Reconnecting to Mission, Patients, and Colleagues

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What’s the most personally fulfilling aspect of your work?  In times of uncertainty, threat, and transition, what holds you up?

This past week, I had the privilege of standing alongside giants in the fight against physician burnout.  In a series of presentations at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians (ACP), we did our best to acknowledge and validate the current state of physician burnout (about half of all physicians in all specialties report at least one symptom), and then present as many strategies to reduce it as time would allow.  We showed how changes in workflow, task distribution, and technology, such as pre-visit labs and scribes, have been shown to improve physician satisfaction, team morale, and patient experience.  My role was to attempt to inspire my fellow internists to claim their individual agency, model a culture of wellness, and advocate for systems change in their home institutions.

The content felt dense but manageable, and the audience appeared engaged.  Our colleagues from all around the country approached us afterward to clarify studies of efficacy and ask about local representatives for advocacy in the ACP.  In the end, I think we achieved our primary objective of having most attendees leave with just a little more hope for our profession than they came in with.

Over the four day conference, however, what consistently grounded me in professional mission and meaning, not only in our own presentation but in others, were the personal stories.  That is how we humans relate to one another, after all—through narratives.  And connecting to mission and colleagues is key to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce, physician or otherwise.

Our attendees participated in two practices that I’ll share here.  Both were “Pair and Share” activities, meant to stimulate reflection both internally and externally.

Who In Your Life Really Changed You?

First we asked our colleagues to think of a patient who changed them, how, and to what end.  I know there have been many patients who changed me, but I always think of one particular woman.  She was middle aged, obese, diabetic, depressed, and severely disabled from osteoarthritis.  She lived alone and had a sparse social network, and her life partner had died unexpectedly a few years before I met her.  At every visit we struggled through the same fundamental challenges of weight loss, glucose control, and pain management.  How could she take her diabetes medications more regularly?  How could we control her pain without having to take opioids every day?  How else could we manage her depression, as some of the medications were raising her blood sugar?  She may have cried at almost every visit; wailing was not uncommon, and once she even vomited from cumulative distress.  Our relationship was good overall.  I overcame my impatience with her non-adherence to the treatment plan as I understood her life situation better.  But for four of the five years we knew each other, I saw few if any indicators that her thought, emotional, and behavior patterns would change.

Then things started to turn around.  She started coming consistently to appointments, no more no-shows.  She got online and found a community center that was accessible by bus.  She connected with a knitting group and started going to art fairs to sell her creations.  She started taking her medications more regularly, and lost enough weight to have her knee replaced.  By the time we parted ways, she had transformed from a weeping victim of circumstance to a woman with agency, self-efficacy, and goals, dammit!  And most of this had nothing to do with me.  I simply had the privilege to witness and support her intrinsic revolution.  From her I learned what perseverance looks like; I learned about hope and self-redemption; I learned that I should never make assumptions about anybody’s future.

Who Supported You in a Time of Vulnerability?

They said do the hardest thing that you know you don’t want to do for a living as your first rotation.  So I chose surgery.  In July of my third year of medical school, my days started around 5:30am and could end the next night at 10pm if my team was busy post call.  Most faculty physicians were kind and wise, or at least non-abusive.  Some, however, not so much.  What buoyed me most through that rotation was always the support and protection of the residents on my team.  I would watch them get abused by our attendings, but that sh*t never rolled downhill when the boss left the room.  I did not fully realize until years later what a gift that was and how much it spoke to the character of these men (they were all men).  This was in the 1990s; verbal abuse of medical students and snide comments about one’s appearance, gender, and just about everything else were simply to be expected.  But my favorite residents always pulled me aside and asked how I was.  They always made sure I felt confident about my role on the team, and they taught me basic skills with conviction and encouragement.  As I was about to insert a patient’s bladder catheter in the operating room, my elder brother in training told me firmly, like he really believed I could do it, “Don’t be afraid, hold it (the penis) like a hose.”

As we did this reflection exercise at the meeting last Wednesday along with our audience, I was so moved by these memories that I looked up one of my old residents that night and sent him a thank you card.  I bet he won’t remember at all who I am, but he will hopefully feel validated that he is in exactly the right position now as program director of a surgery residency.

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Recalling stories like these, and then sharing them with a person who truly listens, receives them generously, and simply helps you hold them (that was the instruction to the group—when it’s your turn to listen just do that, no interruptions, no jumping in), reconnects us to our calling in medicine.  It’s not just about the patients or the science.  It’s about all of the relationships and how we tend them.

We will not solve the immensely complex problem of physician burnout overnight.  It will take a concerted effort at all levels of healthcare, and physicians cannot and will not do it alone.  And it’s not that we are stoic, arrogant, and somehow intrinsically flawed, and thus dissatisfied with our work and leaving the profession in record numbers.  It is a systems problem, no question.  And, while we call our congressional leaders and professional advocacy groups to change policy, while we lobby our hospital administration to hire more support staff and move the printers closer to where we do our work, we can all take a few minutes each day and reconnect to the core meaning and purpose in that work.  Let us all remember a cool story and share it today.

This Is My Hogwarts

Sylvan Dale Lodge

My friends, I belong.  This weekend marked the beginning of a ten month training program in communication, leadership, connection, and creativity.  9 of us made it to Colorado after the bomb cyclone (Patrick, we missed you—can’t wait to meet you in May!) to launch Cohort 11 of Leading Organizations to Health (LOH).  Our teachers, Tony Suchman and Diane Rawlins, led us through three days of introspection, skills acquisition and practice, and formation in community.  It all happened at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, surrounded by mountains, river, wildlife, and a rich history of family and hospitality.

We are training in relationship-centered care and administration, helping one another embody our best relationship tendencies, so we may help our organizations function at higher levels of connection and effectiveness.  It’s too exciting!

I walked into the lodge at Sylvan Dale, saw the vaulted ceiling with the icicle lights, and immediately thought of Hogwarts.  I came to this place, called by something to the Why of my soul, to be with others like me.  We are here to train, to hone our skills for good.  Within the first session I realized I can totally be myself in this crowd.  Here, I’m no longer a lone voice focused on relationships ahead of everything else, no longer the only one who cannot help seeing how the nature of our relationships permeates every interaction, every decision—and how we recreate them in every moment.  No more self-editing and explaining, tip-toeing around what matters most to me.  I can fully inhabit my relationship convictions here, in this space and among these new friends.  I feel an ease of purpose and values in this group that I come to, like a deep well, to fill my bucket and irrigate my garden of personal and professional growth.  Here, I am not a black sheep.

I now have 9 new people-nodes to connect and integrate into my existing relationship webs—a new and emerging system.  We share stories with common themes, new insights, and mutual support.  These ten months we will form and evolve as individuals as well as a community.  It’s a type of love, really…  At least that’s how it feels to me.  Hooray!

 

 

Thank you, Mr. Zander

Zander Cheng

Dear Mr. Zander, I met you almost 10 years ago and you transformed my life.

You and Ms. Zander gave the keynote address at the second ever Harvard conference on coaching in healthcare.  I was one of only a handful of physicians in attendance.  You discussed the central tenets of your book, The Art of Possibility.  I could not wait to get my copy signed, and you also graciously agreed to a photo.  I have since read and listened to your book at least a dozen times, and every time I gain something new and relevant.  The names of the practices ring in my consciousness on a regular basis:  Give the A, Rule #6, Be a Contribution, Lead From Any Chair, and Be the Board.  I describe the practices and their benefits, still, to anyone who will listen.

Zander book sig

Back in 2015 I boldly contacted the Boston Philharmonic to see if you could speak at the American College of Physicians Illinois Chapter Meeting.  You actually spoke to me on the phone and considered coming!  I was honored.  Though it did not work out (I knew it was the longest of long shots), it amazed me that someone as sought after as you would personally take a phone call from a random, unknown doctor in Chicago.  Later that year, when I attended the Harvard Writers conference (the birthplace of this blog), I had the honor of observing a master class where I witnessed you love some young musicians into their best selves.  They believed in themselves because you saw them, loved them, and believed in them.  That is the best thing any teacher can do for a student.

Throughout these last ten years, I have continued to seek, study, and attempt to apply learnings from authors, teachers, and mentors like you, people who see the world as broken as it is, and also the hope of humanity’s strengths and connections.  There is no shortage of people trying to help us all be better, for ourselves and one another, and no more urgent time or need for this teaching than now.  I count myself beyond fortunate to have benefited from your influence and inspiration so early in my life and career, to have you as my model.  No doubt I am only one of thousands, if not tens (hundreds?) of thousands, whose lives you have transformed for the better.  I wish you an ever broader and higher platform from which to reach countless more people and organizations.  I wish you peace, health, and joy in all your endeavors and relationships.

Please know how much you have meant to so many.

Sincerely,

Catherine Cheng, MD

 

Washi Tape Gratitude

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My friends, I have a new and serious obsession:  WASHI TAPE!

I have loved paper and stickers since I can remember, and I have hoarded pretty stationery, stickers, rubber stamps, ink pads and all kinds of other writing accessories for at least 30 years.  I left for college with 100 postage stamps and used all of them before returning home for summer.  I plan to single handedly keep the US Postal Service in business if I have to.  I LOVE SNAIL MAIL!!!

So imagine my joy and enthusiasm when the Gottman Institute published this article suggesting that instead of keeping a gratitude list or journal, we instead hand write thank you notes.  Specifically, write one every day for one year—365 hand written notes in 2019.  I read the piece and exclaimed with abandon, “Done!”

I started January 18 and it only gets better! I have connected with friends, just to say thanks for being my friend.  I have acknowledged people at work for going above and beyond.  I have sent cards to Chicago Streets and Sanitation for always being on top of our snow and working on nights and weekends, as well as JBJ Soul Kitchen for providing meals for federal workers during the partial government shutdown.

Best of all, I get to create stationery again.  My favorite hobby is making cards.  Tonight I wrote a card to my friend Audrey, who introduced me to rubber stamping during residency, almost 20 years ago.  Over the years I have used the kids’ art, my own photos, cut-outs from the Paper Source catalog, and of course, stickers.  I have a rolling drawer caddy full of stamps and tools—I could host my own workshop!  But washi tape can be expensive, and my deep-seated hoarder tendencies would never let me use it in large quantities, so I would never let myself buy any…  Until now!  I’m 45 years old, I make a good living, I love making cards, and they bring my friends and me much happiness, so I can afford to invest in my creativity, for all our sakes!

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These last few weeks I have pulled out cardstock and envelopes from the myriad stacks of cardboard boxes in the basement.  I have opened the giant plastic storage containers where I carefully organized and filed all different kinds of paper, labels, stickers, etc.  I have worked out my washi tape art style, and combined it with my favorite rubber stamps and inkpad—Peacock Gold by ColorBox (discontinued, but no worries, I hoarded at least two refill bottles!).  And, cosmically, last week a friend introduced me to another store here in Chicago that sells the most exquisite paper products: Bari Zaki Studio.  It was like heaven on earth.  When I checked out (after joyfully browsing at least 40 minutes in a space smaller than my bedroom) they packaged every piece in its own little envelope or bag, and closed them with—you guessed it—washi tape!  Even the receipt!

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In the month since I started this practice/commitment/challenge/discipline/excuse-to-play-with-paper-and-tape, I think it has actually elevated my mood and helped me feel more generous toward others.  I notice more small things that make me appreciative.  I have a lower threshold for expressing my gratitude, no matter how small, in writing.  I can share it in a tangible, concrete way, with small pieces of art, created with delight and love.  Even if they end up in the trash (cringe—I keep every piece of personal mail I receive), it will have been worth it if my card brightened someone’s day.  And bonus if it also helps them act generously and joyfully toward someone else!

Because that’s how gratitude works, I think—it starts with a positive observation, then an appreciative expression, generating new observations and expressions that connect us in shared humanity, ever pointing us toward what’s good.  I think we need as much of that as we can get these days, and it makes me happy to make even a small contribution.

 

Shoots in the Poop

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It’s December 4th… Time to look back?  Honestly, I’d rather just get this year over with and move on,  because I have already been looking back all this time.  Since January I have counted—weeks and months since the knee injury, months since starting the new job, since surgery, since a spring crisis, since the last this or the first that.  What was it all for?  I think I was just reminding myself that there’s been a lot going on, reassuring myself that I’m not just whining, not being weak for letting my personal health habits slip.

I’ve felt like a relative slug for the last 6 months, despite my best efforts.  I think I must have eaten a pint of ice cream every two days for most of the spring and early summer.  Looking back on the calendar, I stopped using smiley stickers to mark workouts around July—their intensity was only worth hand-drawn smileys.  By and since August they aren’t worth smileys at all—I just jot down what I did in shorthand.  Some weeks it was barely anything.   I judge myself every day—perhaps less harshly than I might have a few years ago, and also less compassionately than I might a few more years from now.  I still struggle with the fear of self-indulgence if I allow myself too much self-compassion.  I am still learning self-compassion.  I know it takes time to rewire our limbic brain patterns with knew learnings from our cognitive brains.  So I will keep trying, because I know it’s helping.  And I’m modeling for the kids.  We can do our best and still fail.  The key is to keep moving.  We can practice admitting we need help, seek it from the appropriate sources, lean on it heavily, and stand back up eventually.  And then we remember those who helped us, and prepare to be helpful in return.

I have leaned on so many this year, I feel almost speechless at the outpouring of support and love.  The only way I don’t collapse from this weight of gratitude is by storing it like a battery—ready to be discharged, full power, when someone needs to plug into me.  This may be my favorite thing about humanity—that we are wired to connect so tightly, to help one another in webs of mutual love and kindness that can extend ad infinitum.

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So I’ll look back a little.  This week I feel a turning.  Did I say this already recently?  Oh yes, it was November 12.  I was making more room for books, trying to stay off of my phone, off of Facebook.  Being on the laptop every night to post to the blog stymied that last part, but it also bought awareness of how I find loopholes in the best plans for self-discipline.  And the daily writing practice also contributed loads to this internal revolution.  This was my fourth year doing NaBloPoMo.  It was by far the most fun, the smoothest, and the most rewarding attempt yet (I think I also said this last year?), and now I miss writing every day (definitely have not said this before).  Maybe it was the daily dopamine hit of views and likes.  But I think it’s more than that.  Through the daily discipline, I had a chance to process and synthesize so many ideas and connections that had been marinating for months, maybe even years.  I practiced prioritizing, selecting, and distilling those ideas into about 1000 words each day, more for my own benefit than anyone else’s.  That people read and related to them was definitely a happy bonus.

Besides NBPM, I attribute this turnaround to two books that Donna recommended to me earlier this fall:  Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace, both by The Arbinger Institute.  I have wanted to write about them for the last several weeks, but I haven’t yet figured out how to prioritize, select, and distill the lessons coherently.  The foundational ideas are not necessarily new, but they are profound.  The books are written as modern allegories, and there is just something about the metaphors and analogies that has unlocked and integrated everything I have learned about inner work, communication, relationships, and leadership to date.  And that is saying a lot.  Because of these books, the daily writing, and all the conversations I’m having (with myself and with others) as a result of both, the two most challenging relationships in my life right now have fundamentally improved—mostly because I have been able to shift my own attitude.  As with all things, this new ‘way of being’ will take practice.  I need to keep the training wheels on for a while yet.  But now that I have made this turn, the path looks straight, and I see light.

The manure has piled on all year.  So much fertilizer, oh my gosh.  It’s done its job, though, because I have definitely grown.  I feel strong, healthy shoots of green popping out through the thick, dark carpet of poop.

Honesty and Integrity

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Last day!  I’m feeling a little elated.  Not sure if it’s Day 30 relief and success, the abnormally large caffeine load I had today, or my awesome breakfast date…

I wish you all to have a friend like Donna.  She is one amazing woman.  A leadership coach, wife, mom, and fellow cosmic journeyer, I count myself infinitely lucky to know her this time around on earth.  I bet we’ve known each other longer than that, though.  We met in this life about 9 years ago.  I can count on one hand the number of people I remember propositioning for a coffee date on our first meeting, and Donna is one.  We meet every two or three months to commune, share, and grow.  I consistently experience two or three separate intellectual and spiritual epiphanies each time.

Today was no exception, and possibly even an exponentially positive anomaly.  Like I said, I’m caffeine loaded and coming off a 30 day freestyle writing challenge—I was primed!  The conversation was so profound I had to type out some notes afterward, as I sense future writings to spring therefrom.  Day 30 was the perfect day to meet her!  I have synthesized and integrated deeply this month thanks to this daily blogging discipline, and sharing with Donna was the quintessential culmination of it all.  I now share with you my favorite segment from our egg-and-toast-laden love-in.

I described a values exercise I did reading Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.  From a list of over 100 words including accountability, courage, faith, openness, respect, and truth, I had to choose two core values, or think of two of my own.  Brown writes:

The task is to pick the two that you hold most important.  …almost everyone…wants to pick somewhere between ten and fifteen.  But you can’t stop until you are down to two core values.

Here’s why:  The research participants who demonstrated the most willingness to rumble with vulnerability and practice courage tethered their behavior to one or two values, not ten…  and when people are willing to stay with the process long enough to whittle their big list down to two, they always come to the same conclusion that I did with my own values process:  My two core values are where all of the ‘second tier’ circled values are tested.

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Dare to Lead, page 188

I listened to this book twice before I received my hard copy from Amazon.  I could. not. Wait!  In anticipation of doing the exercise, I thought the whittling process would take a long time—that I would agonize over it.  But as I skimmed the pages approaching the list, in a cosmic flash, I realized my two: Honesty and Integrity.  It was one of those ‘you just know’ moments, but I had to check in.  Really?  Was I sure?  How did I know?  How could I prove it?  I turned the page and scrutinized every word, comparing it in importance to these two.  Accountability?  Yes, but not as much.  Equality.  Fairness.  Gratitude.  Learning.  Openness, Optimism, Stewardship, and Wholeheartedness:  all important, but not nearly so much as Honesty and Integrity.  I was done.  As surely as I felt self-actualized in seventh grade, I am sure these are my core values.  A few days later, I was describing this moment to another thoughtful and astute friend.  She mulled for a moment and said, “Yes, I agree, I see these as your core values, too.”  Wow, I cannot think of a higher compliment.

Today when I told Donna, her first response was, “Honesty and Integrity… What is the distinction between the two?”  What a great question!  I had a vague, intuitive idea, but had never taken the time to think it through.  As happens so easily when I’m with Donna, and as a person who talks to think, the answer poured forth after only a few seconds.  I used a real life example:

Let’s say my friend asks me, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

Honesty compels me to answer truthfully.  Yes.  Honesty keeps me from lying.  That is outside of my core values, no can do.

Integrity helps me choose my words.  This dress does not flatter your figure the way a different style would.  We are here to choose the dress that makes you look positively stunning and we will not leave until our mission is accomplished!  Integrity frames my response in line with all of my other, ‘second tier’ values: kindness, diplomacy, empathy, love, loyalty, and all the rest.

Thus, Honesty tells me what I cannot do.  It gives me constraints and standards.  Honesty is the guardrail, the floor for my code of conduct.  Integrity then tells me what I can and must do.  It defines the realm of possibility, meaning, and purpose—the Why, How, and What.  How can I be the best friend, mom, doctor, wife, speaker, and leader?  It is the accelerator and steering mechanism that keep me in the lane of who I am.  Or, Honesty is the launch pad; Integrity creates the universe of potential.  I swear I got goosebumps.

Phrases that recur often in my speech and writing are “walk the talk” and “lead by example.”  I always ask myself if I exemplify these, and they are the yardsticks by which I measure all those who lead me.  One cannot do either without Honesty and Integrity at work all of the time.  Brené Brown calls integrity “living into our values rather than just professing them.”  Hallelujah.  I feel the most at home, confident, and grounded when I know I’m living deeply in my Honesty and Integrity.  When I’m outside of these, I feel viscerally uneasy.  I cannot tolerate it, or I can only with great suppressive efforts to manage the dissonance.  I lose sleep; I get irritable and restless.

Practicing Honesty and Integrity is not always easy, though.  Facing the ugly and disappointing truths about myself and my dysfunctional patterns, and then holding myself to a higher standard of conduct—internal benchmarks of behavior and relationship—these aspirations create stress and tension on multiple levels of consciousness.

In the end, though, I know that as long as I hold these two values in front, they will light my right path.  I know I will make mistakes.  There will be times when my behavior absolutely does not exemplify these values.  I wanted to write a blog post right after my A-ha! moment reading the book.  But I was afraid someone would recall a time they witnessed the opposite of these values in my actions, and call me out on it.  But I’m not afraid anymore.  I’m not perfect.  And I’m striving every day.  That’s good enough, because it is my best.  Honest—I swear on my Integrity.

 

 

Things We Take for Granted

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

When I’m sick the sinus congestion often resists the efficacy of all medication.  I lie awake at night mouth breathing, almost choking every time I have to swallow my own secretions.  Those are the times I really appreciate when I’m well.  The past year, even though I am mostly recovered from knee surgery, I’m still always aware of my one-sided non-normalcy.  When I do my single leg exercises, it’s staggering how I can just do it on the right, and on the left I honestly struggle, as if I could never do some of these things before.  This morning, driving the kids to school and then myself to work navigating slush, sleet, poor visibility, and the inevitably slower traffic, I was grateful that I could simply push the ‘SNOW’ button on my center console and suddenly I had a 4-wheel drive.  You can actually feel the incremental increase in stability and traction—amazing!  Thank you, my engineer friends and family!

Last night was the first real snow of the season in Chicago.  Part of me still hates living here—I absolutely abhor the weather.  But today I found myself grateful more than annoyed.  My kids are old enough to get themselves out of bed, dress, groom, and feed themselves.  We all leave together, and though that morning time in the car can be groggy and silent, it’s still time together.  I drive a car I really like to a job I really love, where I work with a team of generous, funny, kind, and collaborative people.  I have this really warm Land’s End parka with the big, foofy faux fur hood, and I can walk from the parking garage to the office in total comfort on most cold days.

I have job security, health insurance, a great house (with reliable heat and running water, a home gym, and plenty of space for us all to both spread out and gather together), more books than I can read (right now), two healthy parents, a boatload of amazing friends, a universe of information at my fingertips, digital connections with people all over the planet whenever I want, and a phone that takes and sends pictures, for crying out loud.  I don’t have a formal gratitude practice right now, but holy cow, this is a lot to be thankful for.

Not sure what makes me think of the things we take for granted:  Our health, the people in our lives, our homes, our livelihoods.  Think of the thousands of people devastated by wildfires all over the west this year.  In the blink of an eye, imagine all your possessions and the physical spaces of so many cherished memories—all memories themselves.  Imagine your sister, daughter, son, nephew, best friend–missing.  When did you last see them, talk to them?  What transpired between you?  Imagine going about your life, assuming you can handle flu if you get it, then an hour later feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck, then dying of flu a week later.

I’m not trying to be dark or macabre here.  I’m just noticing how much I have, and how much I don’t truly appreciate it most of the time.  I try to be present to the kids as much as possible, engage fully when they talk to me (and fail more than I want to admit).  I really notice their smiles and laughter.  I look through my Facebook feed for pictures of friends and their kids.  I stop to admire flower buds every day in the spring, and bugs on the sidewalk.  I have gotten better at seeing the trees turn gradually green in May and golden in October.  I see pictures of the kids as toddlers and it feels like a hundred years ago and just yesterday, all at the same time.  And don’t even get me started on photos from high school, college, and med school—OMG we were kids!

Another day tomorrow.  Who knows what will happen, how my life could be turned upside down or inside out?  Or not?  Will it feel mundane or miraculous?  I’m learning—reminded, really—that most days, I get to decide.  That’s pretty groovy, I say.