An Early Resolution

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine—Last Post

It’s December 1 here in Chicago, but I have almost 2 hours before midnight in California, and 5 hours in Hawaii, so I’m still counting this post as on time.  Meh whatever, it’s my blog and I can do what I want—last post for NaBloPoMo 2017, woo hoooooooooo!!

Okay so, when was the last time you gave another driver the finger?  I can’t even remember myself, maybe high school?  Definitely by the end of college I had stopped, and I can honestly say I probably only ever did it a handful of times.  In college I was in a car with friends and the driver cheerily wagged his finger at another car that had cut us off.  He didn’t get angry, but rather acknowledged the rudeness with humor.  At least I thought it was humorous.  So I’ve been doing it ever since—but with varying degrees of good humor.

Last week I was driving to work (you know what’s coming).  As I approached an intersection about 1.5 car lengths behind the sedan in front of me, where we had no stop sign but the cross street did, I could see a car inching out at the corner.  I anticipated that it would try to make a turn after the car in front of me passed, thereby causing me to have to slow down.  Sure enough that’s what happened, and I wagged my finger.  I suppose my intent was to shame, I’m embarrassed to write.  If I were that driver, I might have felt ashamed, and also annoyed at the gesture.  He, in turn, showed me a stiff, straight middle finger, accompanied by an unmistakable expression of the very same message—eye contact and all.

That hurt my feelings, I’m also embarrassed to report.  Not quite sure why I’m embarrassed—because I kind of deserved it, or because we’re not supposed to let stuff like this get to us?  Whatever, it felt bad and I didn’t like it.  After reflecting over the next mile or so, I decided that from now on I will simply treat other drivers with kindness first, regardless of the crazy antics they perpetrate on the roads (and let me tell you, in Chicago it can get pretty crazy).  That is the resolution that makes me feel the best.  And now I’m even more embarrassed and ashamed because this is pretty much how my mom treats all drivers (all people, really) since I can remember.  Well, better late than never.

I’m trying to remember how I came to this conclusion, because it took like quick-drying super glue, and I have abided by it firmly ever since.  I tried to imagine myself in that driver’s place.  What would make me in such a hurry that I would intentionally inconvenience another driver, who has the right of way, to get going just a few seconds sooner?  Was he really late for work, or to see a sick relative in the hospital?  Was he just an impatient driver in general?  Regardless, was my finger wagging helpful to either of us?  Would it make him less likely to do the same thing again?  Maybe it would have been better if I had waved, offered some grace and generosity of spirit?  If I were him, I would certainly appreciate that more than a pompous finger wagging.

Exercising patience and generosity on the roads is easier said than done, though, am I right?  Surely I cannot be the only one challenged by this?  Now that I think more about it, maybe my embarrassment at feeling hurt by his gesture relates to the fact that society tells us in a lot of ways that we’re not supposed to treat other drivers as human—and thus not be affected by them.  Jockey for position, don’t let ‘em in, fuck ‘em.  Stupid gestures should mean nothing, because we’re simply expected to treat one another like garbage.  It feels like this when I let someone in my lane and they don’t wave.  No acknowledgement, no appreciation.  That doesn’t feel good, and it’s not who I am.

Long ago I realized that I almost never need to get anywhere so urgently that I need to cut people off or risk my safety, or that of my passengers, in the car.  Whenever I see someone signaling to get in my lane, I almost always make space for them.  I try to avoid entering intersections I cannot clear, because I hate when cars do that and cause gridlock, especially at rush hour.  But somehow I didn’t see the finger wag as contrary to these other acts of driving courtesy—in this respect I guess I was stuck in the ‘fuck ‘em’ mentality.  So it makes sense that after experiencing the other side, and so emphatically, I realized that the only thing to do for my integrity is to reject that behavior altogether.

So, no more finger wagging.  Maybe I’ll take a deep breath and find some other, more neutral expression?  It feels necessary to acknowledge my own frustration, but not necessarily to project it on the other person.  Maybe I need a mantra.  *Deep breath* “You be safe now.”  *Deep breath* “You do you, I’ll do me.”  *Deep breath* “Thank you for not hitting me.”  *Deep breath* “I remind myself that you are a fellow human being, and we are all here doing the best we can.”  Maybe a more succinct version of that last one.  I’ll work on it.  I’m sure I’ll be working on it for a long time yet.

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Thanks to all who have read along this month, it’s been fun!  Now onto holiday cards, each of which I will once again attempt to write by hand this year.  It just feels like the right thing to do, and I get to break out my fun colored pens.  In case I don’t make it back in time, Happy Holidays to all, and best wishes in 2018 and beyond!

Comfort Food

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

There is just something about rice that comforts us Asians.  This morning I got up early and spent all morning with my hosts in the Department of Surgery.  My presentation went well, as did a leadership and communication session I helped lead with the department chair.  But I only snacked on trail mix, and by the time I met my friend for sushi in the afternoon, I was starving.  The tuna, salmon, and yellowtail sashimi came with a nice, round bowl of rice, and I was in heaven.  The smooth, cool texture of the fish, the pungent bite of wasabi, and the dampening, flavor blending effect of soft white rice—every bite was a true pleasure.

Coming back from the west I connected in Denver, happily landing at Concourse C, where they have a bank of restaurants serving hot food.  I never do this, but tonight I made a beeline for Big Bowl.  No burgers, wraps, salads, snack boxes, or tabouleh this time.  I wanted rice and stir fry.  They served up one of those black takeout containers with the clear lids, filled with food, and I ate the whole damn thing.  It was just so satisfying, and so odd because Chinese food is usually the last thing I want when I eat out.

Maybe it’s because I’m overtired.  I traveled three times in three weeks in October, to Colorado, then San Francisco, then DC.  I connected with amazing people, old friends and new, and my brain was saturated with nature, love, and learning.  I also had multiple projects going on at home in that time.  This month I have stuck with my commitment to post here every day save one, keeping me up too late most nights.  I have presented to colleagues twice, traveling once to do it.  It’s been four weeks since I hurt my knee (complete ACL tear, now confirmed, with minor meniscal tears associated), I’m still limping, and my left quad is visibly–stunningly–atrophied.  All in all, it’s been a physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling couple of months.  I don’t regret most of it, except maybe going to volleyball that night when I probably should have gone to bed.  Grrr.

So it makes sense tonight that I’m attracted to ramen with a poached egg, chicken and vegetable soup, rice, stir fry, and oily fish.  They are warm, substantive, and satisfying, without feeling heavy or gluttonous.  I don’t feel guilty after eating them—these are my true comfort foods.

Thankfully, I have no more travel until Christmas and no presentations for two months.  One more NaBloPoMo post tomorrow and 2017 is in the books.  I’ve accomplished a lot, and definitely enough, this fall.  I can get off this treadmill in another day or so, and start the knee rehab in earnest—a whole new and fascinating experience!  Patience will be the challenge, perseverance the goal, and mindfulness the primary coping tool.  Now I just need to get home and get some sleep.

Tribal Pride and Tribalism

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

What tribes do you belong to?  How do they serve you, and you them?  How not?

I think of this today as I have traveled out of state to speak to a Department of Surgery on physician well-being.  I wonder how often they have internists present at their Grand Rounds?  What a tremendous honor, I’m so excited to be here!  I hope my talk will be useful and memorable, as I represent my field and my institution, in addition to myself.  In the talk I describe the central tenets of Tribal Leadership and culture, and how to elevate ours in medicine.

So I’m thinking tonight about tribal pride and tribalism—the benefits and risks of belonging.

We all need our tribes.  Belonging is an essential human need. To fit in, feel understood and accepted, secure—these are necessary for whole person health.  And when our tribes have purpose beyond survival, provide meaning greater than simple self-preservation, our membership feels that much more valuable to us.  But what happens when tribes pit themselves against one another?  How are we all harmed when we veer from “We’re great!” toward “They suck”?

Of course I’m thinking now of intra-professional tribalism:  Surgery vs. Medicine vs. Anesthesia vs. OB/gyne vs. Psychiatry.  Each specialty has its culture and priorities, strengths and focus.  Ask any of us in public and we will extol each other’s virtues and profess how we are all needed and equally valuable.  Behind closed doors, though, internists will call orthopods dumb carpenters; surgeons describe internists’ stethoscopes as flea collars, and the list of pejoratives goes on.  Maybe I’m too cynical?  My interactions with colleagues in other fields are usually very professional and friendly—until they are not.  I have experienced condescension and outright hostility before.  But can I attribute it to tribalism—that general, abstracted “I’m better than you because of what I do” attitude—or to individual assholery?  Or maybe those docs are just burned out?  As with most things, it’s probably a combination.  Based on what my medical students tell me, negative energy between specialties definitely thrives in some corners of our profession.  Third year medical students are like foster children rotating between dysfunctional homes of the same extended family—hearing from each why all the others suck.

So what can we do about this?  Should we actively police people’s thoughts and words in their private moments?  I mean part of feeling “We’re Great!” kind of involves comparing ourselves with others and feeling better than, right?  Isn’t some level of competition good for driving innovation and excellence?  Should we even embrace this aspect of tribal pride?  It certainly does not appear to be diminishing, and I have a feeling it’s just human nature, so probably futile to fight it.

I wonder why we have this need to feel better than.  Is it fear?  A sense of scarcity?  As if there is not enough recognition to go around?  Like the pie of appreciation is finite, and if you get more I necessarily get less?  Intellectually we recognize that we are all needed, we all contribute.  But emotionally somehow we still feel this need to put down, have power over, stand in front.  And it’s not just in medicine.  I see it in men vs. women, doctors vs. nurses, liberals vs. conservatives, and between racial and ethnic groups.  It makes me tired.

But maybe we can manage it better.  Maybe we can be more open and honest about our tribal tensions, bring them into the light.  Yes, I think surgeons can be arrogant.  And that’s okay to a certain extent—it takes a certain level of egotism to cut into people, and when things start going wrong in the OR, I think that trait can help make surgeons decisive and appropriately commanding when necessary.  I imagine surgeons get impatient with all the talking we internists engage in.  So many words, so little action, they might think.  And yet they understand that words are how we communicate with patients, how we foster understanding and trust.  Maybe we can all do a better job of acknowledging one another’s strengths and contributions out loud and in front of our peers (and learners).  The more we say and hear such things, the more we internalize the ideals.

Tomorrow I get to spend a morning with surgical attendings and residents.  I hope to contribute to their learning during my hour long presentation, but I really look forward to my own learning, to expanding my understanding and exposure to parts of my profession that I don’t normally see.  I’m humbled at the opportunity, and I will look for more chances to bring together colleagues from divergent fields.  If we commit, we can connect our tribes and form a more cohesive profession.  That is my dream for future generations of doctors—to be freed from infighting and empowered to collaborate at the highest levels, for the benefit of us all.

 

Ode to My Dawn Simulator

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

Did you notice the photo on my post Gratitude Again?  That was the view out my office window around 5:30pm last week.  These days I appreciate the winter dusk a lot more than years past, mostly because the physically hardest years of training and my kids’ lives (for me) are over.  My intern year I rotated in the medical intensive care unit (MICU, or MICK-you, or just ‘the unit’ for short) in November.  Usual days started by 6am, and finished whenever my patients were stable enough for me to leave, usually past 7pm.  I really never saw the sun that whole month—not from outside, anyway.  Every third night on call, my resident and I covered the whole place.  The longest I ever spent in the hospital was 5am until 10pm the following night—41 hours straight, only to be back again the next morning at 6.  And that was nothing compared to the generation of doctors who trained before me.  Thinking back on it now, I can still feel the saturating fatigue, the utter hopelessness of ever seeing the call room, let alone lying down on a bed.  Thank GOD those days are over.  They weren’t all bad, though.  Residency was one of the hardest things I’ve done, and it was also intensely rewarding.  The friendships I made those years, the unique shared experiences—I carry these with me also.  They made me strong and gave me confidence.

But if I thought getting up in the dark during intern year was hard, somehow doing it as an attending with two little kids was even harder—go figure.  The sleep deprivation of working motherhood is a completely different animal from that of residency, its toll multiplied on family.  The blaring alarm clock, the utter blackness of the bedroom, the contrast of cozy warmth under the blankets with the cold still air above.  They all conspired to make me peevish, sullen, and supremely unpleasant to be around every morning—an additional cost to my soul every time I lashed out at the kiddos out of my own exhaustion.  To borrow a phrase from Vee over at Cute Kids, I might well have died of a bad mood or something worse if that situation continued.

So Husband staged an intervention: He bought me a dawn simulator for Christmas.  It’s an ingeniously simple device: An alarm clock with a built-in light dimmer that comes with its own full-spectrum light bulb.  All you have to do is connect it to a bedside lamp.  Then you set sunrise time, as well as duration of rise (I set mine to 6:45, 15 minutes).  Every morning for the past 7 years I wake up naturally from a steadily brightening, gentle and warm glow from one corner of the room.  It’s infinitely more pleasing; no blaring involved.  Of course now I have my iPhone ‘by the seaside’ alarm as back up, especially for this month as I stay up too late writing blog posts.  And I’m not a morning person in general, so no Mary Poppins songs bursting forth with domesticated mechanical birds on my windowsill.  But life is infinitely more tolerable between Halloween and Easter each year now—for all of us.

Thanks, Husband.  Ya done good.

Mom Love

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Somehow tonight I got to thinking about all my patients who are moms.  I am filled with love and admiration, and compassion for all of them.  Maybe it was because today that is what I did most—momming.  Chauffer, meal planner, shopper, meal preparer, science project thingy seeker, organizer of the week to come (meal planner, babysitter/transport arranger, meal planner, shopping planner, piano lesson re-scheduler)…

I feel so grateful that I can work part-time.  I accomplish most of these life tasks on days when I’m ‘not working,’ as I used to say.  Now I call them days on which I ‘don’t see patients.’  All moms work; it’s a full time job with intangible and transcendent benefits, as well as hellish hours, often disproportionately low appreciation, and obviously no financial compensation.  Some of you may have seen a popular article this year on the mental workload of moms.  I highly recommend the short read.  Here’s a slightly older article that also includes references to research on the ‘work-home gender gap.’  And I absolutely love this eloquent, hilarious, and heartfelt to tribute to moms from last year, which is basically encapsulated in the first sentence: “I am the person who notices we are running out of toilet paper, and I rock…”

What tugs at my heart the most sometimes are the moms who have chosen to stay at home, giving up, at least temporarily, a fulfilling and meaningful professional career.  So many of them feel conflicted over making this choice, and then shame over feeling conflicted.  Countless times I have heard some version of, “Please don’t think I don’t love my kids, because I LOVE my kids!  …But (sheepishly) being with them 24/7 is so tiring, and I really miss using those other parts of my brain, having conversations with adults, and solving problems that employ my education and training.  But I love my kids, really I do, and I love being with them and I chose this and I know I should feel so grateful that we can afford for me to stay home, I just feel so guilty for ever wanting to be away from them, what good mom wants that??  But I’m so tired, and sometimes (pause) I wonder if I should have kept my job, worked it out somehow?  I never thought I would feel so torn.”  In these encounters I do my best to validate my patients’ choices, to reassure them that in no way do I question their love for their children just because they long for the company of peers and colleagues, and to address the consequences of their inner conflicts on their health and relationships—with self and with others.  I feel sad and angry that anyone would shame a mom for wanting to have a meaningful life outside of momming.

There’s the guilt of the working mom, also—which springs from the same pathological thinking that no good mom would want to be away from her kids.  But somehow these women seem easier to console, in my experience.  They often derive significant meaning from their work, and even if that is not the case, they take pride in providing for their families.  They also often report seeing themselves as role models for their daughters.  Regardless, I hate that these women have to deal with the same social gremlins as their stay-at-home counterparts—that somehow being a mom and having a career are necessarily divergent ideals.  This is an example of a false dichotomy that serves no useful purpose, and causes many of us to suffer unnecessarily.  Thankfully, others have written extensively on solutions; I really like this article on 8 ways to overcome mom guilt, regardless of your W2 status.

In looking up the articles for this post, I also came across this one, addressing the invisible mental workload of men.  I’m so glad I read it, because it reminds me of another fallaciously dichotomous rabbit hole: when we start exploring and addressing women’s challenges, the discussion too easily devolves into man-hating.  I claim my own susceptibility to this mindset, and thankfully this article helps me rein it in.  The same antiquated social pressures that tell women they ‘should’ always want to stay at home also tell men that they ‘should’ always want to be at work, and GAAAGH, it just kills all of our souls, a little at a time.  The author, Josh Levs, writes:

“All women who notice and keep track of their families’ many needs deserve big props and respect for it. So do the men who do this work. It’s crucial, detail-oriented, and never-ending. It makes a home a home.

“For 2017, let’s resolve to put aside misguided gender assumptions and work together to achieve a better balance and healthy work-life integration—for the sake of women and men.”

I wholeheartedly agree.  Let us stop with the guilt trips and shaming, and give all moms, and dads too, all our love for the ‘momming’ we all do!

 

The Movies That Move Us

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

The weekend has gone by too fast, and I have done none of the tasks on The List.  Oh well, it’s all good.  I got up this morning and made the green onion pancakes that my daughter loves so much.  We had a very successful shopping binge at Trader Joe’s and Target, woo hooooo!  And in between, we had something of a Christmas movie marathon:

“Love, Actually” (2003)

“The Holiday” (2006)

“While You Were Sleeping” (1995)

I’ve seen each of these movies so many times that I anticipate my favorite lines with giddiness and delight.  But they often end up serving as background on theTV as I accomplish other things.  Today, though, I was able to relax, sit, and watch.  It was touching and emotional, something of a re-centering.

What I love about each movie is how human all the characters are—there is something to relate to for every aspect of humanity in these films.  No one is perfect but all are lovable, all are flawed.  The relationships between characters—siblings, spouses, neighbors, friends, coworkers, parents, children, boy/girlfriends, and ex-es—are all interconnected, interdependent.  Somehow, watching these three movies in a row today, I’m struck by the portrayals of vulnerability, honesty, humility, judgment, love, and commitment, as well as lapses thereof.  It’s all so real, so human.

The hero’s journey is real.  We are all called to our own adventure, inevitably facing challenges and conflicts against our will.  We search for the easy ways out, alternative paths around our problems.  We avoid the hard feelings, the discomfort, the morass.  And then, somehow, we find a way—we meet someone who can help, we marshal our resources, we find the inner strength to do what’s needed, to carry on.  It’s messy and awkward, meandering and stumbling, often also hilarious and worthy of eye rolls and head shakes.  Looking back we find ourselves thinking, “Well why didn’t I just do that in the first place?”  And we can also appreciate the inevitable, valuable learning from the missteps and wrong turns.

Movies are movies, of course, not real life.  They are an escape.  They are also a mirror, as most art is.  They tell our shared stories, remind us of our relationships and connections through time, across nations, between genders and generations.  They’re called “movies” because they are still pictures shown in series to give the illusion of movement.  But perhaps we can think of them as moving us at our core, drawing us nearer to one another through shared experience and imagination.  The best movie experiences leave us a little cracked, a little exposed, a little sensitive—or a lot.  They remind us of our core humanity, inviting us to bring it forth and live it in authenticity.

Many thanks to all those who create and contribute to this art form.  You make us better.

Dr. Jerkface In Context—Healing the Patient-Physician Relationship

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Excuse me, I took an unintended break for Thanksgiving!  Hope you all had a wonderful holiday!

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

For the past year or so, maybe more, I have increasingly tried to engage my friends in discussion around allied advocacy for physician health and well-being.  Inevitably, however, I’m met with anecdotes from my friends about asshole doctors.  It is a strikingly common experience, I’m sad to report.  And it makes sense:  If a patient has a bad experience with a doctor, ie the doctor behaves badly or the patient feels dismissed, ignored, disrespected, or mistreated, the normal response is to blame the doctor and assume that s/he is an asshole.  In each of these interviews with friends, it took a while for them to come around to the idea that the doctor him/herself may be suffering and therefore not behaving/performing their best.

But the next question is this: Do patients care about doctors’ suffering?  If they knew how the system harms physicians, would they have compassion for us?  What about if they knew how physician burnout and dissatisfaction directly affects their quality of care, all of it negatively?  What would move patients to stand up with and for doctors?  This is my goal for the indefinite future: to help us, patients and physicians, the end users of our medical system, stand up with and for one another, for positive systems change.

Right now I see it as a very personal, grassroots endeavor.  Outside of a one-on-one patient-physician relationship, ‘patients’ and ‘physicians’ in general are abstract groups to us all, and it’s hard to feel compassion for and connection with an abstraction.  “Patients are too demanding, entitled, and ignorant.”  “Doctors are arrogant, dismissive, and profit-driven.”  We carry these overgeneralized internal narratives and others into our encounters, often unknowingly and unintentionally.  Even when we think we see and know the person right in front of us, these underlying assumptions still color our experiences with them.  So whatever conversations we may undertake will take many repetitions to finally reach true mutual understanding.

I have been a member of my church since 1991.  Many others in the community have been there much longer than that.  There are other physicians, and we are all patients, ranging in age from infants to octogenarians.  I have proposed to host a focus group to discuss patient-physician relationship, especially as it relates to the effects of physician burnout on patient care.  The plan is to do it once, with whomever is interested, and see what happens after that.  I picture 10-20 people, patients and physicians alike, seated in a circle.

The objectives will be stated:

  1. Hold an open discussion about people’s experiences in the patient-physician encounter, and explore the context of forces that influence those experiences. Such forces include visit duration, documentation requirements, workflow inefficiencies, patient expectations, insurance status, and clinical setting (hospital, outpatient clinic, etc.).
  2. Participants leave with improved mutual understanding of one another’s experiences in the medical system and more likely to feel empathy and compassion toward their counterparts in the next encounter.

In the long term, I wish for patients and physicians to form a unified platform from which to advocate for policy change.  We, patients and physicians, are the end-users of the healthcare system, the largest combined demographic in the system, and I believe we are the ones who benefit the least from the system.  Health outcomes for American patients are dismal compared other developed countries, despite our exorbitant expernditures.  Physicians kill ourselves at more than twice the rate of the general population.

It’s not enough for medical professional societies to write co-authored, open letters to Congress.  It’s not enough for individual patient constituents to stand up at town halls and berate their representatives.  We must orient ourselves as resistors in series, rather than in parallel.  I think the movement will grow most effectively out of existing connections and relationships, through which we can find shared interests, common goals, and a strong, unified voice for change.

I seek your feedback:

  1. How do you picture this meeting going?
  2. How interested are you in learning about physician burnout and how it affects patients?
  3. If you were invited to such a meeting, what would you think and feel about it?
  4. What would make you more likely to participate?
  5. Would you want to host such a meeting in your community? How would you do it?

Thank you for considering, and see you tomorrow!