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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To Thank the Light

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Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim 
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald, 
And the kind, simple country shines revealed 
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light, 
Then stretches down his head to crop the green. 
All things that he has loved are in his sight; 
The places where his happiness has been 
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.
~Siegfried Sassoon from “Break of Day”

 

 

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I am growing older along with my horses. I think of them out to pasture throughout my workday as I continue to climb in the harness to pull the load as fast and hard as I can muster, returning home in the evening sore and weary.

I think of them with the morning sun on their withers, the green blades under their feet, as they search for the sweetest tender patch to munch.

They remind me to bring the calm of the pasture inside to balance the noise and bustle and troubles found in the clinic.  There still is peace and light to be found; I have only to look for it.

 

“To practice medicine with good spirit does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to bring your calm and loving heart right into the midst of it.” from www.theheartofmedicine.org

 

 

 

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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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Missing the Knock on the Door

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When a great moment knocks on the door of your life,
it is often no louder than the beating of your heart,
and it is very easy to miss it.
~Boris Pasternak

 

 

 

Years ago, a young woman I’d been treating for depression for several weeks in my clinic called unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon and canceled an upcoming appointment for the following Monday and did not reschedule. The receptionist sent me a message as is our policy for patients who “cancel and do not reschedule”. It gave me a bad feeling that she was turning her back on her treatment plan and I was uneasy about the upcoming weekend without knowing what was going on with her.

I could have just put on my coat and headed home at the end of that long Friday after a very stressful work week and even more stressful year. I was discouraged about many aspects of the clinic work load and the after-hours responsibilities only seemed to get heavier.  I was frustrated at how ineffectively I was communicating to administrative supervisors about the need for change.  I was ready to quit and walk away.

Instead I decided to call my patient to find out how she was doing.  She didn’t answer her phone. I mulled over my options, looked up her apartment address and drove the few blocks to get there. As I approached her door, I could hear someone moving around in her apartment, but she ignored my knocks and my voice and when I tried the door, it was locked.

So I stayed right there, talking to her through the door for about 15 minutes, letting her know I wasn’t leaving until she opened up the door. I finally told her she could decide to open the door or I would call 911 and ask the police to come to make sure she was okay. She then unlocked the door, tears streaming down her face. She had been drinking heavily, with liquor bottles strewn around on the floor. She admitted an intent to overdose on aspirin and vodka. The vodka was already consumed but the unopened aspirin bottle was in her hand. I was the last person she expected to see at her door.

Miraculously the mental health unit at the local hospital had an open bed. I told my patient that we could save time and hassle by heading over there together right then and there, and avoid the emergency room mess, and the possibility of an involuntary detainment.

She agreed to come with me and be admitted voluntarily for stabilization. I visited the hospital the next day and she greeted me with a hug and thanked me for not giving up on her when she had given up on herself. In sobriety, her eyes were brighter and she was more hopeful. She never expected anyone to care enough to come knock on her door when she was at her lowest point,  and she struggled to answer, as consumed as she was in her own painfully beating heart.

She was astounded and grateful and frankly, by deciding to do what I knew was necessary and right even though it disregarded every workplace policy, so was I.

Four years later, a small card arrived in my clinic mailbox on another most challenging work day from an unfamiliar address two thousand miles away. The name looked vaguely familiar to me but when I opened and read the contents, this time the knock on the door was to get my attention, to focus the beating of my heart on what was most important – not the stresses of my work place — and it was my turn to let tears flow:

 

“Dear Doctor,

I am not sure if you will remember me considering you see a number of patients daily; however, I am a patient whose life you changed in the most positive way. I never truly THANKED YOU for listening to me and hearing my silent words of grief and hearing my cries for help. If it had not been for you, had you not knocked on my door, I would not be writing this letter to you today. I don’t know exactly what to say to the person who saved me from hurting myself fatally. You were a stranger in my life, but a dear friend in my time of need. THANK YOU, for everything that you did for me. You have a permanent place in my heart, you have given my spirit hope, you have reminded me that a life is worth living. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sincerely, L_____”

 

I’m grateful 4 years ago I had the sense to go knock on her door when all she could hear was the beating of her own painful heart. I had the stubbornness to stay put until she responded, and most of all, I’m appreciative for her gracious note letting me know it made a difference. When I needed it the most, she made a difference for me that has kept me on the job all these years later.

She knocked, oh so gently, on my door and I opened it, amazed that someone cared, and found me awash in my own tears.

 

 

Not Just Another Day

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“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

 

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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.

 

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Supposing It Didn’t

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“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

 

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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.

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

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