Be Obscure Clearly

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A wind has blown the rain away
and blown the sky away
and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand.
I think, I too,
have known autumn too long.
~e.e. cummings

 

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Be obscure clearly.
~E. B. White

 

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As a family doctor in the autumn of a forty year career, I work at clarifying obscurity about the human condition daily, dependent on my patients to communicate the information I need to make a sound diagnosis and treatment recommendation.  That is hard work for my patients, especially when they are depressed and anxious on top of whatever they are experiencing physically.

There is still much unknown and difficult to understand about psychology, physiology and anatomy.  Then throw in a disease process or two or three to complicate what appears to be “normal”, and further consider the side effects and complications of various treatments — even evidence-based decision making isn’t equipped to reflect perfectly the best and only solution to a problem.  Sometimes the solution is very muddy, not pristine and clear.

Let’s face the lack of facts.  A physician’s clinical work is obscure even on the best of days when everything goes well.  We hope our patients can communicate their concerns as clearly as possible, reflecting accurately what is happening with their health.  In a typical clinic day we see things we’ve never seen before, must expect the unexpected, learn things we never thought we’d need to know, attempt to make the better choice between competing treatment alternatives, unlearn things we thought were gospel truth but have just been disproved by the latest double blind controlled study which may later be reversed by a newer study.   Our footing is quicksand much of the time even though our patients trust we are giving them rock-solid advice based on a foundation of truth learned over years of education and training.   Add in medical decision-making that is driven by cultural, political or financial outcomes rather than what works best for the individual, and our clinical clarity becomes even further obscured.

Forty years of doctoring in the midst of the mystery of medicine: learning, unlearning, listening, discerning, explaining, guessing, hoping,  along with a little silent praying — has taught me the humility that any good clinician must have when making decisions with and about patients.  What works well for one patient may not be at all appropriate for another despite what the evidence says or what an insurance company or the government is willing to pay for.  Each person we work with deserves the clarity of a fresh look and perspective, to be “known” and understood for their unique circumstances rather than treated by cook-book algorithm.  The complex reality of health care reform may dictate something quite different.

The future of medicine is dependent on finding clarifying solutions to help unmuddy the health care decisions our patients face. We have entered a time of information technology that is unparalleled in bringing improved communication between clinicians and patients because of more easily shared electronic records.  The pitfall of not knowing what work up was previously done can be a thing of the past.  The risk and cost of redundant procedures can be avoided.  The time has come for the patient to share responsibility for maintenance of their medical records and assist the diagnostic process by providing online symptom and outcomes follow up documentation.

The benefit of this shared record is not that all the muddiness in medicine is eliminated, but that an enhanced transparent partnership between clinician and patient develops,  reflecting a relationship able to transcend the unknowns.

So we can be obscure with clarity.  Our lives depend on it.

 

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A Deep Fear of Emptiness

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Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun:
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field,
They seem arranged as if each one
Has found its place; together they appeal
To some glimpsed order in my mind
Preceding my chance pausing here —
A randomness that also seems designed.
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field
Evoke a silence deep as my deep fear
Of emptiness; I feel the scene requires
A listener who can respond with words, yet who
Prolongs the silence that I still desire,
Relieved as clacking crows come flashing through,
Whose blackness shows chance radiance of fire.
Yet stillness in the field remains for everyone:
Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun.
~Robert Pack “Baled Hay” from Rounding it Out: A Cycle of Sonnetelles (1999).

 

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Each day I am called to see and listen,
to open fully to all that is around me.
From the simple stillness of the fields
surrounding our farm,
to the weeping of those who sit with me
day after day
in their deep fear of emptiness,
their struggle with whether to try to live
or give up and die.

Their deep fear of emptiness renders me silent;
I struggle to respond with words
that might offer up a healing balm
assuring them even in the darkest time
hope lies waiting, wrapped and baled,
radiant as fire,
ready to spill out fragrant,
to bear us silently to a new morning,
to a stillness borne of grace.

 

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A Moment of Peace

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It had happened many times before, but it always took me by surprise.

Always in the midst of great stress, wading waist-deep in trouble and sorrow, as doctors do, I would glance out a window, open a door, look into a face, and there it would be, unexpected and unmistakable. A moment of peace.  

The light spread from the sky to the ship, and the great horizon was no longer a blank threat of emptiness, but the habitation of joy. For a moment, I lived in the center of the sun, warmed and cleansed, and the smell and sight of sickness fell away; the bitterness lifted from my heart.  

I never looked for it, gave it no name; yet I knew it always, when the gift of peace came. I stood quite still for the moment that it lasted, thinking it strange and not strange that grace should find me here, too.   Then the light shifted slightly and the moment passed, leaving me as it always did, with the lasting echo of its presence. In a reflex of acknowledgment, I crossed myself and went below, my tarnished armor faintly gleaming.
~Diana Gabaldon – Claire’s observations from Voyager

 

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I’ve known this moment of peace in the midst of my work; it comes unexpectedly after a day of immersion in troubles and anguish.  As I leave the clinic and breathe in a sudden rush of fresh air, and as I drive down our country road as the sun is setting, I remember that for all of us, the sick and the not-yet-sick, there still are moments of grace and beauty.

It isn’t all sad, it isn’t all anxious, it isn’t all anguish. The moment may be brief, it may be elusive.

But it is there. And I seek it out every day.

 

 

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(written with gratitude to author Diana Gabaldon for her insights into the complex workings of an innovative physician’s mind in her Outlander series of novels, for Caitriona Balfe‘s insightful characterization and understanding of Claire and for Sam Heughan‘s sensitive portrayal of the man who loves her beyond the boundary of time in Starz’ Outlander  – if you don’t know these stories yet, you should.)

 

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Just Sad

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We didn’t say fireflies
but lightning bugs.
We didn’t say carousel
but merry-go-round.
Not seesaw,
teeter-totter
not lollipop,
sucker.
We didn’t say pasta, but
spaghetti, macaroni, noodles:
the three kinds.
We didn’t get angry:
we got mad.
And we never felt depressed
dismayed, disappointed
disheartened, discouraged
disillusioned or anything,
even unhappy:
just sad.
~Sally Fisher “Where I Come From”  from Good Question.

 

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I felt sadness in that moment because, having been raised in a certain culture, I learned long ago that “sadness” is something that may occur when certain bodily feelings coincide with terrible loss. Using bits and pieces of past experience, such as my knowledge of shootings and my previous sadness about them, my brain rapidly predicted what my body should do to cope with such tragedy. Its predictions caused my thumping heart, my flushed face, and the knots in my stomach. They directed me to cry, an action that would calm my nervous system. And they made the resulting sensations meaningful as an instance of sadness. In this manner, my brain constructed my experience of emotion.

…if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful.. .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy.. .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses.
~Lisa Feldman Barrett from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

 

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Emotions are fleeting. But they are unavoidable and they are the most human of all things. They are not universals; they are arbitrary. But if we feel them deeply and we share them with others, nothing in this life is more real.
~Eric Barker on his blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree

 

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If there is anything I’ve come to understand over the decades I’ve been a physician, it is that human beings have emotions that make them uncomfortable and that makes them more difficult to share with others.  Sometimes those feelings become so locked up that they leak out of our cells as physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tightness, stomach upset, hypertension.  Other times they are so overwhelming we can no longer function in a day to day way – labeled as rage, panic, mood disorder, depression, self-destructive, suicidal.

Somehow we’ve lost the ability to be just sad.  Just sad.  Sad happens and it happens to us all, some longer than others, some worse than others, some deeper than others.  What makes sad more real and more manageable is if we can say it out loud — whatever ‘sad’ means to us on a given day and to describe the feeling in detail can categorize and manage it — and explain it to others who can listen and help.

Strong emotions don’t always need a “fix”, particularly chemical,  but that is why I’m usually consulted.  Alcohol, marijuana and other drugs tend to be the temporary self-medicated anesthesia that people seek to stop feeling anything at all but it only rages stronger later.

Sometimes an overwhelming feeling just needs an outlet so it no longer is locked up, unspoken and silent, threatening to leak out in ways that tear us up and pull us apart.

Just tell me where you come from, who you are and who you are becoming and then, only then, we might be able to understand why you feel what you do today.  Then, armed with that understanding and how you might respond in a different way,  tomorrow may well feel a bit better.

 

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Dusted

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“Bees do have a smell, you know,
and if they don’t they should,
for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”

― Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

 

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I admire the honey bee as pollinator and pollen gatherer simultaneously, facilitating new fruit from the blossom as well as taking away that which will become sweet honey tasting of the spicy essence of the flower touched.

As a physician, I can only hope to be as transformative in the work I do every day.  I carry with me tens of thousands of patients I’ve seen over thirty five years of medical practice.  There is no way I can touch another human being without keeping some small part of them with me – perhaps a memory of an open wound or the residual scar it left behind, a word of sorrow or gratitude, a grimace, a tear or a smile.

Each patient is a flower visited, some still in bud, some in full bloom, some seed pods ready to burst, some spent and wilting and ready to fall away.  Each patient carries a spicy vitality, even in their illness and dying, that is unforgettable and still clings to me. Each patient changes me, the doctor, readying me for the next patient by teaching me a gentler approach, a clearer explanation, a slower leave-taking.  Each patient becomes part of my story, adding to my skill as a healer, and is never to be forgotten.

It has been my privilege to be thoroughly dusted by those I’ve loved and cared for.  I want to carry that on to create something wonderful that reflects the spice of living.

Nothing could smell or taste as sweet.

 

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The Vaccination Conundrum

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It is proof of MMR immunity season again.  Students entering school this fall are being asked to prove they have been fully vaccinated against Mump, Measles (rubeola) and Rubella infection as well as other routine immunizations in order to be allowed to enroll.  A small but significant and vehement minority insist they should be allowed a personal exemption from the requirement that the majority willingly comply with.

Concerned, caring parents make the decision every day to forego life-saving immunity by refusing to vaccinate their children, truly believing they are doing the right thing. They do not perceive an imminent risk to their child from the older contagious diseases despite their resurgence in developed countries like the U.S., focusing instead on the low—or often non-existent but ballyhooed—risks of vaccinations.

These are parents—most of them well-educated and on both ends of the political spectrum—who refuse to vaccinate their children, thereby denying a consensus of scientific evidence and increasing the risk for further outbreaks. “Oh my God. Wealthy, white, liberal enclaves are at risk!” declares Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee, mocking the anti-vaccine bloggers and activists. So too at risk are some conservative Christian church communities where vaccination rates are low.

As clever the satire may be, I can’t bring myself to laugh or crack a smile. Now in my 60s, I remember the illnesses brought on by these diseases before vaccines. As a physician, I’ve seen cases of them coming back with fatal consequences.

Maybe some of us have forgotten or are too young to realize the severity of these conditions. Healthcare providers who haven’t had firsthand experience with these contagious diseases don’t always think of them when confronted with classic signs and symptoms. But it’s only been a little over 50 years since vaccinations became routine for childhood killers like tetanus, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, and pertussis, or whooping cough. Americans growing up before then had no choice but to suffer through childhood infectious diseases as they quickly spread through a community.

Most of us survived our illnesses, rewarded for our affliction with permanent natural immunity. Others suffered lifelong consequences: paralysis from polio, deafness from rubella, sterility from mumps. Some did not survive at all. My father nearly died at age 41 from a case of the mumps I brought home from school. As an infant, my sister-in-law almost didn’t pull through when she turned blue from pertussis infection.

Today, I’ve seen healthy people develop encephalitis and pneumonia from chicken pox. A fit college student in my practice died of influenza within a week of the start of his symptoms. Our university clinic just diagnosed a case of mumps during a local outbreak.  Our herd-immunity for many vaccine-preventable conditions has been waning, as reports of pertussis, measles, mumps, and chicken pox reemerge, in affluent countries with robust health care systems.

Parents who opt to leave their children unvaccinated contribute to the recent outbreaks. Well-meaning American parents are convinced they are doing the best thing by protecting their children from potentially rare and often unproven vaccine side effects. Some Christian parents claim vaccine risks are unwarranted, since God will provide the needed immunity if their children gets sick.

Most cases originate overseas, so it’s especially critical that Americans be vaccinated when traveling outside the U.S., even to Europe. (Those who serve in mission fields are particularly vulnerable, and I’ve found it interesting that previously unvaccinated Christians are more than willing to accept immunizations when they know for certain they will be exposed.)

As a physician of faith, I tell parents God indeed provides immunity. But as we’ve seen over millennia, it comes by very real suffering through a potentially fatal disease. In our modern society, God grants us everyday miracles, both pharmacologic and surgical, including the potential of long-lasting immunity in the form of a vial of vaccine. I don’t think these parents would deny insulin for their child newly diagnosed with diabetes, nor would they fail to strap their child into a car seat before starting the ignition. Vaccines are instruments of prevention, too, given to our healthy youngsters in order to keep them (and others) healthy.

“I’m concerned that so many people seem willing to let others carry the supposed burden of vaccination so that they don’t have to,” wrote Rachel Marie Stone in a Her.meneutics post several years ago. “To me, that’s a failure of the commandment to love our neighbors: our infant neighbors, our elderly neighbors, and our immune-compromised neighbors.”

When I was vaccinated for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) at the age of 4 months in 1954, my mother wrote in my baby book: Up most of the night with fever 104.5 degrees, a good “take” for the vaccine. She was relieved that it had made me sick, as it meant that my stimulated immune system would keep me safe if exposed to those killer diseases that were so common in the 1950s. Our society doesn’t think about immunizations as we did back then and thankfully a febrile reaction like that would be unusual due to significant changes in how today’s more effective vaccines are formulated.

I wish vaccines were perfect in their protection and potential side effects, but they aren’t. I wish medications developed for treatment of some of these illnesses were perfectly effective, but we can’t depend on a guarantee of cure once sickened. I wish our immune systems were perfect in their response to exposure to pathogens, but they too fail and people do die. Even though there will never be perfect prevention or treatment, parents in third world countries who have watched their children suffer and die from completely preventable disease will walk miles, for days, to get their children vaccinated when they learn of a mobile health clinic setting up an immunization center. Undeterred by that harsh reality, some in our highly educated society choose to run, not walk, in the opposite direction from much more easily accessible free state-supplied vaccine.

There will always be a new plague to worry about. Even as we eradicated illnesses through vaccine, we watched HIV, SARS, avian flu, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, and MERS infect us. Some countries have seen the return of polio, and we remain concerned over smallpox somehow finding its way out of its lockbox in laboratories.

Given these threats and the new pathogens on the horizon, it remains unwise to refuse safe and effective vaccination. By doing so, we invite the old plagues, these killers of yesteryear, back into our homes, our churches and schools, and inevitably, onto our death certificates.

We can and must do better for our next generation.

 

(an earlier version of this essay was published online three years ago with a significant negative reaction from Christian readers.  It bears repetition because anti-vaccination beliefs continue to be an issue in the midst of current rubeola measles and mumps outbreaks in the U.S.)

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An Audience of Terminal Patients

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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”

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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

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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.

 

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