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The Silence

The following is a post I wrote in medical school that I never published.

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“C’mon,” my resident called out to me, “Let’s go do something.”

“Ok,” I replied as I half-jogged to catch up with her.

It was a slow night in Labor & Delivery. I wasn’t doing much. Most of the patients I saw that night during Night Float (shift from 5:30 PM – 7:00 AM) were patients in triage with various complaints. Most were women who had been feeling contractions that day. I think most were sent home that night because they weren’t yet in labor. (Labor is defined as contractions plus cervical change. Since they had contractions without dilation of their cervix, they were not going through active labor.)

The resident and I walked to triage. The nurses had told us that there was a patient in triage who was still in the early part of her 2nd trimester. She came in complaining of decreased fetal movement. The experienced ones on the unit didn’t think much of it. They wondered if she had even felt movement before this time as it was early in the pregnancy. But the patient was here; and so we went to see her.

As we walked into the room the nurse was trying to find fetal heart tones with the handheld Doppler Ultrasound device. (A Doppler Ultrasound is a handheld device that allows one to hear the fetal heartbeats.) She muttered something about the equipment in the room not working, about her doppler’s battery running out. She could not pick up any heart sounds; her probes were met with silence. This should have been my first warning sign. The nurse then left the room to allow us to do our exam.

Our patient was lying in her hospital bed. Her husband stood by her side. Their toddler sat in a chair, amusing himself with a toy. The patient explained to us that she understood it was early to feel movement. But she had started feeling movement a couple weeks ago. However she noticed that it was significantly less a few days ago. That day, though, she had felt none. She wondered if it was just because she wasn’t noticing it. After all, we often advise expectant mothers to sit still in a quiet place when they try to do “kick counts” because it is easy to block the movement out when the baby is still small.

The resident fired up the ultrasound machine and started probing. She was going to try to assess for fetal heart rate since the nurse hadn’t been able to with the Doppler.

“There’s the head,” she said as she pointed it out on the screen. She continued moving the probe around, sliding it over the jelly-covered belly. I thought I recognized the chest wall, but I was so bad at looking at ultrasound images that I didn’t think much of it when the resident kept moving.

“I usually find it really quick. But maybe the baby is turned away,” she told the couple. Again, throughout the ultrasound, only silence.

My resident then turned to me, “Can you call Dr. A on the unit? She might be better at this.”

Dr. A was our senior resident — less than a year away from becoming an attending. It made sense that she would be better at this. But this was also my second warning sign.

I left the room, but instead of getting on the phone, calling the unit secretary, and asking for Dr. A, I ran to the unit myself. I didn’t want to waste time. Besides, since I didn’t know the unit’s extension, I figured I could run to Dr. A faster than I could call.

When I returned with to the room with Dr. A, she politely introduced herself and replaced the resident at the ultrasound machine. She took her turn at the machine. Within a minute, though, she turned to the resident and quietly asked her to page the attending physician on call. And there, accompanying the silence, was warning sign number three.

The resident and I walked out. She paged Dr. B. In the hospital, they don’t like paging the attending unless absolutely necessary — especially when it is at night.

I was surprised at how fast Dr. B came. I remember thinking that the call room must be really close.

Dr. B, the resident, and I walked into the patient room. Dr. B introduced herself as the supervising physician and took over for Dr. A at the ultrasound machine. After a little bit she turned and asked us to turn the lights back on.

“I’m sorry,” she began as she looked at the patient and her husband, “there is no heartbeat.”

—–

I don’t know if I still remember the mother’s face. I think I do. But it isn’t a very clear picture in my head. I didn’t want to stare as the tears started streaking down her face so I looked away. It was tough. Labor and delivery is usually a unit of such joy. The patient’s are generally young and healthy. They leave with brand new bundles of joy.

But that night, instead of joy and new life, I came face to face with silence.

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On Teaching

The following is something I wrote in 2009 while still a medical student:

Teaching is a hard thing. By teaching I don’t mean explaining or instructing. Take, for example, teaching basketball to someone. Telling someone the rules of the game is not, to me, teaching them how to play basketball. Explaining what the rules mean and how and when they apply is not teaching either. Teaching involves more. It is showing someone how to dribble the ball, demonstrating the correct form, and then helping the student develop these skills. Teaching is not merely conveying knowledge. It is imparting excellence — or, at the very least, competence in a particular area or field.

Teaching involves lifting a student up with compliments while simultaneously providing criticism that is at the same time constructive, painful, and humbling. Delivering these two — compliment and criticism — can be tricky. How does one find the right balance? It’s unfortunate that there is no formula. Each person is different. The combination of compliment and criticism that motivates and inspires one student could very well devastate and discourage another. Maybe the truly amazing teachers are able to read their students and expertly walk that fine line.

In the absence of truly amazing teachers, or truly amazing teachers with plenty of time to spend with us, a student must resort to other means of attaining competence. One alternative is learning from multiple teachers. Good teachers have different methods, techniques, and personalities. Each one can provide a different, yet helpful angle.

As this academic year inches closer and closer to an end, my mind seems to frequently wander to the future. One of the things I think about is my position as one of the chief residents next year. I hope that I will able to be a good teacher. I may even be willing to settle for an “ok” teacher too.

Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. Maybe I should just concentrate on learing as much as I can as a resident.

Teaching, I feel, is such a great responsibility. Especially when you are training people to take care of patients. The good thing is that I won’t bear this responsibility on my own. I will merely be a cog in a larger wheel; I will only be one part in a larger system. There will be plenty of seasoned attendings who will gladly teach the residents, and I am sure myself as well.

Teaching, I hope, is something that one can learn. And I hope that through the next year I will be able to develop my own teaching style. I’m sure I won’t be able to develop in a year — it’ll take time. But I do hope I am able to make a significant evolutionary leap in my development as an educator and teacher.

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Three Wishes (published on The Differential)

The following is a post I wrote during medical school.

******

Questions are powerful. They stimulate thought. They encourage discussion. And sometimes, they do so much more.

During my time on the Adolescent Psychiatry unit, one of my favorite questions to ask my patients was “if you had 3 wishes, what would you wish for?” or some variation thereof.

It’s not an exact science. But I felt like the question gave me a little bit of an insight into their minds. I had frequently heard the child psychiatrists ask this question of the tiny tots. I didn’t hear them ask this of the adolescents. I’m not sure why.

I remember one patient telling me that one of his 3 wishes included destroying the place we were in. As far as I could tell, I took this answer in stride. I asked him why and he admitted that he didn’t feel like the facility was very helpful. He just wanted to get out of there and go home. A couple days later, when I asked him again, I was glad to hear him say that he had changed his mind. He realized that value of the psychiatric unit and didn’t want it torn down and destroyed anymore.

Another patient told me of her wish to buy her mother a big house. It’s probably safe to assume how and why a wish like this would begin to take hold in the mind of a young person. Other teens also voiced their own desires for material items.

Regardless of the wish, big or small, I felt like it was a backdoor into understanding a little bit more about my patient. And in psychiatry, you take whatever you can get — at least that’s how I felt about it.

What happened to me, though, was that I began to look introspectively. I would like to think this sort of thing happens more often than not to students rotating through psychiatry. I began to think about what I would wish for if I were given 3 wishes. In fact, I was pretty much forced to think about it for myself when one of the patients turned the question back on me after he had answered the question himself.

If I remember correctly, I think I answered that I wished 1) to be done with my schooling and 2) for a lot of money. I told him I’d save the 3rd for later. He thought it was clever. But in looking at my first two wishes, I realize that I’m not that much different than the patients I was seeing. I seem to want physical and financial freedom just as much as they do. I just word it a little bit differently.

And that’s how one little question helped me feel closer to the patients I was seeing each day.

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It’s Over, But Not Really

It is now just over a week since I marched at my Commencement ceremony and received my diploma. Yes, the actual diploma was inside the folder — which is very exciting since all my previous diplomas (college and high school) had to be mailed to me once the financial office had decided that I no longer owed the school any money.

I suppose that this is officially my first post as an MD. I am now a graduate. I now can tack on the suffix M.D. to my name. I remember just one day after graduation I sat staring at my diploma. As I stared at it, I almost could not believe it was in front of me. I looked at the piece of paper — a sheet of paper that has been the most expensive (physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally) paper I have ever earned.
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During the days prior to graduation, I remember feeling excited. At the same time, I also felt nervous. Nervous about being done. Nervous about new responsibilities. Nervous about wearing the long white coat I have wanted ever since I looked into the mirror and saw how ridiculous my short white coat looked. I am now waiting for my long coat. Literally. I sent an email to the Graduate Medical Education (GME) office a few weeks ago with my size. I hope I sent in the right size. Again, I am excited. But again, I am nervous about the long white coat and all the responsibility it represents.

I have a few more weeks before residency starts and I step onto the wards as a new intern. During this time I will have to complete some online modules and get certified for Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS). I will also complete my move into a new place. It is a few weeks that I know will go by very quickly. Actually, I feel like the next few years will go quickly, but I don’t really want to think about that at this point.

And so, my medical school career is over. One chapter is completed. But I know that I am far from the end. Medical training continues at the next stage — residency. I know, too, that it will continue long after I leave residency. Medicine, as they have taught me throughout medical school, is about lifelong learning. In the grand scheme of things, I am still at the beginning. I have “leveled up,” but I’m still at a very low level.

I have a long way to go. I know the road ahead will be hard. But it’ll be full of adventure, I’m sure.

I will continue to blog here. For those of you who have been following my journey thus far, I hope you stick around.

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Almost There

I am currently on the last rotation of my medical school career. It’s a 4-week elective called Whole Person Care. One week down. Three weeks to go.

A few weeks ago they began erecting the canopies for the graduation ceremonies. Throughout the month of May, the various schools on campus will be holding their own graduation celebrations. The School of Medicine will be having their commencement on the 27th of May.

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It’s pretty surreal to think the journey is coming to another milestone. I cannot say that the journey is coming to an end because I know I am nowhere near the end of it. Medicine is not a short journey that ends with a cap (or a tam) and gown. It continues for a lifetime.

As I finish this phase, though, I hope to continue writing and blogging here. I hope to share the ups and downs as they occur. Or maybe months later when I have had time to cool off or decompress. The fun, I’m sure, will continue and there will be plenty of stories to share.

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Death Is Hard

In the past I have found it easy to say that it is harder to see a sick, hospitalized child than a sick, hosptitalized elderly patient. It is easy to reason that the senior citizen has lived a full life while the child has his future ahead of him. But I think this position ignores the viewpoint of the patient’s family. Sure, sometimes a family is prepared for the death of a dying grandfather who has lived a long life and is going out on good terms. But few are ever prepared for a tragic death that comes on suddenly — no matter what age it happens.

Recently I saw a patient who I shall refer to as Mrs. B. We were not the primary team. I saw her as a consult after she had been in the hospital for a rather extended period of time. At the time the consult came in the team was pressed for time so we split up the duties. I would go and talk to the patient while my colleague would put together a consul note summarizing the hospital course and patient’s past medical history using the patient record as a source.

Without reading anything about the patient I went off to find Mrs. B. All I knew about her was that she had been hospitalized for quite some time and that she was fighting an infection that had spread to the blood. As I walked up to her bed she lie silently with her eyes open. I asked her how she was doing but couldn’t make out what she was saying. I tried to ask her in Spanish but she only responded with a more excited mumbling sound.

I realized that I wouldn’t be able to take a history from her. That sort of thing is difficult in non-communcating patients. So I proceeded to perform a quick physical exam. I noticed scleral icterus (jaundiced, yellow eyes) and a few skin wounds. But nothing else really jumped out at me. I left, but not before looking over her chart and collecting her vital signs for the last 24 hours.

When we began rounding our attending began writing out Mrs. B’s information across the large white board that hung in the workroom. Everything we had been able to find from the review of the patient record went on the board. We dissected and discussed the details and the big picture. And, after almost two hours, our attending decided it was time to go and see the patient.

We paused at Mrs. B’s door to pull out some gowns. A nurse ran up to us and whispered, “She just died. The family is inside.” And, while looking at the nearest clock she added, “She died about an hour ago.”

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think. I had just seen her and touched her just over two hours ago. And now she was gone. At the time I saw her, I had no idea how sick she was. And my physical exam didn’t tell me she was so close to death. During our discussion, though, our attending noted how bad her labs looked and that she would probably benefit from palliative care.

I don’t know how the family took her death. I didn’t go inside the room. I didn’t come back later. To me her death was sudden. I was not expected it so soon. But death, it seems, waits for no one. When it’s time, it’s time.

It is hard to care for sick children in the hospital. But I think it can also be hard to care for sick adults who face tragic endings as well.

Death is hard. Period.

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Fitness, Health, & Relationships

A few years ago I heard of husbands (or fiances) requiring of their brides(-to-be) a contractual agreement to maintain their figure throughout their marriage. I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought to myself. Even as a male who accepts that males are visual creatures, I thought this to be a very shallow and superficial thing to ask of someone you love.

I won’t pretend to know what the motivation was behind those requirements. If they were solely for physical appearances, then I’m still in disagreement with them.

But almost 2 years after I’ve started regularly seeing patients (even as a medical student), I wonder if that sort of requirement is a bad thing. But before you call for the firewood and stake, hear me out.

Preventable medical diseases make up more than half of the medical problems plaguing this country. And in the short time I have been on the wards, I have watched as patients and their families suffered because they did not take care of themselves. Pain and suffering because people didn’t prioritize a healthy lifestyle — for whatever reason. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better. Perhaps they just didn’t prioritize it. Perhaps they just didn’t think about it.

One thing I have said to classmates is that being in the hospital and caring for our senior citizens has got me terrified about growing old. It is true that we only see the sickest, and that those that take care of themselves are able to avoid many of the outcomes/conditions that freak me out. Nevertheless, I see how bad it gets when one doesn’t take care of one’s self. I see it in the end-stages.

I am not advocating maintaining a figure solely for aesthetic purposes. That is just a plus. I am for being healthy. A couple weeks ago, I decided that for this coming new year I wanted to commit to radically changing my diet and exercise habits. I reasoned that starting in July, I will be seeing my own patients. And I cannot sit there trying to convince patients to eat healthy and exercise regularly if I am not willing to do the same.

And so, I have been reading more about nutrition. I am hoping to plan out menus for myself because I realize that diet is crucial to the picture of health.

But I recently thought to myself that the best gift I could give to a wife, children, or anyone else I love, is myself. I owe it to them to hang around for as long as I can.

They say that men need to feel like they are providing for their family. What is more important than providing yourself and your time? I almost feel like it’d be irresponsible of me to start a family if I wasn’t doing everything I can do stick around for as long as possible.

And so I’m not looking at this from a vanity standpoint. I’m looking at this from a health standpoint. Because I’ve seen and watched what the end-points of preventable diseases can look like. And THAT scares me.

Perhaps the requirement to keep a figure is a wrong thing. Perhaps, though, the motivation behind the requirement is what should be scrutinized.

So here’s to a new year. To a radical change. To a healthier year.

I partly write this here so that I will be accountable. They say that is what happens when you share your goals with others.

I also write this because it’s always fun to do things with company.