Sometimes People Step Up to Be Heroes

The patient sat with a blanket over their head. They were a little goofy and fairly expressed their distaste of their bed and various lines (IVs, urinary catheter, etc.). I didn’t blame them for not liking the hospital; nobody wants to get sick. The patient answered many questions correctly – they knew their name and their spouse’s name – but they couldn’t tell me where they were, why they were there, or what month it was. Yet, to see them sitting there alert and able to talk with me was a miracle that I was humbled to see.

The patient’s spouse and child had saved them. The patient had a cardiac arrest (their heart stopped) after going to bed one night. Their spouse noticed, pulled them to the floor, and started chest compressions. Sometime in that whirlwind, 9-1-1 was called and their teenaged child helped the spouse do compressions. The spouse and child did compressions for 45 minutes, just the two of them, until an ambulance showed up. Once the ambulance crew arrived, the patient received a couple of shocks and then, the patient’s pulse returned.

When I started as an EMT, my first medical experience, my crew chief told me cardiac arrest is death. All we can do is try to give the person’s whose heart stopped a chance at a cat life by doing CPR to pump blood while the heart isn’t pumping, delivering shocks (if indicated) to jumpstart the heart, and giving medications that sometimes help the heart restart. 

It’s important to realize that getting a pulse back isn’t the end of cardiac arrest. After getting a pulse back the main question is whether the heart stopped so long that the brain was irreversibly damaged by lack of blood flow. The likelihood of brain damage from lack of blood increases the longer the patient remains without a pulse. 45 minutes of CPR, especially CPR by non-medical people who don’t have access to a device that can deliver a shock, is a REALLY long time.

Most people won’t wake up after 45 minutes of CPR. But this patient did. They woke up and their brain was well enough to talk and move their body. It was too early to know if they’d fully recover to the mental state they’d had before their heart stopped. However, what was obvious when they woke up was that they were mostly there. Their brain had survived 45 minutes without a pumping heart thanks to their spouse and child.

When we successfully get a pulse back after CPR and the patient doesn’t immediately wake up, usually they are sedated and put on a ventilator (breathing machine) for 72 hours. This gives their brain time to rest after not receiving good blood flow. Usually after those 72 hours of rest, we decrease their sedation (medications used to put people to sleep while on a ventilator) and see how their brain is working. This patient underwent this process of sedation and then wakening after 72 hours.

It’s impossible to know exactly what the patient’s spouse and child felt as they waited those 72 hours to see if their loved one would wake up. What I can say from seeing them sitting at the patient’s bedside and sleeping in the hospital waiting room, is that the experience changed them. Once the patient woke up, the stress floating away from their family members was almost tangible. The spouse and child had saved the patient’s life; they had stepped up when the powers that be asked them to step up. They had given the patient a second chance at life. They were, by all definitions I know, heroes.

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Listening in Medicine

This patient was always cheerful. Despite approaching a month in the hospital. Despite extensive injuries for which they required multiple procedures, surgeries, and a long course of antibiotics. Every time I checked in, they had a visitor, were listening to mass, or were simply doing life things.

One day when I stopped in, the patient was different. Still as pleasant as ever, but their cheer was guarded. I noticed that their voice was heavier. That their eyes were drooping at the edges. Their smile seemed more effortful. “Is everything okay? Are you okay?” I asked. In the minutes I was with the patient, I asked these questions periodically. Interleaving with the normal questions about signs and symptoms and physical exams I needed to do. I’ve learned that if you create space for things that haven’t been said to be said, sometimes patients share what’s bothering them and you can do something about it.

I paused as I was preparing to leave and asked one more time if the patient was okay. They started crying. I waited. “It’s just I haven’t seen my children. I miss my children,” the patient said. I’d come to learn that they had two young children who they hadn’t seen since their admission. They video called them but, obviously, that wasn’t the same as seeing their children and giving them hugs.

Since COVID, hospital visitation policies have become more restrictive. There are reasons for these restrictions, however the unintended consequence is patient social isolation which is bad for patient mental health to put it simply. At the time when I was seeing this patient, the hospital I was in was not allowing children to enter the hospital as visitors. Rules, though, usually have exceptions. I spoke with the nursing staff, as they steward hospital floors, and they were able to arrange for the patient to see their children.

This patient interaction reminded me how listening is critical in medicine. The hospital is a difficult place to have a good conversation as patient. The hospital is confusing and foreign to most people; there are unintentional power differences that exist as medical knowledge and understanding are uncommon among those who didn’t study medicine; there are many faces with different roles in the hospital so it’s impossible to keep track of who is the right person to ask for what; and the hospital is busy and short-staffed, so healthcare workers are doing their best but they are always running behind. Given these barriers to communication, the burden falls not on the patient but on their care team to ensure that time to hear patients’ needs is made. To do this doesn’t necessitate longer patient interactions, necessarily, but it does necessitate listening for more than reports of a fever or bowel changes.

It can be hard to listen for things that don’t directly relate to changing a patient’s care plan. Yet, patients are more than carriers of disease and, therefore, to best support them in their journey to better health we in healthcare must listen to all ailments. Sometimes we can lessen a burden and sometimes we can’t. Arranging for a parent to see their children after weeks in the hospital is something we can solve easily. I was glad I was able to help this patient see their children, but I wondered how long the patient had suffered from missing their children. Perhaps, if one of us from their care team had listened more carefully earlier, the patient wouldn’t have had to wait almost a month before seeing their children. To me, it seemed unreasonable to add the burden of missing loved ones to this patient’s burden of healing from an accident that had almost killed them and injuries that would likely change their life. Being sick is hard enough; let us in healthcare not forget the human things, like social supports, that can help make healing less daunting. 

Windows to the Soul

I looked into the eyes of a patient for brief moments when they opened their eyelids before falling asleep again. Their eyes were like wells, but there was no sparkle in them like there is in a healthy person. The patient had a bacterial infection of the blood that had attacked their heart resulting in a large vegetation (collection of bacteria and other gunk) on one of their heart valves. Pieces broke off this vegetation, traveled through the blood vessels, and seeded infected clots in the patient’s lungs and spleen. That wasn’t all though. Their body was so inflamed some of the proteins in their blood were destroyed, consumed, or their production reduced. At first, the patient needed transfusions of red blood cells and platelets to survive.

In other words, the patient was sick. They were not just sick, their chance of death within 30 days increased by 16% each day their blood had bacteria in it according to one study.1 Their chance of death was about 40% by another estimate.2 It took us about a week of antibiotics to clear the infection from the patient’s blood, but that wasn’t the end of the patient’s need for antibiotics because of their heart infection and septic clots. They would need at least 6 weeks of antibiotics and likely several procedures and surgery to fix their heart.

I looked into the patient’s eyes each day, hoping to see a sparkle there that would suggest they were awakening from the depths of illness. I hoped and yearned to meet them rather than just examine their feverishness. I was rooting for them. I root for all my patients, but this patient’s eyes were so empty I knew they needed my thoughts more than the other patients I was caring for at the time.

It would take over a week, but one day the patient’s eyes shone with the flame that I think of as the soul, that spark of life. The patient was here with me. They could tell me their name and what was going on. They were awake! How the weeks ahead would unfold could not be predicted. In medicine, we don’t have a crystal ball that tells the future any better than a meteorologist can forecast the weather 10 days out.

My rotation would end before the patient was close to healthy enough to leave the hospital. They were sleepy when I last saw them because they were recovering from their first heart procedure. I touched their shoulder briefly and looked into their eyes. They were so strong and so brave. I reminded them of this and of how much they’d healed since we met. I told them to hang in there. It wasn’t much, I knew, but it was the best I could offer as I prepared to join a different medical team.

In the hospital, we often meet people at the worst crossroads of their lives. We do our best to help them navigate to a destination of better health, but we often don’t get to see where our patients end up after we care for them. We must be comfortable with unfinished odysseys. So, to conclude my telling of this patient’s story, the last time I saw the patient with the wells for eyes, their eyes shown with the brilliance of victory. I will remember them by that brilliance.  

References:

1. Minejima E, Mai N, Bui N, et al. Defining the Breakpoint Duration of Staphylococcus aureus Bacteremia Predictive of Poor Outcomes. Clin Infect Dis. 2020;70(4):566-573. doi:10.1093/cid/ciz257

2. Kuehl R, Morata L, Boeing C, et al. Defining persistent Staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia: secondary analysis of a prospective cohort study. Lancet Infect Dis. 2020;20(12):1409-1417. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30447-3

Anticipation

I live across from a café that is also as an event venue. The other weekend, I glanced out my window when music uncommon to my neighborhood wiggled through my window screens. My gaze fell upon empty tables perfectly spaced with little plant centerpieces, lawn games in the parking lot, a grill, and green cones outlining the event space. The event organizers meandered around arranged things, chatting, and smiling. Soon the guests would arrive; the evening would unfold. There was no predicting exactly how it would go, but everything was carefully planned with the hope that good things would come.  

I found myself amused by the scene across the street from my home. I’d seen it so many times before, not only in my personal life, but also in a past job when I was an event planner. I’d seen many physical set ups like this one and, perhaps more often, I’d experienced setups and waiting for nontangible events to unfold. The metaphor for my current state of being was obvious. My wedding will be in less than a month (the planning is done). I apply to residency programs the rest of the year (it’s a long process, please don’t ask). My soon-to-be husband is about to move to Connecticut and start his first job as a nurse. Those are the major events soon to unfold; of course, there are zillions of little events where the music is just about to start too.

Life is full of wind ups, waits, activity, clean up, and recovery on repeat. Some versions of these relentless series take more effort and planning than others. Some have more ways they could go wrong. Some events are set up and then no one shows up. Some events last longer than expected. Some events turn out better than you imagined. That’s life. Having gone through these actions over and over again, I believe waiting is the worst. Clean up is also hard, but waiting is the hardest. While my neighbors wait for the food they prepared to disappear into hungry mouths and the games they set up to spark laughter; I find myself waiting for other things that took many more moments (years actually) than cones, tables, and food to set up.

Neurocysticercosis

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 here.

Recently, I treated a patient with neurocysticercosis. While infection with Taenia solium is not common in the US, neurocysticercosis is not a zebra in Danbury, Connecticut because many patients are originally from countries where Taenia infection is a threat. The patient I saw was young and presented after having a seizure. Though they had received their diagnosis several years earlier at another US hospital, the disease course had started long before. Initially after their diagnosis, antiseizure medications were effective. The latest seizure occurred after a series of unfortunate events caused the patient to stop the medications.

The CT scan showed speckled calcifications throughout the brain. MRI revealed several enhancing lesions convincing us there was a need for antiparasitic and steroid treatment. The patient did well after treatment initiation and was discharged home to complete their albendazole and steroid course with a plan to follow-up with neurology. Their case lingered in my mind. It lingered not because of sadness or complexity, but because it reminded me of how connected our global population is and because the patient had impressed me with their calmness.

COVID-19 has highlighted how easily communicable diseases can travel and how important the health of the global community is for the health of our local communities. And while Taenia solium is an infectious disease, it does not spread like COVID-19. My chances of infection with Taenia solium are meager while living in Danbury, CT. Yet, we have patients with neurocysticercosis because people are mobile. I find it fascinating that the mix of diseases that are the most common in a particular hospital is not only dependent on the vectors and circumstance of life in the hospital region, but also the experiences and diseases prevalent in the places from which the people who make up the community around the hospital came.

As I contemplated our connectedness, the patient impressed me with their politeness and trust. Here was a person who was sick and did not speak English, yet they had complete faith that we could help them. I found myself humbled remembering that patients rely on us, the medical community, to guide them to better health when disease strikes. The patient’s calmness spread to anyone who spoke with them. There is something impressive about patients who can impart positive feelings on those around them despite being sick. I thought about the patient’s history and all the roads they had traveled so that our paths crossed during my medical training. Mobility is an amazing feature of the human experience. It both connects and separates us.

The Moments We Have Together

I would think of her often after we met as I hurried down the hospital walls. I always hurry down the hospital halls…rarely because I needed to hurry, usually just because it’s nice to stretch my legs. Sometimes the memory of her bright eyes would shoot across my mind as I opened the electronic health record system to work on different patients.

She had come to the hospital with a stroke. I followed her during the few weeks after she was diagnosed, during her acute recovery in the hospital. I met her on the medicine floor and then wandered the hospital until I found the rehabilitation center wing where she was moved one night.

After the first day when I conducted a thorough history and assessment of the patient, my visits were just “social visits” – the term for checking in with a patient or their family for the singular purpose of offering support rather than providing a medical update. She hated the hospital and visiting hours started late in the morning. I’d visit her before her family could be with her to help pass some time until they came.

Strokes cause a range of outcomes. Her outcome was good; long-term she was a little weak and a little off balance but still sharp as a tack. Strokes are injuries to the brain. In the first week I followed her, she was very depressed. Strokes can do that. I sat with her in the morning as she described her terrible dreams. Flashbacks to her childhood. She had been a Jewish child in Nazi territory. She described hard times. Her husband had also been in that situation – he had lost his whole family in the concentration camps.

As our days together continued, the patient talked less about WWII and more about her family in the US. She talked about how wonderful her children were. How hard it was now that she was old and her friends were dying. When you get old and people start dying, she told me through her stories, there are fewer people who remember your life experiences. Fewer people who truly know the world you knew.

We chatted about the hospital food. The boredom of sitting in a hospital bed. How playing cards with her children was nice, but barely passed the time. As I got up to go, she’d say, “Come back tomorrow.”

I went back until my school schedule sent me to clinics rather than the hospital. Medicine and the hospital are busy. Healthcare is frustrating and terrible sometimes, even often. When I find myself falling into the pit of work that is any job but especially a job that involves dealing with people and clunky systems all day, I push myself to pause and remember why I went into medicine. The weeks this patient was in the hospital she was my light. I like to think I also helped take the edge off her hospital stay. Seeing patients through sickness is the highlight of medicine in my opinion. Not all stories end as well as hers, but all hospital stays can be made better by our shared moments.   

Echoes from the Third of Medical School

The click-click and rickety wheeze of plastic jarred me back to the present from my thoughts about what I wanted to say about finishing my third year of medical school. Even though it’d been 3 years since I operated an ambulance stretcher, I knew that sound like I knew my own voice. The stretcher sound was among the many I’d learned in the past years.

The third year of medical school was a robot period. A term coined by my sister back in our college years. A robot period is a time when you just do as if you were a robot because sometimes you just must get to where you’re going.

I’d ended my third year of medical school learning that the squeak of premature infants is distinct from the wails of infants born on time. I also learned that the cry if a one-year-old is different from the tears that well silently and then exposed loudly before a 5-year-old boy gets a shot.

Before the crying nuggets served by pediatrics were the perfect one-two, one-two sounds of the hearts I heard in family medicine. Or the easy wooshes of lungs moving air happily. In outpatient internal medicine, I discovered the crackling stiffness of arthritic knees.

Before that there was the more forceful woosh of the ventilator in the intensive care unit. Pushing air into the lungs of someone who was silent. That same person had once been a DJ. How odd it was to see them existing quietly when they’d been mixing beats and filling dancefloors for most of their life. Neurology is a dark specialty.

And there was the sizzle sound and burning flesh smell of the electric scalpel in the operating room. The sound of metal tools on metal trays. The snap of putting on rubber gloves and the crinkling of paper gowns as everyone took their assigned places for the operation.

On internal medicine, there were the patients yelling for help. Some of them knew they were yelling. Some were just trying to reconnect with their minds which were lost in the fog of being sick. The beep of heart monitors. The dull sound of lungs full of junk. Oxygen monitors and bed alarms dinging, dinging, dinging.

Before all that, were the screams of women in labor. Of babies announcing their successful arrival with a gurgle-cry. The patter of footsteps as nurses and doctors ran because a baby was coming faster than everyone thought it would.

And that brings us all the way back to the beginning of the year. To psychiatry, where adult tears fell to the sound of congested voices. Or flat voices trudging along telling the stories of visions that no one else could see.

All those sounds are behind me. Today, I find myself listening to bachata and reggaeton. The traffic hums outside of my window. I’m studying for another huge exam. Exams are old news, but this is my penultimate of medical school. It’s the final countdown at long last. It’s been such a noisy year.

Just before I finished the year, I pulled out my violin. I hadn’t played it for almost as long as I hadn’t operated an ambulance stretcher. The songs that were like oxygen in my teens came back slowly. My fingers were awkward on the strings and bow but the jig I’d always loved most bounced around the room just the same. If you do something enough, you don’t forget. If you practice, you get better. Third year of medical school is about practicing. And the best part of practice is not practice, but what you’ve learned after doing it. That’s where I am now. Really glad to have done the year while also certain I’d prefer to never do it again. I’m grateful for the things I learned and the people I met. But, mostly, I’m excited to move on to the next phase of the doctorhood quest.

Home

And the last of three orchids I’d nurtured was sending up new flower shoots. It was the second of two my fiancé had given me when I finished my first medical board exam (about a year ago now). Ironically, I was sliding into studying for my second board exam as these orchids sent vigorous spikes forth with flowers that erupted like fireworks. It seemed my exam schedule was on orchid time.

The orchids weren’t the only plants I’d lugged from one state and town to the next. But, in that moment, their colors overshadowed the perfect leaves of the plants around them. Their colors were competing with the new rug I’d bought when I moved into my fourth (and hopefully last) home of medical school only a week or so ago.

I called it the sunny-side-up rug as it was bright yellow and white like a perfectly cooked egg. Somehow the plants looked greener next to the yellow. The yellow beside the purple African violets and remaining orange blossoms of the Christmas cactus and the orange-salmon ever-blooming crown of thorns was representative of the contrasts in my life. And the complementary colors of the yellow rug and purple flowers reminded me of my roots and my newest stethoscope which I’d decorated with colored zip ties representing the rainbow but paired by complementary color. The stethoscope decoration was an attempt to ward off stethoscope theft and, more importantly, a personal reminder of the same roots for which the contrasting colors in my apartment were a metaphor.

My roots are in the arts and carpentry and the outdoors which is a mix of dirt, water features, plants, trees, and rocks. And my new home reflected my foundation in these things. My time in the clinic and hospital often reminded me from where I’d come. Not so much because anyone I worked with or spoke to in these settings knew my history but because their ignorance of my history was so glaring and central to my relationship with them. It is easy to get lost in the world that is healthcare especially when that world is not even in the universe where you grew up. 

They say home is where the heart is. And when you’re a doctor in training you know that the heart is in the chest. Which complicates things when trying to find your home because your chest is wherever you happen to be. While I don’t think wherever I am is home, my idea of home is not so far off from knowing the heart is in the chest. I’ve had many homes. My tendency toward multiple homes may be a complication of split custody and two homes as a child – though, more likely, the shiftiness of where I call home stems from my personality-defining feature of being a wandering soul. Not wandering in the sense of a gypsy who is constantly moving, but in the sense that one place has never been the only place I called home. My life leading to medical school and through medical school has reflected that. Depending on what you count as moving, I’ve moved over 10 times in the past 10 years spanning two countries, three US states, and several towns in most of those regions and called each location to which I moved home.

When you’ve moved as much as I have, you develop a keen sense for what kinds of places can be called home. And you also learn that some places are easier to call home than others. My new apartment that contains the re-blossoming orchids and the sunny-side-up rug is one of those places that was instantly home. As soon as I opened the front door for the first time, I knew I was home. Home for now and home until I leave. The homy feeling might have something to do with the expansive windows. As a green thumb, the bigger question is not how or why I grow plants but rather if I seek places where my plants will thrive or if seek places where I will thrive. It’s easy growing plants when you need the same thing as they do. Sun. We need lots of sun and sunny days or else we get irritable and fade.

The new apartment was also home because I’d picked it from multiple options. I’d lived in the area for a while and surveyed the land. I’d used the knowledge gathered from my surveying to decide that this new town was the town in which I wanted to live. At least for now. The new apartment was also home because it was the first lease my soon-to-be-husband and I had signed together. It was a new place for us to both start new phases. He, his nursing career. I, my last year of medical school.

Seeing the flowers, the yellow rug, and the ñanduti (colorful Paraguayan lace) I’d placed on every empty surface in the apartment and thinking about the art that could fit on the broad walls made me feel happy in my new place. As I sat drinking my mate in the morning sun, I felt peaceful. As I looked out the windows; thought about how close I was to finishing the third year of medical school, a hard year to say it shortly; and considered all the wonderful things that would unfold in the coming months I felt at home. My literal heart was in my chest and my memories of past homes were in my metaphorical heart and both hearts were here in this apartment. Here, life followed the rhythm of the orchid flower cycle. Here was home because of the colors and sun and feelings that filled the place.

PS: it turns out I’ve written a post titled “Home” before…back in October 2014 when I lived in Paraguay. If you’re curious how my thoughts then compare to now check it out.

Burnt

Her hands had become so numb she could no longer administer the eyedrops that kept the pressure in her eyes from getting too high. If her eye pressure got too high, she’d go blind. So, her eye doctor said she needed surgery if she couldn’t use the eye drops. There were two surgical options. One surgery would take an hour and she’d leave the operating room able to see. One would take 3 hours and she’d leave the operating room blind, requiring 4-6 weeks of recovery before her vision would return. She was lucky because she had family who already helped her a ton because her other health conditions had made independent living hard for her. For some reason, the insurance would only cover the 3-hour surgery that would leave her blind for over a month. The holidays were coming up. The family members that took care of her had kids. She refused to make them care for her while she was blind over the holidays. She postponed the surgery. Would she go blind before she could get her surgery? Is this the healthcare system we want?

~

The patient wasn’t COVID vaccinated. “What will you do to treat me if I get COVID?” she asked. I thought about the patient a resident had told me about. That patient had been dependent on family for care. His family didn’t vaccinate him. He got COVID. He came to the emergency room with trouble breathing and then went to the intensive care unit. He lived on the intensive care unit for a year. Eventually, his healthcare team cut a hole in his neck to put a breathing tube in because he needed it. They did everything they could to keep him alive. The resident said when the patient first came to the emergency room, he was a happy, funny soul. The patient lost his happiness slowly during the year he fought to breath. After a year of an entire hospital trying keep him alive, he died. When exactly did avoiding sickness fall out of favor? Do you ask what firefighters will do if you set fire to your house or do you make a concerted effort to not catch your house on fire knowing that firefighters will do their best to stop a fire if it occurs but are limited because fires are destructive and destroy houses and the people who try to stop them?

~

The patient asked, “Why are so many doctors retiring?” I wondered how he didn’t know the answer to that question already. It seems so obvious. Then, I realized he was not a medical student. Being a medical student is to have a front row seat for observing the current state of healthcare. What had I seen? Why did it seem perfectly logical to me that so many people were retiring from healthcare even as I was striving to make it my career?

Not just doctors and nurses, but everyone in healthcare seems to be retiring…

We report our COVID cases. Our COVID test rates. Our COVID survival rates after hospital admission. Our COVID deaths. Who was there to perform those tests, to care for those people when they came to the hospital, and to close the curtain when the ventilator wasn’t needed anymore? Healthcare workers. But, they were also there for all the other things too. The heart attacks. The stomach pain. The broken bones. The cancer. The normal healthcare screenings. They were there when people looked for help with their depression and their anxiety. Healthcare workers’ hours increased. They worked the job of two, three, four, and five people because the hospital was short-staffed before the pandemic hit. Again, healthcare workers were already working long hours and doing the work of several workers before COVID came. Then healthcare workers got sick. And the ones left standing worked for their sick colleagues, worked for themselves, and worked for the staff who were missing before the pandemic came. Wages stayed the same.

Housing and food got expensive for everyone, including healthcare workers. Healthcare workers missed the same performances, social events, and restaurants that everyone else was missing. Life got more expensive because everything including industry was disrupted by COVID. Healthcare wages stayed the same. Healthcare workers got sick. Sick leave was used up. Shifts were harder because healthcare was short staffed and there were more patients than before. And the patients were dying. And insurance didn’t want to pay for the treatments that patients needed, not that that was new, but it remained disheartening. And there was the need to wear masks at work. And to put on goggles and gowns and for healthcare workers to take extra time to protect themselves from infection. There was the risk of bringing COVID home after working in healthcare. Wages stayed the same.

People got sick. And healthcare workers got tired. Wages stayed the same. Hours were long. Vacations couldn’t be taken like they used to be taken. And just like their patients, healthcare workers got sick, tired, depressed, and anxious. Staff shortages increased in the hospitals and clinics.

People denied that COVID was real. People invented vaccines that helped prevent COVID infection. People refused to get vaccinated. People complained about wearing masks. People got tired of social distancing. People got sick. The intensive care unit was full. The psychiatric ward was full. The cardiac ward was full. Alcohol use disorder, diabetes, high blood pressure, and all the other medical conditions that always exist marched on because they don’t stop during a pandemic. Healthcare workers shouldered the workload of several workers each because some of their colleagues had left, some had died, and some were sick. Wages stayed the same.

In such an avalanche, how long would you have waited to change careers? For many, the answer was between 1 and 2 years.

~

There is always hope and healthcare has been grounded in hope since the beginning. But as a student so excited to become a physician I know that change must happen if hope is to materialize into lives saved. And for my sake and all the people who might need the hospital or a clinic in the coming years, let’s not make it take a healthcare collapse before we seriously consider how we might improve and restructure our healthcare system. I’d very much like some seasoned healthcare workers who are not completed burnt at my side when I start practicing as an independent physician because experience is gold in medicine. I’d also really like to have enough staff to care for patients without having to burn myself and burn my colleagues with the weight of too many lives in each of our two hands.

Together

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 here.

“Here, you can just about always find an internal medicine resident who speaks the patient’s language,” the resident I was working with said, smiling, “It’s amazing.” Another resident had just stopped by to say that one of their colleagues did, in fact, speak that obscure Southern Asian language the translation service did not cover that they needed for an acute patient. I smiled because it was amazing. This was exactly the type of place I’d wanted to train to become a physician.

It was standard that everyone on my teams during my internal medicine rotation had a different accent. And when two of us did have the same accent, our divergent places of origin and cultural backgrounds made up for the lack of difference in how our English sounded. What I liked most, was that in this hospital everyone came from different places – the patients, the nurses, the residents, the physicians, and the other hospital staff. Even in modern America, it’s somewhat uncommon to work in a hospital where the physician diversity almost reflects the diversity of the patients. The hospital where I did my internal medicine rotation in Connecticut was very close to having its physicians reflect the different groups of people who made up the greater community of the hospital.

One thing I found interesting upon returning to Vermont after almost a decade away was how much I missed the accents and the challenge of finding connection across cultural differences I’d experienced during my years in the Washington, DC and Paraguay. There was a subtle feeling of stagnation, almost boredom that crept into my professional life as I began my medical career in my home state. Of course, Vermont has pockets of diversity of all kinds but it’s not like living in an urban area or a foreign country.

After my second year of medical school, I moved to LCOM’s Connecticut campus. As I settled into my new community, I learned that where I lived in Connecticut was a melting pot that buzzed and hummed in ways that more homogenous communities do not.

What better time to dive into a diverse medical community than right after the release of the COVID vaccines? As I listened to the accents of the residents and attending physicians with whom I worked during my Connecticut internal medicine rotation, I was struck by how the medical community is just as connected as the general human community is connected. Afterall, COVID has definitively illustrated how communicable diseases can spread easily around the world. But, also, the speedy development and dissemination of the COVID vaccine showed how we humans can solve dire problems when the minds of people all around the world come together.

There was something unique about how my internal medicine teams came together to solve patient problems. Of course, good medicine transcends culture – some medications and interventions just work. But, in terms of decisions about how to interact with patients and their families, each of us brought our own cultural beliefs and backgrounds to our practice of medicine.

One of the neatest things about working with team members who aren’t like you, is that you’re forced to reflect on your own ways. You’re forced to examine other ways of being. And, in medical school where it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of disease states and medication dosages – I was grateful to be reminded of the humanness of the residents and attending physicians around me. And, also, to be reminded that my patients brought their humanity with them when they came to the hospital.

Most of the hours spent on internal medicine were dedicated to identifying the best course of treatment for our patients. But as rounds ended for the day, there was often the lucky opportunity to hear what medical school was like in other countries and how physicians from all round the world had come to find themselves in Connecticut. The walls of the hospital seemed less limiting when I realized that it had taken a global community to staff the hospital itself.