Loneliness Lab

It seems fitting to talk about loneliness now. Some things are opening but the COVID19 pandemic continues to close many social spaces and requires people to not only stay home but to physically distance themselves from those who live outside their home. It’s been interesting to watch the Facebook and Instagram evolution of my online network. The pandemic started with cutesy mask photos, ebbed into anger, and now includes random questions to spark online conversation and exercise videos.

There are those who have been gravely affected by the financial toll of losing work or of illness during COVID times. But setting more extreme circumstances aside, I’ve noticed that those who seem most impacted by social distancing are those who are very extroverted, those who live alone, and those who were lonely before the world shut down. I think for many, the slowed pace of life during a pandemic has unleashed an uncomfortable amount self-reflection. I imagine many are grappling with questions like: How do I occupy myself? And, how do I feel connected to those I care about if I can’t see them?

I think the silver lining of widespread feelings of loneliness during mandated social isolation is understanding. You or I may feel isolated today, but it took the extreme circumstances of a pandemic to get us there. Many are unluckier. They feel isolated daily, on normal days, or for long stretches of their lives. Many of those people are our family and friends. I think the pandemic has shown us that people feel loneliness at different thresholds and endure the feeling in varying ways.

We can observe the evolution of our own feelings during COVID, especially if they are new feelings, in the hope that they will provide greater insight into the feelings others in our lives may have at different times.

Thinking about my career as a physician and my role as a member of a community and family, I will always know and meet people who are lonely. I think it is easy to forget how common loneliness is. It is not something that is always worn outwardly and loudly like a football jersey. Often it is subtle. And while we might not be able to drive the loneliness someone else is feeling away, each of us can be an encouraging force for others. We can be present to listen when someone else needs to share. We can be a connection in their lives.

The nice thing about pandemics is they usually end. For many, the end of this COVID shutdown will be a return to normal. It will be easier to travel and socialize again. The feelings of isolation and stress and sadness many feel now will magically lift when social distancing is no longer required for public health. But, for those who feel isolated for other reasons, the struggle will go on. You and I should remember that. Not to be negative and pessimistic but, rather, to remain in touch with people beyond ourselves. Loneliness is a powerful force. If we are feeling it now for the first time, we should take note. We should take note so that we might be more empathetic later when we are not feeling isolated and someone in our network is.

Memory

When it doesn’t occur in an explosion, change often happens in such small increments that we don’t notice it happening. Medical school changed me in both ways. The start of school launched me into a new world of academia. I was pushed to study more efficiently and more than I ever had. I adapted to a new lifestyle. These changes were dramatic but expected. Starting a new job, which is how I view school, is usually that way. However, looking back at my first year of medical school (so far), I changed in unexpected ways that were not obvious in the moment.

Not so long ago I was learning brain anatomy. The topic was interesting and boring at the same time. The individual pieces of information were simple, however, woven together into pathways and functional groups these bits of the brain were quite complex and somewhat indeterminate. As I was considering several parts of the brain involved in forming memories, I found my mind wandering beyond the curriculum. Memory is an interesting thing.

My sister has always had a good memory. She can read a document 3 times and recite in perfectly; this worked well during her acting career. She always remembers things I’ve long forgotten from when we were kids. My memory has never been like hers. As a high school student, I thought that memory was an innate quality. I thought memory wasn’t something that could be trained and changed. I took that belief to college where I worked hard. I’ve always known that most things can be achieved if I work hard enough. Since college and until now, I haven’t thought too much about memory.

Medical school has made me reconsider memory. As I thought about the corticospinal pathway carrying motor signals from the brain and brainstem to the body and the anterolateral pathway carrying temperature and pain signals in a chain of neurons up to the brain, I realized that these things were complicated. But, they didn’t seem as complicated as they would have back in August when I started medical school.

These days, I find myself reading words I can’t pronounce and remembering them. I find myself reading dense documents about the presentation of a disease or the features of a drug and remembering more than I did when I read comparable materials in October.

As I was studying what parts of the brain are responsible for different aspects of memory—working, long-term, emotional—I realized that I have trained my memory since starting medical school. And, while my brain’s approach to remembering is still different from that of my sister’s, memory formation is dynamic. The brain is plastic just like the rest of life. Considering this, I’m curious to see how much my brain will change by the time I reach the end of medical school. Residency. And beyond. 

But, first, time to finish the last 4 weeks of my first year of medical school – hours that will be spent learning many aspects of the central nervous system beyond memory and brain structure.

The Mountains

These days between the hours of studying, the doctorhood quest unfolding slowly and quickly at the same time, I find myself hiking whenever time allows. It’s difficult to describe what I find in the forest as I climb to a mountain’s peak. Some days I go quickly, not observing the trees and moss as I forge up the trail. Other days I step slowly, methodically looking at the ferns and the rocks and the sun rays that scatter across the forest floor.

Sometimes my mind buzzes with thoughts—of friends, family, and school. Of puzzles I still have left to solve or chores that await me when I get home. But, more often as time goes, I find my mind mostly empty. An uncommon feeling in my daily life in town. As I get lost in thoughtless contemplation, the chipmunks make me smile as they scuttle around me and the grouse make me jump as they burst into flight before I see them. The sound of their wings is in stark contrast to the silent trees around me.

I stop for a sip of water partway up a steep stretch of trail. My forehead is crusted with salt from sweating. I feel my heart pounding. The wind picks up and the trees creek and groan. I look up and see their branches waving. Even a brief pause allows my breath to slow before I hoist my backpack to my shoulders again. Onward.

I’ve done enough trails to know which rocks are most likely to make me lose my footing. I avoid them. Mud jumps from the trail to my pants. The trail gets steeper and I shed a jacket layer. Once taking off the layer, I climb higher and the wind gets stronger. I put the jacket back on. It’s a dance of layers—just enough to stay warm, not so many that I roast. I sweat regardless.

As I climb the final pitch to the mountain top I have on my warmest layer—in summer just a windbreaker and in winter a hefty coat. I hike so much, there are many days when I get to the highest rock and there is no view. Clouds never did bother me, so the clearness of the day doesn’t impact my decision to take to the hills. When it is sunny and clear at the summit, the landscape around my mountain stretches away from me. I think about what all the distant hills and valleys have seen, countless stories they can’t tell me.

Some days the wind threatens to push me over as I pause at the summit. On days when I can see the mountains beyond my mountain, I ignore the wind and take time to watch the sunshine. The rolling hills and fields below are a patchwork of cloud shadows and sun patches. Beyond them are the mountains of some other state. When I hike in Vermont, the mountains beyond are always pointer than the one I climbed. The green mountains were scraped by glaciers and, therefore, have softer features than their neighbors in New York and New Hampshire.

I don’t doddle as I descend to my car. My heart is filled by the fresh air of the summit. I’m ready to return to the hustle of regular life by the time I get back to the parking lot. At the same time, as I turn my car toward home, I’m already daydreaming of my next hike. The mountains don’t let me forget them, no matter what adventures I have waiting for me in the lowlands. 

Burnout

Alarm. Study. Class. Study. Eat. Study. Bed. Alarm. Study. Class. Workout. Study. Study. Bed. Alarm…Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sometime in the future substitute work for class and study.

My sister and I have a term for the life leading up to burnout. We call it living like a robot. It’s a life where work and/or school consumes you and sometimes you fit in sleep and things that make you happy. Most of the time in the robot life you simply work and wish you were sleeping.

The robot life is unavoidable sometimes if you have hard goals. I have always justified it by knowing when it will end. I’ve had several bouts of that life with years of rest between. Most of my undergrad I was a robot. My two years of post-bacc, pre-med studies plus all the work piled on top were some of the worst years I’ve known. Medical school is the first time I’ve not worked as I studied since middle school. It’s nice to have one job, just medical school. But, honestly, it’s still hard.

Medicine is cursed with a heavy dose of the robot life. This is partly because physicians have peoples’ lives in their hands, so expectations are high. It is partly because the type of people who become physicians are A types and have high personal goals. It is partly because health is ubiquitous and illness unavoidable. As humans, our ability to reach our full potential is partially determined by our health. If we are in pain or ill, we can’t do all the things we would if we felt well.

Medical school and then working as a doctor are challenging because the hours can be long. They’re also draining because the work is complicated and requires focus and lots of puzzling through piles of clues to find the best answer. The pressure is high because the puzzle directly impacts a human’s life. And depending on the gravity of the puzzle, the answer might impact a whole family.

Time and intellectual challenge aren’t all that makes medicine difficult. It’s a team sport, so office politics and business relationships come into play. But even teamwork isn’t the hardest part of medicine. Medicine is an emotional job. People who come to us as patients die. They lose function. They lose the ability to lead the lives they’ve always led. There are many happy outcomes, but not all patients’ stories end with joy. The sad outcomes add up as time goes on.

My time in healthcare as an EMT showed me that no individual patient impacted me unbearably. However, there are days when I feel the weight of all the patients I’ve helped. For example, I felt heavy after the last CODE I worked before I left the ED for medical school. A CODE is when you do CPR, shock, ventilate, and take other measures to try to revive a person whose heart has stopped.

That night I closed the curtain on a 30-something-year old with a wedding ring who hadn’t been identified yet. He was dead before he arrived, but we did CPR anyway. I was one of the last to leave his room. I never leave a dead patient before ensuring they’re presentable for family. CODEs are messy. If the family isn’t there to see us work, I see no need for them to experience the mess. I knew sometime in the night his partner would learn he was dead.

Tucking in that patient right before I ended my shift was hard. The death rested on top of the morning I walked into the ED to find teens on the phone crying. They, the teens, were calling their family to tell them their mother and uncle had died. Odd to have children deliver news most adults barely can. The sadness those teens felt added to the day I cleaned two CODEd patients back-to-back so they wouldn’t be bloody and dirty when their family arrived to say goodbye. After tucking in the second of these, I walked out of the room to find a visitor approaching. I interceded and joined her, but only upon entering the room did I realize she, the daughter, didn’t know her mother was already dead.

The sad endings add up. But, so do the good journeys and happy endings. The patients who turn our days around by sharing the most amazing stories or giving advice that is perfectly wise. Days in healthcare are brightened by visitors who show raw love toward someone stuck in a hospital bed. I’ve seen true love hiding in ED rooms on multiple occasions. It was working with old couples in the ED that showed me how I’d like to age.

It’s no surprise between the stress of the job and the rigor of the schedule that doctors and medical students burn out. However, knowing our challenges gives us the knowledge we need to persevere. Even within the field of medicine there are many decisions we can make to suit our goals. It begins with specialty and is followed by location and type of hospital. We have the information we need to know how a specialty, location, specific hospital, and extra projects we take on will impact our life or encroach on free time. We can decide, within the scope of meeting our obligations, when we wish to do extra and when we wish to do the minimum. Most importantly, we know that no state is permanent unless we let it be. 

I think at the root of avoiding burnout is being honest with ourselves and checking in with ourselves. There are stretches of school and work that must be survived. The robot life must be lived sometimes. But, amidst the madness we must decide when it will end. We can choose to rein things in when needed. We can choose to prioritize family or life outside work. Of course, to do this, we must know ourselves and what makes us happy. Once we know where we find happiness we can fight for it as fiercely as we fight for our patients. In the end, if we are not well, we can’t help anyone else at the level we can when we are in good health.

Today I’m Grateful

The past few months have a been a tornado. I’m 3 weeks out from finishing my first semester of medical school. What has “med school” meant for me so far? 4 hours or more of studying a day no matter how many hours I spend in class. Showering the formaldehyde smell out of my hair because I’ve spent hours in the cadaver lab dissecting or practicing structure identification. Discussing the ethics of assisted suicide, abortion, and patient consent. Considering how to evaluate research. Practicing physical exams and asking patients about their health.

But, even on days before an exam, when I’m exhausted and uncertain I know half of what I should, I’m excited to be doing what I do. I know how to feel a heartbeat through someone’s skin. I know how to watch a heart contracting using an ultrasound machine. I’ve held human hearts. I’ve explored their chambers and vessels. I know the path blood takes to and from the heart. I know what makes the heart beat. As the days pass, I know more and more about what makes human bodies function, how the body can break, and what we can do to fix it. For this intimate knowledge of life, I’m grateful.

These past weeks and months haven’t only been studying, despite how it feels at times. I’ve spent time with family. I’ve hiked many a mountain in both the sun, rain, light, and dark. I’ve eaten cake on mountain tops, carved jack-o-lanterns, and shared many a meal and snack with friends. I’ve walked up and down the hill from home to school while chatting with kindred spirits.

Friends new and old along with family aren’t all I’m grateful for this season. I also have a lovely home with a roommate with an eye for creating comfortable spaces where I can sip my mate peacefully. And, I have a partner who enjoys pie as much as I do. Helps keep life in order. Tells me my hair looks beautiful even when it’s greasy and fizzy (who knew hair could be both those things at the same time) and cooks me dinner so I can study.

I feel lucky this season. And, I’m grateful to have a few moments to soak in just how kind life can be. I hope your Thanksgiving is spent with people you care about or, at least, surrounded by tasty food. After all, the stomach feeds the heart. 

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.

Climbing Mountains

One year when I was young we celebrated my mom’s birthday by hiking a nearby mountain. Our family has loved mountain adventures since our beginning, so it seemed like a perfect way to celebrate another good year.

The hike was beautiful and challenging and magical in the way hours spent in the woods while climbing a slope always are. When we got to the top we settled on the peak rocks to enjoy the view, eat snacks, and let our heartrates drip back to resting. Us kids sat down, pulling out our normal fare—peanuts, bread, cheese, among other easy-to-pack items.

My mom wore a happy smirk as she opened her backpack. First, she unpack a stack of plates and forks. Then came some bags containing several layers of chocolate cake. Then came the Tupperware with the sauce for between the cake layers. And then the whipped cream…She’d also brought sparkling cider.

My mother had secretly packed and carried an entire black forest cake up the mountain. That’s dedication, determination, and the proper way to start a new era.

I’m turning 30 this year, so I’ve been thinking about birthdays a bit because it seems like ending my twenties might be a big deal. I can’t really think of a better way to nod goodbye to my first complete decade of adulthood than cake on top of a mountain. There is something about icing that makes the horizon seem promising and clarifies the path you’ve already trod.

Friendship as a Trendline

When I was young and going through a rough patch with one friend or another, my mother always told me friendships go in waves. Sometimes you’re high on them, doing the most exciting things and seeing each other all the time. Sometimes it’s as though you don’t know each other (except you do, because you remember all the times that are past). I knew she was right, but when I was young I hadn’t had friends for long enough to see what she meant.

These days I’m not old, but I have friends who have been in my life for over 20 years and new ones who just arrived. Each friendship is different; the relationship components undulate as ocean waves do—always the same motion (hi…bye), never the same content (what is said and done, where and when we encounter). It’s only the movement, up and down, that’s constant over these relationships and across relationships.

When I think about friendships as waves, I envision the trendline as straight across with a sine wave tracing the points of each friendship. If you plot every friendship on the same graph, some will have wide peaks and dips, some will have steeper and more frequent slopes. But, regardless of the shape of each wave, when you follow the trendline as a representation of your life unfolding, you find that your time has been filled with moments shared with people you enjoy. Despite all the movement—especially the absences of certain individuals at certain times—you are surrounded by people you consider friends most of the time. In this way, the trendline makes you unshakable when one friendship wave becomes an outliner by dipping too low or dropping off the graph completely. And, also, it’s the trendline that helps you steady yourself if a friend becomes a partner and their friendship wave falls into phase (in sync) with your life wave magnifying your own emotional ups and downs.

For me, the visual of friends as waves (like an ocean view) takes a lot of the pressure off each moment because it makes me see them as part of something larger. It’s reassuring to realize that I can enjoy each crest before it crashes on the literal or metaphorical beach because it will be followed by others.

5 Years Later – Quiet Moments

About five years ago I moved to Paraguay. I wasn’t sure what would come of a continental move, but I was ready for a challenge and I wanted a break from the American rat race for a few years. I had high hopes but no clue what to expect. I’d first learned of the Peace Corps when I was in 7th grade and known since then that I needed to do it.

I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere in a pervious post, but living in Paraguay and among Paraguayans changed me. People are always changing, but there are life experiences that expedite change—the Peace Corps (and living abroad for a few years) is one of them.

Living in Paraguay changed my self identity, my daily priorities, and the way I thought and saw the world. My experiences in Paraguay fine-tuned my values. Being a foreigner, the only white girl, the only American, the lunatic who liked to go for runs and hour-plus walks, the veggie addict, the advocate for sex ed and separation from abusive partners, the outspoken supporter of love regardless of gender mix, the not catholic, the woman with unpainted nails, the single one, the over 25 and still childless woman, the one who wouldn’t wear short shorts and small shirts, the female who refused to dance in heels, the one who disliked pork and large amounts of meat…being the odd one in the fish bowl forced me to think about the battles I wanted to pick and those I’d leave for never.

Of all the things I learned, what stays with me is the internal calm and confidence the women in Paraguay shared with me. Life is ridiculous most of the time, but Paraguayan women have a natural grace and pride that is humble and unwavering. I certainly didn’t luck out and get their grace, but what I did learn is that we (humans) are better and happier when we make time for quiet moments. I’ve been thinking about the secret to Paraguayans’ love of life and happiness for these 5 years, and I’m pretty sure it comes down to making time to be still. Everyone has their way of doing this, but mine has come to be drinking mate. I learned to drink mate in Paraguay.

Mate is a tea-like drink made from yerba mate. It’s loose-leaf tea that you put in a cup. In the cup is a metal straw with a filter at the end. You pour hot water over the leaves and drink through the straw almost immediately. With a little practice your lips get used to the hot straw and you don’t burn your tongue on the hot water.

Yerba mate has some caffeine in it, but I mix the yerba mate with so many other herbs (peppermint, hibiscus, lemon grass…) that it hardly has any. I don’t drink it for the energy boost. For me, mate provides moments to reflect. For me, it’s the symbol of my time in Paraguay, personal growth, and the people I care about. Mate is usually a shared drink. Since returning to the US I always drink mate alone (because people here don’t drink it), but I still think of the Peace Corps volunteers and the Paraguayans who shared it with me. I also think of the other people in my life, currently and in the past, who are shaping my world even if they’ve never sipped mate.

Five years later I still drink mate because I learned happiness is in the still moments. I learned that people are where joy comes from and that I am the best human I can be when there is time for mate in my life.

As I write this my mind is quiet, but deep down the excitement and nerves of starting medical school this August are bubbling. I’m about to embark on another journey like none I’ve done before—the expedition of learning and mastering the ways of the human body. The challenge of becoming a medical doctor. But, as hard as medical school is, I know living in Paraguay was harder and I already did that. And though there will be days in medical school when I’ll skip mate, I know that it’ll be quiet moments drinking mate that will propel me through the countless exams, the high stress of learning more than seems possible, the life-or-death decisions, and the sadness of seeing people suffering. Everyone, I think, has their grounding mechanism. It turns out that mine is a dried herb I buy 6 kilograms at a time and often sip before most other people’s morning alarms have started snoozing.

The Rhetoric of -est

As Mother’s Day whizzed by and we race toward Father’s Day I am reminded of one of my favorite Mother’s Day Facebook posts (posted by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer on one of the Mother’s Days we were in Paraguay). She wished her mother a happy day and stated that she didn’t believe she needed to call her mother “best” to tell her how much she loved her.

The post made me think. It is tempting and common to say “the best mom or dad” or the “coolest” or the “kindest” or add “est” to the end of any description we’d like to use for those we love. But, if there is a “best” it implies that there is a worst and that there are many almost bests or not bests.

Ever since my colleague’s post, I’ve actively avoided the description “best” for anyone, even though it is tempting. I don’t think we need to rank humans or suggest a hierarchy as a means of showing someone we love them. I also don’t think there is such a thing as the “best” mom because no two moms are the same.

I believe language shapes our thinking and if we focused more on describing individual’s good traits without comparing them to others we might create a society with fewer divisions based on arbitrary markers and we might be more likely to recognize the good in humans. Is it a stretch to say how we talk about people will change how we view them? Maybe, but I will argue that framing theory supports my hypothesis that the words we use to describe someone shape how we view them. You can test it though. I dare you to change your rhetoric about people in your life and see if it changes how you view them over time. Try a longitudinal study over 3 years. Report back in 2022, I’ll be here.