The Moments We Have Together

I would think of her often after we met as I hurried down the hospital walls. I always hurry down the hospital halls…rarely because I needed to hurry, usually just because it’s nice to stretch my legs. Sometimes the memory of her bright eyes would shoot across my mind as I opened the electronic health record system to work on different patients.

She had come to the hospital with a stroke. I followed her during the few weeks after she was diagnosed, during her acute recovery in the hospital. I met her on the medicine floor and then wandered the hospital until I found the rehabilitation center wing where she was moved one night.

After the first day when I conducted a thorough history and assessment of the patient, my visits were just “social visits” – the term for checking in with a patient or their family for the singular purpose of offering support rather than providing a medical update. She hated the hospital and visiting hours started late in the morning. I’d visit her before her family could be with her to help pass some time until they came.

Strokes cause a range of outcomes. Her outcome was good; long-term she was a little weak and a little off balance but still sharp as a tack. Strokes are injuries to the brain. In the first week I followed her, she was very depressed. Strokes can do that. I sat with her in the morning as she described her terrible dreams. Flashbacks to her childhood. She had been a Jewish child in Nazi territory. She described hard times. Her husband had also been in that situation – he had lost his whole family in the concentration camps.

As our days together continued, the patient talked less about WWII and more about her family in the US. She talked about how wonderful her children were. How hard it was now that she was old and her friends were dying. When you get old and people start dying, she told me through her stories, there are fewer people who remember your life experiences. Fewer people who truly know the world you knew.

We chatted about the hospital food. The boredom of sitting in a hospital bed. How playing cards with her children was nice, but barely passed the time. As I got up to go, she’d say, “Come back tomorrow.”

I went back until my school schedule sent me to clinics rather than the hospital. Medicine and the hospital are busy. Healthcare is frustrating and terrible sometimes, even often. When I find myself falling into the pit of work that is any job but especially a job that involves dealing with people and clunky systems all day, I push myself to pause and remember why I went into medicine. The weeks this patient was in the hospital she was my light. I like to think I also helped take the edge off her hospital stay. Seeing patients through sickness is the highlight of medicine in my opinion. Not all stories end as well as hers, but all hospital stays can be made better by our shared moments.   

Echoes from the Third of Medical School

The click-click and rickety wheeze of plastic jarred me back to the present from my thoughts about what I wanted to say about finishing my third year of medical school. Even though it’d been 3 years since I operated an ambulance stretcher, I knew that sound like I knew my own voice. The stretcher sound was among the many I’d learned in the past years.

The third year of medical school was a robot period. A term coined by my sister back in our college years. A robot period is a time when you just do as if you were a robot because sometimes you just must get to where you’re going.

I’d ended my third year of medical school learning that the squeak of premature infants is distinct from the wails of infants born on time. I also learned that the cry if a one-year-old is different from the tears that well silently and then exposed loudly before a 5-year-old boy gets a shot.

Before the crying nuggets served by pediatrics were the perfect one-two, one-two sounds of the hearts I heard in family medicine. Or the easy wooshes of lungs moving air happily. In outpatient internal medicine, I discovered the crackling stiffness of arthritic knees.

Before that there was the more forceful woosh of the ventilator in the intensive care unit. Pushing air into the lungs of someone who was silent. That same person had once been a DJ. How odd it was to see them existing quietly when they’d been mixing beats and filling dancefloors for most of their life. Neurology is a dark specialty.

And there was the sizzle sound and burning flesh smell of the electric scalpel in the operating room. The sound of metal tools on metal trays. The snap of putting on rubber gloves and the crinkling of paper gowns as everyone took their assigned places for the operation.

On internal medicine, there were the patients yelling for help. Some of them knew they were yelling. Some were just trying to reconnect with their minds which were lost in the fog of being sick. The beep of heart monitors. The dull sound of lungs full of junk. Oxygen monitors and bed alarms dinging, dinging, dinging.

Before all that, were the screams of women in labor. Of babies announcing their successful arrival with a gurgle-cry. The patter of footsteps as nurses and doctors ran because a baby was coming faster than everyone thought it would.

And that brings us all the way back to the beginning of the year. To psychiatry, where adult tears fell to the sound of congested voices. Or flat voices trudging along telling the stories of visions that no one else could see.

All those sounds are behind me. Today, I find myself listening to bachata and reggaeton. The traffic hums outside of my window. I’m studying for another huge exam. Exams are old news, but this is my penultimate of medical school. It’s the final countdown at long last. It’s been such a noisy year.

Just before I finished the year, I pulled out my violin. I hadn’t played it for almost as long as I hadn’t operated an ambulance stretcher. The songs that were like oxygen in my teens came back slowly. My fingers were awkward on the strings and bow but the jig I’d always loved most bounced around the room just the same. If you do something enough, you don’t forget. If you practice, you get better. Third year of medical school is about practicing. And the best part of practice is not practice, but what you’ve learned after doing it. That’s where I am now. Really glad to have done the year while also certain I’d prefer to never do it again. I’m grateful for the things I learned and the people I met. But, mostly, I’m excited to move on to the next phase of the doctorhood quest.

My Experience Getting the COVID Vaccine

Disclaimer: If you’re looking for scientific information about COVID or the COVID vaccines, check out the CDC as a starting place for information. This post doesn’t address science or research surrounding COVID; it is simply a recount of my personal experience getting COVID and the COVID vaccines.

I got COVID almost a year before any vaccine was approved. To be honest, I was one of the luckiest people to catch the virus. I hardly had a fever. I did, however, spend hours lying on the floor too tired and nauseous to get up. I had to force myself to eat because every time I ate, I got sick to my stomach. My brain was foggy. My body drained. I didn’t feel short of breath but, breathing took more energy than usual. I thought about breathing more often than I did normally. I didn’t get diarrhea or lose my taste or gasp for breath like others did when they had COVID. Not once did I think I needed to go to the hospital because of the virus. And, as you can tell because I’m writing this, my case of COVID wasn’t fatal. And, since it was the height of COVID closures when I was sick, I hardly had to change my lifestyle to quarantine because I already wasn’t leaving the house. I was lucky because the subject I was studying in medical school at the time was easy, so I was able to study and pass my exams despite spending hours lying on the floor with my mind floating is some other universe. I was lucky because all the pieces that came together for me resulting in me not getting that sick did not come together for everyone who got COVID.

The first Moderna COVID shot was exciting. Finally, we had something to prevent COVID, that terrible infectious disease that had changed my world and threatened to make it impossible for me to study medicine. Finally, we might be able to prevent people from dying. I think I got a sore arm after that shot, nothing serious.

The second Moderna COVID shot was also exciting because it marked a completion of my duty to prevent COVID from spreading as best I could in addition to wearing a mask and social distancing. I felt like I was contributing to humanity while also protecting myself – how uncommon it is to be able to put yourself first while also helping others.

But, also, the second Moderna COVID shot wiped me out. I passed out the night after getting it. To be honest, I knew I was going to pass out, so I lay on the floor before I fell. I lay on the floor for what seemed like an eternity before the chills and nausea passed enough for me to crawl back to bed from the bathroom. That was a rough night, but I knew it’d be over in 24 hours because I wasn’t sick; my body was just doing exactly what it was supposed to do. My body was making antibodies (those protective proteins that help fight off infections). My body was responding to the vaccine. I felt awful, but still thought science was cool. I mean, we can make our bodies build defenses before we get sick—that’s kind of magic.

Recently, I got my booster Moderna COVID shot. It also hit me hard. I couldn’t sit up without feeling nauseous for at least the first 12 hours the day after I got it. All my joints and muscles ached. The feeling of the blankets against my skin was painful. It was 16 or 20 hours after the shot and two very long, hot showers; a day of maximum recommended Tylenol; and some Ibuprofen later when I finally started to feel like a tired version of my normal self. But, despite how awful I felt, the morning after the shot I was relieved because I knew I wasn’t sick. I was relieved because my reaction showed that I still had COVID antibodies. I was relieved because as bad as I felt, I knew it would pass in 24 hours. When we get sick, we don’t know how long it’s going to last. The uncertainty of illness is part of its trying nature. I’ve always like deadlines and end dates.

Everyone has different reactions to the COVID vaccines. I have a strong reaction, but by no means the strongest reaction. When I work in clinic some patients explain how fearful they are of their COVID vaccine reaction. Fear of feeling sick is valid. It sucks to be confined to bed for any amount of time. But when it comes to the COVID vaccine, it’s nice to know it’ll be short-lived. Just 24 hours, maybe 48 hours. When I had COVID my symptoms were mild, however the fatigue lasted for at least a month after the other symptoms subsided. For me, at least, feeling sick for 24 hours is acceptable knowing that I will decrease my chance of ever getting the real COVID again. I also can’t accept not being part of the group of people willing to try to stop COVID. It’s a legitimate feeling to dislike having a reaction to the COVID vaccine but, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to keep COVID at bay. If it takes getting a COVID booster every year that’s a small price to pay to prevent millions more people from dying from a disease we have a vaccine to help prevent.

Burnt

Her hands had become so numb she could no longer administer the eyedrops that kept the pressure in her eyes from getting too high. If her eye pressure got too high, she’d go blind. So, her eye doctor said she needed surgery if she couldn’t use the eye drops. There were two surgical options. One surgery would take an hour and she’d leave the operating room able to see. One would take 3 hours and she’d leave the operating room blind, requiring 4-6 weeks of recovery before her vision would return. She was lucky because she had family who already helped her a ton because her other health conditions had made independent living hard for her. For some reason, the insurance would only cover the 3-hour surgery that would leave her blind for over a month. The holidays were coming up. The family members that took care of her had kids. She refused to make them care for her while she was blind over the holidays. She postponed the surgery. Would she go blind before she could get her surgery? Is this the healthcare system we want?

~

The patient wasn’t COVID vaccinated. “What will you do to treat me if I get COVID?” she asked. I thought about the patient a resident had told me about. That patient had been dependent on family for care. His family didn’t vaccinate him. He got COVID. He came to the emergency room with trouble breathing and then went to the intensive care unit. He lived on the intensive care unit for a year. Eventually, his healthcare team cut a hole in his neck to put a breathing tube in because he needed it. They did everything they could to keep him alive. The resident said when the patient first came to the emergency room, he was a happy, funny soul. The patient lost his happiness slowly during the year he fought to breath. After a year of an entire hospital trying keep him alive, he died. When exactly did avoiding sickness fall out of favor? Do you ask what firefighters will do if you set fire to your house or do you make a concerted effort to not catch your house on fire knowing that firefighters will do their best to stop a fire if it occurs but are limited because fires are destructive and destroy houses and the people who try to stop them?

~

The patient asked, “Why are so many doctors retiring?” I wondered how he didn’t know the answer to that question already. It seems so obvious. Then, I realized he was not a medical student. Being a medical student is to have a front row seat for observing the current state of healthcare. What had I seen? Why did it seem perfectly logical to me that so many people were retiring from healthcare even as I was striving to make it my career?

Not just doctors and nurses, but everyone in healthcare seems to be retiring…

We report our COVID cases. Our COVID test rates. Our COVID survival rates after hospital admission. Our COVID deaths. Who was there to perform those tests, to care for those people when they came to the hospital, and to close the curtain when the ventilator wasn’t needed anymore? Healthcare workers. But, they were also there for all the other things too. The heart attacks. The stomach pain. The broken bones. The cancer. The normal healthcare screenings. They were there when people looked for help with their depression and their anxiety. Healthcare workers’ hours increased. They worked the job of two, three, four, and five people because the hospital was short-staffed before the pandemic hit. Again, healthcare workers were already working long hours and doing the work of several workers before COVID came. Then healthcare workers got sick. And the ones left standing worked for their sick colleagues, worked for themselves, and worked for the staff who were missing before the pandemic came. Wages stayed the same.

Housing and food got expensive for everyone, including healthcare workers. Healthcare workers missed the same performances, social events, and restaurants that everyone else was missing. Life got more expensive because everything including industry was disrupted by COVID. Healthcare wages stayed the same. Healthcare workers got sick. Sick leave was used up. Shifts were harder because healthcare was short staffed and there were more patients than before. And the patients were dying. And insurance didn’t want to pay for the treatments that patients needed, not that that was new, but it remained disheartening. And there was the need to wear masks at work. And to put on goggles and gowns and for healthcare workers to take extra time to protect themselves from infection. There was the risk of bringing COVID home after working in healthcare. Wages stayed the same.

People got sick. And healthcare workers got tired. Wages stayed the same. Hours were long. Vacations couldn’t be taken like they used to be taken. And just like their patients, healthcare workers got sick, tired, depressed, and anxious. Staff shortages increased in the hospitals and clinics.

People denied that COVID was real. People invented vaccines that helped prevent COVID infection. People refused to get vaccinated. People complained about wearing masks. People got tired of social distancing. People got sick. The intensive care unit was full. The psychiatric ward was full. The cardiac ward was full. Alcohol use disorder, diabetes, high blood pressure, and all the other medical conditions that always exist marched on because they don’t stop during a pandemic. Healthcare workers shouldered the workload of several workers each because some of their colleagues had left, some had died, and some were sick. Wages stayed the same.

In such an avalanche, how long would you have waited to change careers? For many, the answer was between 1 and 2 years.

~

There is always hope and healthcare has been grounded in hope since the beginning. But as a student so excited to become a physician I know that change must happen if hope is to materialize into lives saved. And for my sake and all the people who might need the hospital or a clinic in the coming years, let’s not make it take a healthcare collapse before we seriously consider how we might improve and restructure our healthcare system. I’d very much like some seasoned healthcare workers who are not completed burnt at my side when I start practicing as an independent physician because experience is gold in medicine. I’d also really like to have enough staff to care for patients without having to burn myself and burn my colleagues with the weight of too many lives in each of our two hands.

Together

Repost of a post I wrote for the Global Health Diaries, the blog of the Global Health Program at the University of Vermont Robert Larner M.D. College of Medicine and the Western Connecticut Health Network. Find the original here.

“Here, you can just about always find an internal medicine resident who speaks the patient’s language,” the resident I was working with said, smiling, “It’s amazing.” Another resident had just stopped by to say that one of their colleagues did, in fact, speak that obscure Southern Asian language the translation service did not cover that they needed for an acute patient. I smiled because it was amazing. This was exactly the type of place I’d wanted to train to become a physician.

It was standard that everyone on my teams during my internal medicine rotation had a different accent. And when two of us did have the same accent, our divergent places of origin and cultural backgrounds made up for the lack of difference in how our English sounded. What I liked most, was that in this hospital everyone came from different places – the patients, the nurses, the residents, the physicians, and the other hospital staff. Even in modern America, it’s somewhat uncommon to work in a hospital where the physician diversity almost reflects the diversity of the patients. The hospital where I did my internal medicine rotation in Connecticut was very close to having its physicians reflect the different groups of people who made up the greater community of the hospital.

One thing I found interesting upon returning to Vermont after almost a decade away was how much I missed the accents and the challenge of finding connection across cultural differences I’d experienced during my years in the Washington, DC and Paraguay. There was a subtle feeling of stagnation, almost boredom that crept into my professional life as I began my medical career in my home state. Of course, Vermont has pockets of diversity of all kinds but it’s not like living in an urban area or a foreign country.

After my second year of medical school, I moved to LCOM’s Connecticut campus. As I settled into my new community, I learned that where I lived in Connecticut was a melting pot that buzzed and hummed in ways that more homogenous communities do not.

What better time to dive into a diverse medical community than right after the release of the COVID vaccines? As I listened to the accents of the residents and attending physicians with whom I worked during my Connecticut internal medicine rotation, I was struck by how the medical community is just as connected as the general human community is connected. Afterall, COVID has definitively illustrated how communicable diseases can spread easily around the world. But, also, the speedy development and dissemination of the COVID vaccine showed how we humans can solve dire problems when the minds of people all around the world come together.

There was something unique about how my internal medicine teams came together to solve patient problems. Of course, good medicine transcends culture – some medications and interventions just work. But, in terms of decisions about how to interact with patients and their families, each of us brought our own cultural beliefs and backgrounds to our practice of medicine.

One of the neatest things about working with team members who aren’t like you, is that you’re forced to reflect on your own ways. You’re forced to examine other ways of being. And, in medical school where it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of disease states and medication dosages – I was grateful to be reminded of the humanness of the residents and attending physicians around me. And, also, to be reminded that my patients brought their humanity with them when they came to the hospital.

Most of the hours spent on internal medicine were dedicated to identifying the best course of treatment for our patients. But as rounds ended for the day, there was often the lucky opportunity to hear what medical school was like in other countries and how physicians from all round the world had come to find themselves in Connecticut. The walls of the hospital seemed less limiting when I realized that it had taken a global community to staff the hospital itself.

Pride and the Human Experience

The patient was muscular and wore coordinated clothing, both uncommon for someone admitted to the hospital. One of my tasks was to deduce his age from observation; the moment I saw him I knew it’d be hard. He was one of those mystical people who appear much younger than their age.

There are a series of questions we always try to ask our patients in the hospital. They seem silly, but you’d be surprised how often patients can’t answer all of them. “What’s your full name? Where are we? Why are you here? What’s the date?”

This patient made great eye contact. He sat on the edge of his bed with his spine perfectly straight. He used his hands when he spoke. He said his name purposefully. He stated our location without pause.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“I’m here to evaluate the hospital systems. I have a solution for your computers,” the patient said.

I looked at his wife who was sitting in a chair a surprisingly far distance from the hospital bed. She grimaced. “He’s been fixated on the idea of attending a business conference recently. I can’t seem to get him out of it.”

The neurology exam unfolded (an exam looking at nerve, brain, and muscular function). On the nerve and muscle function part the patient did well. He was nibble and coordinated. He was very strong. Especially for his age. However, his cognitive score was significantly below the normal level – low enough that despite our newness to testing cognitive function the other students and I were confident that he had scored low enough to count for a diagnosis of a memory disorder. How long had his memory been declining?

As I and the other medical students interviewed the patient, his wife interjected ever-so-politely when he denied he had any health concerns. She’d taken over multiple tasks to manage their household, slowly. Now she managed all the finances and everything else too. She mentioned that the patient would fly into a rage for almost no reason which was unlike the man she’d been married to for many years. He’d always been a calm man. He’d always been a connector and a successful man. He’d always been so well organized.

His memory and brain function were poor enough that the man could not complete all his activities of daily living (things like paying bills, buying groceries, among other things). This memory loss and brain function decline had been going on for over 6 months. In other words, the patient met the textbook definition of dementia.

~

The other medical students and I told the physician we were working with what we’d learned about the patient. The physician requested only the information that would change his management of the patient. So, in the end, we shared very little about what we’d learned about the patient. What makes medicine interesting (to me) is the story; however, diagnoses and treatment mostly depend on the distilled details of signs, symptoms, tests, and timeline.

~

The physician examined the patient. “What would you do if your house was on fire?” the physician asked.

“I’d go outside,” the patient said.

“Then what?” the physician asked.

“I’d communicate with people I know,” the patient said.

“Like who?” the physician asked.

“Well, I know some firefighters. They’re friends of mine. I’d probably talk to them,” the patient said. The room was silent for a few seconds. The physician watched the patient, but I watched the wife. Most of us would call 9-1-1 if our house was on fire. I hope.

~

When we left the room the physician said, “You didn’t tell me how bad he was!”

“You only asked for the information that would change your management of his condition,” I said.

As we discussed the patient in greater detail, the patient’s wife came out into the hall to show us a picture of her husband when he was still working. In the picture, he was dressed sharply and similarly to the physician I was working with. We all nodded and smiled. She looked at the picture with love, but her body was tense.

~

The vision of the wife holding up the picture of her husband stuck with me. I hoped she knew it was going to get harder. It was possible that her husband would have angry outbursts more frequently. It was certain that his memory and ability to function would decline. And it was unlikely that even that picture of him as a younger, healthy man would propel her through the remaining years of her husband’s decline if she didn’t have help. Dementia takes a toll on the loved ones of the person who is slowly losing their brain. There is no magic pill or procedure to fix the brain when it breaks in the way that causes dementia. Dementia is a progressive disease with a fatal end where, along the way, the person who began the illness is not the person who dies from it. Dementia reduces our ability to function and, also, transforms our personality.

Despite the frustration of memory loss, one thing that this patient illustrated and continues to strike me about people with dementia, is that they keep their pride much longer than many other aspects of their original personality. The vision of this patient sitting tall and answering our questions confidently floated in my mind next to the picture of him when he was younger. Why is pride something the brain clings to even as other functions are lost?

The patient’s wife noted that his outbursts most often occurred in moments when he realized he was forgetting things. In the beginning stages of dementia, many people are aware that their memory is going. I thought about how this patient’s wife must struggle to strike a balance between supporting the autonomy of her husband while also knowing he could not grasp the intricacies of complex concepts and decisions like he once could. When she looked at him, she seemed reflective. Perhaps she was recalling the grand times they’d had together. She also looked tired likely because their life together was more difficult at the time she brought him to the hospital than it had been previously.

The longer I stay in healthcare the more I come to realize that illness, while very personal to the person experiencing it, is not only an individual journey. For patients lucky enough to have friends and family at their side, their disease impacts their family and friends in profound ways. For patients alone in the world, their illness impacts those who care for them whether it be their primary care provider or their care team when they land in the hospital. And much like pride which clings on even as the brain becomes weak, the odd realization that illness is often a social experience lingers in my mind as a dark side of the human experience.

Grateful

I found myself lying on the floor. The sun had set but it was still early – a tragedy of New England once the summer fades. I was not tired or sad. My to-do list was as robust as ever and my goals circled high above my head, seemingly in the clouds. Yet, I was lying on the floor not even stretching. No music, podcast, book, or movie playing. To be fair, I spent a fair amount of time sitting on the floor (my preferred studying location is at my floor desk) so lying on the floor wasn’t that much of a change. It was the stillness and purposelessness of the activity that was unusual for me.

There was a period of my existence when I could not be still and had to always be actively engaged in something. However, the need for constant stimulation dissipated when I was in Paraguay and, I’ve often thought, “good riddance.” I recall my early 20s. I worked fulltime, studied in college fulltime, trained for marathons, went to parties, and built my first career. It was exhausting. It was the way of life I knew. The way of becoming successful. Of fulfilling the American dream. Then I moved to Paraguay where everything seemed so slow. Hours sitting and drinking terere in the shade. Hours spent sitting and sometimes chatting, often staring into space silently, sometimes cooking or napping. I came to enjoy rainy days where it is common for rural Paraguay to shut down. Rainy days were filled with lounging and drinking mate. I precisely remember the moment I realized that when the Paraguayans told me they were doing “nothing,” they meant it. What an odd thing nothing is.

I’ve reached that point in medical school where I’d rather it was over. That point when the hours of studying, sitting in the hospital, trying to learn everything I can, and testing to see if I know enough to care for my patients are quite tedious. I do NOT say this out of despair; I still know medicine is exactly what I want to do professionally. I still love patients and the puzzles they present, but I’m ready to be good at something again. I recall a similar feeling junior year of high school, junior year of college, 6 months into my first professional job after college, and 6 months into my life in Paraguay. There’s a time in all learning curves where it’s truly a terrible slog. That time when you’ve learned an unfathomable amount, still feel mediocre at managing what you know, realize you still have a ton left to understand, and know that it will still be a while before you’re “good at it.” Whatever the mysterious “it” is.

And that’s where the gratefulness comes in. I’m grateful these days because I’ve played this game before. I’m grateful because I know myself better than I did last time I played the game of learning something completely new. I’m grateful because I know already that I’m attracted to activities that seem impossible yet, at some point (after many days of struggle), I do wind up being excellent at them.

So, I found myself lying on the floor. It was junior year of medical school. It was the breaking point. It was about to be a landslide into graduation. In a couple of blinks, I’d start residency. I was closer to becoming a physician than I’d ever been. I lay on the floor contemplating the joy and misery of learning. I thought about some patients who had changed my worldview ever-so-slightly. I thought about the amazing teachings and mentors who I’d encountered while wandering about the hospital wards. I thought about the first day I showed up to work on an ambulance (my first clinical experience), years ago now. “I won’t let you kill anyone,” my chief had said then. I contemplated this. Soon, it would be I who had to prevent patients from dying if it could be done. That was kind of a big deal. I felt humbled. I had much to learn despite having learned so much. I was grateful for this moment of pause while lying on the floor. Life is quite a whirlwind when you seek out challenge. The secret, therefore, is to be grateful for the moments of calm when they come. Even the worst storms have eyes; I remind myself of to look for them.

A Cup of Coffee

I saw the physician I was working with return from the cafeteria with her normal cup of coffee and a second small coffee. She walked by our computer station and into the patient’s room.

The patient had been plagued by a headache that morning when I saw them, not long before the physician arrived with a cup of coffee. The patient had requested coffee because it usually helped with their headaches. Of course, they would get coffee with their breakfast tray later, but that could take hours.

The patient had had a rough year. They’d been in the intensive care unit several times after trying to kill themselves, the first time almost not surviving. They’d lost a child to overdose. Their life had other stress-causing features. The patient was calm when they were under our care, but they’d attacked their nursing staff earlier on during their hospital stay.  

When the physician returned to our computer station, I thanked her for getting the patient a cup of coffee. Little acts of kindness like that are not as common as you’d like them to be. The hospital is full of burnt-out thoughtful people (also known as staff). It’s also full of people with all kinds of diseases. The diseases of the brain can be quite tough. When a psychiatric illness sends people to the hospital, there’s the suffering of the patient and there’s the challenges that they sometimes pose for medical staff. The brain is a powerful organ and when it gets sick it can do all kinds of things. As such, when healthcare staff are overworked (which is always these days) and when the hospital is full (which is most of the time), patients with brain diseases do not always receive the kindness that they deserve from their care teams. But, on that morning, this patient did.

I thought about that cup of coffee. It brightened the patient’s morning. It can be hard to remember the little things we can do to help others. But, on this occasion, the physician I was working with reminded me by setting an example.  

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.