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Chief Residency

It has begun.

On June 30 I officially ended my Internal Medicine Residency. Well, maybe I should say that I completed it.

On July 1 I walked up to my brand new office. As I stood in front of my door, with key in hand, I read the new nameplate on the door. It was awkward.

Residency ended without much fanfare or closure. My program, for whatever reason, does not have a “graduation” ceremony. They did have a “graduation banquet” in May but I was on a pre-planned family vacation during that time. Maybe that’s why I felt like I lacked any real resolution to the residency phase of life.

So far there has been anxiety, confusion, frustration, and fatigue. I’m hopeful that the year will be one of professional and personal growth. I just hope that the growth does not require much pain.

On July 1 I attended the mandatory “new hire” orientation. After completing all required paperwork, I went to HR to pick up my new ID badge. As I already had a picture on file, I just waited in the lobby for them to bring out the new badge. After what seemed like 20 minutes, someone came out to deliver it. Instead of “Resident Physician” under my name, it now said “Attending Physician.”

Looking at my badge, almost 1 month later, it still seems weird to see that.

I don’t know what this year will bring. I’m sure it will be challenging. I’m sure it will push me.

So for those of you who have followed this journey through this blog, I invite you to continue with me.

And for those of you who have just found this blog, well, you’re invited too.

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Helpless

I can remember a string of particularly busy nights. I was on the ICU service — sort of.

During our training, we have one month where we are assigned to “MICU NF.” The month has been described to me by previous residents as the worst month of your entire residency. There are two 3rd-year Internal Medicine residents assigned each month. They alternate weeks as the senior resident admitting patients to the medical intensive care unit (MICU). On the week you are not admitting at night, you spend your days in clinic. On the week when you are admitting at night, you spend 5 straight nights working. The last two days of the week are covered by other senior residents on their elective months so that you have a couple days off.

To be honest, the nights are “hit or miss.” After all, you cannot predict what comes through the door of the emergency department or when patients will decompensate on the wards. In addition to fielding calls from the ED for admission, you are responsible for carrying the Rapid Response pager. A rapid response can be called for any patient already admitted to the hospital. A staff member, usually the patient’s nurse, can call a rapid response on the ward when they feel their patient is decompensating and requires rapid intervention and/or transfer to the ICU for higher level of care.

On this particular night I was coming in to my 3rd night in a row. As I arrived I went to speak to the on-call MICU attending to find out our bed and team capacity for the night. She told me I had room for four patients. I nodded and went to the call-room.

Later that night, after I had already admitted one transfer patient I was sitting at my computer when the admission pager went off. It was the ED and they asked if I had a bed available. I answered “yes,” and proceeded to take down the information.

When I arrived in the Emergency Department I found “my” patient. I shall call her Dinah. She was intubated and off sedation. I glanced up at the monitor above her bed; her heart was racing. Her blood pressure was acceptable. I glanced over at the IV pumps, though, and noted that she was on levophed1.

I spoke with her RN to get a bit more detail about what had transpired since Dinah had arrived in the ED. I also spoke with Dinah’s husband (whom I shall refer to as Husband from here on out).

Dinah was young. She was in her late 30s. She and Husband had a couple teenaged children at home. For the last week she had been under the weather. But it was not totally unexpected. Others at home were also sick. They probably all had the same bug going around. But a few days prior she developed a productive cough and shortness of breath. These two symptoms did not improve and finally she agreed to come seek care.

When she arrived, she was hypoxic indicating that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. She was started on supplemental oxygen and then subsequently was tried on BiPAP. Unable to tolerate that, the physicians in the ED decided to intubate her in order to mechanically ventilate2 her.

By the time I was called and arrived in the ED to evaluate Dinah, she had already coded once. That complicated matters even further. She had not woken up after the cardiac arrest. But it was difficult to tell at that point if this was due to the arrest itself or the medications that had been running to keep her sedated while she was on the mechanical ventilator.

Soon after arrival to the ICU, Dinah would code again. The team worked efficiently performing chest compressions, recording the events, and pushing medications as I called them out. After ten or so minutes we got a pulse back.

I updated the family who was still present at the hospital. The number of people had grown. Watery eyes looked at me for something — anything. They wanted hope. I wished that I could have confidently given that to them. But I couldn’t. By this time there were signs of multiple organ systems failing. She wasn’t producing any urine. She was in shock requiring vasopressors. She was in respiratory failure with a machine breathing for her. She had yet to show any signs of waking up after the cardiac arrest earlier despite being taken off medications that would sedate her.

I knew the prognosis was grim. I tried to explain that to them. I then asked if there had ever been any discussion of end-of-life care. Would she want to be on all of these machines? But it is very rare for a person in their 30s to have serious discussions of this nature. People don’t talk about dying — at least not their own deaths — at this age. They talk about growing old together with someone they love. They talk about watching their children grow up, go off to college, get married, and have children of their own.

Husband confirmed my suspicion. They had never discussed these issues before. For now, he insisted, we would continue doing everything we could — including keeping her a Full Code3. I didn’t argue with the decision. Had Dinah been 95, I may have. But Dinah was in her 30s. She was supposedly healthy just a week ago.

Thinking back to that night I am not sure when I started to sense my own helplessness. I think it hit me after Dinah arrived on the unit from the ED and I started counting up the organ systems that had failed. It definitely hit me after she coded again.

For the rest of the night she continued to decompensate. She was dying in front of me. And all I could do was throw temporizing measures at the situation. Her oxygen saturation kept dropping. The respiratory therapist kept increasing the support provided by the ventilator. Her blood pressure kept sliding down, slowly but surely. I kept ordering additional vasopressors until she was maxed out on 4 different ones. I think the helplessness hit me with each vasopressor I ordered.

Of course, the helplessness hit me every time I turned to the family to offer an update. Every update was negative. I don’t think I delivered an ounce of “good” news that night. I watched as family streamed into the room two-by-two (per ICU policy) with tears streaking down their faces.

Before my shift ended Dinah passed away. She did so with her family present, surrounding her hospital bed.

And I stood by, helpless.

  1. Levophed, or norepinephrine, is an IV medication classed as a “vasopressor.” It helps by raising the blood pressure in a patient with hypotension or low blood pressure. This class of drugs is often referred to as “pressors” for short. []
  2. Mechanical ventilation involves an advanced airway, typically a tube that goes in through the mouth and passed the vocal cords. This tube is attached to a machine — a ventilator — that is able to breathe for a patient by pumping oxygenated air into her lungs. It can also sense when a patient is trying to take a breath and assist. []
  3. When a patient’s code status is “Full Code,” in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, a Code Blue is called. Chest compressions, shocks (if appropriate for the cardiac rhythm), and medications are administered in the hopes of “bringing the patient back.” []
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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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Stomach Pain: It Starts – Part I

The following post is a personal story. Often I find myself on the treating side of a physician-patient relationship. In this case I found msyelf on the patient side of things — as the family member of the patient. It’s a story about my wife and her two year ordeal with abdominal pain and the long road to a diagnosis and treatment.

It all started just over two years ago. At the time, my wife and I were still dating. It was Mother’s Day 2012 and we were both spending time with our respective mothers. I received word that Allison found herself in such agonizing abdominal pain that her family was all shocked. You see, she has a fairly high pain tolerance. But this pain paralyzed her and she found herself sobbing on the couch because of it. Her family took her to the local emergency department. There, they were able to control the pain with pain medications. Whatever scans they did (I never figured out if it was an ultrasound and/or CT scan), they were negative. The labs were normal. So they sent her home with a presumed diagnosis of gastric ulcer. She was instructed to follow up with a GI doctor to see whether an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) would be warranted.

When she followed up with the GI doctor as an outpatient they decided against an EGD at that time. The plan at that time was to carry on with life and only proceed with an EGD if the pain returned. Over the next few years she would have occasional abdominal pain. There was no pattern. Often it would be in the middle of the night. It would last anywhere from minutes to hours. However it would resolve on its own. The episodes were also very spread apart.

I suppose the episodes of pain, being so rare and spread out, were easy to ignore. Especially with the hustle and bustle of life. When the episodes first started, Allison was in her final year of nursing school. After graduation she found herself working on a busy cardiac unit in LA County while serving as a nurse manager for a non-profit women’s clinic. On top of that, we both would try our best to see each other on our free time. And so, life moved on. We both did. And eventually we got married in February of 2014.

After we got married, Allison moved in with me in Redlands. She continued with both her jobs in LA County making the early-morning, hour-plus, traffic-laden commute from the Inland Empire into LA County three times a week. Two times a week she commuted 45 minutes to women’s clinic. To say the least, it was a very tiring time.

Three months after our wedding she had a major attack. She had woken up before 5 AM to get ready for work. Half-asleep, I remember her leaving the bedroom. The next thing I remember she was back at my bedside, on the floor in tears because of intense abdominal pain. I had never seen her like this before. She was barely able to move. I quickly got out of bed and got dressed. And off we went to the Emergency Department.

As we checked in and she had her vitals taken, she mentioned that the pain had some radiation to her chest. They quickly took her back to get bloodwork and an had an EKG done. As expected the EKG was normal. Her bloodwork also came back normal. The sent her for an ultrasound of her abdomen. That came back normal as well.

All the while, they tried to treat her pain. They first tried a GI cocktail1. That did nothing. They tried an IV medication called toradol2. That had little effect. Finally they pulled out the “big gun” and gave her dilaudid. This finally provided her some relief to the pain but it caused nausea which required an anti-emetic medication.

The ED doctors didn’t have much in the form of answers. They noted all the tests were normal. We had discussed my wife’s history of abdominal pain and they felt further evaluation by a GI specialist was in order. I was ahead of them, though. While we were waiting for results I had already called over to the GI Clinic and set up an appointment with one of the GI attendings.

Unfortunately that appointment would not be for another 3-4 weeks.

As the acute pain had passed, broken by administration of some high-powered narcotic, we were discharged home. After all, with all the tests coming back “normal,” there was no signs of an acute issue that needed emergent care or intervention. On the way out we received prescriptions for an anti-acid medication, an oral pain medication, and some stool softeners (as oral pain medications often cause constipation).

Tired, frustrated without a clear diagnosis but relieved that the pain had passed, we finally went home. We were also eager to get to the GI appointment.

  1. A GI cocktail is a mixture of medications frequently used to alleviate abdominal pain due to indigestion. []
  2. Toradol is a type of anti-inflammatory given via IV or as an injection. It is in the family of drugs called NSAIDS, like ibuprofen. []
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Code Status

Every single patient that gets admitted to the hospital needs to be asked about their “code status.”

I usually ask about this in this way:

Now I have to ask this question to everyone I admit, regardless of what they are being admitted for.

In the event of an emergency, if your heart were to stop or beat ineffectively, if you are unable to breath on your own, what would you like us to do?

Do you want us to do everything to bring you back? This includes doing chest compressions, shocking your heart (if it is appropriate) and putting a tube down your throat to help you breathe with a machine.

Some patients who have been admitted frequently will be familiar with this question. They will immediately answer and ask that we either “do everything” or do nothing and just “let them go.”

Others stare blankly at you because they have never been forced to answer this question. They may look at their spouse. For those that hesitate I explain that there are risks to these attempts at resuscitation and that the older a patient is and the more medical problems they have, the less likely a full recovery should be expected.

I also allow them time to think about it and discuss it. I tell them that they don’t have to decide now. I also tell them that the decision they make is not final and “set in stone.” They can change their minds later. However, if they are unable to make a decision at this time, they will default to a “Full Code” status until they tell us otherwise.

Asking the question(s), regarding code status, is easy. Hearing the answer, on the other hand, can sometimes be difficult.

What about the senior citizen with medical comorbidities — who is unable to answer questions on their own due to the severity of their medical problems — whose family insists we do everything to keep them alive? It is not rare.

As physicians, we look at the patient from an admittedly detached point of view. Sometimes it is out of habit. Sometimes it is out of necessity.

It is difficult when we see our patient, who has poor functional status by any standard of measure and who would likely incur more harm than good by performing resuscitation measure in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, carry a “full code” status in their chart because family is unable to come to terms with their state of health.

I do realize that there are many reasons a family will have for not rescinding a full code status. That is probably a topic for a whole different post.

This post, to me, seems more like a stream of consciousness post than a post that was well thought out and that had a point to prove or make. I apologize for that. It is just an issue/topic that has been on my mind recently.

For those of you who have had to carry this type of conversation regarding code status, how do you approach patients? How do you approach families? How do you discuss this issue regarding patients who are unlikely to have any benefit from resuscitation but whose families are adamant that all measure be taken?

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What’s a Chief Resident?

As I mentioned in the last post, I will be staying here at LLU for at least a year after residency officially ends. I will be staying on as one of the Internal Medicine Chief Residents.

So what does that mean?

I have found that it means different things to different people. In other residencies, the chief resident position or title is given to residents in their final year of training. And during that year as “chief resident” they are given additional tasks. From what I have seen, this is the case with other residencies like Emergency Medicine and ?many surgical specialties.

In Internal Medicine, the chief resident is someone who has already completed their residency. A quick search on google for “chief resident” brought me to the Duke Internal Medicine website. This is their description of what a chief resident is:

The Chief Resident position is the single largest investment in leadership made by the Department of Medicine, and the chiefs serve as key leaders for the program. Chiefs are selected for their exceptional clinical and leadership skills. The chiefs work as a team to provide leadership and support of the key missions of the residency program and function as key mentors and advocates for the residents. While each chief has separate responsibilities at their primary site (Duke, Durham VA Medical Center, Duke Regional Hospital, and VA Quality/Safety), the camaraderie among the chiefs sets a positive tone for the program and allows us to accomplish the many goals we set for the year. Notably, many former chief residents remain on faculty at Duke, serving in leadership positions throughout the health system. In recent years, the chief residents have been responsible for organizing the Stead Societies, reorganizing the noon conference series, instituting leadership training for JARs at the VA and evaluating patient flow on the general medicine services. In addition, the chiefs galvanize the competition for our annual Turkey Bowl, lead recruitment of new interns and have a tradition of providing entertainment at the annual DOM Holiday Party.

Chief residents are chosen during the SAR (PGY-3) year, and serve as chief residents with a faculty appointment during their PGY-5 year. Typically Chief Residents complete a fellowship or hospital medicine faculty year during the PGY-4 year, and return to their fellowship or hospital medicine position after completion of the chief year.

[emphasis added]
Source

They make it sound like quite the lofty position, don’t they? Apparently their chiefs serve in their PGY-5 year (5 years after graduation from medical school).

It would be important to note that there are differences with how my progarm does things. Internal Medicine (IM) Chief Residents here are selected during their PGY-3 year but proceed directly into the chief residency following the completion of residency. And I would hold off on claiming any “exceptional clinical and leadership skills” for myself. Also (not noted above), we will spend time rounding as the Attending Physician with the teaching service for a number of weeks throughout the year. But for the most part, the job responsibilities are similar across teh country for IM Chief Residents. In fact, the new group of LLU chief residents will be attending the APDIM Meeting in Houston, Tx in April. This meeting brings together leaders from IM residencies across the country (including program directors and chief reisdents) to sit down and learn about education and leadership.

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Night Three

It’s now night 3 of 6. Six straight days — er, nights — covering the ICU patients here at one of the local county hospitals. Night 1 was great. Occasional calls here and there from nurses for little things that did not require much brain power. I am also working with an intern. He is covering the non-ICU patients. Night 1 went well for him too. I think I saw him watching tv shows on his iPad during the down time.

Night 2 was definitely busier for the both of us. For me, there was one patient who pretty much required my attention the entire night. And when I finally failed at placing a functional arterial line, I had to go call Anesthesia to help me place it. And then while they were at bedside, I asked if they could also intubate my patient as well. Later, as the early morning hours rolled around, I was about to place a central line. I had collected the consent and all the necessary materials. I had the ultrasound machine ready. However, the patient was still moving around so I asked that the sedation be turned up and I would return shortly.

I never did return. Because while I was waiting for increased sedation, I got another call for a patient on the other side of the ICU. Apparently they were having non-convulsive seizures through much of the night and the EEG tech was notifying us. Six in the morning. The patient had already been well loaded with dilantin, a type of anti-seizure medication the night before. However, despite the dilantin, the seizures continued. I considered adding another medication at a constant infusion via IV. The caveat, though, is that a constant infusion of versed (the medication I was considering) requires a patient to be intubated because it can depress the respiratory function.

I did not want to make that decision alone, though. So I paged the on-call neurologist. Unable to get a response, I finally paged the neurologist who would come on call at 8 AM. She advised against the versed infusion and suggested a different regimen. By the time this was sorted out, the day teams had already began showing up and I signed out the events of the night to them.

Tonight I am writing this on night 3. The call team admitted at least one very sick, ICU patient. At this point we have come up with a plan and we will continue to see how the patient does over the course of the night.

While I generally dislike working nights, there are some things that are nice.

I just have to focus on those niceties for another 3 nights.