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.  

Night Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springtime Rambling

My goodness how quickly time passes. It’s hard to believe that the last time I wrote was in the dead of a cold, dark winter—the hallmark of New England. I won’t bore you with the reasons why there was no time to write for so long, except to say that I know a great deal more about equilibrium, acid-base reactions, electromagnetism, circuits, batteries, optics, quantum mechanics, and special relativity than I did in February. Science.

Spring arrived in Vermont with the timidity of a mouse crossing a barren stretch—one step forward, three steps back. But, the soft, new leaves are starting to unroll; the grass needs to be cut, the flower gardens need weeding, and the fruit trees fill the air with soft scents. It’s the lilacs more than the tulips and daffodils that make me think the warm weather will stay a while.

The winter was long and cold. I dared not count the gray days that melted into rainy days between frost and flowers. It goes without saying that spring is a time of new beginnings and the return of the sun.

How I missed the sun! When I went on a walk today rays of golden light danced on the path between the yellow-new, pink fresh leaves. The spirals of young ferns lined the walkway and the damp mix of old leaves and new growth saturated the air. I paused on a bridge over where the river meets the lake. There in the flooded marsh lands a fish swam almost lazily in circles. It was over a foot long. A fin lined its back waving back and forth like a ruffle along its spine as it waved its tail. What a bold fish to be out in the open in eagle, kingfisher, and heron territory!

I’m sure you guessed, but the sun makes me think of Paraguay. I completed my one-year anniversary of my return to the States in April. This is my first full spring in Vermont in many years. And the humming of the frogs, bugs, and birds make me think that this coming year will not only be as productive as the last, but more hopeful.

It is a new beginning because I’m taking my learning out of the classroom. Not so long ago I started running as an EMT. I’m still quite a newbie, but I’ve learned that every patient is a puzzle, and that solving each puzzle is more thrilling than anything else I’ve yet encountered. To realize what I can do to help someone by looking at a few measures—for example breathing, pulse, and blood pressure—is far more interesting than piecing together the clues of a physics exam question.

I’ve been thinking these days about how much I’ve learned since last spring. This time last year, I could not have told you what a healthy blood pressure was or if 5 was basic or acidic on the pH scale. Today I know those things and a great deal more. But, for some reason, Plato’s Socrates and his comment about what makes one wise has been on my mind as I take my spring walks, a translation of which reads:

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

The more I learn about the human body and illness the more I realize how much I don’t know. And what I’ve come to see, now that the frost has cleared, is that the doctorhood quest will not end when I pass my last board exam. It’s a quest for knowledge and better understanding that will only end when I stop practicing medicine. And despite the weight of learning so much for so long, the length and breadth of my journey does not seem daunting. I know that even if there are stretches like a Vermont winter as I make my way, they will always be followed by spring. After spring comes summer. And summer is full of life.

Photo Credit: my father

 

Pulling Up the Bootstraps

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the anxiety, anger, and sadness I’ve felt since the 45th president of the US took office. It blows my mind how quick he began attacking:

  • Women: protection against discrimination, protection against violence, access to health care, freedom of choice
  • Everyone who needs health care and isn’t floating in money (aka most people): affordable health insurance, access to health care, security for those most in need of care
  • Immigrants: melting pot
  • Native Americans: protection of their land, respect of their culture
  • Americans living abroad: ambassadors, protection of foreign service officers abroad and American expatriates
  • The media: transparency, truth
  • Science: climate change (um, like come on…must we really repeat the “Earth is round” history?)…

…the list grows with each passing hour.

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier on January 21. It was inspiring to see so many people energized to fight for human rights. But, I wondered, “Are we too late? Where were we between August and November 2016?”

The answer came in a common phrase:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

America has never been perfect. We were founded by people who were fleeing oppression, who in turn stole land from the people already here. We won independence proclaiming high ideals, but enslaved millions of people, conquered others, and fought dirty wars with our southern neighbors and across the globe. We ended up a world power, but we still fell short of our ideals—all people in this country do not have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imperfect America has always strived to be better. We eliminated slavery, we changed legislation to give all citizens the right to vote, we’ve made net improvements in the rights of all minorities and women in this country, we’ve made progress protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA community; we’ve achieved many other wonderful things. But what we’ve done is not enough.

After much contemplation, I am certain that we are not too late. Perhaps Trump’s election was a necessary evil. It made me fall to dark places. And in the dark, I saw so clearly what had been easy to ignore in the gloom of modern America. In recent times, I and many people like me have been lethargic. We plodded along accepting what is even though it is not good enough.

The 2017 inauguration woke me. I saw the stars. And I’ve joined the struggle to improve this Nation. Regretfully, like a large mass starting from rest, I’m off to a slow start. I’m still not entirely sure what my role is and will be, but I know I have one.

On one hand, I’m already doing good work. I’m forging along on the Doctorhood Quest because my vision of delivering primary care services to underserved populations only becomes more vivid as the days pass. I will not let a man with disregard for the life and wellbeing of others allow millions of people to be cut off from the health care services they need and deserve. Also, in my current professional life, I help ensure that homeless young adults and at risk youth have the resources they need to build their own success. On the other hand, I know that I must do more than just study and work.

I have some ideas for action. Small stepping stones. I do not know where exactly I’ll end up or how my rejuvenated commitment to improving my country will unfold. All I know is that America has never chosen the easy path, but we are brave. I’m brave. It’s time to pull up those bootstraps, not just to elevate myself, but also as many as will come with me.

I’m proud that the momentum of the Women’s March has, thus far, translated into sustained action to fight for human rights. Let us stay together and be strong. Let us not leave anyone behind or push anyone who is part of us down. Let us continue to not only talk, but also do. As Margret Mead put it:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So my question, what are you going to do?