Amplify the Important Stories

This weekend we lost another selfless leader, Dr. Joseph Costa of Baltimore.  Chief of his hospital’s intensive care division, he continuously led his team on the front lines of pandemic patient care, despite his own high risk medical condition.  He succumbed to COVID-19, in his husband’s arms, surrounded by colleagues turned caregivers. 

My friends, are you exhausted like I am?  4.2 million American COVID cases (about a quarter of total global cases).  At the current rate we will likely cross 150,000 deaths by the end of this week.  And it won’t stop there.  We will lose many, many more mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, sons and daughters in the coming months.  This, all while PPE shortages still put healthcare workers at risk across the country, caring for those who follow prevention guidelines the same as for those who do not.

Read Dr. Costa’s story.  Remember him.

Then honor his memory and those of the almost 600 healthcare workers who have died of COVID-19 by wearing your mask and protecting the people around you.

***

“Oh, are you from Maryland?”

Her name is Odette Harris, MD. 

She is a neurosurgeon and the director of brain injury care at Stanford Medicine.  She is a Black woman.  “Something as absurd as putting the initials of your state next to your name seems more plausible than the fact that ‘MD’ stands for doctor.  I can’t even tell you how many people ask that.”

Someone handed her their car keys outside of the venue where she gave a keynote address, thinking she was the car valet.  [Michael Welp mentions this in Four Days to Change—it is a common occurrence for our Black sisters and brothers.]

During an all-day meeting, after she stood up from the conference table to stretch her legs, her own colleague asked if she was going to set up for lunch.

Nobody has ever asked me if I’m from Maryland because ‘MD’ comes after my name.  I have never been mistaken for a car valet or wait staff at a professional meeting.  And I am not the chief neurosurgeon who runs traumatic brain injury care at my hospital.  Let us white and white-adjacent folks meditate on Dr. Harris’s experiences for a moment.  Because that’s all we have to do—consider them for a minute or two.  Our Black colleagues and peers live such denigration their whole lives.

***

The Wall of Misogyny

It started with, “Your hair smells incredible.” Followed by, “My hands may touch you. They are hard to control.” It even went as far as, “You were in my dream last night. Did I mention it was wet?” He made my skin crawl. I spent more time focused on trying to be where he wasn’t that I had no space left to focus on why I was there in the first place, and that was to learn. The awkward stares from OR staff looking upon me with pity made me want to vomit. And the number of male physician on-lookers who seemed to watch this behavior for sport did nothing but enable his behavior (when one brought his daughter to work with him, it was all I could do but hope she never had to experience from a man what I was experiencing from him). The lack of shock of such behavior from everyone aware in the system confirmed its normalcy.

Read this stark essay by Dr. Megan Babb, a fellow physician mom.  Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s incisive speech on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, Dr. Babb published her own story and those of many other physician women.  They recount the everyday misogyny that for too long we have blithely accepted as ‘the way things are’ in medical culture.  Peruse them slowly (a few choice samples below).  Imagine they are your mother, your sister, your daughter, your friend, your colleague.  How would you upstand for them? 

I was asked by a male patient if I needed to practice my prostate exam technique because he was happy to allow me to do so on him. When I asked the administrative team to move him to the service of any one of my many male colleagues I was told, “These are the sort of things that build character. I think we need to thicken your skin. The patient will remain on your service.”

I recently gave a presentation at grand rounds in my hospital. When I walked to the podium, I overheard a male physician say to a group of others, “Isn’t the lecture today supposed to be given by an orthopedic surgeon?” I am the orthopedic surgeon he speaks of.

 As a medical student I was on a surgical rotation with a male urologist. While assisting him with a TURP [trans-urethral resection of the prostate] he asked me, “Would you like to see what a well-endowed penis looks like?”

***

And There Is Still Hope

A specialist physician and woman of color consulted on a patient in the hospital, a white man.  He was frustrated at having to see so many doctors and answer so many questions.  So he demanded that she sit in silence until he was good and ready to talk.  After the 25 minute hospital visit, she rightly documented his behavior in the chart, as she had done for so many episodes of patients’ abusive behavior in the past, especially since these patients often levy complaints against her for treating them badly.  To her surprise, the white male attending hospitalist paged her later to discuss the occurrence.  He had read the chart and apologized for the patient’s behavior.  He also called the patient out, asserting that if our colleague had been a white male herself, the patient would never have treated her like that.

An authentic white male ally, wow. 

…White men are more likely to listen to and follow other white men, I thought.

So I wrote her, “Can his actions be amplified so that he feels empowered and inspired to do this more?  So that other white men can see his example more easily and feel safe to follow?  Can someone mention his actions on rounds, share them in a newsletter, make them as visible as possible?  Examples like this can go such a long way to recruit white men to the cause—so many men sit on the fence, and just need to see one of their own lead the way, and then they get off on the side of doing what’s right.”

She agreed to highlight his actions in an upcoming community spotlight, noting that now he would likely be the target of any patient complaint.  We agreed that he would then need the support he gave her, given back to him, and then some.  We reflected on this great opportunity for colleagues to unite in solidarity for one another, standing up to cultural norms that oppress us all.

***

Stories like these humanize ‘others’ to us.  If we are honest, we may recognize that the ideas of ‘healthcare workers’ and ‘women of color’, among others, too often float on the surface of our consciousness as abstractions.  It does not occur to us to try to relate or empathize, to see them as real, flesh and blood people like ourselves. 

But that is what the world needs the most right at this minute—for us all to relate and empathize with each and every other human who suffers, who lives a different life from our own.  Our connections are the only thing that will heal us.

Love Letters for My Soul

Taking a break from COVID, racism, equity and other heavy things this week, my friends.  It’s too much, what with RBG’s recurrent metastatic cancer and John Lewis’s death.  I’ve been glued to my phone and computers all week, reading, digesting, observing, integrating, posting, connecting and conversing.  I had at least three important ideas for the blog, and they all need to marinate longer.

But I still had to write!  I owe letters to three friends, and they can wait.  What needed doing tonight were five love letters to strangers. 

Sometime this spring, while sheltering at home, I discovered More Love Letters.  Their mission is simple:

Deliver hand written letters to people who could use some extra love via snail mail.

People submit nominations for letter recipients, and every month the MLL team selects five to post.  Each recipient’s nominator writes a heartfelt request, and supplies an address.  Letters are requested to be postmarked by the last day of the month (but I bet they’d take some tardy ones, because they are sent with love?).  Tonight I wrote my second ever set of love letters, on washi tape stationery, of course.  I may have more cards and tape than I will use in my lifetime, so I’m more than happy to share!  Maybe next month I will include a blank card and envelope as a gift for the recipient to pass along—I’ll even put a stamp on it!

In this time of tumult and conflict, of heaviness and stress, reaching out to offer some light to others heals me.  They will not know who I am (well, unless they happen to read this post, I guess), and I will not get a card back in reply.  I get to write some encouraging words that might brighten someone’s day.  But I do it for myself as much as for them.

Maybe you could use a mutual pick-me-up, too?  Each one took less than five minutes.  The words came easily, organically, and happily.  “Holding you in light,” “Sending love and support,” “Wishing you everything you need in this crazy time.” Easy peasy, written sincerely–it feels so good.  You don’t have to write to all five nominees—do what moves you.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to also drop a note to your best friend, your colleague who’s challenged, or someone who recently crossed your mind, who’d probably love to know you were thinking of them.

Now is exactly the time to connect, don’t you think?

Oh and I have no financial or other interests in this organization. I just love that they encourage connection and snail mail, two of my favorite things.

Why I’m Not Going Home

Friends, I’m sad.  I will not go home to Colorado next month.  The family went already last month; it was a glorious 15 hour road trip each way from Chicago, with 7 amazing days in the mountains, my favorite place on earth.  Because we had planned to be abroad that week, back in January we made plane reservations for a five day trip to my home state in August.  And now I will cancel.

Cancelling a trip home is a big deal for me.  But I cannot ignore the glaring imbalance of risk and benefit here.  It’s a personal, emotional decision, but not without reason. 

Trust

First, I agree that flying during this pandemic can be safe. It depends critically on everybody doing their part, namely masking up and staying on the ground if we feel sick or have a recent known exposure. I do not trust everybody to do their part. I don’t know who will lie on a symptom checklist or suppress a fever with medication in order to fly while ill. I don’t know who will pull their mask off right next to me for the duration of the flight. Sure, the airline can ban them from flying after we land, but I still have to sit next to them for three hours, wondering about their infection status, fuming at their apparent disregard for my safety and that of everybody on the plane.

Shock and Awe

Second, I have never seen a disease like this. The spectrum of illness spans from totally asymptomatic to 100 days in hospital, intubated and proned, on ECMO (heart-lung bypass) and dialysis, limb(s) amputated, before finally dying. Every organ system can be affected, including the brain. COVID patients in the ICU require sedation and paralytics to control agitation, psychosis and flailing. Some suffer catastrophic strokes. Upon discharge, if they survive, months of rehab still don’t guarantee any return to normal. It’s been only six months since the disease emerged; we have no idea what long term consequences or complications lie down the road for these patients, no matter what their illness course.

Statistically, my family and I have a low risk for complications and death if we are infected.  We are young and healthy.  Populationally, the old and infirm have the highest mortality risk.  This is also true for flu.  And, healthy young people die every day from COVID, just like they do during flu season.  And death is not the only horrible thing that happens to COVID patients.  Symptoms can last weeks to months, including cough, shortness of breath, profound fatigue, diarrhea, and mental slowness.  There is no way to predict 1) who will get infected or 2) what their disease course will be.  It could be anything, and there is no good or reliable way to affect the outcome.  You could be totally fine or suffer long and hard before dying.  And the mental and emotional tolls of suffering in isolation, for the patient as well as their loved ones, are the ultimate insult added to injury.

I have profound respect for this virus and this disease.

Regret

Third, it’s a five day vacation.  We were just there a month ago.  This is not essential travel.  My kids are my life.  If one or, God forbid both, of them got sick, or if my husband and/or I got sick and died, or if I infected my patients—if anyone, family or not, ended up suffering because I decided to take this trip—my soul could never rest.

In the end one question always helps me:  Of the worst case scenarios at the end of each path at this fork, which would I regret more?  I will be sad to not go home this time, yes.  But I don’t know how I could take the responsibility of getting someone infected because I wanted to take a five day vacation and made us all get on a plane in the middle of a wildly uncontrolled pandemic.  There is no question here.

The sadness is real, though.  And it’s not just about the trip. It’s about life turned upside down, everything we took for granted—our safety and security—threatened.  It’s about the immense uncertainty, the suffering all around us, the lashing out and fighting from stress and tension, the chaos.  How will we know what do to about school?  When will life be the f*ck normal again?

Clarity

All of that said, there is still a very bright side.

This is temporary.  Life will likely not ever go back to what it was, but it will feel normal again, someday.  It will take some years, all things considered.  In the meantime, we are fully in control of our mindset and response in this moment.

Mindfulness’ has become a trendy buzz word, almost cheapened such that I hate to even write or say it.  But the evidence is all but irrefutable for its benefits, especially in times like these.  The practice is essentially to be with what is, right now, including how you feel about it, with acceptance and nonjudgment.  So much easier said than done!  And yet, in truly mindful moments, peace and clarity ultimately descend (or transcend, I should say).  To look around at the chaos and suffering, and accept it as just the way things are, is the first step to managing it all.  Living fully in the present moment allows us to distinguish clearly what we can control from what we can’t.  We can claim and exercise agency over the former, and let go the latter, thereby suffering less and maximizing energy and resources to effect positive change for ourselves and others. 

To really free ourselves from the anxiety and uncertainty of the present moment, to know what to do today, while we attend to the now, we must paradoxically also cast ourselves into the future.  We must take the long, infinite view.  What really matters today?  What from today will really matter next year, and in five, ten, or fifty years?  Will the disruption of remote learning for my privileged kids this year really make a difference when they are my age?  Likely not.  Will missing essential nutrition and social contacts, and parents’ unemployment this year, for kids in marginalized communities, matter later?  Absolutely.  Many of us will be okay no matter what.  Many more of us will not.  The disparities we see today cast long shadows into the future, and we must attend to them in current policy and guideline decisions. 

We are all in this together, and what we each do affects everybody. This fact is inescapable. There will be more suffering and death, no matter what we do. Somehow we each must make our own peace with the risks, find freedom and joy, and exercise empathy and social responsibility, in the face of it all.

In this crisis we are called to be our best selves for one another.  That ultimately includes individual, short term sacrifices for the greater good.  I can give up my little vacation to help keep everybody healthy.  I wash my hands like I have OCD.  I keep my distance around people I don’t live with.  And I wear. my. mask.  I protect you, you protect me.  Let’s all do our part, shall we?