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.

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.

Pull Up Your Compression Socks

Some of my friends and family have asked how I study so much. Others just give me a funny look, shake their head, and say becoming a doctor is too much school. And, to be honest, I mostly agree.

And that’s were compression socks come in.

When I was studying for my first board exam (aka STEP 1 which is a 7-hour exam that lightly touches most topics in medicine from skin rashes to embryological development) I started wearing compression socks. Every day before sitting at my desk with mate and breakfast and before firing up my computer, I’d spend a few moments pulling on the rainbow or patterned compression socks I’d chosen for the day. I’d never worn compression socks before I started studying for STEP 1 – not while hiking multiple 10-mile plus hikes a week, not while working 10-hour shifts on my feet, and not while training for marathons on city streets.

But studying from well before dawn to well past dark did me in. The truth is that studying all day is terribly grueling in the most passive way imaginable. The body rebels against stillness, and my bodying not only rebelled but went to war. My calves became so tight I could hardly walk. They’d throb at night. They’d throb in the morning. My shoulders and back were full of knots. My hamstrings constricted to a fraction of their normal length. I have a standing desk. It only made my hips tight. And. Yet. The studying had to be done. To help get through the hours, I’d stretched when I could. My workout routine become very consistent because without it I couldn’t concentrate.

The compression socks fixed my calves. I discovered them by accident. My partner wears them at work to avoid varicose veins, and one day I tried on some of his socks. It was a game changer; I could study all day and my legs would be okay. Just okay, but okay was way better than terrible.

It seems a bit dramatic to say it feels like your body is going to turn to stone simply because you sit still too much. “How do you study so much?” family would ask me in the final weeks leading up to my exam. I never exactly knew how to answer. And now I realize why – because studying  in medical school is less about the “how” and more about the “why.”

Why do I study so much?

It comes down to the end. The goal. The reason I bothered to enter medicine at all. It is only knowing where I wish to go that makes studying so much that I must wear compression socks worth it. I didn’t come to medicine because I wanted to study all day. I entered medicine because curing diseases and helping people through sickness is the professional contribution I wish to make to our world. I had plenty of time before starting school to explore many different professions. But, the one that captivated me was medicine. Medicine combines puzzles, science, and true stories. I study so much because every piece of information about symptoms and labs and geography and humans is a tool that might help me understand what is ailing a patient. I don’t study because I like it, I study because I want all the knowledge tools I can fit into my toolbox brain so that when I meet someone’s grandmother, someone’s father, someone’s friend, someone’s brother in a moment when their health is faulting…I know how to help them heal. 

Goodbye For Now Vermont

It had been over 2 years since I’d set foot in the US and almost a decade since I’d lived in Vermont when I returned 5 years ago. In my time away, I’d forgotten that men might choose to grow beards, plaid shirts are stylish in some people’s eyes, and baggy pants on men (and women) are normal in some regions of the globe. I’d just come from a place where those things – beards, plaid, and baggy pants – were only seen on people experiencing homeness and overheating Peace Corps volunteers clearly out of place in the Paraguayan sun.

Yet, despite the plaid, the cold, and the lack of sun Vermont was better than I remembered it. It was nice being in a place where I was confident everyone I talked to knew how many legs a chicken has (I’ve met people in the urban US who don’t). When I arrived, I wasn’t too worried about liking Vermont. I thought that I’d just come back to start my journey to medical school and that was all. Vermont had more in mind.

I started my pre-med classes which can easily be summarized like this: I’d write a lab report then revise it until it was so boring it made me yawn. Only if I was absolutely bored reading a lab report could I be sure I’d get an A on it.

As part of the journey to medical school, I became an EMT. I remember being petrified showing up for me first EMT shift. My nerves eased when my crew chief (who’d started working on ambulances over a decade before I was born) told me in a matter-of-fact voice that the crew would not let me kill anyone. Our crew would have dinner together every shift (unless we got a call and had to jump in the ambulance). We’d talk about patient cases, science, sci-fi, trucks, and cake. We’d get 2 am calls. I learned to write patient reports in the middle of the night. I practiced finding things to talk about with anyone – an important skill when you have a stable patient and a 30 plus-minute ambulance ride to the hospital. I saw hoarder houses. I learned what it looks like when people fall and can’t get up. I saw what happens when a blood sugar gets too low. I reinforced the knowledge that drunk humans are poor historians.

After running all night (that’s what we called being on the ambulance responding to calls), I’d change into my business-very-casual work clothes and go to work. Then class. Then lab. The hours studying merged as they always do. But, as I prepared for the MCAT (an entrance exam for med school) I knew exactly who to ask to explain some of the physics concepts that weren’t sticking – the brilliant kid with the Vermont accent on my ambulance crew. He’d driven trucks almost as long as he’d been walking and hadn’t done much school. He was smart and if he’d wished to follow different stars he could have. 

“I don’t know the physics equations or anything,” he said when I asked if he could explain how hydraulic lifts work and the physics of pistons.

“That’s not an issue, you understand the concepts,” I said.

I could do pages of equations and get the answer, but it was the meaning behind the symbols and numbers I wanted. And as he drew out a dump truck to explain hydraulics, drawing to explain just as my father and step-father always do, I realized that I liked the people in Vermont more than I’d expected I would.

School, my first job after returning to Vermont, and my time on the ambulance ended around the same time. I transitioned to a new job as an EMT in the emergency department (ED). I learned how to place IVs and draw blood. I saw how the brain, heart, and bones can break. I sat with families as their loved ones died. I saw babies be born and people smile despite the unluckiest circumstances. I learned from fellow EMTs, nurses, and other key players in the ED. The ED attracts fiery spirits and I enjoyed being among them. The patients came and went – suicidal thoughts, dog bite, chest pain, weird rash, car crash, fall, stroke, homeless, ski accident, rape, stomach pain – and I learned about humanity. Healthcare gave me a new angle from which to view Vermont. I saw the stoic Vermonters I’d known growing up. I saw people who had just immigrated to this frigid, snowy state. I met people who have the lives that make up the opioid epidemic. I met folks like me and very different from me.

The people of Vermont gave me a window into medicine. I got into medical school and I decided to study at our state school.

While much of my time in Vermont has been centered on learning medicine, that is not all Vermont has been. I rediscovered the mountains and the forests. I spent countless hours walking along Lake Champlain. I heard the hermit thrush sing as I wandered in the forest. I was reminded how both loud and quiet the trees are. Between the mountaintops and the lake, I also found my life partner. We were hiking and feasting buddies at first, but life has a way of pushing the limits of friendship. I also found friends with whom I cackle and giggle, enjoy the sunset and a stroll, and who I know are standing by ready for anything when the going gets tough. And the going is tough sometimes because becoming a doctor is a long road.

Since returning to Vermont, I rediscovered why Vermonters are stubborn, fierce, loving, and independent – just spend a winter here and you’ll understand. And, while Vermont has been so much more than I imagined, I must say goodbye for now. Every time I leave a place, I can not promise I’ll return for good or stay away forever. I can only promise that the people and hidden hallows that shaped me while I was here will always be with me no matter where I am. As I look ahead to the last years of medical school, I plan to complete them in Connecticut (my Vermont medical school has a clinical partnership there).

With excitement that I’m moving once again to a neighborhood where we speak Spanish and with a heavy heart for the dearest friends I’ve left in my home state let me say, “Until we meet again dear Vermont, may the snow be deep in winter and the summer be sparkly and green.”

In the World With COVID-19: COVID-19 Continues to Test Our Resilience and Flexibility

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 post here.

When I joined the Peace Corps in Paraguay, we had two mantras: resilience and flexibility. Those words would take on an infinite number of meanings during my service. Spending twenty-seven months living and working in a new language and culture challenged me more than anything ever had. It also allowed me to forge some of the deepest friendships I’ve cultivated, and it pushed me to become a better self. 

Resilience is a word tossed around frequently in medical school, just as in the Peace Corps. The two endeavors have in common a series of obstacles to hurdle. However, “flexibility” faded from my vocabulary when I became a medical student. I first brushed the word aside when I began my premed classes, for which I measured exact amounts in my science labs. As I entered medical school, each minute became precious and tests with multiple choice answers almost erased the idea of flexibility from my mind. Then, COVID-19 arrived. School moved entirely online and everything that had been normal for medical school became a memory of the good old days. 

It’s been about nine months since my classes went online. My friends who work in the emergency department, where I worked before medical school, look tired. Their faces are chapped from wearing masks and face shields. They haven’t been able to see their coworkers’ facial expressions since the pandemic began. My classmates and professors look tired too, on Zoom. My parents, siblings, and friends also look weary when we chat on WhatsApp. These past nine months have been nothing but a test in both resilience and flexibility. 

Resilience is defined in many ways, but I think of it as the ability to endure and still find joy in the little things of life. This past Thanksgiving, I was cheered to see the Zoom collages of families and atypical feasts a Thanksgiving without travel cultivated. I’ve been amazed at how well Zoom can connect us for classes and how easy it makes project planning. While I miss my classmates’ physical presence, I don’t feel disconnected from them because I know they are in their homes studying for classes and STEP (first medical board exam for medical students) just as I am. What’s more is that we can Facetime or WhatsApp at any time. When time is scarce, video calls do afford the benefit of decreased travel time. 

I am surprised to see how flexible medicine can be. Physicians are finding ways to deliver healthcare to their communities even with COVID-19 limiting their options. Those physicians in global health have had the unique opportunity to look at home with a new eye and explore how global health is not only going to different countries but, also, working with communities of new arrivals in their own country. The rise of Zoom has also opened a door for students and physicians across the globe to share ideas and have conversations we might not have had before COVID-19 limited our ability to travel. 

As we look forward to global news that a vaccine to COVID-19 may become available relatively soon, I dream to start my clinical years on time and physically in the hospital. 

Even with the good news, however, I know that we cannot easily predict what will happen in March when my clinicals start. The expectations I have for clinicals, therefore, are largely from watching the students who started their clinicals last spring because they showed that despite setbacks, medicinal learning can adapt to the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic. And while my colleagues, friends, and family look exhausted after these months of weathering the COVID-19 storm, I see the power of their resilience and I am grateful to remember that the adventure of life requires flexibility as it unfolds. As I transition from the primarily academic to the more clinically-focused years of my medical training, remembering flexibility is important.

Until Death Do Us Part

A reflection on COVID, not of families grieving or people in danger, simply the emotional toll of an increased number of people dying.

There is no way to capture what it is like to feel someone go from warm to cold. There are no words to describe what it is like when the electricity rushes from a person’s body and everything within them falls still and silent. Even photos, which can capture pain, cannot capture the sensation you have when someone dies in your hands. The realization that they will not blink or speak again sits heavily. The knowledge that their burdens and joys have been left with us, the living, is conflicting.

CPR trainings, nursing school, and medical school try to prepare those of us destined to forge a career in healthcare for the days our patients die. But trainings over plastic mannequins and long-winded discussions over patient scenarios or tear-jerking stories can not prepare you for the moment a soul evaporates.

While not all who work in healthcare see people die, many do. It is part of the job. Most of us know that before we decide to enter the field. Those of us in healthcare put up emotional walls. We become used to knowing people will die. We can see suffering, guess the ending, and then leave the witnessed outcome at the job. But, no matter how strong healthcare workers become, there are times when the emptiness of a cold hand stays with us long after our workday ends.

Some of the best advice I was given when I first started working in the emergency department (ED) was to know where the empty spaces are in the hospital. At the time, I worked nights. This meant that my empty place was the waiting room for radiology because it was open and only used during the day. It was one of the few places I could go in the hospital that was unlocked and had corners hidden from the security cameras and the hallway. Over the years I worked in the ED, I would sit alone in the dark radiology waiting room on several occasions. I’d sit there only for a few minutes before returning to the floor to help the next patient.

As my career in healthcare unfolds, I’ve learned to stop and remain still when one of my colleagues tells me they lost a patient that day. Sometimes they will want to talk through what happened but, more often, they just want to sit with me and reflect silently. There are no words to describe what it’s like to be involved in someone’s death, even if your role was trying to prevent it. And, sometimes, there are no thoughts to describe it either. But, those of us in medicine know that death is part of life. And while the stories of some people linger long after they pass, we’re still glad to have been there to help them through the last stage of their life.

Resilience

Not so long ago, a couple of brilliant new medical students asked me how many notecards I do a day. “Doing a notecard” means quizzing yourself on its contents and making progress in remembering the information it contains so you can answer test questions on the topic. Talking about the number of notecards we do daily is typical shop talk in medical school—everyone is trying to figure out exactly how to learn the mountain of information that makes up medicine. Almost everyone decides early on in their medical school career that the only way to learn what we must learn is with notecards. But, what is the perfect number to do in a day?

I avoided answering those new medical students’ question about how many cards I do a day. I wanted to help but, it’s an unanswerable question. I am not a robot. If I were a robot, I’d do something like 500-1000 notecards a day. But that’s not how life works. Some nights I don’t sleep well. Some days I have meaningless meetings that take up the best study hours. I gotta eat. I gotta move my body. Some days, it’s just too sunny to stay glued to my desk. Sometimes I’m tired and I retain nothing. Sometimes I get bad news and I’m sad. Sometimes I’m sick. Sometimes I’m on fire and I cruise through notecards like a genius.

We talk a lot about resilience in medical school. Here are the typical discussion questions:

  • What is resilience?
  • Why is resilience important?
  • Can resilience be taught?
  • How does one become resilient?

Thinking about notecards led to me some answers. Here they are:

What is resilience? Why is resilience important?

Google defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” With that definition, it’s obvious that when you’re doing very challenging things like learning medicine it helps to be resilient. Becoming a doctor is a long process and you’re guaranteed to make a lot of mistakes. The only way you’ll make it to the “end” is by becoming an expert in self pep-talks and getting up when you fall.  

Can resilience be taught?

I don’t think so. Not once, ever, has any class, piece of advice, or discussion made me better able to endure a hardship. Every hardship I’ve endured was because I decided to bear it. I had family and friends who supported me along the way, but the healing and “how to do better next time” was mine alone to formulate. But, while I don’t believe we can teach others resilience, I do believe that resilience is learned.

How does one become resilient?

We become resilient by being challenged. The folks who are most resilient are the ones who have endured the most hardship. That’s not to say all people who have faced many obstacles are resilient; it’s just to say that you can’t be resilient if you never face a challenge. If you’ve never failed or been hurt than you can’t know what it’s like to dust off the dirt from a fall and try again. Without challenge, you can’t learn how to adapt your plan as life unfolds new surprises.

This principle is the basis of the answer to the notecard question I was asked. How many notecards do I do a day? I have NEVER, not once, done as many notecards as I hoped to do in a day. Yet, I have passed all my classes comfortably. In fact, not only have I never completed as many notecards as I wanted to…when I started medical school, I didn’t use notecards. Not using notecards was a grave mistake. When I started using them my grades improved by about 5% and, for the first time in my medical career, I had time to exercise, sleep, and socialize a sustainable amount. I switched to notecards ¾ of the way through my first semester of medical school. I was terrible at making notecards. But, I gave them a fair trial because I knew how I was studying before notecards wasn’t working. I had two choice at that point: sink or swim. Swimming involves adaptability. I decided I would rather be an otter than a rock in the deluge that is medical knowledge.

Deciding to use notecards may seem trivial until you consider that I’ve bet around $100,000 (so far) on becoming a doctor. It seems trivial except when you consider that it took me 6 years (of work) from the time I decided I wanted to become a physician to the day I got to decide how to study my medical school material. It seems trivial until you realize that I still have at least 5 years, probably 8, and many licensing exams between me and practicing medicine. The stakes are high. I could have failed upon switching to using notecards. But, I thought it was worth a try and I knew I would fail if I kept up what I was doing.

This past exam (fast-forward to my second year of medical school) was the first time I finally studied all the notecards I’d made for an exam. It’s been a little less than a year since I starting using notecards to study. I’m way better at using notecards than when I started. But, my journey isn’t over. This spring I take the biggest exam of my life (my first board exam – a national exam everyone who becomes a doctor must pass). How well I do on that exam heavily influences what residencies I can apply to and, ultimately, what type of doctor I’m allowed to become. It’s scary. My daily notecard count is only one part of how I will prepare for that exam. The number of notecards I did daily last year, over the summer, and now is different. How many notecards I do today will be different from how many I do each day when I’m in the middle of studying for that looming board exam.

What challenges and failure come to show us is that things can be done in many ways. They also show us that we can only control ourselves. For example, I can’t change how much information I’m expected to know for an exam. I can decide how to learn the information. Resilience is not complaining about something that never could have been. It’s about deciding to make your dream reality. It’s about jumping into the flood, scared out of your mind, with a willingness to evolve until you get to where you’re meant to be.

Holding a Brain in Your Hands

My first semester of medical school I went to the anatomy lab 2, 3, 4, sometimes more times a week. Sometimes twice a day. In our anatomy lab we were split into groups and each assigned a cadaver for dissection. Cadavers are people who donated their bodies upon death to science, we call them “donors” in our lab. The 20 donors in our lab were once 20 people who had the vision to let us, 120 aspiring doctors, disassemble the human body so that we could intimately understand how it fits together.

The idea of cutting apart a human, even if they are dead, is disgusting to most people—including all of us who showed up to anatomy lab the first day. It never got easier to dissect my donor. I spent a little bit of each hour in lab wondering who my donor had been in life and if she had any idea what happens in an anatomy lab when she decided to donate her body. Yet, now that I’m done with anatomy lab and have had months to stew on my experiences there, I can’t imagine not dissecting a cadaver as part of my training to become a physician. Let me share one, relatively low on the gruesome scale, experience to illustrate how profoundly moving and informative it was to be able to explore a human body piece-by-piece.

Toward the end our months in the anatomy lab it was time to open the skull and see the brain of our donor. Weeks before that we had dissected the spine, opening up the vertebral column so we could see what the spinal cord looked like. Each week of lab leading up to the day we opened the skull was spent tracing nerves from the spinal cord and brain to each section of the body we had examined. Nerves look like strings, specifically they look like white, cotton strings soaked in oil. We spent many hours memorizing the names of those strings (the nerves) and their paths through the body.

So, on the day we finally got to open the skull we understood how the brain was connected to every muscle and structure in the body. We knew intellectually how they were connected but, also, physically how they were connected. Our hands had followed the course of many nerves until their routes were as familiar as the path of a zipper on a favorite jacket. We could imagine the journey of the nerves through the body without seeing them. Hence, we felt ready, excited, and nervous to meet the globe that controlled it all. We were ready to see the brain.

You can hold a brain in both your hands. It fits there comfortably. It weights about 3 pounds. In other words, it’s about the size and weight of an average cantaloupe. Such an unassuming structure for the burden it carries. It is our brain, in the end, that makes each of us who we are. It shapes our personality, our feelings, and our behavior. Without our brain we simply take up space. We can’t even breathe.

When I held our donor’s brain in my hands, I knew it would be the first and last time I held a human brain. I didn’t hold it for long, but I felt its weight. Its actual weight as gravity pulled down on it, but also the weight of the life it had traveled. Whoever my donor had been in life, it was the brain in my hands that had guided her. Every person has a brain something like the one I was holding. We each have our own globe of cheese, an organ science still doesn’t know much about, that pretty much decides everything in our lives. To think, I was holding the center of human nature in my hands. The feeling isn’t something I’ll forget.