Privileged #7 - comfort

In medicine, we are allowed to be involved in people's lives in a way that few other professions are. And sometimes, that can hurt. I had a former patient who was a lovable and gregarious gentleman with many unhealthy habits, so it was no surprise to me when I got the notice that he'd been admitted to the hospital. I checked the hospital records, and his room was listed as in the ICU. That's not super unusual. Sometimes, the hospital fills up and it's the only available bed, but I had a bad feeling, and so I checked his chart. He'd had a cardiac arrest and was currently on a ventilator.

I don't always visit my patients, but when someone is actively dying, I make the effort. I wanted to see him, see if I could help, and maybe assuage some of the guilt I was feeling. So after clinic, I headed over to the hospital, but I had a couple errands to run. I stopped by the cleaners to pick up my shirts, and I grabbed a few groceries for dinner. By the time I arrived at the ICU, things were fairly quiet. I made my way to his room and noticed that the lights were off and the monitors off. Before I could go in, the ICU nurse stopped me. She was one of my favorite ICU RN's, from an older generation of nursing when the job was brutal but humanizing. We'd shared many a dark moment in the unit, and this would be one more. 

My patient had coded about 60 minutes ago and died. They had only just finished getting him cleaned up for family to visit with him, pulling off all the wires and tubes and needles and tags. She was just finishing up her charting, since she was the code nurse for the event. 

I was devastated. I had just missed him. If I hadn't run those errands, I would've been there, but I wasn't there and for the dumbest reason. I couldn't have changed the outcome, and I wasn't the ICU doctor anyway, but he was still my patient. I should have been there, and I wasn't, because I needed to pick up my shirts before the cleaners closed. 

While I was standing there thunderstruck, the nurse pointed to the door behind me. The family was gathered in there. I hadn't seen any of them because they were waiting until the nurses finished cleaning him up. "You should go in," she said. So I screwed up my nerve and walked in to find twenty people jammed into a space meant for ten. There were sons and daughters and grandchildren and siblings, and at the head of the conference table was my patient's wife. I walked up to her and started to apologize profusely, but she didn't let me finish. 

"Oh doctor, I'm so glad you're here. Thank you so much for coming. It would've meant so much to him that you came." She then introduced me to her children and her grandchildren. I had expected wailing and sobbing, but they all had such a bittersweet expression, like they understood that this was the end of a beautiful moment, like the ending credits of a movie. They shared stories of his life with me, the life that I had never seen, the one that didn't involve A1c's or blood pressures or cholesterol levels. They laughed and cried. 

"Do you want to see him?" she asked me. Yes, of course. She let me go, while the family returned to reminiscing of better times. I left the conference room and went back to his ICU room. I held his cold hand and said my goodbyes. The family let me have my time, and I felt almost greedy that I should be the first to say my farewells. 

I came to the hospital expecting to provide support and comfort, and instead, I was the one who was comforted by this family who adopted me for one brief moment. I understood then that I was not a stranger in his life. I had been a part, however small it may have been, and was welcomed into the intimacy of his life. Since then, I've had other patients die, and I've grieved with spouses. I have several patients who've lost spouses who were under my care. They still come to see me, a testament to their faith in me, and when I see them, we share a little memory and a moment, and I can't help but feel so lucky that I am welcomed into their lives, and so honored that I should receive such trust.

Don't become a doctor #20 - treating the source

I am fond of telling people that all the advances of modern medicine account for maybe about 3% of the improvement in the health of the human condition. The other 97% of the betterment of humanity can be credited mainly to three things: clean drinking water, sewers, and immunizations. There are some other things too, like labor laws and pollution controls, but pretty much everything we do now in modern medicine is the equivalent of sprinkles atop an ice cream sundae. Your toilet has done more for the betterment of humanity than I ever will.

And really, the future of the improvement of the health of humanity doesn't lie in anything I can do or modify. If I wanted to make the biggest impact in the improvement of the health of humanity for the betterment of the general public, then I would institute universal basic income and mandatory pre-K through 12 education. I can do a lot of things right now: I can treat hypertension and diabetes, I can diagnose and treat complicated medical conditions, but I do not have a pill to treat poverty. I have no prescription for socioeconomic oppression.

Mrs B can't afford her medications. She has Medicare, yes, but she pays a monthly premium for a supplemental plan that only gets her out of pocket expenses down to $10-15 per prescription. How is that going to help her pay for the 8 pills I am prescribing? Best case scenario, that's $80 a month, but she only gets $800 from Social Security, and she spends $500 of that on rent. She literally cannot afford to be healthy. I see her every 3 months for what purpose? The diseases I am treating are not the principal problems of her life. Another $300 a month would make her far healthier than another diabetes medication. Having a blood pressure under 150/90 isn't going to get her electric bill paid. I asked her about it once. 

"I understand that you can't afford to do a lot of the things I'm recommending, but then why keep coming to these doctor appointments? You can save your copay." She was speechless for a moment, like that was even an option. The thought of NOT seeing the doctor is anathema to her. She wants to be healthy. She wants to do better. But she is swimming upstream without a paddle, and that paddle looks suspiciously like another $300 a month in her budget. I do a lot of counseling and education for her, because maybe she can keep up serious lifestyle changes, and maybe that will be an adequate replacement for lisinopril. 

I have a sickle cell patient who is frequently in the ER or hospital. She can't stay in school, can't hold down a job, can't have any semblance of a normal life because for her, a normal life involves spending on average 2 days a month in the hospital or ER. How is she supposed to better herself when she cannot access the tools by which people better themselves? Whenever I see her, I encourage her that she needs to work on avoiding triggers for a crisis. She needs to bundle up warm in the winter. She needs to stay really well hydrated in the summer. She needs to keep active, but not too active. She needs to wash her hands so she doesn't catch any colds. Her life is a constant vigilance to prevent her own body from betraying her. When does she have time for bettering herself, when all of her time and energy is put into avoiding being sick?

In America we always talk about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. But really, that assumes you have boots. If you don't have boots, then what? Forget boots, what if you don't have feet? We do not have equal standing in any respect. We do not have equal opportunity, equal adversity, or equal ability. If we do not share equally for the potential of success, then how can we expect people to be successful? So I don't spend much time with the successful. I spend most of my time with the losers on the battlefield of life: the injured, wounded, and crippled from chronic stress or poverty or oppression or injustice. They're the ones calling out for a medic.

The job of physician sometimes involves interfacing with a cold and uncaring world on behalf of someone unable to change their circumstance, and trying to make an improvement in a system that is fundamentally flawed. If you're not prepared to roll that rock up that hill, then think about something else. Because that is what I love about my job, that I get to fight for things that mean something, even if I'm not going to win.

Flight plans and unexpected turbulence

One of my patients recently found out that he has a terminal condition, and he is thunderstruck. He refuses to accept that this is the end. He says to me, "I can't just give up!" He tells me that he is going to beat this thing and win, and that he still has a fighting chance. But he doesn't. And I really want him to come to grips with this, because I want to make the end as pleasant as I can, and not misery.

And that's the problem of thinking of disease like a sporting event or a battle, because ultimately, everyone dies. Even if you win the game, the game is over. This is something you learn to come to terms with in internal medicine. Maybe a pediatrician or a subspecialist can insulate themselves from this reality, but my job is to try to extend longevity as much as can be reasonably done. I don't save any lives. All my patients are going to die, and likely while I am at the helm.

When thinking about life, I always preferred the metaphor of flying a plane. Every plane goes up, and every plane lands, and we want to go as far as we can, as comfortably as possible. And we don't get to choose our plane. We could get a Cessna, or a G6, or a Concorde, or even a 747. There's no choosing. We get the plane we get. But regardless of the plane, we're mostly all are trying to fly as far as we can and as comfortably as possible.

There are factors that we can modify. We can avoid bad weather or change our flight plan or change altitude or throttle. Maybe we know to do these things, because we got an airline transport pilot licence, and then we paid for good fuel, rigorously checked the flight plan, and had the best mechanics look over the plane with a fine tooth comb. Or maybe we never got a pilot licence because it was too expensive. Or we started out in a terrible airport surrounded by terrible weather conditions. Or maybe we didn't have any radar or doppler, and had to trust our gut about the weather. And maybe we didn't even know that these were things to worry about till we were already halfway through our fuel. Or maybe we decided to have some fun and did a whole bunch of air stunts, not realizing that it might cause stress damage. There are so many modifiable factors, and we can try our best to maximize our chances of flying far and smoothly, but in spite of our best planning, we could have a catastrophic failure of some little hydraulic tube that changes all of our plans.

And if something catastrophic happens, then it's not guaranteed that we are doomed. Maybe we can recover and still complete our flight plan. But some catastrophes we know will have no recovery, like if the fuselage gets ripped in half or a wing tears off. We're not going to make it to our destination. We're going to crash.

As a doctor, if I know we're going to crash, then my job changes. I'm no longer trying to help us get to our intended destination, but now I am trying to get us close to a nice landing spot, and help us land as smoothly as possible. Because there are bad crashes where no one walks away, and there are 'good' crashes where the survivors look back and think how lucky this was, given the circumstances. And so I'm pointing out to ease up on the throttle, avoid this weather cell, aim for this strip of highway, radio ATC and let them know of our situation, so there can be resources ready to meet us on the ground: medical personnel, fire crews, police to clear the scene. And I can't do any of those things if the pilot is not ready to concede that yes, this plane is crashing and we have to make the best we can of this terrible situation. No one wants to crash. But if that's your only choice, then I can help.

What comes next

​One of my patients had a major event, and very nearly died. It was very touch and go, and after several months, she is finally on the path to recovery, and I was a little surprised that she pulled through, because of all of my patients, she is the most accepting of death. She's been a widow for years, and we frequently have talked about how she is ready to go. So I was surprised to see her clinging to life with such tenacity. She is not going without a fight, the person I had thought to be the most eager to have her ticket punched. 

Life is funny sometimes like that. On the news sometimes, you see people ready to commit suicide, and at the very moment they are ready to leap, they grab onto the edge desperately. There's a line in "Crime & Punishment" by Dostoevsky where he says:
... where was it that I read of how a condemned man, just before he died, said, or thought, that if he had to live on some high crag, on a ledge so small that there was no more than room for his two feet, with all about him the abyss, the ocean, eternal night, eternal solitude, eternal storm, and there he must remain, on a hand's-breadth of ground, all his life, a thousand years, through all eternity - it would be better to live so, than die within the hour? Only to lie, to live!
I don't know what comes in the next life, but I don't have much expectation for what remains for me in this one. Maybe I will have a different perspective when I am in my eighties, but if I look at my life honestly, I am already coasting in neutral. I really wonder if when my time comes, will I also grab onto the edge?

5 minutes

There is a lot of research and publications about different interventions during patient encounters. A brief smoking cessation intervention, a brief psychological assessment, a brief social stressor history, a targeted exam to identify depression, get up and go, cognitive evaluation, MMSE, MoCA, GAD7, PHQ9...

When I went to a productivity seminar, the speaker noted something very straightforward. The only truly fixed quantity we have in life is time. Everything takes time. Sleep takes time, eating takes time, fun takes time. There is nothing in life that we do not value with time, and there is only a limited time that we have, in a day and in a life.

I have 15 minutes to make a change in a person's health. That is my fixed quantity. In that time, there are things that have to happen, things that can be quicker or slower, and when everything is tallied up, I have -3 minutes. It is no longer a question of which brief intervention I can fit in, but what required thing can I cut out? Can I skip diabetes management this time? Can I ignore the BP until next visit?

So when I am less than enthusiastic about your presentation on a 5 minute intervention on fall risk or a new screening tool for domestic violence, please understand that I agree it's important, but is it more important than a BP of 185/105? Is it more important than signing a patient up for a patient assistance program?