It’s also true that with rain comes rainbows. And while I’m certain I like rainbows, I’m not certain they make up for whole rainy days.  And it seems that some of us get more moments with rainbows than others. There’s something about the angle between the sun and the water drops. Not everyone has the same angle.

Engaged

This year I got engaged. It wasn’t a surprise as it came about after countless dialogues while driving between mountains and feasting spots, while plodding along trails below tree line, while standing next to rivers, and while gazing out at the horizon from mountain tops. Like most aspects of my fiancé and my relationship, the timing of engagement was mutually agreed upon and, once decided, a joint undertaking of finding rings, figuring out the legality of things, and planning a wedding unfolded.

It’s funny to me that I’m planning my wedding as I also undertake my third year of medical school. I am a person of action, but usually my time is spent on professional endeavors. I’ve only chosen careers that are consuming, where even when the day is done the puzzles of work linger, tossing and turning in my mind as I go about the rest of my life. I’ve never considered relationships beyond friendship as required or even goals. I’ve always seen marriage as something I’d consider only if someone fell into my life who made me think of it. “Fell” being the key word. I’ve known for many years that happiness and loneliness come from within. The loneliest years of my life I was in a long-term relationship. My happiest times correlate only with my internal state. I fought hard on many occasions when I was single to be allowed to go about my business as I saw fit. And as I think about marriage, the annoyance of having to explain that I am whole without a partner remains somewhere in my skin. But, yet, as I undertake one of the hardest years of becoming a doctor, I am also signing away singleness.

My fiancé and I have discussed marriage and dreamed about growing old together since months after we started dating. There are people who bring out your happiness, who make you laugh more than most, and who force you to think about the world differently. My fiancé is that person for me. And in our short time together, we’ve weathered many storms. There was the first years of medical school – torturous as the hours of study dragged to the future. There was COVID. There were those times when we could have died in the mountains. Where we literally talked each down the cliffs, teetering on an all-to-real edge. There is this current stretch of doing the “long distance relationship thing.” There were the times we shared with family and friends, where it was so easy to feel connected. How seamlessly he fit in with my people (including when my sister and her partner lived with us for a month starting days after he and I moved in together) and how his people made me feel like family from the beginning (starting with the Thanksgiving dinner where I met his parents and everyone in the extended family all at once).

I knew it was time for us to finally start planning our wedding for two reasons. First, since our first marriage conversation we’ve wanted to get married before he follows me to residency and the clock is ticking until that time comes. Second, the realization popped into my head that I couldn’t imagine being happier with another person.

Engagement is neat in the sense that it brings people together. Our families and friends have offered advice and help as my fiancé and I embark on wedding planning. It’s such a fun thing to have a joyous project to work on. Engagement is as odd as it is neat. There are many norms about engagement and marriage which have stood out to me because I rejected them. I didn’t want an engagement ring. My wedding dress will be red. I prefer small, intimate gatherings. My ceremony must be outside. There will be no registry. There will be no escorting down an aisle.

And as I often do for my career, I’ve spent some time reflecting on marriage. I like to ponder why things are important and worth doing. My younger self often thought marriage was giving up something of yourself for someone else. I’m glad to report that that isn’t the case. Marriage is about two very different people taking on a shared adventure, where there are lots of side adventures together and apart. Marriage is just a formal way of saying “I trust you and want you to be my life-long co-hiker no matter how boggy the trail or how craggy the mountainside.”

And as he said when I read him this post, “’Fiancé’ is a weird word, let’s get married already.”

Autonomy In Medicine

Set Up

I’ve been thinking of patient autonomy and the humanness of physicians a lot recently. In my short time training to be a doctor, I’ve had many experiences that have brought these topics to light. Here are a few examples:

  • An attending physician told me he usually first recommends pills to women seeking birth control because he believes that women find it reassuring to have their period every month. Odd perspective as my experience as a woman is that some women find periods reassuring and many find them annoying. Odd perspective as my short time in his clinic showed implant and injectable birth control methods as the most common forms of birth control requested and used by patients. Odd perspective as research has shown LARC (which include implants and IUDs and NOT birth control pills) have greatly decreased unwanted pregnancies because they’ve removed the mishaps of having to remember to take a pill every day. Medicine is complex. It requires both keeping up with research and checking your personal beliefs at the door. The approach I’ve seen most physician take when discussing birth control is to outline the different available birth control options so patients can decide themselves which is best for them.  
  • I overheard an attending physician talking to a resident physician about a D&C they did recently. A D&C is a procedure that can either be used to end a pregnancy early on or clear a miscarriage that occurred early in pregnancy. The patient these physicians were discussing had the procedure to end pregnancy. The resident physician stated that she thought the patient was looking for validation from the attending physician for choosing to have the procedure. The attending physician shrugged. I (medical student) asked what the attending physician had told the patient. The attending physician said, “She doesn’t need to give me a reason for the D&C. I told her she doesn’t need to give me a reason to terminate the pregnancy.” I found this statement to be a powerful example of approaching medicine without imposing personal beliefs on a patient.
  • An attending physician walked out of a patient room and told me the patient’s problem was that she was naïve. This was his reaction to the patient (a pregnant woman) planning to visit friends/family in another city while in the third trimester of her pregnancy. The patient had gained too much weight during pregnancy. She also had high blood pressure at this appointment. When asked the patient described improving her diet. The physician laughed at her when she described eating salad. In self-defense, the patient then described eating very healthy-sounding salads. The patient’s trip would delay the follow up blood pressure reading the physician wanted by two days. The physician did not explain why he was concerned about hypertension specifically in the last weeks of pregnancy. I wondered why he didn’t recommend that the patient monitor her blood pressures with a home blood pressure cuff and bring in a log of her blood pressures when she was able to schedule her next appointment. It seemed the risk of delaying a blood pressure reading in the clinic by two days might be outweighed by the benefit of social support during the final weeks of pregnancy. I questioned the choice of “naïve” as his diagnosis. Why should she know about preeclampsia if he didn’t tell her? Naïve is a loaded term and isn’t one I’d be quick to use to describe a pregnant and uninsured woman with friends/family in multiple cities. Medicine is a team sport. Patients are the captains and physicians are the coaches. It’s important to remember that the patient is part of the team and that while they don’t bring medical knowledge, they do bring life knowledge.
  • The patient told the attending physician that they stopped their antipsychotic medications. The physician recommended that the patient continue taking their medications. The patient refused. The attending and the patient came up with a plan to watch for warning signs that the patient’s psychosis was returning. The patient continued to attend group therapy even though they stopped their medications. This allowed the group therapist to send a community crew out to the patient’s home to check on the patient when that patient showed psychotic behavior at the online group therapy session. The patient did not self-identify that their psychosis was returning. However, because they continued to attend group sessions they were still connected to care and were brought to the emergency room before their psychosis led to self-harm. I found this case an excellent example of a physician respecting autonomy while also trying to prevent serious health outcomes for her patient.

Reflection

Medical school, residency, and being a physician teach us to solve complex problems. They teach us the complexities of the human body and how to cure diseases and treat symptoms. They teach us to think critically and sift through data efficiently. They provide us with guidelines and treatment recommendations. But, medical school, residency, and practicing medicine don’t and can’t teach us the complexity of each patient. They can’t give us the ability to foresee the future or understand patients’ life goals better than patients do themselves. And, despite our great knowledge as physicians, we can’t (and will never) have all the answers. Despite extensive training, medical research, and detailed guidelines medicine is still decided by humans (yes, physicians are just humans) and is (therefore) based partly on intuition, experience, and practiced guessing.

In medicine we are fixated on being right. Our goal is to reduce suffering, cure disease, and help patients navigate illness. And while as doctors we strive to cure, as humans we know that life can be more complex than curing. As humans we know life is paired with death. As humans we know not all questions have an answer and not all problems have a solution (at least yet). And as humans we know that health, sickness, healing, recovery, pain, and death are individual experiences that share commonalities across individuals but (ultimately) are unique experiences that each person endures differently.

In my short time in the hospital, I’ve already observed patients losing their autonomy. I’ve seen patients’ wishes ignored and explanations of why skipped or glossed over. I’ve seen us (medical experts) angered when patients don’t follow all our recommendations, insulted when we’re asked why, and forceful that our way is the only right way. And I’ve seen patients suffer. I’ve seen patients suffer taking our recommendations and I’ve seen them suffer when they refused our recommendations. And while suffering seems to be a part of some points in all lives, it also seems that sometimes in addition to our patients suffering we (physicians) push our patients to accept a treatment plan that is discordant with their values and life goals. It seems sometimes that we add to suffering by piling on shame or judgement.

In medical school, in residency, and as physicians we are taught to find the truth and to be right and to be directive. We are taught to recommend the best medicine has to offer. Yet, the best options based on evidence are not always the best option for an individual patient. And even if they seem right, the best options are not foolproof. The best options are based on probabilities, percentages of effectiveness and likelihood of reducing disease or preventing further harm. Probabilities are helpful, but they are not certainties.   

I’ve been thinking of medical recommendations and patient autonomy and the humanness of doctors because medicine can be hierarchical. It can be rigid with the attending physician setting the law; a mix of other players like nurses, medical students, and resident physicians in the middle; and the patient disempowered.

There are more cases than I presented above that I’ve experience which illustrated the complexities of patient autonomy and the humanness of doctors. Medical school is a whirlwind of learning. What I’ve come to discover, however, is that all the learning isn’t strictly medical. I’m also learning how I’d like to conduct myself when I’m an independently practicing physician, the ethics of medicine, and the challenges of working in a field where the outcome is dependent on the efforts of all team members.

As I reflect on the hierarchy and the complexity of medicine, if I could hold one piece of advice for myself as my training continues it would be to ensure my understanding of medicine is excellent while also remembering that patients are autonomous individuals. This advice reminds me that my job is ultimately to help people navigate the complexities of health and illness. This advice acknowledges that patients can say “no” and that the “why” is just as important as the “right answer.” This advice helps me to remember that my patients and I are a team. And just as I can decline or refer a patient to another physician if I am not comfortable with a patient’s request, my patient can also decline my recommendations or seek the medical expertise of another.

Update from Labor and Delivery: Non-Surgical Edition

We worked to the rhythm of the fetal heartbeat, ticking along at 140 beats per minute.  We hadn’t met the baby yet, but the baby was getting ready to come out and greet our world.

The soon-to-be-mom wasn’t in as much pain as she had been last time I saw her. The epidural took the edge off her contractions. She could talk to us again and was even happy (albeit also tired).

The team got ready to start pushing. The contractions were the right distance apart and strong. The cervix was dilated to 10 centimeters. We explained the process of pushing the baby out – for each contraction she’d push 3 times, each for 10 seconds. While pushing she’d pull her knees out and back toward her ears because that opens up the pelvis and helps the baby fit through. The first contraction we practiced. Not many laboring humans get the pushing thing perfect on their first try. But, it didn’t take this soon-to-be-mom long to learn what to do.

Birth is trepidatious, exciting, and boring all at the same time. First there is a lot of wondering about how the whole process will go. Then there’s a lot of wondering what the baby will be like. Parents are excited to meet their child for the first time. From the health care perspective, there’s a lot of standing around. A lot of blood and mucus and other types of goop. The work comes in waves, as the contractions come and go. Between contractions the laboring human rests and the rest of us wait. It’s really all about the laboring human. The rest of us are just accessories and moral support. On this occasion, the soon-to-be-dad was a great team member. He was encouraging without being overbearing. He was engaged without hovering. The support people the laboring human brings with them aren’t always that good, but you’d be stressed too if your partner was doing all the work and all you could do was stand by waiting.   

This soon-to-be-mom tapped her tummy and sang to her baby in between contractions. She had made up a song for the baby that involved the baby’s name. She told us she had spoken to the baby throughout her pregnancy. She explained that she had told the baby when they were eating. She told us that the baby knew that they ate yogurt every day at 2:30 pm.

The soon-to-be-mom worked hard when the contractions came. The baby moved down the birth canal. As the baby came closer to meeting us, the soon-to-be-mom became more uncomfortable. If you’ve had a baby via vaginal birth you might know what the pressure of a baby’s head is like as it makes its way out – the rest of us can just imagine. The soon-to-be-mom had a good epidural, but it didn’t’ take away the pressure of the baby’s head. It didn’t take away the pain that came with tissues stretching.

We saw the baby’s hair for many minutes before we saw the baby’s head. Head then shoulders and then the rest. I helped deliver the placenta – best described as a warm squishy sac.

The baby cried upon entering our world, a sign of lungs waking up. The baby started covered in white wax and slightly gray, but soon turned pink. The baby snuggled up on the mom’s chest. The baby was perfect, as all babies are. All babies are both perfect and look like aliens if you ask me. Regardless of babies’ alienness, you still tell the parents congratulations on having their baby (this is very important).

Mom rested. She then sang the baby’s song. Once the placenta came out, we made sure the bleeding stopped. We made sure any tears (they’re common apparently) were sewed up. The obstetricians tell me vaginal tissue heals quickly. Life is a curious thing, especially the beginning and the end.

Mom and dad were lost in staring at their baby as we cleaned up mom. The nurses made little ink baby footprints on a certificate for the parents and on hospital paperwork. They took baby’s vital signs – baby was doing well with its itsy-bitsy everything.

We left their room. Time to return to our station. Many little hearts running between 110 and 160 beats per minute bopped along on our monitors counting down the hours until their parents got to meet the baby they’d made. We joke that labor and delivery is the only floor in the hospital were pain is a good thing, only because it means that it might be time to have a baby.

Birth is trepidatious, exciting, and boring all at the same time. I’ve seen the toughest cry at the sight of their child. I’ve seen smiles and laughter and looks of amazement and terror at being a new parent. And I’ve only been on labor and delivery for a few weeks. Imagine what it’s like to make a career of helping people bring their babies into the world.

The Psychiatric Rotation

Disclosure: The patient story here was written with a patient I saw in mind, but the details have been changed to protect anonymity. The story is reflective of many patients I saw during my psych rotation and while working in the ED. You will note that I chose nonbinary pronouns. This is because brain illnesses (just like many illnesses of other organs) set in regardless of gender. Brain diseases, like many other diseases, are related to genetics, life experiences, and other social and environmental factors. A tricky aspect about brain diseases is that we aren’t exactly sure how most of them develop and we are quite far from having a cure.

I looked down at them lying on the stretcher in an ED bed. They were snoring quietly, and their face was neatly framed by their hair. Their eyes were closed, and they looked peaceful. I didn’t have much time to ponder the full circle that this scene represented and the eerie foreshadowing of the end of my psych rotation. They had received the magic 5-2, 5mg Haldol and 2 mg Ativan. Haldol is an antipsychotic that is sedating and Ativan a benzo that’s also sedating. In other words, the patient was chemically restrained. Put again, they were put to sleep for a short time to end their psychosis. And a scary psychosis it must have been as it was filled with delusions of people hurting them and murdering children. We shall call this patient The Singer.

I’d seen The Singer awake and stable during the first few days of my psychiatry rotation, weeks before I saw them sedated. When I first met them, they were being discharged from the psychiatric inpatient unit of the hospital. They’d been in the hospital for weeks. They’d been restrained many times. They’d spent a good chunk of their stay believing the hospital staff were hurting them. When I met them, they didn’t have those delusions. They were looking forward to finishing a song they’d started writing before entering the hospital. They were looking forward to going back to their job and were inspired to possibly start biking again. They were discharged from inpatient to home with quetiapine and an intensive outpatient treatment plan (dialectic behavioral therapy group sessions). Quetiapine is an antipsychotic. Did you know most drugs in its class are effective about 20%-50% of the time? That’s not a passing test grade. But, then again, 20% of patients helped is better than zero. And, of course, medications only have a chance of working if you take them.

As my psychiatry rotation marched along, I changed from inpatient psychiatry to outpatient psychiatry. I’d see The Singer in the outpatient setting too. I observed their dialectic behavioral therapy session (group therapy focused on developing social skills and strategies to manage emotions). I interviewed them at their medication follow-up meeting. At that meeting, they told us they’d stopped their quetiapine. They didn’t want to take it. They didn’t like it. We could not and were not going to force The Singer to take their medication. They complained about not being themselves when taking the medication. I couldn’t blame them because quetiapine is sedating and does sometimes make people feel flat, emotionless. The psychiatrist counseled The Singer on looking for signs that they might be slipping into psychosis again. The Singer identified not sleeping as one of the triggering factors. I worried for them. I worried their delusions would return if they weren’t on quetiapine.

After outpatient psychiatry, I transitioned to the consult service which determines if patients in the ED need psychiatric hospital admission and provides psychiatric evaluation of patients anywhere in the hospital. I was with the consult service when I saw the sedated version of The Singer in the ED. The Singer had been sedated because they were not safe. Their delusions of rape had returned. They were agitated and not taking care of themselves. They were making risky decisions. We hoped to help them by admitting them to the hospital.

I knew The Singer was a musician because the ED was the third setting in which I’d seen them; the first time I met them, they told me they were a singer.  I knew their living situation and their hobbies because I’d talked to them about them. I knew why they had stopped taking their medications and I knew that part of the reason their psychosis had returned was because they’d stopped taking quetiapine. After leaving their ED room, I drafted the psychiatry consult note that would be a record used as justification for involuntarily admission to the hospital for stabilization. We’d come full circle, The Singer and I. I started my time on psychiatry with them being discharged from inpatient treatment and I was ending my rotation with them being admitted again to inpatient treatment. Same cause. Similar presentation as last time. Had we made progress? How many times would The Singer repeat this cycle? I reflected on the fact that chronic illnesses are just that, a chronic struggle to be well. A chronic ebb and flow of good and bad days.

The ED consult note I wrote about The Singer was the first psychiatry note where I left the mental status blank and simply said they were chemically restrained at the time of consult. The mental status is the bulk of a psychiatry note. It’s where you summarize a patient’s emotions, thoughts, words, and behavior. A psychiatry note without a mental status exam is quite limited. Psychiatry is about talking to patients to understand their feelings, thoughts, and emotions. It is almost impossible to evaluate for feelings, thoughts, and emotions if you can’t or don’t speak to a patient. Sure, when patients aren’t sedated, you can observe them or try to use writing or sign if you can’t speak to them formally. But, talking is the core of psychiatry. Psychiatry is the one field of medicine that does not forget to ask the patient’s opinion. I reflected on that bit. It reminded me of the key lesson I hoped to remember on future rotations when time was crunched and my patience strained – you have to talk to patients in order to know their thoughts and story. It may sound simple. Perhaps it is. Perhaps the pile of labs and medications and interventions that occur in the hospital make it difficult to always remember that patients are people who got sick. The sickness doesn’t remove the fact that they might be a singer or a biker, it just adds another layer to them as a person. Seems straightforward. We’ll if it remains straightforward at the end of a 13-plus hour shift on surgery.

The COVID-19 Vaccine: Celebration and Differences

Repost of a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original (split into 2 posts) here and here.

My partner and I both work in healthcare and had the opportunity to get our COVID-19 vaccines months ago. Never in the past would I have expected to await a vaccine with such anticipation and feel such gratitude upon receiving it. Among the many other social and scientific features COVID has brought to the forefront of our attention—one, at least for me, is a renewed appreciation for all the vaccines we have previously developed. To think that we can stop smallpox and polio is a relief. But, also, COVID is a reminder of all the diseases that have escaped vaccines to prevent them. HIV comes to mind.

My friends and family in the US are in various stages of COVID vaccine completion. The variance is largely because of their age, profession, and which state they live in. What is reassuring to me is that for my US community the debate is not whether to get the vaccine but, rather, when.

The conversation about the vaccine is very different for my Paraguayan friends. I have not experienced vaccine fear among the Paraguayans I’ve known—which is to say their access to the COVID vaccine is not limited by personal belief but rather distribution.

I connected with all my friends in Paraguay on Easter, an important holiday in a predominately catholic country. I was excited to hear about their celebrations. In Paraguay, the week leading up to Easter is called Semana Santa (Saints Week) and is especially important. It is a time of sharing chipa (a traditional food that’s like a hard cheese biscuit) and enjoying the company of family and friends. Visiting has been limited this year because of continued concern for COVID, but my friends still report making chipa and enjoying the company of family.

When the topic of COVID came up, one of my friends said, “Estamos acá en la lucha, en Paraguay no hay vacuna, a nosotros es imposible recibir la vacuna…primero tiene que ser por las personas saludes, por los militares… y después recién por nosotros, dicen que van a inmunizarnos, pero no sé…por nosotros acá nuestra lucha es esperar la vacuna y quedar en casa. (We are struggling here, in Paraguay there is no vaccine, it is impossible for us to get the vaccine…first it must be for healthcare workers, for military personal…and then, after, for us. They say they’re going to vaccinate us, but I don’t know. Here our struggle is to wait for the vaccine and stay home.)”

This friend has been studying online since the pandemic began. She hopes to someday work in healthcare, but she is not able to go to the hospital to continue her clinical training for fear of catching COVID. One of her uncles was hospitalized for 15 days for COVID (he is doing well and made in home for Easter). Many of her family members caught COVID this March, but only the one uncle ended up in the hospital.

One of the things that continues to strike me about my Paraguayan friends is an unwavering optimistic outlook even though COVID-19 vaccination in just beginning in their country. My friend’s comment, “Here our struggle is to wait for the vaccine and stay home” struck me. She said it in a matter-of-fact tone that did NOT hint at frustration but, rather, exuded unwavering patience.  In thinking about my friends in Paraguay, I began to wonder if the closeness of families (not just emotionally but geographically) is a protective factor against feelings of isolation I’ve heard from many of my US friends. My friends in Paraguay either live with their parents and extended family or on the same block as them; compare this to my friends in the US whose families are spread out across distant states. This comparison reminded me that even though this pandemic has touched lives across the globe our shared experience is also a highly personal experience shaped not only by our uniqueness as individuals but also by the culture of the society in which each of us live. 

Medicine of the Mind

“It’s a privilege to learn their stories…really get to know people,” he said when I asked for his nugget of advice for us students as we continue our medical school journey. “In what time you think you have, try to know them [patients]…exercise your privilege.” Before we get into the weeds, let me clarify what he meant as this quote is just a piece of a longer conversation. By “privilege” he meant the honor of getting to meet patients and having the opportunity to hear their stories. By “exercise” he meant take the time to be a good doctor which includes getting to know people’s stories.

This piece of advice came from a retired psychiatrist who, as rumor has it, retired several times and each time his patients convinced him to come back to practice. The way he carried himself reminded me of my late grandfather – tall but not imposing, with straight white hair that covered just enough of his forehead, and a quiet voice. But more than how he carried himself, his curiosity caught my attention. He was an old human, an old physician at that, who the week before he gave the above advice had comfortably engaged in conversation about pronouns and transgender care. He was a physician who listened to learn when I offered a rudimentary definition of “nonbinary.” I’ve met many a young person, with far fewer years to settle into old ways, who showed less interest in uncovering the nuances of the human experience.

“Really get to know people.” His words made me hopeful because they showed that even at the end of a long career there are physicians who still have a passion for the human story as much as I do at the beginning of the Doctorhood Quest. Being only 5 weeks into working in the hospital as a medical student, I have a long way to go before I can offer advice to students. But, for now, challenge accepted good sir. Let’s see how I do in the coming weeks and years at uncovering stories while also learning labs, diseases, medications, and all the other factoids that will help me reduce symptoms and cure disease in the patients I see.