Holding a Brain in Your Hands

My first semester of medical school I went to the anatomy lab 2, 3, 4, sometimes more times a week. Sometimes twice a day. In our anatomy lab we were split into groups and each assigned a cadaver for dissection. Cadavers are people who donated their bodies upon death to science, we call them “donors” in our lab. The 20 donors in our lab were once 20 people who had the vision to let us, 120 aspiring doctors, disassemble the human body so that we could intimately understand how it fits together.

The idea of cutting apart a human, even if they are dead, is disgusting to most people—including all of us who showed up to anatomy lab the first day. It never got easier to dissect my donor. I spent a little bit of each hour in lab wondering who my donor had been in life and if she had any idea what happens in an anatomy lab when she decided to donate her body. Yet, now that I’m done with anatomy lab and have had months to stew on my experiences there, I can’t imagine not dissecting a cadaver as part of my training to become a physician. Let me share one, relatively low on the gruesome scale, experience to illustrate how profoundly moving and informative it was to be able to explore a human body piece-by-piece.

Toward the end our months in the anatomy lab it was time to open the skull and see the brain of our donor. Weeks before that we had dissected the spine, opening up the vertebral column so we could see what the spinal cord looked like. Each week of lab leading up to the day we opened the skull was spent tracing nerves from the spinal cord and brain to each section of the body we had examined. Nerves look like strings, specifically they look like white, cotton strings soaked in oil. We spent many hours memorizing the names of those strings (the nerves) and their paths through the body.

So, on the day we finally got to open the skull we understood how the brain was connected to every muscle and structure in the body. We knew intellectually how they were connected but, also, physically how they were connected. Our hands had followed the course of many nerves until their routes were as familiar as the path of a zipper on a favorite jacket. We could imagine the journey of the nerves through the body without seeing them. Hence, we felt ready, excited, and nervous to meet the globe that controlled it all. We were ready to see the brain.

You can hold a brain in both your hands. It fits there comfortably. It weights about 3 pounds. In other words, it’s about the size and weight of an average cantaloupe. Such an unassuming structure for the burden it carries. It is our brain, in the end, that makes each of us who we are. It shapes our personality, our feelings, and our behavior. Without our brain we simply take up space. We can’t even breathe.

When I held our donor’s brain in my hands, I knew it would be the first and last time I held a human brain. I didn’t hold it for long, but I felt its weight. Its actual weight as gravity pulled down on it, but also the weight of the life it had traveled. Whoever my donor had been in life, it was the brain in my hands that had guided her. Every person has a brain something like the one I was holding. We each have our own globe of cheese, an organ science still doesn’t know much about, that pretty much decides everything in our lives. To think, I was holding the center of human nature in my hands. The feeling isn’t something I’ll forget.

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.

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.

Goodbye 20s

Today I turn 30. I find myself in a place I didn’t dream of when I was 20. I live in a world I couldn’t have imagined when I was 10.

I’m in the throes of my first year of medical school. A whirlwind of biochemistry, anatomy, patient evaluation techniques, nerd jokes, and discussions of ethics and why access to health care is a right. But, that’s not all. This morning, I woke to the smell of cinnamon rolls and a bouquet of flowers. Since August, I didn’t just fall down the rabbit hole of medicine, but I might have fallen in love.

October last year, the last October of my 20s, I was forging through medical school applications. Diving into interviews. Wondering if any school would take me. If I was good enough. If I was going to ever be a doctor. I think the feelings I had while applying to medical school aptly summarize my 20s. The 10 years between 19 and 30, I spent self-doubting, reflecting, and growing. The doubt is largely gone now—for that, I’m stoked. My personality won’t allow me to stop reflecting and attempting to be a better, even as I race toward being old, and I think that’s good.

This October comes with its own challenges and misgivings, but there is something surprisingly settling about 30. It helps that a weight lifted when I started school. And though I spend hours daily learning 3-4 letter acronyms that stand for proteins that stand for whole signaling pathways that keep you alive when they work and make you sick when they go wrong, I’m happy underneath it all. I’m happy because I’m exactly where I hoped I would be last year. I’m happy because where I am feels right. It is not often that life follows the course of my plan, so this birthday I’d like to take a moment to celebrate just being here.

Today, I’m grateful for all the people who make me feel loved. I’m grateful for the friends who are there when I need them and who share my joyous moments, who share my love for jokes only a health science dweeb can begin to find funny, and who listen patiently to the latest episode in the chronicles of kombucha making. I’m grateful for the people who have supported me, helped me learn, and pushed me to think differently and be better.

With the joy of being here in mind, bring it on 30. I’m ready for a new decade.

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.

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.

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 Sunny Side

Last week I flew to Chicago for my last (most likely) medical school interview. I had the window seat on the plane and, surprisingly, wasn’t sleeping as we approached Chicago. I was excited to spend 24 hours in the city and get a feel for a place I hardly knew. I gazed out the window as we started our decent.

Before we decreased our altitude, we zipped along above the clouds, through a bright blue sky with sparkling sun. A thick layer of clouds was below us. The view of bright blue above white divided by shining sun rays conjured images of every version of “seeing the light” imaginable—end of the tunnel, heaven’s gates, nirvana…to name a few. The clearness and stark lines between the blue and white were beautiful.

Slowly, the plane’s path dipped so that we began to approach the clouds. We must have been far above them because it took us a while before we got close to the wall of white. I knew the clouds were a penetrable, gaseous/small particle entities, but they looked solid and impassable. We approached them quickly, and soon the sunny view of blue was obscured and the windows were masked in white. We were in the middle of the clouds and there was nothing to see.

Our journey continued rapidly and, in no time, we were below the clouds, a snowy and gray scene was visible below us. The sun seemed to have vanished, leaving a stark winter city scene. There were no leaves on the trees and the buildings added to the gray of the air between the land and the clouds. It looked cold and brooding. If I hadn’t just observed the sunny blue above I wouldn’t have known it could exist in the same place as we now were.

I smiled as I stared at the houses and streets, a bird’s eye view of the cityscape. I guess it’s just a matter of knowing where to look to find the sun. I held the vision of sunlight within me as I caught the train from the airport to where I’d spend the night before my interview and school tour. I’d been nervous before starting my trip, but I wasn’t anymore. I felt lucky.

Marathon Goals

I remember the conversation I had with my best friend that sealed my desire to become a doctor. We were in our relatively new apartment, in the living room that was an extension of the kitchen. The city sun of Washington, DC filtered in the large windows and onto the bedraggled plants we had lined along the window sills. I’d been contemplating the idea of entering medicine for months. The thought came to me shortly after I started working in health communications. What I liked most about health communications was the medical research, knowledge of life, and opportunities to interact with people. I wanted to find a way to fill my days with those things rather than dabble in them. My friend worked in a primary care office, on the administrative side. She encouraged me as I talked about possibly switching careers. “You’d be a good doctor,” she said. Thus, began my marathon goal to become a doctor, a process I call “the doctorhood quest.”

That conversation was 5 years ago. Recently, what started as a thought became a real possibility. I’ve been accepted to medical school. There’s still the question of financing and survival, but with an acceptance to school, there is hope that the rest of the journey will fall into place. I will be a doctor.

Marathon goals. I’ve always been a planner and as a runner I prefer long distance. But, there is something uniquely challenging about making goals that will take over a decade to accomplish. There is no way to know the future, and absolutely no way to predict a future as distant as 10 years from now. But, somehow, the uncertainty and hidden challenges that the doctorhood quest presents have not deterred me. I reflected on the prospect of doctorhood during my years of Peace Corps service and, once back in the States, I started jumping through the hoops of medical school applications (I had no science background when I began). The long wait to medical school acceptance has only made me more excited to start my studies. The doctorhood quest isn’t even half over—medical school, residency, and board exams will be the longer leg of the journey. Yet, as I sit on an acceptance letter and wait to hear back from more schools, it’s thrilling that I’ve come this far.

People around me, to me or to others, often comment on how intelligent one must be to get into medical school. I usually remain silent, but smirk inwardly. I believe “smart” comes in many forms and not all are suited to medicine. I’m disinclined to suggest one person is smarter than another because life has shown me that humans have different gifts and society needs all of them to function. But, more specifically, my journey has shown me that medical school admittance has less to do with how smart someone is and more to do with how resilient they are. The doctorhood quest requires you to be gritty and determined. It demands that you jump up and try again each time you fall while tackling the perils of the road.

If resiliency and grit is the secret to pursuing marathon goals without losing hope, how does one get those? Experience and inward reflection are my guesses. We learn by doing and we expand our scope of understanding the more different experiences we have. Nothing proved this more to me than my years in Paraguay. I am not the same person I was when I first stepped off the plane in that hot, humid country. The people there showed me how they found happiness; they defined respect and God and love in ways completely different from any definition I’d ever encountered for those things; and, above all, they exposed me to foods, ways of life, and shared moments I could never have imagined.

Experience is the foundation for growth, but to truly grow one must reflect on those experiences. Paraguay, once again, taught me reflection. It is impossible to describe just how lonely and hard it can be to be the only one from your culture in a foreign place unless you’ve experienced it. Your world is turned upside-down and every definition and rule you ever thought was a given is no longer in play. Your default becomes mild confusion and curiosity about the new culture in which you have fallen. Most importantly, you are forced to examine how your culture does things and why. Once you start picking apart your host and native cultures, it’s an easy, logical jump to start evaluating and thinking about different aspects of your personal life—like your interactions, feelings, and activity choices. Once you build in time to reflect on experience you can start to shape your path more purposefully.

The secret to marathon goals is accepting you can’t know the future, but you can influence the present. The secret is celebrating small victories, making educated guesses about the best course of action today, and seeking out the people, places, and experiences that rejuvenate you when your hope falters. We do not achieve marathon goals alone (it takes many helpers) but it is only from within ourselves that we find the strength to withstand what’s hidden behind each bend in the road.