They work with herbs and penicillin. They work with gentleness and the scalpel. They dig out the cancer, close an incision and say a prayer to the poverty of the skin.
…they are only human trying to fix up a human. Many humans die.
But all along the doctors remember: First do no harm. They would kiss if it would heal. It would not heal.
If the doctors cure then the sun sees it. If the doctors kill then the earth hides it. The doctors should fear arrogance more than cardiac arrest. If they are too proud, and some are, then they leave home on horseback but God returns them on foot. ~Anne Sexton “Doctors” from The Awful Rowing Toward God.
Let me not forget how humbling it is
to provide care for a hurting person
and not be certain that what I suggest
will actually work,
to be trusted to recommend the best option
including tincture of time,
wait and see,
try this or that.
Like other physicians who tumble off
at a full gallop, having lost balance
between confidence and humility,
I sometimes find myself unseated and unsettled,
returning on foot to try again to make a difference.
It may not be rabbit season or duck season but it definitely seems to be doctor season. Physicians are lined up squarely in the gun sights of the media, government agencies and legislators, our health care industry employers and coworkers, not to mention our own 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 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 overcommitted, uncaring, egotistical, close minded, inflexible, and especially– 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.
I admit I’m one of those late doctors. Perpetually 20-30 minutes behind.
I don’t share the reasons why I’m late with my patients as we sit down together in the exam room but I do apologize for my tardiness. Taking time to explain why takes time away from the task at hand: taking care of the person sitting or lying in front of me. At that moment, that is the most important person in the world to me. More important than the six waiting to see me, more important than the dozens of emails, electronic portal messages 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 of concern from my daughter or the worry I have about a ill relative.
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 three patients before them I saw a woman who 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, but is showing potential 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 suspected 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, 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 is very alone, scrambling to do the very best healing he or she can in the time available.
I’m not yet hanging my stethoscope up though some days I’m so weary by the end, I’m not sure my brain between the ear buds 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 for that moment to the needs of the “most important person in the whole world.”
And that human being deserves every minute I can give them.
Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time.
Let it be.
Unto us, so much is given.
We just have to be open for business. ~Anne Lamott from Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers
I have the privilege to work in a profession where astonishment and revelation awaits me behind each exam room door.
In a typical clinic day, I open that door up to thirty plus times, close it behind me and settle in for the ten or fifteen minutes I’m allocated per patient. I need to peel through the layers of each person quickly to find the core of truth about who they are and why they’ve come to clinic that day.
Sometimes what I’m looking for is right on the surface: in their tears, in their pain, in their fears. Most of the time, it is buried deep, often beneath a scar I must search to find. I need to wade through the rashes and sore throats and coughs and headaches and discouragement to find it.
Once in awhile, I actually do something tangible to help right then and there — sew up a cut, lance a boil, splint a fracture, restore hearing by removing a plug of wax from an ear canal.
Often I find myself giving permission to a patient to be sick — to take time to renew, rest and trust their bodies to know what is best for a time.
Sometimes, I am the coach pushing them to stop living sick — to stop hiding from life’s challenges, to stretch even when it hurts, to get out of bed even when not rested, to quit giving in to symptoms that are to be overcome rather than become overwhelming.
Always I’m looking for an opening to say something a patient might think about after they leave my clinic — how they can make different choices, how they can be bolder and braver in their self care, how they can intervene within their own finite timeline to prevent illness, how every day is just one thread in the larger tapestry of their lifespan.
Each morning I rise early to get work done at home before I actually arrive at my desk at work, trying to avoid feeling unprepared and inadequate to the volume of tasks heaped upon each day. I know I will be stretched beyond my capacity, challenged by the unfamiliar, the unexpected and will be stressed by obstacles thrown in my way. I know I will be held responsible for things I have little to do with, simply because I’m the one who often acts as decision-maker.
It is always tempting to go back to bed and hide.
Instead of hiding, I go to work as the exam room doors need to be opened and the layers peeled away. I understand the worry, the fear and the pain because I have lived it too. I know the limitations of a body that wants to consume more than it needs, to sleep rather than go for a walk, to sit rather than stand.
Even now in my seventh decade of life, I am continually learning how to let it be, even if it is scary. It is a gift perhaps I can share.
No matter what waits behind the exam room door, it will be astonishing to me.
I’m grateful to be open for business. The Doctor is In.
Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.
The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.
Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody.
It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.
A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death. ~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets
We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”
If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us. Too often, sacrificing self-care threatens others’ well-being.
A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted. Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink. In forty years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”), the work has never gotten easier, only harder and heavier.
I see suicidal patients all day and am immensely grateful I’ve never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors. Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours and travel too far when we should be closing our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.
However, we are trained to respond to anxiety from the first day in anatomy class: “and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”
Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I’ve worked hard in my professional life to be easily interruptible; my patients, colleagues and staff need to be able to stop my momentum at any time to ask a question, get an opinion or redirect my attention to something more important than what I’m doing at that time. As a physician, it is crucial that I remain prioritized from outside my field of vision as I don’t always realize where I’m needed most until someone grabs me.
In my personal life, I struggle with interruptions happening outside my control. I feel imposed upon when things don’t flow as I hoped or planned– after all, this is MY life.
Yet God interrupts. God interferes. God intervenes. God intrudes. God intercedes.
As He must.
I must be ready, accepting, answering His grace with my grace.
It is HIS life living within me, His plan, His timing, His priorities, His story playing out in such a way that it becomes my story.
I can’t skip ahead to see what happens on the last page, but I hope it is one of those stories I don’t want to see end when the last word is written.
A good night sleep, or a ten minute bawl, or a pint of chocolate ice cream, or all three together, is good medicine.
If there is anything I’ve learned in over 40 years of practicing medicine, it’s that I still must “practice” my art every day. As much as we physicians emphasize the science of what we do, utilizing “evidence based” decisions, there are still days when a fair amount of educated guessing and a gut feeling is based on past experience, along with my best hunch. Many patients don’t arrive with classic cook book symptoms that fit the standardized diagnostic and treatment algorithms so the nuances of their stories require interpretation, discernment and flexibility. I appreciate a surprise once in awhile that makes me look at a patient in a new or unexpected way and teaches me something I didn’t know before. It keeps me coming back for more, to figure out the mystery and dig a little deeper.
I’ve also learned that not all medicine comes in pills or injections. This isn’t really news to anyone, but our modern society is determined to seek better living through chemistry, the more expensive and newer the better, whether prescribed or not. Chemicals have their place, but they also can cause havoc. It is startling to see medication lists topping a dozen different daily pills. Some are life-saving. Many are just plain unnecessary.
How many people sleep without the aid of pill or weed or alcohol? Fewer and fewer. Poor sleep is one of the sad consequences of our modern age of too much artificial light, too much entertainment and screen time keeping us up late, and not enough physical work to exhaust our bodies enough to match our frazzled and fatigued brains.
How many of us allow ourselves a good cry when we feel it welling up? It could be a sentimental moment–a song that brings back bittersweet memories, a commercial that touches just the right chord of feeling and connection. It may be a moment of frustration and anger when nothing seems to go right. It could be the pain of physical illness or injury or the stress of emotional turmoil. Or just maybe there is weeping when everything is absolutely perfect and there cannot be another moment just like it, so it is tough to let it go unchristened by tears of joy.
And without a doubt, the healing qualities of chocolate are unquestioned by this doctor, however it may be consumed. It can fix most everything that ails a person, at least for an hour or two.
No, it doesn’t take an M.D. degree to know the best medicine.
I’m reminded daily about how little I know and understand. I work with people who are suffering, whose symptoms may fit prescribed diagnostic criteria but yet defy explanation or reason. They care about what relief I might offer rather than a label that names the illness.
Like so much in medicine, what I witness daily is unexplained and unexplainable. What I do know I carry with me, small and honorable and shareable. I offer it up to each patient, one after another: here is what I think might help. here is your next step to take. here is the hope that goes with taking each breath, the next and the next.
Even when standing in the dark, as we all do at times in our life, we just keep breathing. In and out. In and out. We are filled even when empty.