Surgeons

I sat waiting for the surgeon I’d work with to arrive at the hospital. Being a medical student involves a lot of waiting. On the wall across from where I sat and next to my surgeon preceptor’s office was a wall of fame, of sorts, of surgeons gone by. The black-and-white photos caught my attention because every single surgeon depicted there was a white male. The irony was that most of the surgeons I would come to respect in the weeks to follow would fit neither or only one of the “white male” descriptors. The surgeon I was waiting for, for example, was neither white nor male. She would single-handedly show me what it meant to be an excellent surgeon.

The operating room is cold. The lights are stark. If you are helping with an operation you “scrub in” (which involves washing your hands in a special way and putting on sterile gloves and a sterile gown). Once scrubbed in, you maintain sterility the entire procedure which includes only touching sterile things and keeping your hands in front of you and between the level of your bellybutton and chest. Bathroom breaks and snack breaks aren’t an option for medical students in the operating room, so I tried my best to do those things before entering the room.

Once the patient is settled on the operating table, they’re put to sleep by anesthesia.  As soon as it’s confirmed that the patient is asleep, their eyelids are closed with tape to protect their eye structures and a tube is placed down their throat to help them breathe.

While the patient is asleep surgery unfolds. All surgeries are done with a team of people, the surgeon is only one member of that team, and the surgery is not successful without every team member. The patient is covered with drapes except for the area where the operation will occur. This is interesting because the humanness of the patient is lost. Their body becomes a workspace once the drapes are placed. It may sound disrespectful, but it isn’t. Rather, the drapes are meant to protect the sterile workspace and maintain patient modesty.

Surgeons are the artists of medicine. Much like carpenters and painters and jewelers and other craftspeople they make their living by using their hands. The difference, however, between surgeons’ hands and carpenters’ hands, for example, is stark. The surgeons’ hands are soft and their fingers nibble while the carpenters’ hands are rough and their fingers strong.

Surgery is all about feel and dexterity. Surgeons tie knots with thin thread to keep arteries from bleeding. They sew with curved needles using plyer-like instruments. During surgery, it’s the surgeon’s hands that impress. Their fingertips can feel the difference between disease and health in tissue. Their hands can somehow hold more tools than you thought possible.

Ask a surgeon about surgery and about the operating room and their eyes become bright. They smile. They draw pictures and use their hands to describe structures. They talk about the neat surgeries and bodies they’ve seen. They talk about how many operations they’ve done. Surgeons are like artists. They love their craft and exude a love for their studio (the operating room).

I would eventually join a surgery led by the surgeon I had waited for by the surgeon wall of fame. A resident and I were helping her. The resident was soon to finish and become an independent practitioner. The surgeon was busy operating; I was holding a camera (used to see inside the abdomen); and the resident was doing something else to help the surgeon. “People will not take you seriously because you are a small female,” the surgeon said to the resident. “Don’t be disheartened. Respect is earned.” The surgeon would go on to discuss the importance of appropriate financial compensation for your work and doing excellent work. I would hear this message about differences and respect several times during my surgery rotation. I would feel why multiple women ahead of me thought they needed to tell me and my colleagues this information. Yet, it wasn’t new information because I, like most others, didn’t make it through my 20s without learning how my different identities help and hinder me.

There are many things that you could die from if it wasn’t for surgeons. But, as lifesaving as surgery is, it is also fraught with risk. Your surgeon can kill you. Having life and death literally in one’s hands is not a light matter, and you see its weight on the shoulders of surgeons when you work with them. The riskiness of surgery is also why the road to becoming a surgeon is a long, hard one. It involves many years filled with unfortunately long workdays. Apart from a grueling training marathon, surgeons have high personal standards for their work. High standards coupled with hard training leave many surgeons with a robust ego.

Egos aren’t all bad. You want a confident, proud surgeon. This is because you want someone who is very good at what they do and who takes pride in their work to operate on you. However, egos can be detrimental too. Too much ego can lead to poor listening skills, lack of self-reflection, and a complete disrespect for others. High-quality surgeons are confident because they are good at their work and love it, proud because they save lives, and humble because they know they are human and will make mistakes. The best surgeons are not only confident, proud, and humble but also curious. Curiosity makes the best surgeons because they not only love operating but, also, dig to the bottom of their patients’ stories, investigate thoroughly any mistake or less-than-perfect outcome, and keep up on the latest research and recommendations in their field.

On our last day working together, the surgeon that made me understand surgery had time to sit with me in her office by the surgeon wall of fame. She gave me some advice and her philosophy on medicine. “It’s nice when patients appreciate your work. You saved their life. But, they don’t have to and that’s not why I do it. I like to help people,” she said. The conversation continued for a bit. “People talk about quality of life. I don’t think it’s fair to say that you don’t want to do surgery because of the quality of life. Quality of life is something you make. For example, right now I pick up lots of call [24-hour shifts]. I do it because I am well compensated but, also, because it is good experience. I like to help people… I like having the cases [surgeries]… But, I won’t pick up call forever. Right now, it makes sense… It’s all about tradeoffs. You can work less and then you make less money… You can set the terms of your work,” she said.

As I left the hospital after my last day working with her, I thought about the surgeon I’d worked with. She was a calm and patient teacher – something that is rare. She had saved many lives. She had seen the inside of the body many times. Her hands could tell the difference between a fat glob and a cancer by feel alone. I’d seen her talking to patients with a patience you don’t find in all surgeons. I’d seen her interacting with all levels of hospital personal with a respect and kindness that was genuine. I’d heard her talk through her clinical reasoning; it was thorough. I’d seen her do surgery; she excelled. She was exactly what I’d call an excellent surgeon. I would have no hesitation sending my patients or family to her because I knew she’d treat them well and operate with precision. She was the first surgeon to go on my mental surgeon wall of fame. After that first day waiting outside her office, I’d decided to construct my own wall of fame (for surgeons and other types of physicians) because the one I’d seen in the hospital was outdated.

Autonomy In Medicine

Set Up

I’ve been thinking of patient autonomy and the humanness of physicians a lot recently. In my short time training to be a doctor, I’ve had many experiences that have brought these topics to light. Here are a few examples:

  • An attending physician told me he usually first recommends pills to women seeking birth control because he believes that women find it reassuring to have their period every month. Odd perspective as my experience as a woman is that some women find periods reassuring and many find them annoying. Odd perspective as my short time in his clinic showed implant and injectable birth control methods as the most common forms of birth control requested and used by patients. Odd perspective as research has shown LARC (which include implants and IUDs and NOT birth control pills) have greatly decreased unwanted pregnancies because they’ve removed the mishaps of having to remember to take a pill every day. Medicine is complex. It requires both keeping up with research and checking your personal beliefs at the door. The approach I’ve seen most physician take when discussing birth control is to outline the different available birth control options so patients can decide themselves which is best for them.  
  • I overheard an attending physician talking to a resident physician about a D&C they did recently. A D&C is a procedure that can either be used to end a pregnancy early on or clear a miscarriage that occurred early in pregnancy. The patient these physicians were discussing had the procedure to end pregnancy. The resident physician stated that she thought the patient was looking for validation from the attending physician for choosing to have the procedure. The attending physician shrugged. I (medical student) asked what the attending physician had told the patient. The attending physician said, “She doesn’t need to give me a reason for the D&C. I told her she doesn’t need to give me a reason to terminate the pregnancy.” I found this statement to be a powerful example of approaching medicine without imposing personal beliefs on a patient.
  • An attending physician walked out of a patient room and told me the patient’s problem was that she was naïve. This was his reaction to the patient (a pregnant woman) planning to visit friends/family in another city while in the third trimester of her pregnancy. The patient had gained too much weight during pregnancy. She also had high blood pressure at this appointment. When asked the patient described improving her diet. The physician laughed at her when she described eating salad. In self-defense, the patient then described eating very healthy-sounding salads. The patient’s trip would delay the follow up blood pressure reading the physician wanted by two days. The physician did not explain why he was concerned about hypertension specifically in the last weeks of pregnancy. I wondered why he didn’t recommend that the patient monitor her blood pressures with a home blood pressure cuff and bring in a log of her blood pressures when she was able to schedule her next appointment. It seemed the risk of delaying a blood pressure reading in the clinic by two days might be outweighed by the benefit of social support during the final weeks of pregnancy. I questioned the choice of “naïve” as his diagnosis. Why should she know about preeclampsia if he didn’t tell her? Naïve is a loaded term and isn’t one I’d be quick to use to describe a pregnant and uninsured woman with friends/family in multiple cities. Medicine is a team sport. Patients are the captains and physicians are the coaches. It’s important to remember that the patient is part of the team and that while they don’t bring medical knowledge, they do bring life knowledge.
  • The patient told the attending physician that they stopped their antipsychotic medications. The physician recommended that the patient continue taking their medications. The patient refused. The attending and the patient came up with a plan to watch for warning signs that the patient’s psychosis was returning. The patient continued to attend group therapy even though they stopped their medications. This allowed the group therapist to send a community crew out to the patient’s home to check on the patient when that patient showed psychotic behavior at the online group therapy session. The patient did not self-identify that their psychosis was returning. However, because they continued to attend group sessions they were still connected to care and were brought to the emergency room before their psychosis led to self-harm. I found this case an excellent example of a physician respecting autonomy while also trying to prevent serious health outcomes for her patient.

Reflection

Medical school, residency, and being a physician teach us to solve complex problems. They teach us the complexities of the human body and how to cure diseases and treat symptoms. They teach us to think critically and sift through data efficiently. They provide us with guidelines and treatment recommendations. But, medical school, residency, and practicing medicine don’t and can’t teach us the complexity of each patient. They can’t give us the ability to foresee the future or understand patients’ life goals better than patients do themselves. And, despite our great knowledge as physicians, we can’t (and will never) have all the answers. Despite extensive training, medical research, and detailed guidelines medicine is still decided by humans (yes, physicians are just humans) and is (therefore) based partly on intuition, experience, and practiced guessing.

In medicine we are fixated on being right. Our goal is to reduce suffering, cure disease, and help patients navigate illness. And while as doctors we strive to cure, as humans we know that life can be more complex than curing. As humans we know life is paired with death. As humans we know not all questions have an answer and not all problems have a solution (at least yet). And as humans we know that health, sickness, healing, recovery, pain, and death are individual experiences that share commonalities across individuals but (ultimately) are unique experiences that each person endures differently.

In my short time in the hospital, I’ve already observed patients losing their autonomy. I’ve seen patients’ wishes ignored and explanations of why skipped or glossed over. I’ve seen us (medical experts) angered when patients don’t follow all our recommendations, insulted when we’re asked why, and forceful that our way is the only right way. And I’ve seen patients suffer. I’ve seen patients suffer taking our recommendations and I’ve seen them suffer when they refused our recommendations. And while suffering seems to be a part of some points in all lives, it also seems that sometimes in addition to our patients suffering we (physicians) push our patients to accept a treatment plan that is discordant with their values and life goals. It seems sometimes that we add to suffering by piling on shame or judgement.

In medical school, in residency, and as physicians we are taught to find the truth and to be right and to be directive. We are taught to recommend the best medicine has to offer. Yet, the best options based on evidence are not always the best option for an individual patient. And even if they seem right, the best options are not foolproof. The best options are based on probabilities, percentages of effectiveness and likelihood of reducing disease or preventing further harm. Probabilities are helpful, but they are not certainties.   

I’ve been thinking of medical recommendations and patient autonomy and the humanness of doctors because medicine can be hierarchical. It can be rigid with the attending physician setting the law; a mix of other players like nurses, medical students, and resident physicians in the middle; and the patient disempowered.

There are more cases than I presented above that I’ve experience which illustrated the complexities of patient autonomy and the humanness of doctors. Medical school is a whirlwind of learning. What I’ve come to discover, however, is that all the learning isn’t strictly medical. I’m also learning how I’d like to conduct myself when I’m an independently practicing physician, the ethics of medicine, and the challenges of working in a field where the outcome is dependent on the efforts of all team members.

As I reflect on the hierarchy and the complexity of medicine, if I could hold one piece of advice for myself as my training continues it would be to ensure my understanding of medicine is excellent while also remembering that patients are autonomous individuals. This advice reminds me that my job is ultimately to help people navigate the complexities of health and illness. This advice acknowledges that patients can say “no” and that the “why” is just as important as the “right answer.” This advice helps me to remember that my patients and I are a team. And just as I can decline or refer a patient to another physician if I am not comfortable with a patient’s request, my patient can also decline my recommendations or seek the medical expertise of another.

The Psychiatric Rotation

Disclosure: The patient story here was written with a patient I saw in mind, but the details have been changed to protect anonymity. The story is reflective of many patients I saw during my psych rotation and while working in the ED. You will note that I chose nonbinary pronouns. This is because brain illnesses (just like many illnesses of other organs) set in regardless of gender. Brain diseases, like many other diseases, are related to genetics, life experiences, and other social and environmental factors. A tricky aspect about brain diseases is that we aren’t exactly sure how most of them develop and we are quite far from having a cure.

I looked down at them lying on the stretcher in an ED bed. They were snoring quietly, and their face was neatly framed by their hair. Their eyes were closed, and they looked peaceful. I didn’t have much time to ponder the full circle that this scene represented and the eerie foreshadowing of the end of my psych rotation. They had received the magic 5-2, 5mg Haldol and 2 mg Ativan. Haldol is an antipsychotic that is sedating and Ativan a benzo that’s also sedating. In other words, the patient was chemically restrained. Put again, they were put to sleep for a short time to end their psychosis. And a scary psychosis it must have been as it was filled with delusions of people hurting them and murdering children. We shall call this patient The Singer.

I’d seen The Singer awake and stable during the first few days of my psychiatry rotation, weeks before I saw them sedated. When I first met them, they were being discharged from the psychiatric inpatient unit of the hospital. They’d been in the hospital for weeks. They’d been restrained many times. They’d spent a good chunk of their stay believing the hospital staff were hurting them. When I met them, they didn’t have those delusions. They were looking forward to finishing a song they’d started writing before entering the hospital. They were looking forward to going back to their job and were inspired to possibly start biking again. They were discharged from inpatient to home with quetiapine and an intensive outpatient treatment plan (dialectic behavioral therapy group sessions). Quetiapine is an antipsychotic. Did you know most drugs in its class are effective about 20%-50% of the time? That’s not a passing test grade. But, then again, 20% of patients helped is better than zero. And, of course, medications only have a chance of working if you take them.

As my psychiatry rotation marched along, I changed from inpatient psychiatry to outpatient psychiatry. I’d see The Singer in the outpatient setting too. I observed their dialectic behavioral therapy session (group therapy focused on developing social skills and strategies to manage emotions). I interviewed them at their medication follow-up meeting. At that meeting, they told us they’d stopped their quetiapine. They didn’t want to take it. They didn’t like it. We could not and were not going to force The Singer to take their medication. They complained about not being themselves when taking the medication. I couldn’t blame them because quetiapine is sedating and does sometimes make people feel flat, emotionless. The psychiatrist counseled The Singer on looking for signs that they might be slipping into psychosis again. The Singer identified not sleeping as one of the triggering factors. I worried for them. I worried their delusions would return if they weren’t on quetiapine.

After outpatient psychiatry, I transitioned to the consult service which determines if patients in the ED need psychiatric hospital admission and provides psychiatric evaluation of patients anywhere in the hospital. I was with the consult service when I saw the sedated version of The Singer in the ED. The Singer had been sedated because they were not safe. Their delusions of rape had returned. They were agitated and not taking care of themselves. They were making risky decisions. We hoped to help them by admitting them to the hospital.

I knew The Singer was a musician because the ED was the third setting in which I’d seen them; the first time I met them, they told me they were a singer.  I knew their living situation and their hobbies because I’d talked to them about them. I knew why they had stopped taking their medications and I knew that part of the reason their psychosis had returned was because they’d stopped taking quetiapine. After leaving their ED room, I drafted the psychiatry consult note that would be a record used as justification for involuntarily admission to the hospital for stabilization. We’d come full circle, The Singer and I. I started my time on psychiatry with them being discharged from inpatient treatment and I was ending my rotation with them being admitted again to inpatient treatment. Same cause. Similar presentation as last time. Had we made progress? How many times would The Singer repeat this cycle? I reflected on the fact that chronic illnesses are just that, a chronic struggle to be well. A chronic ebb and flow of good and bad days.

The ED consult note I wrote about The Singer was the first psychiatry note where I left the mental status blank and simply said they were chemically restrained at the time of consult. The mental status is the bulk of a psychiatry note. It’s where you summarize a patient’s emotions, thoughts, words, and behavior. A psychiatry note without a mental status exam is quite limited. Psychiatry is about talking to patients to understand their feelings, thoughts, and emotions. It is almost impossible to evaluate for feelings, thoughts, and emotions if you can’t or don’t speak to a patient. Sure, when patients aren’t sedated, you can observe them or try to use writing or sign if you can’t speak to them formally. But, talking is the core of psychiatry. Psychiatry is the one field of medicine that does not forget to ask the patient’s opinion. I reflected on that bit. It reminded me of the key lesson I hoped to remember on future rotations when time was crunched and my patience strained – you have to talk to patients in order to know their thoughts and story. It may sound simple. Perhaps it is. Perhaps the pile of labs and medications and interventions that occur in the hospital make it difficult to always remember that patients are people who got sick. The sickness doesn’t remove the fact that they might be a singer or a biker, it just adds another layer to them as a person. Seems straightforward. We’ll if it remains straightforward at the end of a 13-plus hour shift on surgery.

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.

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.

Empathy

One busy day in the emergency department (ED) we had a psych patient in a hallway bed. I don’t remember if he was visiting us to stay safe while struggling with suicidal thoughts or if he had come to the ED for some other mental health reason. We try to put patients with mental health complaints in a room as soon as possible, but sometimes the hallway is all we can do for a few hours. This patient fled even though his condition required him to stay in the hospital. He outran hospital security and escaped hospital grounds. Police brought him back to the ED.

I’d seen him sitting on a stretcher in the hall before he fled, staring into space calmly. When the police brought him back, he was slumped forward in a wheelchair with blood running down his shins. He hadn’t had those scrapes before he fled and they caught him. I knew they must have tackled him, but I couldn’t say because I wasn’t there. Later, I’d rinse those scrapes and the ones on his torso, arms, and hands. Nothing too deep, but the iron smell of blood was strong. The patient was NOT angry about the scrapes; he just didn’t want his mother to see him until he was clean again. I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes the price seems steep for safety and medical treatment.

It was a terrible feeling to see someone start in the ED without a scape and then end up with many before their stay was done. I was shaken. I spoke to a coworker about it. I like to discuss things during shift so everything that happened stays at the hospital when I leave. My coworker listened to me carefully and acknowledged the challenging aspects of the situation. It’s always hard to see someone’s mind betray them and, in their worst moments, need restraint from medical staff or police. It’s hard knowing that the violence is part of the route to recovery. My coworker said, “It’s okay to be bothered. If you weren’t, then you’d know it was time to leave this job. When you don’t feel empathy anymore, it’s time to change careers.”  

Empathy is a harsh beast. I believe most of us are able to ignore empathy at least some of the time because it is too much to always feel our emotions and, also, those of someone else. Which has led me to ask several questions about empathy’s nature. How is empathy turned on and off? Is there a time when empathy is out of place? Is it right to push empathy aside to protect oneself? Why are some people more empathetic than others? What does being very empathetic say about a person? Can empathy be taught and untaught?

The Snowy Paths of the Brain

Imagine a scenario in which there is a steady snow. In this hypothetical, the snow never stops and it has already accumulated several feet on the ground. In this place you have a house, a barn with animals, and a woodshed.

Imagine it is a day filled with the regular chores of a house and barn in Vermont. The first time you trudge out to the barn in the morning it’s hard to blaze the path through the thigh-high snow, but as you go out again and again—to feed the animals, to give them water, to collect eggs, to clean out the stalls—the path becomes more packed and easier to travel with each pass. Even though it’s snowing, the path between your house and the barn stays well-groomed because you travel it so often.

Now, imagine you have to get wood for the woodstove. You start down the well-defined path to the barn and, then, veer off into the snow to go to the woodshed. The first time you go to the woodshed, it’s a tough slog through deep snow. Subsequent trips are easier. You only need to get wood once over the course of the day, even though it took you many trips to get it, so hours after collecting the wood the trail you made is starting to disappear under fresh snow. By bedtime, the path has completely disappeared because you didn’t retravel it that day.

The pathways in your brain are like the trails between the buildings on the snowy property described above (credit for this analogy goes to my anatomy and physiology professor this semester, Dr. Matt). As children, we are building many pathways while at the same time eliminating unused pathways. The amount and rate of forming new pathways and connections in the brain slows with age but, even when we’ve lived long enough to be wise, our brain continues to reshape itself. The formation of new pathways, strengthening of others, and pruning (eliminating) of infrequently used routes in the brain is called “neuroplasticity.”

Neuroplasticity, the resiliency and reshaping of our brain, is one reason researchers worry so much about children who don’t have access to many learning opportunities or live is stressful family situations. These experiences, or lack of experiences, shape the children’s minds for the rest of their lives. It’s easier to be ready for the learning done is school, if before you start your brain is used to hearing stories and practicing words and math. It’s easier to be ready for more school and job responsibility if you were lucky enough to master elementary school. It’s easier to know how to be confident, happy, and kind if you’ve experienced those things many times.

Neuroplasticity is also part of the reason why drug addiction is considered a disease and is so difficult to beat—drugs can change the pathways in our brains. Once someone is addicted to drugs, their brain is literally wired to want, seek, and (even) need the drug to function normally. It’s hard to avoid a path you know well and that has become central to your existence. For example, how often do you change the route you take to work everyday?

Neuroplasticity is also more general in a way I find inspiring. To me, it’s evolution’s way of giving us one more reason to be hopeful. The idea that we can reshape our brains if we’re will to trudge enough times to forge a new connection is awesome. It’s also amazing that if we try hard enough to stop using a pathway, it will weaken. This gives us fantastic opportunity for life-long learning and self-growth. It means we can train ourselves to understand new things, act differently, and even alter our response to specific situations. It means that we can discard habits and build new ones if we are willing to put in the energy to tackle the snow of our mind. Life isn’t static and I find it inspiring that we (individuals) need not be either.

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.