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.

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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.

Prayers

Trying to get into medical school is a bit of a slog at times. I’ve been lucky to have people support me during each leap through the hoops of fire. Recently, I’ve had a few folks tell me they’re praying for me, and then qualify their statement by saying they know not everyone believes in God. I was surprised that they felt the need to acknowledge I may not believe in their God.

In Paraguay, my adopted mothers prayed for me almost every time I left their house for mine (so almost daily). I am and was always thankful because of the sentiment. I believe it’s tremendously generous and kind when a person cares enough to think of me, to support me, and then to ask for help on my behalf—whether they communicate with their God or simply wish me luck.

In America, I think we publicize the extremes. I see politics radically divided. Political opinions are often based on extreme visions of how things should be or a rebellion against others’ interpretations of right and wrong. These hardline stances don’t allow for more than one opinion to thrive. To me, holding an unweaving “I’m right and they’re wrong” stance is limiting because it creates rigid definitions of aspects of life that neither the State nor another individual can interpret for me or you.

I attended church often in Paraguay because the church was the center of everything in my Paraguay community. I did not and still do not believe in the God of that church. But, I could feel how strongly my Paraguayan friends and family believed in their God. To them, their God was not only the source of life and reason for living but also the definition of love. Going to church allowed me to better understand how they saw the world. The Paraguayans who welcomed me into their lives knew our views of God were different, and they still embraced me as a dear friend. They included me in their secular and religious activities, answered my millions of questions that began with “Why?”, and they accepted it when I sat out from certain rituals because they were “too much for me.” What these shared experiences taught me was that we do not need to have the same definition of life and love to build friendships. We just need to be comfortable knowing that even though we see eye-to-eye on some things and share some history, we also hold very different views of certain aspects of life.

My hope is that someday the US won’t just be tolerant, but that each of us will be comfortable standing side-by-side with folks who are different from us, be strong enough to ask questions to learn more about how those different people see the world, and be proud enough of our belief system to follow it without expecting others to pledge allegiance to our view.

When I think of those who prayed for me before I took the MCAT, I’m thankful. Perhaps their prayers didn’t mean to me what they meant to them, but I think we share the knowledge that what I was doing was hard and whatever assistance they gave would be part of my success.

Christof

There’s a guy, Christof, in my neighborhood who collects returnable bottles from the recycling we put out on the corner for the city each Friday. One day when my father was visiting me, he struck up a conversation with Christof. One of Christof’s daughters went to college and the other didn’t–Christof joked that the daughter who finished college doesn’t have a job while the other one does. He collects bottles to help both of them.

I don’t often drink anything that comes in a redeemable bottle, but since chatting with Christof, my father started saving his seltzer bottles…he drinks a lot of seltzer. My father brings the bottles to my house (even though I live about 2 hours away) when he visits so I can give them to Christof.

I work nights, so it’s challenging to put out the recycling before Christof passes. One morning I saw him, though, collecting from the neighbors. As he walked by, I ran out and asked him to wait a moment. He paused, a smile lighting his face. I handed him 2 huge trash bags of bottles I’d squirreled in the garage for a few weeks. He thanked me a million times, wished me a blessed day, and was on his way.

At first, I thought my father was ridiculous for saving bottles for Christof. But, that morning when I saw Christof’s face after I handed him our bags of bottles, I realized that my father was right. We can get so caught up in all the big things we should do that we do nothing. Christof reminded me that it’s the small things that add up in the end. And, luckily, life is full of small things.

Empathy – Critical and Elusive

Helping others is dependent on your ability to be empathetic, not just your knowledge and skill. In the world of health this may seem obvious, however empathy often gets lost in the complexity of the health care system.

I began pondering the sometimes dire absence of empathy in health care after watching Peter Attia’s TED Talk “Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem?.” In his talk Attia discusses the practice of blaming obese patients for their health and questions the current way we think about obesity. He starts the talk with a story about a patient whom he treated. He explains that he provided exemplary medical treatment but failed as a person. He says he failed as a person because rather than being empathic he subconsciously blamed the patient for her condition.

In today’s U.S. culture it’s easy to blame people for health conditions like their weight; it’s easy to blame them for all their unhealthy choices. But, what does blaming achieve?

A large portion of my current work is in substance abuse prevention. Empathy is sometimes so hard. When I read the latest horror story about drug use, it’s hard to stop thoughts like “How can ANYONE start meth? There’s just no upside.” But, thoughts like that don’t help prevent anyone from using drugs and they certainly don’t help people trying to recover from addiction. Again, it’s so easy to blame people for using drugs. But if we want to help we must get beyond the finger pointing. We must acknowledge that we are trying to help individual humans, and that those individuals are struggling. Their struggle is their own, but we do not have to be another barrier, we can be a positive force.

I was struck by the power of empathy after watching Eleanor Longden’s TED Talk, “The voices in my head.” She talks about her struggle with schizophrenia. When she was first diagnosed it seemed her world would end. However in her fight for peace she got help from someone who told her she could work with the voices in her head. He believed in her and her ability to lead a safe and happy life. He was right. She was able to master the voices in her head. By simply offering support and understanding he changed the course of her recovery.

Health is charged. Health is mysterious. Empathy is simple. But in its simplicity it is easy to overlook. Don’t.