Friday, November 28, 2008

The Beatings Will Continue Until Moral Improves...

I am on call tomorrow. Tonight I sit and wait. For those of you unfamiliar with exactly what that involves, allow me to elaborate.

Imagine this: tomorrow morning you will wake up, get dressed, then be marched off to face a firing squad. The anticipation. The agony. Will you be beaten first? Will the shots kill you? Will you know what's coming, and from what direction? As you stand there, blindfolded, contemplating exactly which wrong turn lead to this moment, the waiting seems endless. Suddenly, shots go whizzing past your head; you sense your fallen comrades around you. Walls are crumbling at your feet and chaos is everywhere. When will your turn come? Then, as quickly as it started, the dust settles, and you are marched back to your quarters, where you are told that there has been a stay of execution for you today. You have survived; you get to rest for now. In 3 days, you will face it again. Next time you might only be pummelled with rocks instead.

For any given rotation, this is sort of how it goes...

The day starts anywhere between 4 AM and 6 AM, depending on the rotation. After trying to milk those last few minutes out of the snooze button, as this may be the last bit of rest you get for the entire day, you pry yourself from the bed covers. You grab your call bag, which conveniently stays packed with the essentials: toothbrush, toothpaste, sweatshirt, On-Call reference book, iPod, crackers/snack, cell phone charger, and extra blanket. You don't dare bring a project to work on, as this will ironically assure that you get at least 15 extra admissions.

When you get to the hospital, you pick up the pager from the post-call resident, who has been there for the last 24 hours and just got a call about an admission coming from the ER, who is your problem now. Yay. There are already 10 patients on your list, all of whom you need to see in the next 2 hours, formulate today's plan, answer random questions from the nurses, and write thorough, articulate notes on each one before rounds. And all the while, stay pleasant and polite to everyone, be respectful and attentive. Clearly, part of this plan is flawed and will have to be sacrificed. Your choice which part.

As the pager goes off for the 5th time during pre-rounds, you sort of hit your stride, you've got a bit of a rhythm going, and you just might get done in time to hit Starbucks. Thank God most of your patients are either intubated or asleep, so there's limited patient interaction, as that will considerably slow your progress. The solitary goal of this morning is to see all your old patients, get the orders written, and get the discharges done before the new admissions start pouring in. Too bad for you, that ship has sailed, and you have 3 admissions waiting by the time rounds start at 9.

Rounds are the time when the team discusses each patient and comes up with the plan for the day. They can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 7 hours. There are obviously innumerable variables in this equation, mostly dependent on the number of patients and the attending physician. The nature of rounds is a topic for another blog entirely.

So after rounds are out of the way, the pager goes off again, this time with an emergent situation or a critically ill patient, or any number of other things that demand your complete and urgent attention. By now it's 2 pm and you haven't sat down for longer than 3 minutes, much less had time to eat lunch, so you grab a pack of graham crackers, peanut butter, and a Diet Coke from the nurses station to chow down while you run to see the next catastrophe. Your next patient is very sick, has a dwindling blood pressure, no IV access, and is struggling to breathe. Holy crap, what first? You intubate her, place a large catheter in her subclavian vein for IV access, and start blood pressure medications to keep her heart and blood pumping. She is someone's mother, wife, sister, daughter, and she might live or die based on what you know, your skills in procedures, what you can remember from the last lecture, what resource you can find to help you find the answer, how fast you can think on your feet. At this moment, you are one of God's instruments, and you wish desperately that He didn't trust you with this, call on someone else. One minute she is clinging to life, yet after a few interventions she seems to be hanging on a bit better. The satisfaction of this moment, and a dozen others like it today, is among the reasons why you got out of bed today. Their family sits in the waiting room in agony, looking for any news. One is weeping, others are pacing, and one sits alone with only a blank stare. You struggle to find the words, just the right words, that are not too bleak but still convey the appropriate intensity of this tumultuous situation. At an inappropriate moment in your discussion with the family, your pager goes off again, this time it is the clinic calling about your patient on chronic narcotics whose monthly prescription is due today. Terrific. You add it to your list.

This onslaught continues in varying levels of intensity for the remainder of the evening and will press on into the early morning hours. You watch the day shift people leave, and the night shift arrive, with fresh faces and peppy steps. Ugh, it's 7 PM already? You shrug it off, sneak off for a bite of dinner, and forage ahead. Finally, around 3 AM, all the labs have been checked, the orders written, every urgent page for Tylenol answered, and you selfishly head to the call room. 

The ideal hope: to actually fall asleep for a couple of hours. The actuality: short bursts of horizontal drowsiness, interrupted by call after call. Forget meaningful sleep, or REM cycles, or even a light rest. Your only prayer is that there is not a CODE between now and when you have to get up to start seeing patients again, because this is not the time of the morning to have someone try to die, as your brain is now slowing to a dull crawl. The focus is only on finding a small piece of quiet time, just sweet peace for 5 or 10 minutes, where you can lay still without all the ringing and alarms and paperwork and lists. Surely that is enough to recharge me for tomorrow, which now starts in 20 minutes.

When the alarm goes off at 5 AM, you either:

a) awake with a start, throwing off the covers and knocking your pager to the floor/under the bed in the dark, paranoid that you missed a page while your eyes were closed
b) barely stir because you are comatose from an interrupted REM cycle
c) were awake already and waiting for it to go off because you never got to sleep at all.

Now you are off to pre-round on your patients-- only now with the added challenge of the dense brain fog of sleep deprivation, sore, swollen legs from standing for 20 of the last 24 hours, and the post-call nausea the comes from being awake through 6 mealtimes. Right about now, the day-shift, the same day-shift that was leaving yesterday, is now coming back to the hospital. Resentment towards them turns to actual anger when you think that they have all been home, showered, eaten, and done regular life stuff, all while you have still been digging away in the trenches. Bastards. 

As the morning progresses, you continue to lose speed and mental acuity. You "hit the wall" around 10 AM. Perfect timing, in the middle of rounds, when the details of all your patients are running together, you can't seem to speak coherently, and it takes all you have to just find the next patient. You finally wrap things up for the day, check out your patients to the next on-call team, and head home around 1 PM. You ride with the windows down and the music up so you don't fall asleep in the 20 minutes it takes to drive home. You debate whether the extra 15 minutes it will take to get lunch on the way is worth it, decide that it's not, and keep driving. Your bed has never felt so good. Don't forget to set the alarm, not for this evening, but for the morning, as you will likely sleep from now until tomorrow, when you will get up to do it all again.

As patients, we only see that apparent part of our caretakers' interactions with us, the part where they come in the room, talk to us and our family, listen to our heart and lungs. It is more brief than we think we deserve. Where does the rest of their time go? What else are they doing back there? I hear them cackling and laughing; don't they know I'm waiting? As patients, we do not see the iceberg of time and commitment that lies behind the door: reading old records, checking labs, researching the current medical literature for the latest recommendations, discussing the case with specialists and other physicians and nurses to try to cover every base, documenting the appropriate paperwork, answering phone calls, and a hundred other things that go on day in and day out. 

Expect your physician to treat you like a person, not an illness or a number. We, as physicians, have been entrusted with your lives, your children's lives, your families, and it is the greatest responsibility you can give to another human being. It is deserving of the utmost respect and compassion, and I will do my best to honor that.

It is all I ask, that I also be treated like a person, that you may remember that I am just like you. I go to the gas station and the grocery store and get called for jury duty. I have a family, and I have sacrificed time with them to be here with you. I have heartache and sorrow and sickness; I love and hurt and dream, and I will push forward with everything I have to try to help you now. And it's not for the glory, or the money, or so I can walk down the hall in my long white coat. If you only knew the heavy weights that sit deep in its pockets.

At the end of the day, I do have one of the best jobs in the world. I work with some of the smartest, most compassionate and caring people, whose mission is to teach me how to be the best I can be. I get to make sick people well again. I get to make esoteric science into something with meaning and purpose. I get to play with kids. I get to help families' grieve. I get to give a wake-up call to a heroin addict after a heart attack. I get to hold tiny babies in my hand and see their tiny arms wrap around my fingers. I get to talk a daughter through her grief as she accepts her father's Alzheimer's disease. I get to prevent thousands of illnesses with vaccines, education, and medicines. If it all ended tomorrow, I have still been blessed by the bucket-loads.

With each day, I gain a little more ammunition for my arsenal. I am a little less scared of what will be thrown at me tomorrow. If I can store up enough, I just might make a battle plan of my own.

And so I will face the firing squad again and again and again.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Where is Matt?

I absolutely love this video. If ever there was an advertisement for the universality of music, dance, and laughter, this is it. If you haven't watched it before, check it out. If you have, watch it again. Every time I watch it, I see something new. And by the end, my heavy heart is lifted and my soul is bubbly again.

It's a little fuzzy here, but if you watch it on YouTube, there is a high-quality version that is more clear.

The song from the video is sung by a Bengali girl named Palbasha Siddique and is based on this poem.

Stream of Life

by Rabindranath Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Neighborhood Hunt

This last weekend we went to Birmingham to start the house-hunting process. It was a much needed break from this crazy life, where we've both been going non-stop for weeks now. I've been so over-extended that I didn't have anything left in me, was just completely worn out. But the break was fantastic and it was wonderful to get away and recharge.

The purpose of the trip was to just scope out neighborhoods and get a little more acquainted with the city and area. We won't be going until June so there's really no point in looking at houses now, but we did want to know what the different areas were like and which would be the best fit for us. We met with a realtor first, who gave us some great suggestions based on what our needs were. She also gave us a huge stack of housing listings to go check out in different neighborhoods. We spent most of Saturday driving up and down the majority of the streets in Birmingham. I don't know what people did before Google Maps. The front seat of our car was like NASA, between the Blackberry, Google Maps, the laptop, and all the real estate listings. Had I put some effort into it, we probably could have operated the space station from the front seat of the Nissan.

There are really a diversity of neighborhoods in Birmingham, from old/established, near downtown, in the hills, new developments, country, etc. Like anywhere, the farther out from the city, the more house for the money. We liked some parts of Homewood and Hoover, which are both on the southside. We'll just have to see what becomes available in the spring when we get a little more serious about looking for the actual house.

Driving around Birmingham was different at first. When I came to Greenville, I immediately felt at home, like I'd been on a trip of thousands of miles and had finally found my destination. That's exactly what it was like for me. Birmingham did not feel like that at first, more like just visitors. But as the weekend went on, I realized that I hadn't thought about Greenville at all, hadn't really wondered about my friends (sorry guys) or the hospital. I didn't feel that turning knot in my gut that I get when I'm in a place I'm not supposed to be. I don't know if it's just because we're well-versed in the moving process now (this is move #8 since we've been married, city #4), so it's not a big deal anymore, or just because it's something new and exciting, or if it's actually going to be a good fit. By the end of the trip, I really wanted to stay and was not looking forward to driving back to South Carolina.

It was also a huge bonus to let Jason see the nice side of Birmingham. All he has really ever seen has been along I-20 through downtown, which did not excite him about moving there. He's been slowly warming to the idea of the move, a virtual Crock-Pot of enthusiasm. Getting more acquainted with things this weekend helped a lot.

I noticed this weekend how we tend to stick with what is familiar. As we were driving through neighborhoods, we both started to warm up in the areas that were very similar to what we are in now, a newer development, lots of trees, private cul-de-sacs. Much less comfortable in older areas near downtown, despite the older homes that have been redesigned and renovated. Is this something inherent in us? Are we destined to be comfortable in only one type of living situation? I can answer of us is. :-) Common sense dictates that more house for less money is the obvious choice, but where does convenience come into play? We are not "live in the city" kind of people. But are we only not that way because we've never done it? I don't know.

I am a slave to the need to investigate all options involved in a decision. This is problematic with decisions with a multitude of options, like buying a car, getting a job, moving, choosing a hairstyle, etc. You get the idea. I feel like I have to look at absolutely everything, every option, in painful detail, and then choose the best one. Should we try something new, for the sheer fact that we've never done it? Even if we'd be completely happy with the status quo? What value is there in trying new things, if the old things are great? Does this just waste efforts and energy and resources, all in the name of variety? I have thought that variety was important, but now that I am old and set in my ways, maybe not. Maybe sticking with what works is better. It's only inconvenient later if we end up hating something new.

Either way, it's not life or death. (It keeps things in perspective to relate it to whether a choice will end someone's life.) We actually came to the conclusion that renting is probably going to be a better option for us to start off, since we know things will be changing in 3 years again. It's helpful that this is not a decision to be made now. It needs much more investigation first. I mean, come on...I haven't even made my 3-ring-"Move-Planning" binder with coordinating tabbed dividers and corresponding checklists yet. We're not animals, for goodness sake.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Empty Tank

This should be the time of year when we are hunkering down into our cozy nests and getting ready for winter. We should be following the animals' lead on this. They've been getting along for years on this principle.

Yet, we fill our schedules with this and that, go here and there, go and push and do, until there is nothing left. I feel I am quickly approaching this point. This is just about the time of year when it happens too. I used to call it my "mid-semester breakdown", where I had used up all that I had, until one day when I just couldn't get out of bed and had nothing with which to face the world. In medicine we give it a fancy name, like "psychological reserve." All this means is how much gas is in the tank. How many miles do you have left before we break you?

Women tend to underestimate the value in recharging. We all know it. It gets pushed down to the bottom of the to-do list, until you end up sputtering along the side of your proverbial road and you dwindle to an unavoidable stop. Why do we have to be forced into this? Do we not have the insight to know that this is inevitable? It has only been recently when I have started to notice the signs ahead of see my own warning light, as it were. I'd like to think that I have started paying more attention to it, pulling over sooner, planning a weekend away before I reach my breaking point. At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, there is nothing more for us to give when there is nothing more to give.

This makes me want to make more careful choices about those to whom I give my time and energy. Because no one will value it like I do, because they have their own time to treasure.

The nature of the course of my medical training has forced me to see my time as one of those cash-advance stores, writing checks on your future to pay for your scheduling sins today. Here are your instructions: Give everything you have, with complete and utter determination just to get to medical school. Once you're in school, it's time to work ten times as hard, as saving anything for yourself will only be cheating you out of your future. Over-extend yourself as much as is humanly possible, because otherwise you are a total slacker. Now in residency, is there really any other way to be? This is the way you have survived for years, it's obviously worked for you. Struggle through being an intern and resident, just put your head down and push through to the end. Only now at the end of the race do I look around, and realize I'm doing 130 mph through the middle of town, running over chickens and smashing through fences.

If it sounds like I'm blaming my profession for my inability to set boundries, I am. I want to start taking back the wheel. I suppose it is about control. For so so long, the only control I have had was the ability to say yes.

Thankfully I think I'm turning a corner now, and hopefully will be able to see a little more clearly after a much needed recharge. I don't know what it is about getting out of the pressure cooker of our lives that gives us perspective and clarity. Why can't we see it while we are in the midst of the chaos? That would be much more convenient. You see, I have a tremendously busy schedule.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


How does fall just show up, so scheduled, yet always such a pleasant surprise? Every year I forget that it's coming. Maybe I just try to hang on to those precious summer days a little longer. Yet that day in October when the crisp air hits my face for the first time, it's always unexpected. In the immortal words of Tom Hanks, "it makes me want to buy school supplies" (You've Got Mail). Fall, as does its peppy cousin Spring, reminds me about transitions in life. That nothing stays the same for long, that we may enjoy this brief snippet of time for now. We can think that it will last forever. But soon we will be moving into something new. Summer and Winter seem to exist in this perpetual time warp, unchanging for weeks on end, until Fall and Spring make their quiet, spectacular entry.

As quickly as it comes, Fall dissipates into the dry, cold Winter. That's depressing. This gorgeous transition lasts only a few weeks at best. It's God's subtle reminder that change, while always abrupt, never lasts long, and will eventually settle into something cozy and familiar again. I guess it makes unwanted endings and scary, new beginnings a little easier to face.

All this got me thinking about friends. Old, new, those friendships just beginning, and those that are moving on. This is an interesting year for me. The majority of the friends that I started residency with are moving to the next phase of their lives after graduating from their 3-year programs. And here I am, still with a year left to go. Even friends from my past lives are starting new jobs, moving to new cities, buying houses, having babies. And here I am, hidden under the umbrella of residency, still in my same season, seemingly in perpetuity.

But I think this is actually just my Summer, where the days are warm, nurturing and endless. My Fall will make it's appearance soon; the Leaves are already changing. In January I will stop accepting new patients in my clinic. This Christmas will be the last in our house here, and this December the last season of residency holiday parties. My last on-call weekends in the newborn nursery and PICU are coming up soon, while my final Critical Care and PICU call nights are looming in the spring.

I guess for now I will treasure the changing colors, the brisk new winds, and pack up my summer clothes.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A single step...

So the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Some wise person said that, back in the days when it literally meant just that. It still stretches my mind that some truths are universal, throughout space and time, language, culture, distance. We toss around philosophy as samples of universal truth. What gets me are solid facts that don't change, like that the moon is the same moon that Jesus and Galileo and Isaac Newton and Christopher Columbus and George Washington all looked at. And at how big the world is, and how small I am on it. This is like yoga for my brain.

But I digress.

My entire life has been about the destination. I have worked for 25 years with the sole intention of completing the education I have up to this point. Have I missed some sights along the way? Maybe. Probably. Who knows. I do know that I have sacrificed for it, and have had others sacrifice too. All of this begs the question: What is really important, the journey or the destination? I can hear the philosophers rising up in unison: IT IS THE JOURNEY! But is it really? For without a destination, the journey itself is only wanderings in the wilderness...

I have hesitated starting a blog, mostly because I felt that my life was not eventful enough to chronicle. We don't have kids. We don't take vacations or travel. We have few other noteworthy interests. We work. A lot. And no one wants to hear about that. We have busy lives, just like everyone, but until now it has seemed that those things were not worthy of mention.

But maybe they are. Maybe analyzing the seemingly unimportant aspects of your life is how to stop and smell the roses. My journey has been long already, and already there are pieces I have forgotten. As I turned 30 this year, I decided that I would be looking forward to the next decade of my life, rather than dwelling on the loss of the last one. This will be the decade in which I will hopefully meet my children. (No, I'm not pregnant.) Maybe this can also be a decade of personal growth and wisdom. With all that lies ahead for me, I would hope so.

So, in an effort to chronicle the journey to my next destination, here I go with my single step.