Welcoming 2023

Fog

by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

2022 was a year of achievement. I finished my last exam and clinical rotation of medical school. I applied for residency and got cool interviews. I went to my first medical conference. I got married. I re-combined houses with my husband after he graduated from nursing school and started his first nursing job. I did some of my longest hikes. I feasted frequently.

2023 will be marked by change including finishing medical school and starting residency in a place yet-to-be-determined. I started with Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” because quietness, absorption, and forward movement are the 3 themes I think will get me through the whirlwind of transitions that will unfold in the coming months.

Quietness

Life is loud whether visiting with friends and family, undertaking adventures, or working. In all pursuits, inner quietness can act as a grounding point. This year my primary goal is to cultivate my inner quietness.

Absorption

Residency is a huge leap of responsibility from medical school. It’s the first time I’ll get paid to be a physician, but with more responsibility comes a ton more to learn. In this context, I’m planning to tap my inner sponge and absorb as much knowledge as I can.

Forward Movement

Whether the days are long or short each one is a step forward. This can be difficult to remember in the moment. As I work through the joyful and unpleasant times of 2023, I hope to remember that my efforts are moving me along life’s adventure even if it’s not readily apparent how each piece fits together.

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Did the Jones Cheat?

I strode along one of my most frequented paths which combines my town’s main street and a side street that parallels it. I like the route because it represents two separate worlds despite their proximity. The main street is scattered with restaurants reflecting the many Central and South American cultures that comprise a large portion of my town’s heritage, hair salons, family-owned gift shops and clothing boutiques with their signs as much in Portuguese and Spanish as English, churches, places to learn English and send money orders, and empty store fronts. The side street is lined with one-family homes so large that if I lived in them, I’d need a map to navigate them and an intercom to find my family members in the far reaches of rooms and floors away from me.

As I crossed a four-way intersection, navigating the streetlights (including their left turn arrows) as I always do because I don’t think the walk signal ever turns on, I came upon the first house in the row of mansions. I slowed my pace. There was a landscaping crew. This was a common sight on this street and in many places in Connecticut – people spend lots of money on their lawns here. You always know a landscaping crew because they have big beaten-up trucks with letters painted on the side and a big trailer behind. What made this crew different was that they didn’t have mowing equipment, pruners, or leaf blowers from what I could tell. They weren’t even looking at the plants in the yard. THE LANDSCAPE CREW WAS HANGING CHRISTMAS LIGHTS AND CHRISTMAS WREATHS FOR A PRIVATE HOME.

I thought of that scene in The Grinch where one neighbor is using the Christmas light gun to decorate her house and the other neighbor is blowing electrical fuses to try to get her Christmas light display to just turn on. It never occurred to me that people might pay someone to hang their Christmas decorations at their home. Businesses obviously do that, but a private home having someone else decorate for Christmas?

On a later night, I passed the house of the family who had paid a crew to decorate for Christmas. Their house looked fantastic but in my heart of hearts the decorations were empty. I found myself wondering:

  • Is decorating for Christmas more about the quality of the decorations or is it more about the combination of annoyance and joy of putting them up and then criticizing and loving your own work until you must go through the added chore of taking the decorations down again?
  • Is decorating for Christmas about the quality of your house decorations or the conversations that go into convincing various family members or friends to help you hang decorations or the determination required to hang them all by yourself?

I found myself leaning toward the belief that decorating for Christmas was a lot about the journey and less about the end. Having decorated many a Christmas tree I cut down in the middle of my dad’s woods as a child, which is to say that we had untrimmed trees in all their asymmetrical glory, I find myself solidly believing that what makes home Christmas decorations special is that they were done by amateurs in the spirit of holiday cheer, family fun, and acceptance of an imperfect final product. It’s not that I faulted this family who paid to have their house decorated for Christmas, it’s just that their approached seemed business-like. Much like the Christmas displays on 5th Avenue in NYC, the house with decorations hung by a hired crew was beautiful.

I found myself chuckling about the concept of “keeping up with the Jones.” I found myself glad I grew up in a space and time where lawns were sometimes mowed by teenagers, often not mowed recently, and sometimes mowed by livestock. I’m not sure why the imperfection of unprofessionally maintained homes warms my soul, but it does. And as the holiday season unfolds, I find myself thinking about what exactly is most important in creating holiday spirit.

Finding Purpose and Meaning

The patient was nicely dressed and collected. They sat with elegance as I chatted with them during their checkup. By most accounts they were doing well. They didn’t have many aching joints or the other common issues of people their age. But, as we finished going through all the normal appointment questions and checklist items for a primary care visit, the conversation turned to the main issue at hand: meaningful existence. 

The patient had recently moved from the south to the north to be close to their adult children. In moving, they had left behind the hair salon where they’d worked for many years and where they continued to work until moving. Nobody in their new, northern community would hire them as a hairdresser because of their age. This disappointed them. They were very energetic. They were involved in many clubs and had many social engagements weekly, yet, they found themselves depressed, tired, and empty. Nothing they were doing gave them the sense of purpose that working had.

We brainstormed together. If not work, could the patient volunteer? Where might they like to volunteer? Our town had many opportunities for volunteering. The patient jotted down a few nonprofit ideas and smiled. They said they’d consider it; it seemed better that sitting around doing pointless things.

Depression is common in the elderly. Among other things, it’s postulated that feelings of isolation and loss of purpose can contribute to depression. On an anecdotal level, I’ve heard many elderly patients describe feeling alone, especially when they’ve moved to be close to adult children and left behind an existing community their age or that they had been part of for a long time. Even children who visit frequently aren’t the same as having a whole community – especially a community that has also lived through the same decades and seen the same changes in the world. What’s more, many elderly people are retired or decrease their activity in work and volunteering. It’s easy to say that retirement and less work is good and that these wise people have worked their whole lives and deserve a rest. This is true; however, what I’ve also noticed anecdotally among the hundreds of patients I’ve met as a medical student, is that the happiest people are the people who have meaningful projects regardless of age.

This elderly patient is an example of someone who was driven to work well after they reached retirement age. Their case showed me that perhaps encouraging and supporting our elders to be active participants in their community would be helpful for their wellbeing. This seems especially important in a place like the US where many families are scattered all over the country and generations tend to live separately. There are many elderly folks who find meaning in caring for grandchildren as I’ve seen in other places like when I lived in Paraguay. However, we must remember that there are many elderly people who didn’t have children or who don’t wish to spend their days caring for their kids’ kids and that their need for meaningful activities is also valid. As we forge forward as a society, it seems prudent to keep this in mind and continue to support and develop programs that help an aging population remain active in their communities’ productivity and progress if they would like to be. Be it work, volunteering, or other projects in and out of the home.

A Palindrome Birthday

The sun sparkles in my windows and alights on the forest of plants I nurture in my apartment. I’m recovering from a whirlwind trip to Oregon to celebrate the wedding of a long-time, dear friend. I stepped away from reading about acid-base disorders, electrolyte abnormalities, and the general unruliness of the kidney to write this post. Residency programs started reviewing applications yesterday; I wait for interview invites to trickle in. By this time next year, I’ll be in the throes of residency and I’m sure medical school will feel like a distant memory. But today, a few days before my 33rd birthday, I’m still in medical school.

Looking at the blue sky and the trees with leaves that are turning red, orange, and yellow, I’m reminded of the mountains that are hidden beyond the horizon of buildings that I see. The mountains are quiet from a distance, but hum with streams, wind, and birds when I embark on their paths. I’ve done 57 hikes (not all in the mountains and some trotting more than walking) since my last birthday.

This has been a long year filled with joy and determination. The number of hikes I’ve done reflects finding a balance between those two forces. Medicine consumes. Yet, since starting my last academic year of medical school, the harrowing nature of academia has dampened and the delight of caring for patients, solving medical mysteries, and contriving medical plans have returned to my lived experience. As I begin my residency interview season, I find myself thinking about life beyond school again. It’s a relief to be nearing graduation.

This year marked a big change; I got married. It’s interesting to shift from plotting my activities and setting goals to stepping back and thinking about sharing my life’s journey with another person who has their own activities and goals. To balance the individuals and the team who form a marriage is a daily endeavor. Of course, my partner and I have been unified for some time now, but something about making our union official and forever makes our collaboration seem more central to daily life.

Birthdays are my favorite time for reflection because they mark my personal new year. I looked back at the previous birthdays I’ve written about – 30 (happy and grateful), 28 (excited), 26 (seize the moment), and 25 (goal oriented). Thinking about their themes, what’s this birthday about?

When I walk along a ridge gazing out at the sky on either side or down a woodland path, I find myself quiet. Quiet in the sense of calm and content and, also, in the literal sense that there is less noise in the natural world than in the cityscape. I hope to hold the quiet I find on the hiking trail in my soul no matter what activity I’m undertaking. The hospital bustles with a din and the street outside my window screams with activity. Yet, I believe coexistence of noise without and quiet within can always be achieved; the way, however, seems as varied as the trails I’ve explored this year. Varied by person and varied by situation.

It’s fitting to focus on quiet movement as I wait to start a new life chapter, the chapter where I close the door to official school (potentially and likely forever) and open the door to learning from a new job. I love new chapters with that accentuated first letter, hopefully a quote, the foreshadowing of the chapter that just ended, and the delights hidden behind crisp pages. I can’t wait to see what this palindrome year brings. At the very least, I know it will bring change, for which, I’m grateful.

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.

Learning to See

Before I moved to me latest city, the people I talked to about the city during my travels through medical school rotations didn’t have anything good to say about it. One person said there weren’t any good food. Others said there wasn’t much to do. When I moved here, someone went as far as to tell me it was dangerous. And, while I listened carefully because I knew little about the city myself, I had a suspicion they were wrong.

When I was a child, I learned to see the trees and birds around me. I learned to name them. I could tell a white pine from a red pine or a sugar maple from a red maple. I could tell you the sound of the chickadee and the hermit thrush. I knew the difference between a red wing blackbird and an oriole or a bluebird and an indigo bunting. This type of seeing was the outcome of growing up in the middle of nowhere while surrounded by women who knew these things and shared them with me.

Early on, I learned to tell the difference between real wood and fake wood. I could identify sloppy joints and beautifully joined boards. I judged furniture and house finishings based on their joints. I could tell you how sheetrock differed from plaster. I understood these things because my father had taught me to notice them. My mom taught me to see colors and how they might be paired. I still notice boldly paired colors and they bring me joy regardless of if I find them in a painting or on someone’s clothes.

As a I grew, I learned to name the flowers in people’s gardens because I worked in a greenhouse. I was trained to tell the difference between a rose and a lily, for example. My parents taught me to notice architecture. What makes a classic New England home look as such and how that differs from an adobe house. I came to understand what a well-built house is.

When I moved to DC, I learned how to see a street for what it was. A pathway to somewhere. I learned how to chart my course and tell if I was safe on a particular path within moments. I learned to see the places, like underpasses, I should avoid at night and the places that were filled with architecture, trees, and flowers. I learned this out of necessity and because I have a savage passion for walking and walking and walking.

When I moved to Paraguay, I learned to see what someone was trying to say because I couldn’t always understand their words. I learned to see if they were lying, or friendly, or joking. I learned to see why some people might follow God. I started to understand why life in Paraguay is different from life in the United States. And I learned to see that difference as both beautiful and challenging.

In medical school I’ve spent years learning to see exactly what a normal breath is and how stretchy skin should be. I’ve learned to see how the heart and abdomen are when all is well and what an infection looks like. I’ve learned to understand almost every part of the body and to see when it is healthy.

All this learning about how to see I carry with me always. And, when I moved to my latest home, I applied my seeing to understand what this city was. I learned that there is a lot to say about Danbury. I found the trails (there are numerous) where I can run and walk among the trees, birds, and flowers. I’ve noted the buildings with outstanding architecture. I found half a dozen murals with beautifully blended colors. I’m mapping out the good eateries—so far, I have a recommendation for every meal of the day plus elevenses and snacks. Much like Paraguay, Danbury is filled with people who don’t look or speak like me. But, when I took the time to observe my neighbors; it became apparent that they are a bunch of people trying to carve out a little space to work, eat, and be merry. I came to understand they were just like me in many ways. And, noticing our similarities, I understood that this city suits me. Seeing is something that takes practice. But once you learn to see you can begin to understand.

The Night Chef

Overnight, the hospital halls are quiet; all the administrative areas are closed. There seems to be endless dark ends of corridors where no one is. There is the constant beeping of heart monitors and other hospital machines. The night shift’s laugher periodically fills the space – the nurses and others making sure patients get what they need overnight. Of course, if you’re a patient and trying to sleep it seems loud and it’s annoying because you’re woken frequently for vital signs checks and other things.

Some folks chose night shift. Some folks like the autonomy that a less full hospital affords. Some do nights so they can be with their kids during the day. Some do it for the higher pay. Others are just night owls. I do night shift out of necessity – either when the budget requires it or there’s no way out of it. And that is how I found myself in the hospital when I met the night chef. I was on a rotation that had a week of night shifts.

The night chef is the man who runs the grill of the only cafeteria open overnight at the hospital where I train. When your shift is overnight there’s not much to be done but have lunch at midnight. If you’re like me and prefer to be asleep well before midnight, midnight lunch is daunting. On my first night of nights, one of the residents I was working with reassured me that the night chef was one of the best things about night shift. I was curious what she meant.

The night chef can make anything. He’s gregarious and happy despite working at odd hours of the morning. When I met him, I could not understand why he was working in the cafeteria. He is one of those people who could sell anything. You know, one of those lively talkers who connects with anyone. Why had he chosen to be a hospital chef at night?

He welcomed me and the resident I was with when we entered the cafeteria. He listed the delicacies he had imagined that evening. And despite the terrible hour of day, I found myself smiling and feeling only a little guilty for turning down the pizza with gobs of meat he gloated about for a different option.

During my first week of nights, it became routine to visit the night chef at some point. I never bought his most creative dishes, but I did enjoy his cheer.

Eventually my stretch of nights ended. On my last night, I stopped by the cafeteria on my way home. “Will I see you again tomorrow?” the night chef asked.

“No, I’m going back to days.”

“Ugh, too bad,” he said. “But… I understand.”

I went on my merry way wondering if I’d see him again. And, of course, I did soon thereafter because I started my day shift before his night shift ended. He was jolly as ever, even at 6 in the morning after having cooked all night. “Where have you been?” he said the first time I saw him again. “Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you again too!” I said. I meant it. It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day and his happy greeting made mine that day. The night chef is a master at brightening his customers’ shifts. Perhaps that is why he had chosen to be the hospital night chef. Night shift at the hospital needs him most.

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.

My Experience Getting the COVID Vaccine

Disclaimer: If you’re looking for scientific information about COVID or the COVID vaccines, check out the CDC as a starting place for information. This post doesn’t address science or research surrounding COVID; it is simply a recount of my personal experience getting COVID and the COVID vaccines.

I got COVID almost a year before any vaccine was approved. To be honest, I was one of the luckiest people to catch the virus. I hardly had a fever. I did, however, spend hours lying on the floor too tired and nauseous to get up. I had to force myself to eat because every time I ate, I got sick to my stomach. My brain was foggy. My body drained. I didn’t feel short of breath but, breathing took more energy than usual. I thought about breathing more often than I did normally. I didn’t get diarrhea or lose my taste or gasp for breath like others did when they had COVID. Not once did I think I needed to go to the hospital because of the virus. And, as you can tell because I’m writing this, my case of COVID wasn’t fatal. And, since it was the height of COVID closures when I was sick, I hardly had to change my lifestyle to quarantine because I already wasn’t leaving the house. I was lucky because the subject I was studying in medical school at the time was easy, so I was able to study and pass my exams despite spending hours lying on the floor with my mind floating is some other universe. I was lucky because all the pieces that came together for me resulting in me not getting that sick did not come together for everyone who got COVID.

The first Moderna COVID shot was exciting. Finally, we had something to prevent COVID, that terrible infectious disease that had changed my world and threatened to make it impossible for me to study medicine. Finally, we might be able to prevent people from dying. I think I got a sore arm after that shot, nothing serious.

The second Moderna COVID shot was also exciting because it marked a completion of my duty to prevent COVID from spreading as best I could in addition to wearing a mask and social distancing. I felt like I was contributing to humanity while also protecting myself – how uncommon it is to be able to put yourself first while also helping others.

But, also, the second Moderna COVID shot wiped me out. I passed out the night after getting it. To be honest, I knew I was going to pass out, so I lay on the floor before I fell. I lay on the floor for what seemed like an eternity before the chills and nausea passed enough for me to crawl back to bed from the bathroom. That was a rough night, but I knew it’d be over in 24 hours because I wasn’t sick; my body was just doing exactly what it was supposed to do. My body was making antibodies (those protective proteins that help fight off infections). My body was responding to the vaccine. I felt awful, but still thought science was cool. I mean, we can make our bodies build defenses before we get sick—that’s kind of magic.

Recently, I got my booster Moderna COVID shot. It also hit me hard. I couldn’t sit up without feeling nauseous for at least the first 12 hours the day after I got it. All my joints and muscles ached. The feeling of the blankets against my skin was painful. It was 16 or 20 hours after the shot and two very long, hot showers; a day of maximum recommended Tylenol; and some Ibuprofen later when I finally started to feel like a tired version of my normal self. But, despite how awful I felt, the morning after the shot I was relieved because I knew I wasn’t sick. I was relieved because my reaction showed that I still had COVID antibodies. I was relieved because as bad as I felt, I knew it would pass in 24 hours. When we get sick, we don’t know how long it’s going to last. The uncertainty of illness is part of its trying nature. I’ve always like deadlines and end dates.

Everyone has different reactions to the COVID vaccines. I have a strong reaction, but by no means the strongest reaction. When I work in clinic some patients explain how fearful they are of their COVID vaccine reaction. Fear of feeling sick is valid. It sucks to be confined to bed for any amount of time. But when it comes to the COVID vaccine, it’s nice to know it’ll be short-lived. Just 24 hours, maybe 48 hours. When I had COVID my symptoms were mild, however the fatigue lasted for at least a month after the other symptoms subsided. For me, at least, feeling sick for 24 hours is acceptable knowing that I will decrease my chance of ever getting the real COVID again. I also can’t accept not being part of the group of people willing to try to stop COVID. It’s a legitimate feeling to dislike having a reaction to the COVID vaccine but, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to keep COVID at bay. If it takes getting a COVID booster every year that’s a small price to pay to prevent millions more people from dying from a disease we have a vaccine to help prevent.

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.

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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.