Playing under protest

There's a term in baseball called playing under protest. What happens is that a rule is incorrectly applied and the manager of a baseball team protests. If the officials do not side with him, then the team formally protests, but the game continues. They are playing under protest. And the League office will review the game afterwards, and provide an ultimate judgment.

My life has been one long game under protest. When I was younger, I had planned to kill myself. That was the plan. But instead, I was called, By God Himself. Most people wait lifetimes for such a calling. However, I was disappointed. I did not want to live any longer. I didn't want to continue on the path that I was going. Instead, I would push forward, sent on a mission that I didn't ask for.

If I had to play, then I would be a doctor. I was asked to care for the people of this world, and I would do that through medical science. That was my calling. I worked hard for it. I got my MD. And I am still playing this game of life, achieving all kinds of notable things, doing all kinds of good works. I have provided lifesaving care to the sick, I have held the hands of the dying, comforted those in sorrow, and fought against injustice and inequity in the medical system. I have used my office to care for these corporeal vessels, gifts to us from God, and I have done so without judgment, indignation, or evangelization. I have done good things for this world in my life.

But I didn't want to live, and so far, I have yet to find a reason to continue living. Oh, I'm not depressed, and I'm not going to kill myself now. But I find no value, meaning, or satisfaction in my life itself. I love my work. My work is valuable and meaningful, and I am exceptionally good at it, but it is the task that was demanded of me. So, I continue under protest, hoping that at the end of this, I might get an apology or at least an acknowledgment that my protest had merit.

Survivor's guilt

I had a day in clinic last week that hurt, emotionally. It was like my scheduling staff actually were trying to inflict psychological harm, because the morning was entirely booked with widows and widowers. I had 10 patients, all of whom were single and lonely, abandoned by their spouses who died.

Widowed patients are sometimes hard to see, but it's particularly bad when half those widows' spouses died under my watch. It's particularly painful to see the wife of Mr M, such a gregarious and lovable guy, a guy who had a massive coronary event and died at home, and now, his wife comes in like clockwork, every 6 months. Her medical problems have all gotten better, now that she is no longer subject to his bad habits of going out to restaurants all the time or indulging in sweets. She puts her faith in me that I am providing solid medical care, but really, her sample size to rate my performance is miserable. I killed the only other patient of mine she knows.

Mrs H is also so upsetting. She talks about her husband every time she comes in. He was a gentleman with such refinement and character, who never had a stern word. Even when he was angry, his words were like Socrates. She reminds me all the time that she has nothing to live for. She doesn't mean that in a bad way, and she's not even depressed, but that the efforts I put into extending her life, they are efforts she is ambivalent towards. If she died tomorrow, she would be fine with that, because the love of her life is dead.

One of my staff tells me that I should feel honored. Here are people that have been acutely exposed to my lack of ability to prevent the hand of fate. But they saw what I was able to do, and they want to continue with me. They are saying in each visit, "It's not your fault. That is life." I feel like really, they are silently consoling me. Because I mourn their losses too, because they are my losses also.

Greener grass

I think part of the difficulty with having a job you love is that it makes it very difficult to think rationally about major life decisions. I really do love my job, but my life is otherwise like plain yogurt. It has no flavor. I get no pleasure out of it.

So here I am, with every possible reason to move and start fresh, live an honest to God adventure, but I am at the same time deeply conditioned to patterns and caution. The same things that make me good at being an internist are simultaneously the qualities that lead me to live a bland and milquetoast existence. 

Recently, I had a couple patients retire and move. They've been with me for several years, and I will really miss them, but I will not miss them as much as I will envy them, because for some people, life is an adventure. But not for me. 

Don't become a doctor #18 - Meaning

When I am on the Internet, I often hear young people thinking about going into medicine because they are looking for meaning. This is a rather altruistic and noble vision, to pursue a career that benefits the world and humanity, and it is one that I held when I was younger, but it is sadly very naive, and very misleading.

Like many teenagers, I really struggled with the question of why do I exist and what is my purpose. It is really the first time we are aware that our lives can have a purpose. So I sought out a raison d'etre. I wanted a mission. Medicine really appealed to me because I could heal the sick, and the role of healer is full of meaning and purpose. If I could just put on the cloak of physician, then I too could have meaning, by extension.

However, the ugly truth is: a job is a job. There is nothing more or less meaningful about any job, and all jobs have meaning and purpose to someone. A plumber gives us running water and sanitary disposal of waste water. Without this, cholera would still be a worldwide killer. A janitor lets us have clean and safe facilities to use, whether at our work or places we visit. A chef prepares food for us for nourishment and pleasure. Every job offers some level of purpose. So the key is not finding a job full of meaning. Having a job full of meaning does not make YOU meaningful. It only gives you responsibilities and expectations.

In residency, I responded to a code for a lady in her 20's. I hadn't been phased by codes in a long time, but she was so young, and with so much life ahead. And somehow, I managed to bring this one back. Even though it was probably more luck than skill, it felt good. It felt like without me, she would be dead. I put everything I had into her case. And that good feeling, it lasted for about 15 minutes before I asked a terrible, terrible question of myself. "What if that was why I was put on this earth, to save that one person? What the fuck do I do with the rest of MY life?"

I know plenty of docs with amazing skills who have saved many more than I ever will, but they hate their lives and are going through the motions, locked into a profession that demands a lot of time and energy and dedication. I have avoided this by making sure I was able to answer to answer one simple question: is what I do meaningful to me? Do I love what I am doing? That is how you find meaning.

Privileged #6 - Enough

The first time that I pronounced someone dead was a very mild experience. I was an intern, and one of our patients was under comfort care measures only, and was due to expire sometime that night. I was on the floor to sign some orders, and one of the nurses grabbed me. "You need to pronounce Mr. S in 422."

I had no idea how to pronounce someone dead. Was there a procedure? Did I need to do an exam? How sure did I have to be? I wasn't going to take any chances. I felt for breath and for pulse. I did painful stimuli. I listened for heartbeat and respiration. I even printed a telemetry strip. He'd expired before the nurses could unhook his leads.

When I looked at the strip, I went back into the room. There was activity on the strip. There were occasional ventricular contractions. I needed to be sure. The nurse was a little impatient. She had a look at the strip too.

"Oh fuck, I forgot the magnet!" She ran out of the room and came back quickly with a round magnet and placed it on his chest. There was no more activity. Mr. S's pacemaker was off now.

I saved the telemetry strip from Mr. S and look at it every now and then. It helps to remind me of the amazing technological achievement in medicine, and that despite all of this achievement, sometimes a person has to say that enough is enough.

Don't become a doctor #17 - a checkered past

When I talk about the history of the United States, I use the word "we". We had a tragic history of slavery and institutional racism. We oppressed and slaughtered the indigenous people of this land. We fought difficult and deadly wars in Europe and Asia. But I wasn't a part of that, and neither were my parents who were immigrants to this country. I could not be more innocent to the checkered past of this country. But I was born here, and am an American, with all the positives and negatives that entails.

This is the part of being a doctor that people do not like to talk about. Being a doctor does not come with a clean white coat. It comes with a painful history. To take credit for all the amazing things done by physicians, we must also own all the terrible things we have done, and still do, and there are so many.

In the name of research, we have done things like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, where we withheld treatment from participants for almost 30 years after penicillin was discovered to be effective. So egregious was this study that the government has forced any and all human research to be required to meet safety and practice standards, because we couldn't be trusted. And right they were, because we have also experimented on people in other countries, children, prisoners, and many other groups disadvantaged or with diminished ability to consent.

We have behaved like autocrats over the medical system, consistently devaluing and diminishing the roles and responsibilities of not only allied health professionals, but even the patient, to the point where we actually had to declare that a patient has the right to consent to treatment. Because we have, on so many occasions, fought this very point.

We have practiced our trade under the influence of business and industry, accepting benefits, gifts, and perks from all sorts of entities to influence the appropriate care of patients. There are no free lunches, but forget lunch. It was only 10 years ago that pharmaceutical reps could get a doctor vacations, trips, and outright money.

And still, we cheat patients, insurers, and Medicare out of money, to the point where President Obama's administration has stopped literal billions of dollars worth of fraud to Medicare. It's so bad, CMS has made a YouTube video about it.

So if you're coming into the profession of medicine, know that the ethical standard has now been set high, extremely high, because any less is not acceptable. And because we have done such a miserable job in the past of meeting any standard. If you're not willing to own the dark past of medicine and the failings of our peers, then you have no business enjoying the privileges of medicine.

Jobs vs professions

So, a doctor riding a bicycle to work gets Internet attention. It's a cute story for sure, but it's only a small appetizer of what it means to be a professional. If you want the entree, read about Carlo Urbani. I'm sure you've never heard of him. However, you've probably heard of SARS, the horrifying respiratory virus with a 11% fatality rate. It was discovered by Dr. Urbani, who recognized that this was a novel and lethal virus. He alerted the WHO, and tried to take steps to limit the disease spread. He caught the virus himself, and arranged for a makeshift isolation room, where his wife could only talk to him through an intercom. He died from SARS, and donated his lung tissue to science for study. He almost certainly saved millions of people from contracting the virus, and thousands if not millions of deaths.

If you want to know the difference between a job and a profession, this is it. A job is 9 to 5. A profession is part of who you are, and has a responsibility that extends into our social lives, our personal lives, and sometimes, it even costs us our lives. That's not a job. I don't mean to knock janitors, but no janitor should ever die with a mop in hand.