An Audience of Terminal Patients

chelanblooms1

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

chelanducklings5

You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions, and songs–your truth, your version of things–in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.

~Anne Lamott in a recent TED Talk

chelanspirea

I began to write after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying, albeit more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers and my camera lens to others dying around me.

My good friend, Sara, who I’ve known and loved half my life, is fighting for her life in an all day cancer surgery today, having fought a chronic disease and a totally different cancer once before and won.  She knows well the hard cost of winning even when the odds aren’t good,  yet still has a courage in her to fight once again.

That will to fight is heavy on my mind today.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some more imminent than others, some of us more prepared to move on, as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I too get a little closer, so I write and share photos of my world in order to hang on awhile longer.  Each day I must detach just a little bit, leaving a small trace of my voice and myself behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no moment or picture or word to waste.

 

chelanpoppies

 image1

 

Doc Season

duckchelan2

img_0761


It may not be rabbit season or duck season but it definitely seems to be doc season, especially as the next version of the American Health Care Act is unveiled today. This (and the Affordable Care Act which preceded it) is not about patients — it is about how to keep doctors and the health care industry under reasonable cost control and maintain some semblance of quality service.

Physicians are lined up squarely in the gun sights of the media, government agencies and legislators, as well as our employers and coworkers, not to mention our own professional organizations, our Board Certifying bodies, and our dissatisfied patients, all happily acquiring hunting licenses in order to trade off taking aim. It’s not enough any more to wear a bullet proof white coat. It’s driving doctors to hang up their stethoscope much earlier than they expected just to get out of the line of fire. Depending on who is expressing an opinion, doctors are seen as overcompensated, demanding, whiny, too uncommitted, too over-committed, uncaring, egotistical, close-minded, inflexible, and especially, and most annoyingly – perpetually late.

One of the most frequent complaints expressed about doctors is their lack of sensitivity to the demands of their patients’ schedule. Doctors do run late and patients wait. And wait. And wait some more. Patients get angry while waiting and this is reflected in patient (dis)satisfaction surveys which are becoming one of the tools the industry uses to judge the quality of a physician’s work and character as well as their salary compensation.  It is considered basic Customer Service 101.

I admit I’m one of those late doctors. I don’t share the reasons why I’m late with my patients as I enter the exam room apologizing for my tardiness. Taking time to explain takes time away from the task at hand: taking care of the person sitting or lying in front of me. At that moment, they are the most important person in the world to me. More important than the six waiting to see me, more important than the several dozen emails and calls waiting to be returned, more important than the fact I missed lunch or need to go to the bathroom, more important even than the text message from my daughter from school or the worry I carry about my dying mother.

I’m a salaried doctor, just like more and more of my primary care colleagues these days, providing more patient care with fewer resources. I don’t earn more by seeing more patients. There is a work load that I’m expected to carry and my day doesn’t end until that work is done. Some days are typically a four patient an hour schedule, but most days my colleagues and I must work in extra patients triaged to us by careful nurse screeners, and there are only so many minutes that can be squeezed out of an hour so patients end up feeling the pinch. I really want to try to go over the list of concerns some patients bring in so they don’t need to return to clinic for another appointment, and I really do try to deal with the inevitable “oh, by the way” question when my hand is on the door knob. Anytime that happens, I run later in my schedule, but I see it as my mission to provide essential caring for the “most important person in the world” at that moment.

The patient who is angry about waiting for me to arrive in the exam room can’t know that I’m late because the previous patient just found out that her upset stomach was caused by an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps they might be more understanding if they knew that an earlier patient came in with severe self injury so deep it required repair. Or the woman with a week of cough and new rib pain with a deep breath that could be a simple viral infection is showing signs of a pulmonary embolism caused by oral contraceptives. Or the man with blood on the toilet paper after a bowel movement finding out he has sexually transmitted anal warts when he’s never disclosed he has sex with other men, or the woman with bloating whose examination reveals an ominous ovarian mass, or finding incidental needle tracks on arms during an evaluation for itchiness, which leads to a suspicion of undiagnosed chronic hepatitis.

Doctors running late are not being inconsiderate, selfish or insensitive to their patients’ needs. Quite the opposite. We strive to make our patients feel respected, listened to and cared for. Most days it is a challenge to do that well and stay on time. For those who say we are being greedy, so we need to see fewer patients, I respond that health care reform and salaried employment demands we see more patients in less time, not fewer patients in more time. The waiting will only get longer as more doctors hang up their stethoscopes rather than become a target of anger and resentment as every day becomes “doctor season.”

Patients need to bring a book or catch up on correspondence,  bring knitting, schedule for the first appointment of the day. They also need to bring along a dose of charitable grace when they see how crowded the waiting room is. It might help to know you are not alone in your worry and misery.

But your doctor and health care team is very alone, scrambling to do the very best healing they can in the time available.

I’m not hanging my stethoscope up anytime soon though some days I’m so weary by the end, I’m not sure my brain between the ear tips is still functioning. I don’t wear a bullet proof white coat since I refuse to be defensive. If it really is doctor season, I’ll just continue on apologizing as I walk into each exam room, my focus directed to the needs of the “most important person in the whole world.”

And that human being deserves every minute I can give them.

chelanbirches2

chelanshadows

Not Just Another Day

budrain

 

“This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.”
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

 

redrosedroplets

 

This day is the wrap-up to my twenty-eighth academic year working as a college health physician,  the most demanding so far.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.   Reaching this day today is poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five years,  we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe, and we weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again.

In my work I strive to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to courageously do nothing.  It is very difficult for any doctor to choose to do nothing but I vowed in my own graduation ceremony over forty years ago to “First do no harm.”  And I’ve tried hard to live up to that vow.

In a sense I graduate as well on this last day of the school year– only not with cap and gown and diploma in hand.  Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor our students and their families on this day, sharing the blessings from us who work toward the goal of sending them healthier and better equipped and joyful into the rest of their lives.

It is not just another day.

 

drizzleiris

 

sunsetsky68173

 

 

Supposing It Didn’t

leadogtree

sunset917168

 

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne

 

clouds101143

It is the final week of a very long academic year and tension is running high.

Among those students to whom I provide care,
there are many who dwell deeply in “what if?” mode,
immobilized in their anticipation of impending disaster.

I understand this line of thinking,
particularly in this day and age of
“in the moment” tragedy
played out real-time in the palm of our hand
and we can’t help but watch as it unfolds.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes it worse.
It teaches one to think catastrophically.
That is what I do for a living,
to always be ready for the worse case scenario.

When I rise, sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do at times~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

stormacoming1

“Supposing it didn’t” — He says to reassure us.

sunsetdogwood

Fully Sufficient

hangingout

dandy514

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
Marilynne Robinson in Gilead

roseswirls

There are a thousand thousand people on any given day who cannot think of one sufficient reason to live this life.
There are a few thousand who will decide this is their last day.
There are a few who say goodbye.

It is enough for me to find just one reason to live today.
It is enough for me to help someone else find just one reason today.
One is enough.
Fully sufficient.

irischance1

irischance2

Music Against the Hard Edges

galena

 

waterfalljasper1

 

In all the woods that day I was
the only living thing
fretful, exhausted, or unsure.
Giant fir and spruce and cedar trees
that had stood their ground
three hundred years
stretched in sunlight calmly
unimpressed by whatever
it was that held me
hunched and tense above the stream,
biting my nails, calculating all
my impossibilities.
Nor did the water pause
to reflect or enter into
my considerations.
It found its way
over and around a crowd
of rocks in easy flourishes,
in laughing evasions and
shifts in direction.
Nothing could slow it down for long.
It even made a little song
out of all the things
that got in its way,
a music against the hard edges
of whatever might interrupt its going.
~John Brehm “Passage”

 

waterfall

 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.
~Wendell Berry “The Real Work”

 

mejierwaterfall

 

Who among us knows with certainty each morning
what we are meant to do that day
or where we are to go?
Or do we make our best guess by
putting one foot ahead of the other
until the day is done and it is time to rest.

For me, I wake baffled each day
that I am allowed
to eavesdrop on heartbeats,
touch tender bellies,
sew up broken skin,
listen to tearful stories
of those no longer wish to live
and those who never want to let go of life.

I wake humbled with commitment
to keep going even when too tired,
to offer care even when rejected.
to keep trying even if impeded.

It is only then I learn that
daily obstacles slow
but cannot stop
the offer of help,
the gift of caring,
the flow of time given freely
which overflows its banks with
uncertain certainty:
my real work and journey
through life.

May I wade in deep~
listening~
ready to raise my voice
for those who hurt
and sing along.

 

poliswaterfall2

The Art of Showing Up

peonyshower
pears1
grapes2
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”

 

dandydew

lettinggo11

Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it.  Showing up with food you’ve made yourself is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food;  bringing along a cake is simply the icing.

This is a good reminder that as a doctor, my usefulness is completely dependent on others’ suffering. No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job.

If only.
What a world that would be.
And then I can still be a mom even if there is no more doctor work:

….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake…

 

 

dandydew5