Incomplete Thoughts on Suicide

DSC_0029

Not selfish

Not thoughtless

Simply belief beyond shadow that no one will mourn you, people will be better off without you

Unimaginable for those who have not lived it

Most who try once don’t try again

So better to keep guns away

——————–

One of my high school classmates killed himself when we were seniors.  He shot himself in the head at home.  He was the vice president of our Students Against Driving Drunk chapter (I was president).  He was a member of the National Honor Society.  He was well-liked, always friendly, generous, smiling, encouraging.  He was a nerd, and so was I, so I thought nothing of it.  I did not know him well, and I never asked him about his life, that I recall.  I have no idea whether he was bullied or what drove him to take his own life.

The morning we found out, our calculus teacher had to sit down in the middle of the lesson. She was overcome.  One of my other classmates got up and hugged her.  She had more presence of mind than I.  I can’t remember if it was that moment or later, or if it was our teacher or someone else altogether, who said something like suicide is ultimately a selfish act.  That it was inconsistent with our classmate’s character to cause so many people so much pain.  That if he had known how much he would hurt people by this act, he never would have done it.  I can’t say I had thought anything about suicide before then, and I have probably not thought enough about it since, but her words stuck with me.  I’m not sure I would have ever come to this conclusion.

The way I understand (think I understand) it today, suicidality is such dark state, a place so far removed from where we connect with our true selves and others, including (especially?) loved ones, that people really do believe that everybody else will be better off without them, that there is nothing worth living for.  I cannot fathom that kind of disconnection and loneliness.  It feels almost too scary to even contemplate.  I feel totally incompetent to address this kind of pain and suffering.

I saw this video recently and it moved me.  A young man jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived; he tells his story of instant regret for the attempt, and gratitude to be alive.

I pray tonight that if anyone in my circle is feeling suicidal, I may say or do something to help them know they are loved, wanted, and connected, and to keep them with us long enough to get help.

 

I’m the Doctor, You’re the Doctor

DSC_0401

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

“I’m the doctor, just do what I say.”  I don’t think doctors actually say this anymore, but I wonder how many of us think it?  It’s probably not even a conscious thought, but rather an attitude—paternalistic and directive, a relic from the old days when patients had no power or voice in the relationship because the doctor held all the information and all the expertise.  Today patients are empowered by culture and the internet to participate in shared decision making , and it’s a good thing.

The problem with the “I’m the doctor” attitude is that it inhibits the patient from owning their own healthcare choices.  Then if and when the care plan goes badly, they feel rightly justified blaming the doctor, because they were just following orders.  Sometimes it’s necessary, like in the case of trauma or serious surgery, where the doctor is truly in charge and must make life or death decisions according to their expertise and judgment.  Thankfully this is not my work.

In primary care, if I take this attitude, I miss an opportunity to forge a collaborative and rewarding relationship with my patients.  If I simply issue orders, people don’t feel seen or heard, and they may withhold important information that would help me make a better, more relevant diagnostic and treatment plan.  And if they defy my advice (edict), as they are more likely to do when our relationship is transactional and cookbook, and things go well, then I lose credibility and they are even less likely to follow my advice in the future.

“You’re the doctor,” on the other hand, is something I hear often.  It usually comes up when patients (and I) are faced with decisions involving competing interests or vague risks and benefits.  An example is prostate cancer screening.  Guidelines over the years have ranged from screening every man, every year, starting at age 50, for life, to don’t screen anyone ever.  Most physicians and professional societies agree currently that the best approach is to discuss risks of screening (over-diagnosis, harm from testing in patients without disease) and not screening (missing early cancer, delayed diagnosis, possibly leading to preventable negative outcome), and make decisions based on patients’ individual values and goals.

When a patient in this or a similar situation says to me, “You’re the doctor, just tell me what to do” alarms ring my mind.  What I intend to be a shared decision suddenly falls to me to make unilaterally.  In this scenario, the patient essentially cedes responsibility for the treatment plan, and if it goes badly then it’s my fault “because you told me to.”  Or the patient may choose to ignore my directive and also blame me because “you told me to but I disagreed.”  Either way a patient may then feel justified to blame me for any negative outcome, even though I gave them what they said they wanted.  I understand that this is not how the scenario necessarily plays out, but somehow I’m wary of it.

I had my teeth cleaned today.  The dentist recommends x-rays every year; I politely decline most of the time.  I just don’t understand (or accept?) the rationale and benefits of annual radiation to my face, and I’m cynical about the fee-for-service structure in which providers make more money for ordering more tests (which is a legitimate concern in medicine, also).  Without explaining why it’s recommended for me particularly (it was explained later), I heard, “Well, it’s okay if you don’t do it today, but you have to do it next time.”  [Expletive, not stated out loud.] I am emotionally triggered when people try to tell me what to do without asking me what I think about it first (see my post from 2 days ago).  So I bristle when I witness colleagues doing it, or when my patients demand it from me.

I don’t see my job as telling people what to do—I am not a surrogate.  Rather, I think of myself as consultant and guide, expert, counsel.  It’s my job to discuss, explore, explain, review, consider, negotiate, compare, assess, debate, explain and discuss again, and then make a shared decision.  This includes follow-up and contingency planning, setting expectations, and reassurance about my commitment to the person, regardless of the problem.  I’m the doctor, you’re the patient, we are a team.  We are in this together.

Because This Is Who We Are

 

DSC_0508

Followers of this blog may know of my interest in and passion for physician health and well-being.  I was immersed in this world last couple of months, with two amazing conferences and multiple conversations with fellow physicians at work.  As often happens, I was moved to articulate a vision/mission statement of sorts, mostly to solidify my own intentions and also to share with like-minded colleagues.

I love that I enter this arena from the world of executive health.  Corporate leaders, physician leaders, and physicians on the ground share so many attributes that everything I learn from patients translates seamlessly to my own professional development.  This is exactly the right space for me to inhabit today, and I am forever grateful for the integrative experience.  Physicians are care team leaders by default, and we miss opportunities to improve all of medicine when we forget or ignore this fact.  I’m interested to know your response to the words below—the more visceral the better (but please, if possible, refrain from spitting, vomiting, or defecating your own words here):

Why do we advocate for physician health and well-being? 

Because we believe we can only lead well when we are well ourselves.

Because leading can be lonely and leaders need support.

Because leaders need metrics of our own performance, both related to and independent of the performance of those whom we lead.

Because health and leadership intersect inevitably and who we are is how we lead; the more awareness and active, intentional self-management we practice, the more effective leaders we will be.

Because people follow our example, like it or not, so we owe it to ourselves and those we lead to model Whole Physician Health.

What Is Whole Physician Health?

Whole Physician Health is an approach to health and well-being which defines physician as both clinician and leader, both healer and vulnerable.  This approach focuses on the 5 Realms of Health: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep, Stress, and Relationships.  We explore how these realms intersect and overlap, affecting the individual physician, those whom the physician cares for and leads, and the entire medical profession.  We apply principles from health and sports psychology, communication, leadership, mind-body medicine, and myriad other disciplines.  We value openness, curiosity, critical analysis, and collaboration.  Our mission is to create a resilient medical culture in which all members—physicians, patients, all caregivers and support personnel—thrive and flourish.

DSC_0555

The Whole Physician Health Advocate:

*Values self-awareness and self-exploration.

*Understands and accepts his/her position as role model and culture setter for the team.

*Wishes to broaden the skillset in cultivating positive relationships

  • With self
  • Between self and immediate colleagues
  • Between colleagues themselves
  • Between physicians and staff
  • Between teachers and learners
  • With extended family of colleagues and institutional entities
  • Between institution and the patients it serves

*Sees the physician health and well-being movement as an opportunity to learn, see from a different point of view, connect to fellow physicians, and form new tribal bonds that will hold us all up.

*Wants to contribute to the creation of a global professional vision and mission of the 4 WINS:

WIN 1–You

WIN 2–Those you lead

WIN 3–Your whole organization

WIN 4–All those whom your organization touches

Of note, one need not be a physician to advocate for Whole Physician Health.

You Can’t Pee!

DSC_0294

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

When my son was little we lived in an apartment where the kitchen was a separate room, with only a small window through which I could see what he was doing in the living room while I cooked.  Once when he was about five months old, I looked out and he was lying on the mat in the middle of the floor, playing happily with the toys dangling from arches overhead.  I swear I only turned around for a minute, and when I looked back he was gone.  Empty mat, toys still dangling, no kid, no sounds.  I can’t remember what I was doing, but it felt like a slow motion eternity getting out of that damn kitchen to find him.  Something heavy must have fallen on him or he was otherwise suffocating or dying, for sure.  …He had just learned to roll over, and he had rolled and rolled and rolled himself into the space under the air conditioning unit near the window.  He was turning over a dried jasmine leaf he’d found on the floor.  Not long after that I decided I had to buy food preparation gloves.  Just in case my kid needed me anytime I was handling raw meat, this would save me the infinitude of time it would take to wash my hands—I could just pull the gloves off and bolt!  Because you know, 30 seconds could mean life or death for a toddler in his own living room.

Please laugh—I did today when I told the story to a friend.  It came up as we explored the phenomenon of moms putting everything for their kids before themselves.  We compared notes on how long we had ever held our urine.  What mom has not done this?  You can’t pee!  Because you never know which minute you’re not with your children will be the one during which your neglect will kill them.  Thankfully children grow and become more independent, and we can free our bladders again eventually.

It’s not just moms, though.  One of my teachers in the hospital gave herself a urinary tract infection as a resident.  She had so much to do every day, so many patients who needed her that she felt guilty taking time to pee.  I did the same thing in clinic for many years.  I could not justify making patients wait another minute when I was already 15 (usually more) minutes late seeing them. I don’t do this anymore.  In a fit of efficiency last week, I stepped into the restroom after I set my lunch to microwave for 2:00.  It literally takes only a minute to pee.  I don’t usually run late these days, but even if do, now take care of my needs first.  It’s better for me, and better for my patients, whose doctor is not distracted by preventable physical discomfort and dying to end the interview or exam to get some relief.

Our culture still expects moms, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many others to sacrifice selflessly in service of our charges.  UTIs are the least important consequence.  Over 50% of physicians in the US report at least one symptom of burnout, and 400 doctors kill themselves annually.  That is the equivalent of my entire medical school, dead, every year.  It’s not all because of the job, but the obligatory selfless-giver mentality in medicine definitely contributes.

So whatever helping profession you are in, please take time to take care of yourself.  We need you whole and healthy to take care of the rest of us and our children.

Go pee.  I will wait.

No Substitute for Time

DSC_0401

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes From a Life in Medicine

Day 3

How much time do you spend with your doctor each time you see them?  Is it enough?  If they had more time to spend with you, how would you use it?  Would it be better?

I’m too tired and it’s too late tonight to discuss the myriad factors that erode the patient-physician relationship, and thus our medical system in general.  But time comes to mind often for me, and I wonder if patients are as frustrated about it as I am.

Where I work now, I pretty much have as much time as I want with people.  It’s a sweet gig.  I can ask them about their work, their families, their interests.  I have time to listen to the answers, and even connect those with my observations about their health.  The most interesting parts of my interviews are the social history.  What do they spend their days doing at work?  What problems do they solve, who do they interact with, and what brings them meaning at the place where they spend the majority of waking weekday hours?  Then what do they do for fun, what’s life like outside of work?  I get to know my patients as individual, whole people, which I love, and that makes me look forward to every day at work with joy.

But time is not just good for me, for my professional fulfillment.   It’s good for patients, too.  When I spend time asking the important questions, putting together pieces of a person’s symptom puzzle, and do a directed exam, I’m more likely to come to a correct diagnosis and make an appropriate and specific care plan.  When I take the time to explain my rationale, decision process, and possible outcomes and follow up, my patients are more likely to feel seen, heard, and reassured.  They are more likely to stick with the plan and contact me if things change.  The next time they need help, they are more likely to call me and we have another chance to know each other better.

When the physician-patient relationship flourishes, we’re all healthier.

I love this article on The Health Care Blog, which essentially validates the time I take to talk to my patients.  My favorite line:  “More information about the value of a physician-patient encounter will always be found in the content of their communication than in what they ultimately do. The difference in… physicians’ behaviors will not be found in any database, electronic medical record, or machine-learning algorithm. I have yet to see data on the contextual information from a history of the present illness in any data set or quality improvement initiative.”

You may also be interested in this article, describing the origin of the 15 minute clinic visit, and why it really doesn’t make sense.

What do you think about physicians and patients advocating together to change this aspect of our flawed medical system? I know it’s complicated, requiring a hard look at our billing and compensation processes, as well as our productivity-driven, fee-for-service medical culture.  I still think it’s worth pursuing.  There is no substitute for time.  We must protect and defend it; our health depends on it.

Whole Physician Health: Standing at the Precipice

IMG_2340

I published the post below two years ago, and all of it applies even more so today. This week I presented to my department chairs and hospital administration leaders on the importance of addressing physician burnout and well-being. There is a growing sense of urgency around this, some even starting to call it a crisis.

Still, I feel hopeful. Darkest before the dawn, right? Reveal it to heal it, my wise friend says. Physician burnout research has exposed and dissected the problem for 20 years, and now we shift our attention toward solutions.

I will attend the American Conference on Physician Health and the CENTILE Conference next month. I cannot wait to commune with my tribe again, explore and learn, and return to my home institution with tools to build our own program of Whole Physician Health. While we focus on physician health in its own right, we must always remember that it can never be achieved without strong, tight, and fierce connections with all of our fellow caregivers. When we attain this, all of us, especially our patients, are elevated and healed.

Onward, my friends. More to come soon.

*** *** ***

Ever since my presentation to the American College of Surgeons earlier this month on personal resilience in a medical career, I cannot shake the feeling that we need to do more of this work. Physicians from different fields need to talk more to one another, share experiences, and reconnect. We also need to include other members of the care team as equals, and let go the hierarchical thinking that has far outlived its usefulness.

I do not suggest that physicians, nurses, therapists, pharmacists and others should play interchangeable roles in the care of patients. Rather, similar to the central tenet of gender equality, the unique contributions of each team member need to be respected equally for their own merits and importance. As a primary care internist, I must admit that I have seen my professional world through a rather narrow lens until now. I confess that I live at Stage 3, according to David Logan and colleagues’ definition of Tribal Leadership and culture. The mantra for this stage of tribal culture, according to Logan et al, is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Or in my words, “I’m great; you suck.”

“I’m a primary care doctor and I am awesome. I am the true caregiver. I sit with my patients through their hardest life trials, and I know them better than anyone. I am on the front line, I deal with everything! And yet, nobody values me because ‘all’ I do is sit around and think. My work generates only enough money to keep the lights on (what is up with that, anyway?); it’s the surgeons and interventionalists who bring in the big bucks — they are the darlings of the hospital, even though they don’t really know my patients as people…” It’s a bizarre mixture of pride and whining, and any person or group can manifest it.

Earlier this fall, Joy Behar of TV’s “The View” made an offhand comment about Miss Colorado, Kelley Johnson, a nurse, wearing ‘a doctor’s stethoscope,’ during her monologue at the Miss America pageant. We all watched as the media shredded the show and its hosts for apparently degrading nurses. What distressed me most was the nurses vs. doctors war that ensued on social media. Nurses started posting how they, not doctors, are who really care for patients and save lives. Doctors, mostly privately, fumed at the grandiosity and perceived arrogance of these posts. It all boiled down to, “We’re great, they suck. We’re more important, look at us, not them.” The whole situation only served to further fracture an already cracked relationship between doctors and nurses, all because of a few mindless words.

It’s worth considering for a moment, though. Why would nurses get so instantly and violently offended by what was obviously an unscripted, ignorant comment by a daytime talk show host? It cannot be the first time one of them has said something thoughtlessly. What makes any of us react in rage to someone’s unintentional words? It’s usually when the words chafe a raw emotional nerve. “A doctor’s stethoscope.” The implicit accusation here is that nurses are not worthy of using doctors’ instruments. And it triggered such ferocious wrath because so many nurses feel that they are treated this way, that they are seen as inferior, subordinate, unworthy. Internists feel it as compared to surgeons. None would likely ever admit to feeling this way, consciously, at least. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all have that secret gremlin deep inside, who continually questions, no matter how outwardly successful or inwardly confident we may be, whether we are truly worthy to be here. And when someone speaks directly to it, like Joy Behar did, watch out, because that little gremlin will rage, Incredible Hulk-style.

I see so many similarities to the gender debate here. As women, in our conscious minds, we know our worth and our contribution. We know we have an equal right to our roles in civilization. And, at this point in our collective human history, we feel the need to defend those roles, to fight for their visibility and validity. More and more people now recognize that women need men to speak up for gender equality, that it’s not ‘just a women’s issue,’ but rather a human issue, and that all of us will live better, more wholly, when all of us are treated with equal respect and opportunity. The UN’s He for She initiative embodies this ideal.

It’s no different in medicine. At this point in our collective professional history, physician-nurse and other hierarchies still define many of our relationships and operational structures. It’s not all bad, and we have made great progress toward interdisciplinary team care. But the stethoscope firestorm shows that we still have a long way to go. At the CENTILE conference I attended last week, I hate to admit that I was a little surprised and incredulous to see inspiring and groundbreaking research presented by nurses. I have always thought of myself as having the utmost respect for nurses — my mom, my hero, is a nurse. The ICU and inpatient nurses saved me time and again during my intern year, when I had no idea what I was doing. And I depended on them to watch over my patients when I became an attending. But I still harbored an insidious bias that nurses are not scholarly, that they do not (or cannot?) participate in the ‘higher’ academic pursuits of medicine. I stand profoundly humbled, and I am grateful. From now on I will advocate for nurses to participate in academic medicine’s highest activities, seek their contributions in the literature, and voice my support out loud for their important roles in our healthcare system.

We need more conferences like this, more forums in which to share openly all of our strengths and accomplishments. We need to Dream Big Together, to stop comparing and competing, and get in the mud together, to cultivate this vast garden of health and well-being for all. I’ll bring my shovel, you bring your hose, someone else has seeds, another, the soil, and still others, the fertilizer and everything else we will need for the garden to flourish. We all matter, and we all have a unique role to play. Nobody is more important than anyone else, and nobody can do it alone.

We need to take turns leading and following. That is how a cooperative tribe works best. It’s exhausting work, challenging social norms and moving a culture upward. And we simply have to; it’s the right thing to do.

Walking the Talk

BVF ben downhill

The Journey and the Struggle

18 months ago I wrote about my plan for maximizing menopause preparedness.  As with so many missions, this one has experienced both successes and failures.  Since January 2016, I have grooved my exercise routine in the most awesome way.  I am all over the TRX, doing Spiderman push-ups, incline presses, pistols and more.  I get my cardio intervals and I’m foam rolling.  I feel stronger now than at any time since high school, and I’m proud of this accomplishment.

*sigh*

The eating, on the other hand, continues to be a challenge.  Earlier this year a patient looked at me without expression, and stated bluntly that I had gained 8.7 pounds since the last time he saw me.  Right after that’s kind of inappropriate, I thought, well, he’s right, I have been gaining weight.  Last March I wrote about weight loss strategy, thinking mainly about my exercise habit formation.  Sadly, my own weight has gone opposite to the desired direction, despite an honest attempt at adherence to my own advice.  Evidence suggests that weight loss really is about 80% diet and 20% exercise.  But sometimes you can only focus on one thing at a time.

Back in 2008, when I finished nursing, I thought, I can get my body back!  I knew I was not going to exercise, and I had no energy to police my food choices.  But I also knew I was eating too much, so I decided to just cut my portions in half.  It felt easy, decisive, and empowering.  I lost 25 pounds in 9 months, and got down to my wedding weight.  But eventually I acknowledged that though I was thin, I was squishy.  So I connected with my trainer in 2014, the primary goal being to get moving without injuring myself.  Right now I’m up 17# since my nadir in 2009, though I’m much more fit than the last time I lived at this weight.

Talking the Walk

I’ve always had a love-love relationship with food, and it shows in my weight/habitus.  I notice also that my own state of mind and body has influenced the advice I offer to patients.  Before I exercised regularly I spoke to patients a lot more about diet; now it’s more balanced.  One patient brought it up recently.  He asked, “What about the doctors who smoke, or the obese ones, how can they advise anybody about healthy habits?”  I’ve thought a lot about it, so I was ready to answer.  To me, there are three main options, all of which I have tried.

Disclaim.  We doctors can rely on our authority to tell people what to do to get healthier.  They notice our fat rolls, or smell cigarette smoke on us.  They see the dark circles under our eyes and surmise that we don’t sleep enough.  Maybe they can tell we don’t exercise.  But we admonish them to eat less and move more.  We say (subconsciously) to ourselves, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

Avoid.  Rather than give lifestyle advice at all, we can focus on prescriptions and referrals.  We feel we have no place instructing patients to eat more leaves, go to the gym, or quit smoking, when we don’t even do so ourselves.  So we don’t even bother, feeling like hypocrites.

I think both of these responses are rooted in shame and perfectionism.  And I think we should not fault physicians for choosing them—that would be meta-shaming–never helpful.  These are normal, human responses to our professional training and expectations.  Physicians have long held positions of authority and expertise.  Until very recently, our relationships with patients were mostly paternalistic.  But with burgeoning access to information, a culture evolving (rightly) toward patient autonomy, and physicians experiencing historically high levels of burnout and suicide, we cannot afford to burden ourselves with the illusion that we must be perfect in order to be credible.

Connect.  I think the healthiest response, for both patients and physicians, is for us doctors to acknowledge our own struggles; to empathize with the difficulty, the conflict, and the utter disappointment of not being able to control our actions and choices as we would like.  I think patients don’t expect us to be perfect.  But they do want us to be human and relatable.  I often find myself saying, “I know that feeling,” or, “Yep, that’s my weakness, too,” or, “Oh, and what about x-y-z?  That’s my problem!”  Only once has a patient said to me, “Shame on you!”  He was a perfectionist himself; I didn’t take it personally.

I stress eat. I eat when I’m bored.  I eat late at night, and I love sugar, starch, salt, and fat.  The struggle is real, and I know it all too well.  So when I ask you, “What small changes can you commit to in the next month?” believe me, I’m asking myself also.  And if you tell me something that has worked for you, I’ll probably try it.  I still think my ‘4 A’s of goal setting’ apply: Assessable, Actionable, Attainable, and Accountable.  I just haven’t found my 4A formula for eating yet.  But lately I have taken a more lighthearted approach to healthy eating trials.  Nothing is life or death, and I know iterative changes are best.  If one thing doesn’t work, hopefully I can learn something and move on to the next.  No dessert on weekdays.  Vegetarian on days I work.  No eating after 8pm.  No starch at dinner…  Meh, none of it seems to stick yet.  Even my cut-it-in-half strategy doesn’t appeal to me these days.  It’s so frustrating!  And it’s also okay, because I know I’m doing my best, just like my patients are.  We can all just take it a little more lightly, one step at a time.

So by the time menopause actually hits, I’m confident that I will be prepared to meet it, with grace and maybe a little irreverence.  I’m learning to judge myself (and thus others) a little more gently.  I’m learning to love my body, whatever shape it’s in.  After all, it’s the only one I’ll have this time around, and I need to maintain it for the long haul.  Turns out, my patients have been my best companions and consultants on the journey.