Last Day in the Emergency Department (for Now)

July 25 was my last shift at the emergency department (ED) as an EMT. It’s hard to believe in a few short weeks I’ll start medical school, and my time as an emergency medical technician will be filed away as part of history. Becoming an EMT challenged me and made me face personal fears. The uncertainty I had when I first embarked seems comical now that I have those years of patient care under my belt.

I couldn’t be more excited (and nervous) to start training to be a medical doctor. But, leaving the ED was bitter-sweet. I’ll miss my crew—the ED is filled with dedicated people focused on improving their patients’ lives. If every team I work on is like mine was in the ED, then my career as a doctor will pass quickly and happily. What also makes me sad to leave the job and start school is that I won’t have many opportunities to work directly with patients for a few years. The first two years of medical school emphasize learning all the facts you need to know to be a doctor and, in years 3 and 4, you start applying that knowledge in real health care settings. I got into healthcare because I want to help people. I find learning thrilling, but my motivation comes from the practical applications of the knowledge I gain. I can’t wait until I am back in the trenches seeing patients and trying to solve real health mysteries.

I became an EMT because it was the fastest certification that would allow me to work directly with patients in a way that required me to assess their signs and symptoms and then make clinical judgements. Becoming a doctor will give me a lot more knowledge and a much bigger toolkit to help my patients than I have now. But no matter where I end up in healthcare, I won’t forget from where I came. As an EMT, I learned to identify a sick human in a split second. I learned how to ask for people’s health stories and focus on the information I needed to help them. I saw firsthand how excellent patient outcomes are the result of teamwork (between all players not just the docs) and that poor communication leads to worse results. I hope these lessons stay fresh as I cram new ones into my brain.

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True Love

Not so long ago in the ED, I was helping a patient in one of the acute care beds. Through the curtain that divided the room I was in from the next patient room, I heard someone reading out loud. Where the reading was coming from, a post-retirement man was the patient and his wife was with him.

I saw through a gap in the curtain that the wife was happily reading a book to her husband. Her voice rose and fell with the emphasis of someone who had read aloud many times. Her voice mixed with the sound of her husband’s snoring. When she stopped reading, he stopped snoring and became restless. Sometimes she paused and looked at him. She’d smile and then continue reading before he fully awoke.

The sleeping husband and reading wife seemed so content and peaceful despite being in the middle of the ED on a day when people around them were having their worst days. The husband could have been very sick too but, unlike many of our patients waiting to be seen, he wasn’t sitting alone staring into space as he waited.

That woman reading to her husband was the clearest example I’d seen of true love in months. We see a lot of couples and families come through the ED every day. Accompanying a sick loved one often brings out the caring side of people, however there was something about the calm, closeness of those two (sleeping and reading) that highlighted the strength of their connection. I was reminded, for the millionth time, that it’s the little things that add up to indomitable forces.

Home Lab: Kombucha

This winter I started brewing kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented, non-alcoholic drink that (like yogurt) has probiotics that are helpful for your gut. It’s made from tea, sugar, and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). There are many ways to flavor kombucha, but I use herbal teas—mostly fruity ones.

Kombucha is a little tangy, a little sweet, and a little bitter. When all goes well it’s wonderfully fizzy. The fun part about making kombucha is every batch is a little science experiment. The goal is to produce a drink with a nice flavor combination and delightful carbonation—but it all depends on how happy the SCOBY is. The teas you use, the temperature, the amount of sugar, and the time you wait all influence the kombucha outcome. If you wait too long, the batch turns out very much like vinegar. If you’re too impatient, the kombucha is too sweet (because the microbes haven’t had time to eat it) and flat.

I’m just getting used to brewing in the summer, where the temperature is much warmer and the process goes way faster. Today when I checked my bottles, I had to put each one I opened in the sink because they had so much fizz they overflowed like a shaken soda bottle!

The kombucha process changes the flavor of the tea you use—sometimes for the best, sometimes for the bitter. For example, I DON’T like peach tea, but when I turn it into kombucha it’s quite yummy and not as painfully sweet as I find straight peach tea.

There’s something highly satisfying about cultivating microbes to produce something healthy. Many of us only think of bacteria when we get sick or when we want to kill germs—which makes us forget how many microbes are working for us each and every day. I like the meditation of thinking about microbes as my teammates.

Brewing kombucha has made me think more about the good microbes in my life, and it’s also made me feel better. A glass of kombucha a day, seems to keep the stomach aches away. I noticed this when I traveled in Spain for 2 weeks on vacation recently—many days my stomach hurt even though I was eating healthfully. I think it was a combination of my gut missing kombucha and my digestive system wanting to know where the yerba mate was (mate also changes how you digest food and I drink a lot of mate too). Not entirely by accidentally, the beverages I enjoy daily (mate and kombucha) both help with digestion. When I was younger I used to have a stomach ache almost every time I ate. I almost never do now. It could be growing up. It could be the microbes. Regardless, I enjoy the challenge of making my SCOBY happy so it works for me—I figure one more symbiotic relationship in my life can only be good.

Finding the Path

We all have bad days. The problem with having a bad day and working in healthcare is that it’s unacceptable for your mood to affect the quality of your care and people are sick every day. The trouble with healthcare on a bad day is that healthcare requires hundreds of human interactions within a shift. Hundreds of moments where patience is required, where you must do small tasks that are annoying and big tasks that are important, and all the tasks between that together help people heal. You notice everything a little more on a bad day. So how do you get through it?

Not so long ago, my shift landed on a bad day. But, there was a patient who turned the shift around for me. He told me how he raised his sons. He was a single father. He had a path he wanted them to go on and he thought his job was to lift them back up to that path when they fell rather than push them down. That’s what he did and he was proud of them. He told me he was lucky.

I think I’d like to approach bad days like this father approached his sons. A bad day is a fall from the right path. It just takes some nudging to get back on track again.

The benefits of working in healthcare on a bad day are the kind, wise patients you’ll likely encounter. They’ll set things right, even though you’re the one that’s supposed to be curing, if you listen to them.

Why I Go Back for Each Shift

Not long ago, I walked into an emergency department room (a cube defined by some walls but mostly curtains) to place an IV. An elderly man was on the hospital stretcher. He was there with his son. I began my normal banter—introducing myself, explaining why I was there, and narrating what I was doing as I went. The man might have asked me about my name, about 30%-50% of patients do because it’s unique. He might have asked about my necklace, it’s a wolf and about 25% or so of my patients ask about it.

“I’m going to raise the bed so I don’t have to stoop,” I said. “I need my back for many years to come.”

The patient and his son laughed. “You know what you need, music. Do you listen to music?” the patient asked.

“Not here, it’s not the right place. But, I like to dance, so I do listen to music,” I said.

“My wife liked to dance. She died a year and a half ago,” the patient said.

“I’m sorry to for your loss, sir,” I said.

“We were together 60 years,” the patient said.

“That’s amazing! I don’t think I’ll be with anyone for 60 years at this point. Did you take her dancing?” I said. I maintained a jovial tone because he seemed merry when he mentioned his wife and dancing.

“I did,” the patient said. I looked down to find him crying. I paused and put a hand on his forearm. Giving him a squeeze. I’d recently visited my grandmother. A big part of our visit was discussing how my grandfather, who’d died 2 years prior, was still with us.

“How lucky she was to have you take her dancing! How amazing it must have been to have had so many years together,” I said.

“Sorry, I always cry when I think of her,” the patient said. He half-shrugged and looked away.

“It’s okay. She’s with us still and you’ll see her again, sir,” I said.

“I hope so,” the patient said.

“I know you will,” I said.

The patient and his son nodded. The tears ebbed. I placed the IV. All humans have stories. Sometimes they find space to share them when they visit us in the emergency department.   

Mental Health and the Emergency Department

Checking into the ED for a psychological complaint

When a person comes to the emergency department (ED) with suicidal thoughts or another mental health state that could be a threat to themselves or others (ex. extreme paranoia, homicidal thoughts, mania, etc.) the processes is simple. They change into paper scrubs and their clothes and belongs are locked in a secure closest, returned upon their discharge from the hospital. A hospital staff member sits outside of (or just inside) the person’s ED room conducting constant observation—which includes observing the patient at all times and recording their location and general behavior every 15 minutes. The constant observation is to ensure that the patient does not try to hurt themselves, try to leave, or try to hurt anyone else during their ED stay. Many people who check in for psychological evaluation are not allowed to leave the hospital until their mental condition has been cleared by a psychologist, meaning they are forced to stay in the ED until a doctor says that they will be safe returning to society. Patients suffering from psychological conditions that require more treatment than the ED can provide remain in the ED until a bed in a specialize treatment facility (or in the hospital psychology unit) opens.

One way to define “a national mental health crisis” in the US

When I think of a mental health crisis in the US, I think of all the people stuck in the ED waiting for a psych evaluation and then waiting for a bed in a facility that specializes in psychological treatment. I think of the patients who remain on lockdown in the ED for 100s of hours because if they leave they might knowingly or accidentally hurt themselves or someone else. These patients have no other safe place to wait for an in-patient bed. I think of the people who come to the ED and, even under the watchful eye of our staff, try to kill themselves. I think of the people who end up in restraints, literally tied to a bed, because their condition escalates to the point that they try to escape, attack hospital staff, or harm themselves. To me, the mental health crisis in the US is that we don’t have enough 24-7 services and specialized treatment facilities to keep patients with mental health conditions out of the ED. To me, mental health is just like any other aspect of health. We need to bolster our programs to help prevent acute mental health problems, but we also need adequate mental health treatment programs for those struggling with psychological conditions. The crisis, I think, is a lack of preventative care and readily available treatment, not the existence of diseases.

The ED does welcome mental health patients as we do all patients, but the ED is not equipped to find long-term solutions for any health condition. It is true that the ED can help with acute symptoms, which is all some patients need for a short period of time, but we don’t have a calming environment nor do we have the staff to provide intensive treatment for mental health conditions. We serve as a gatekeeper to specialized treatment and as a place to go when there is nowhere else to go. Just like the ED is not an appropriate place to perform and recover from surgery, it is not the right place for those who need in-depth evaluation or long-term treatment. The ED was designed to keep patients for ideally a few hours or, at most, for part of a day before sending them home or to an in-patient facility. But, what happens with some of our gravely ill psychological patients is that they must stay in the ED for days, even weeks, because there are no openings in specialized facilities.

Conclusion

Using the ED as a long-term home for people suffering from psychological conditions is neither therapeutic for them nor is it a cost-efficient design of the health care system. We need more mental health treatment facilities in the US. We need more programs designed to help those coping with mental health conditions manage their symptoms at home. We need more people going into the psychology fields and social work. In summary, we need to dedicate more resources to mental health in the United States. I think to do that we need to start by acknowledging how many people struggle with mental health and how weak or absent our treatment options currently are for those people. Next, we need to make mental health a budget and policy priority at all levels of government and in private health care systems. Right now, EDs are serving as the catch-all. They are not the solution. While the ED might be the right place for folks in any kind of acute health crisis to go initially, the ED only works if there are specialists and specialized facilities to refer our patients to once we’ve identified the sustained medical care they need. It’s times we prioritize mental health as we have heart health, lung health, and cancer-free health so that no patient is held in the ED because they have no other safe place to go.  

Sirens

Life boils down to tidbits like sounds. These days as I walk the sidewalk—scuttling, rambling, or strutting from one place to another—I listen to the sirens. Since running (EMT talk for “working”) on an ambulance, I accidentally developed the ability to distinguish fire truck, police car, and ambulance sirens. Since studying the Doppler effect, I can tell if the sirens are approaching or withdrawing. And since learning to drive an ambulance, I know that a change in siren tune or the blast of an air-horn indicate that the vehicle is at an intersection.

I never cared much for automobiles. I still don’t. I’m not particularly proud or impressed by my siren radar. Nor am I gleeful about that fact that I always notice ambulances, no matter where I am. Before joining a rescue squad, I hardly ever processed sirens or saw ambulances because I lived in a city where there are so many of both they become part of the background. But, since moving to the countryside again and joining the world of emergency medicine, my consciousness has changed. I find myself almost subconsciously tracking the progression of sirens around my large Vermont town. A cop car went first—drugs or a car accident maybe? Just an ambulance—maybe the firetruck is out already and it’s just a medical call? Firetruck and ambulance—maybe cardiac arrest?

I started noticing that I listen to sirens because I was thrown into a different world of sounds: the soundtrack of the emergency department. The emergency department is noisy. There are the heart monitors that beep along with patients’ heart rates and alarm whenever the heart rate or oxygen levels deviate from a norm. There’s the clicking of blood pressure cuffs inflating. There’s the sound of wheels scraping as wheelchairs and beds and carts with supplies skid across the linoleum floor. There’s the clacking of those typing about what medications they gave and assessments they did. There is the thud of quick footsteps and the shuffle of walkers. Patients groan and puke and roll in their beds. And that is only the beginning.

I think all the noise is why, after a long week of work, I seek a few hours where people are scarce. It’s hard to think when there is so much to grab your attention. In the bustle of life, we can forget what the wind and the waves and the trees and the birds sound like. But more than anything else, we forget the sound of silence. I’m not talking about the strained, artificial silence of a library during finals week. When I say “silence,” I mean those moments when no one else is there to drop a pin. I’m talking about the silence that can’t be found in a city and is endangered by our social lives. If nothing else, I think true silence helps us ground ourselves and gauge when life’s racket is distracting us.

When I stroll about my town, I always hear the sirens. When I visit the woods where I grew up, I erase the ringing of so many sounds and soak in the quiet of the trees. I’m grateful that I can experience both.

On Not Becoming Jaded

One night a coworker in the emergency department, who also aspires to be a doctor, asked me if I was worried about becoming jaded as I worked in health care. I answered confidently that I wasn’t worried about becoming jaded, my hope for humanity waning, or burning out like so many medical professionals do. He was skeptical, but I am certain of only that one aspect of my future.

Defining Jaded

Especially late at night when most patients are tired and grumpy, the drunks roll in after exhausting the bars, and the patients held for mental health evaluations decide to spend the early morning hours holding yelling matches that involve nonsensical accusations against staff, it’s easy to see how one can grow tired of working in a hospital (and specifically the emergency department). In medicine, we take care of everyone, even if they’re jerks to us, because the fundamental principle of health care is that we serve all people.

Not so long ago I was greeting patients in the waiting room at the emergency department. We had around 20 folks waiting for rooms, the rooms weren’t changing over, and the wait times for many were over 2 hours. That’s a recipe for an unpleasant experience as a greeter, and the recipe was rich that night. I had a parent repeatedly insult the staff, including me, and ask why we hadn’t brought her child to a room yet. That was annoying, but manageable. What got to me was when she stormed up and demanded to know why we brought back “a drug addict” (her words, not mine) before her child. Her argument was that her child had a bright future while that person was a lost cause. Of course, I couldn’t tell the hysterical mother just how awful it is to watch a person go through withdrawal shakes and then seizure. That’s something you can only understand once you see it. I couldn’t tell her about the alcoholic who came to us one night shaking so badly he couldn’t drink water from a cup. I couldn’t tell her how he had looked me in the eye and told me he wasn’t human anymore. That mother was choosing to believe him, but I knew that that patient was human even if he didn’t feel like he was. That angry mother in the waiting room clearly had never seen a person beat an addiction—winning the daily fight to not give in to a drug or alcohol for years. I have.

It’s not the job of medical professionals to pass moral judgment. Sometimes we are weak and tired, and we do judge our patients’ life choices. But if we were to slip into a world where we used our personal morals to decide who should receive care, we would betray the heart of medicine. Medicine was never meant for only a select few.

In my view jaded is another way to describe losing empathy. There are many presentations—impatience, anger, and hating work to name a few. These feelings come when we are too tired and too worn out to see patients as humans. They come when we no longer find joy in the small things about the job that are awesome. And jaded becomes the norm when we give too much. It’s easy to work hours no one else would dream of working when you’re in health care. Each hour is rewarding because we help someone feel better, but the hours take a toll on the giver.

Considering all the above, how am I so certain I won’t become jaded?

  1. My empathy comes from selfish sources, so I don’t expect that it will fizzle. The first source is curiosity and the second is a love for stories and puzzles. Each human has a story. Each sick person is a puzzle. The curious mind can’t help but wonder about the story plot and the answer to the puzzle. These two factors are some of the main reasons I veered down the medical path in the first place.
  2. I know that I’m brave enough to step away and recharge as well as to shake things up when caring for patients under specific conditions becomes wearisome.

How do I know I am brave enough? Paraguay. While living in the land of Guarani, I cultivated an ability for self-reflection and the bravery to face fears because they were required to survive the Peace Corps. Paraguayans also showed me the value of letting yourself be still. In America, we are so determined to be productive we schedule every moment. I think running around all the times makes everyone miserable no matter what their profession. I also think those who become jaded forget to reflect and change. They fail to see that their job is draining them until it’s too late and, then, they lack the courage to change their work so it’s fresh again. It comes down to the best professional advice I was ever given. When I asked a presenter in one of my undergraduate classes how she knew when it was time to leave a job (she had an awe-inspiring, lengthy job history) she said, “You’ll know. You know when it’s time to leave.”

She was right. We do know when it’s time to mix things up. The hard part is taking the steps to act upon what we know. But, if we do take those steps, then jadedness can never catch us. The moment she gave me that advice, years ago now, I promised myself I’d be strong enough to change my course whenever I “knew” it was time. That strength sent me to Paraguay and brought me back to Vermont. So, no, I’m not worried about becoming jaded. I’m just excited to see where my adventures in medicine bring me.

Human Side of Medicine

Not so long ago I worked a code (cardiac arrest = patient’s heart stops and they neither have a pulse nor are breathing) in the field. The patient was middle-aged and had a complex medical history. The patient’s father, visiting from out-of-town, found him unresponsive, started compressions, and called 911. We did all we could—did compressions, ventilated, pushed epinephrine and other medications, and analyzed for a shockable rhythm. As we worked the father knelt at his son’s head. The patient’s fiancée sat outside the house. As it became clear that we were not getting our patient back, my crew chief reviewed, outload, all we had done. She asked us if we could think of any other interventions we hadn’t yet done and then she engaged the father, explaining why we were going to stop resuscitation. Once we had stopped she went outside to talk to the fiancée.

As heartbroken as the patient’s family was, they were calm when we stopped CPR. They had seen us sweat over their loved one, try everything we could, and ask for suggestions. We included them in our decision to stop our efforts. We lingered after our care was done to answer questions and offer condolences. This call showed me how it is within the pauses between action that we connect with our patients.

The human side of medicine comes through when we take time to ensure our patients understand what is happening and our plan for treatment. It comes when we include our patients and, when appropriate, their family in decisions about their care. And it’s completed by taking a moment to share their feelings, whether of relief after a successful procedure or sorrow after the loss of a loved one, before we scurry on to our next case.

Amid medical histories and assessments of signs and symptoms that lead to differential diagnoses it can be easy to let the presence of a disease or condition consume our attention. We can focus so intently on the disease that we forget humans bear the illness. But, below the clammy skin and wheezing is a person with a family and life experience just like you and me. And, what the patient will remember from their time during the flurry of a medical crisis is how someone treated them. It’s the offering of a kind word or an act of kindness on the worst day of someone’s life, not just the hope and likelihood that we have a cure, that defines good medicine. I try to remember to take advantage of the pauses by offering a blanket or bit of conversation to my patients. There aren’t always many pauses in my day, but when there are I don’t like letting them go to waste. It’s in the shared moments between points A and B that we build our humanity, but we must be attentive or we’ll miss the opportunity.

Night Shift

A few months ago, I started working the night shift in an emergency department (ED). Those who have known me awhile were surprised that I decided to work owl hours. When no other forces are at play, I happily get up at 5 a.m., even 4:30. Until I took the ED job, I got up early to study or run before going to work. In college, I worked the opening shift at Starbucks. In high school, I got up to work out or study before my sibling hooligans stirred. I love the stillness of dawn before most people rise. Growing up, I saw deer, foxes, and herons in the gray hours of misty summer mornings. I like the dampness of dew on the grass before it’s evaporated by the sun. I enjoy watching the sun creep over the horizon as I listen to the bird songs crescendo.

I wasn’t particularly surprised I started working the night shift. I’d suspected it’d come to that a few years ago, when I was still in Paraguay. I remember thinking about my return to the US, and my terrible tendency to lay my paper planner out in front of me and plot how to fill the blank spaces. I remember thinking, “Going into healthcare is very dangerous for someone like you. It’s a 24-hour business. Make sure you block out time to sleep or you just might not get enough rest.”

The night shift was the most practical choice when I started my ED job. The wage is higher and it leaves the day for studying or errands. Flipping my sleeping schedule was no light matter, however, especially because I started going to bed an hour before I used to get up. It’s also been a challenge finding a new eating schedule that works for me–I now eat meals at completely different times than before I worked nights.

There’s a strange stillness in the ED when the early hours of the morning approach – 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m.. Even when a very sick person arrives who requires many hands to care for them, the ED is strangely quiet in the morning. Many patients are sleeping or too sleepy to chat with their family members anymore. The patients staying with us until a bed opens in a facility that can help them heal their mental health challenges are usually sleeping or partaking in quiet activities. Sometimes a drunk patient arrives and disrupts the silence, but often they too fall quiet as the morning creeps onward.

Now instead of waking to stillness, I head to bed in its midst. As I drive home from the hospital, the birds are just starting to sing, but the sun’s rays aren’t yet seeping into the sky. The roads are empty save for a few souls coming home from a party or, perhaps, going to work. I arrive at a silent house, those there are sleeping. Not even the dog, when he’s visiting from my parent’s home, greets me when I open the door.

When I first started working nights, I was always tired. But, now that I’m used to it, I’m no more tired than I would be after any long day at work. There’s something about the night shift that keeps you coming back. Perhaps it’s because I like quiet, or perhaps it’s because I like the self-efficiency that’s required when you’re providing quality health care without all the resources of regular business hours that excites me. More likely, it’s that the people who work the dark hours are different than those who work when the majority of society is awake. Many of us won’t work nights forever, but we have some reason to do so now. It’s the fact that we have a reason to be nocturnal, I think, that creates a sense of comradery that’s different from any dayshift vibe I’ve known.