The Ocean

I’ve never lived by a sea or ocean before. But for a few weeks this winter I am. And not just any salty expanse but the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean around Puerto Rico. It’s not hurricane season so, in the few days I’ve been here so far, the waves have crashed with careful, well-mannered regularity. Right now, I’m on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The water is warm and blue. Walking along the beach I find myself covered with a salt film both from the lapping waves and the salt in the air. The temperature has been perfect and the sun a beautiful gold. Proximal to the sand and rocks that meet the water are coconut trees, marking where the beach ends and the rest of the island begins.

As I walk along the rocky bits of the shore crabs scuttle so quickly that they’re hard to see – their shell patterns match the sea plants and the design the sunlight creates as it dances with the waves. Pelicans hover above the water, make a diving plummet with a smack as they break the water’s surface, rest on the ocean’s surface to swallow the fish they caught, and then take flight to follow the wind off the water to only scoop around like a boomerang and head back out to fish again.

People sit on the beach and hangout in the water. They listen to their loud music, dig holes in the sand, throw rocks, and drink alcohol (mostly beer). I walk along the junction between the water and the sand – sometimes more on the side of the sand and other times more on the side of the saltwater. The waves fill the gap between me and the seemingly infinite ocean. Sometimes I’m taken by surprise when a large wave barrels to shore and splashes up against my legs and catches my shirt in its spray.

Where there are tidal pools, I look down at the ruby red sea urchins with deep crimson spikes – their colors remind me of the colors of fresh and dried blood or, perhaps more appealing, the colors of red I’d expect royalty to wear. There are little fish that dart around in the tidal pools; they’re the color and pattern of sand. There are sea plants that look like little green balloons. There are shells hiding live creatures whose names I don’t know. Some of the bigger pools have sea anemones. I peer into each tidal pool, eager to see what it keeps in its mini-sea haven.

I love the sound of the waves and the smell of the salt water against the sand. It’s new to see coconuts. But, in this serene backdrop I can’t help but notice the broken glass and plastic bits, bottles of all varieties, cans, and all the other trash humans on the beach have failed to pick up…or humans elsewhere tossed in such a way that their trash found its way to the beaches where I wander now. I walk barefoot in the sand, but it’s almost a bad idea because so many people have broken their beer bottles.

The creatures and features of the ocean are no less beautiful with the trash present, but I imagine how it would be paradise without the plastic bottles there as a reminder that so many places I love are being filled with trash. Will this beach be swimmable when my grandchildren are alive? There must be a better way. There must be a way to keep this beach with its crabs and sea urchins for the generations to come.

As I turn up the road between where I’m staying and the ocean I see heaps of bottles, cans, Styrofoam, plastic bags, and other discarded single use items on the side of the road. They create a scattering of litter among the snake plants, palm trees, mango trees, papaya trees, pothos vines, and other plants of the tropics. Is there another way or is it already too late to return our natural spaces to paradise?

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Back In the Operating Room

The patient was undergoing emergency surgery for an aortic dissection (when blood gets between the layers of an artery wall) with an aneurysm (dilation/ballooning out). The aorta is the largest artery in the body. It comes off the top of the heart and then travels through the chest and abdomen until it splits into two big arteries that feed the legs. It has many branches along its path. Because this patient’s dissection and aneurysm were close to their heart, without surgery the dissection could spread and damage their heart. Further, if the aneurysm wasn’t fixed and then ruptured, the patient would likely bleed to death.

Conducting this surgery was one surgeon and one physician’s assistant (PA); they were supported by an anesthesiologist, a resident anesthesiologist, 3-5 nurses, and 1-3 surgical techs. Surgeries are always a team effort. This surgery was complicated, the stakes were high, and bad outcomes were more likely than for many other surgeries (but without surgery death was almost certain). For the first 6 or so hours of the surgery the surgeon and PA worked without a break – no water, no bathroom, and no food. After the most time-sensitive part of the surgery was done, the surgeon sipped some water through a straw that a nurse carefully threaded behind his mask. The nurse joked that he was like a gerbil – no one argued with that analogy.

In all, the surgery would take about 11 hours. As the surgeon was finishing up his work, he looked around the room and thanked each person there for their help. He then looked up at me. I’d been watching the surgery for the better part of 8 hours. “What are you? A resident?” the surgeon asked.

“No, a medical student,” I said.

“God bless you,” the surgeon said. He paused. “My son is a third-year resident. I tell him to remember that you’re not supposed to enjoy residency.” The surgeon paused again. “But I still say I would never have wanted to do anything else.”

This surgeon had started working as a surgeon at this hospital when I was 8 years old. Assuming he’d done about 8 years of training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon and that he’d spent his entire career at this one hospital, he’d been operating about as long as I’d been alive.

I reflected on his sense of fulfilment in being a surgeon. I wondered if I’d end up liking my path in medicine as much as he liked his. I wondered if it was possible to enjoy one’s path in medicine as much these days as it was when he started.

~

Medicine has changed a lot in the 30+ years I’ve been alive. We’ve made lots of amazing advancements, but health disparities remain staggering. Work conditions are variable hospital to hospital and clinic to clinic. I love medicine, but I can’t ignore how strained our healthcare system was before the COVID pandemic and how much worse it has become even after the COVID vaccine reached the US public. I also know that my path in medicine will be quite different than that of a surgeon.

I am pursuing a medical career that does not involve surgery or procedures and, therefore, is not a hospital money-maker in our current healthcare system. Money gives power even in healthcare, as such, I’ll neither have the high pay nor inherent influence on hospital administration that surgeons do. All physician roles have amazing components and are important for patient care however to say each physician’s place in the system is the same is not simplification, it’s erroneous. I’ve come to feel the differences between physician types more thoroughly as each new step of my doctorhood quest unfolds.

As I wrap up my time as a medical student, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned and seen in healthcare so far and where I want to end up as a physician. As a student, I’ve seen more parts of the patient care system than I will in any other capacity during the doctorhood quest. I’ve participated in countless conversations throughout the inpatient and outpatient healthcare settings. I’ve been a fly on the wall for even more conversations than I’ve participated in. From insurance navigation nightmares to cool medical cases, from nurse-to-patient ratios to supply chain issues I’ve come to understand that healthcare is a complex group sport where the field and rules change based on geographic location (because of geography itself, demographic composition, and regional laws), insurance status, medical society guidelines, government funding, hospital and/or clinic revenue generation, supply chains, ability to hire healthcare professionals, and many other factors.

I start residency in about 6 months. At that point, I’ll continue to learn what I need to know to be an independent physician. After 3 years, I could graduate residency to work as a hospitalist or primary care physician or I could continue my training to further specialize. I’m excited and hopeful about these rapidly approaching adventures. I wonder what I’ll tell a medical student about my journey 30 years from now. I dream that my message will be as positive as this surgeon’s message was to me.