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 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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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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All Things Frail and Imperiled

 

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Here, I place
a blue glazed cup
where the wood
is slightly whitened.
Here, I lay down
two bright spoons,
our breakfast saucers, napkins
white and smooth as milk.

I am stirring at the sink,
I am stirring
the amount of dew
you can gather in two hands,
folding it into the fragile
quiet of the house.
Before the eggs,
before the coffee
heaving like a warm cat,
I step out to the feeder—
one foot, then the other,
alive on wet blades.
Air lifts my gown—I might fly—

This thistle seed I pour
is for the tiny birds.
This ritual,
for all things frail
and imperiled.
Wings surround me, frothing
the air. I am struck
by what becomes holy.

A woman
who lost her teenage child
to an illness without mercy,
said that at the end, her daughter
sat up in her hospital bed
and asked:

What should I do?
What should I do?

Into a white enamel bath
I lower four brown eggs.
You fill the door frame,
warm and rumpled, kiss
the crown of my head.
I know how the topmost leaves
of dusty trees
feel at the advent
of the monsoon rains.

I carry the woman with the lost child
in my pocket, where she murmurs
her love song without end:
Just this, each day:
Bear yourself up on small wings
to receive what is given.

Feed one another
with such tenderness,
it could almost be an answer.
~Marcia F. Brown “Morning Song”

 

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I am comforted by rituals, as are we all.
The feeding, the cleaning,
the washing, the nurture,
the smoothing of the wrinkled and ruffled,
the sacred time of rest.

It is those small things that get us through the day,
that create holiness in each breath, each moment.

What should I do next? What should I do?

No need to wonder. I am led to what is needed.

 

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Music Against the Hard Edges

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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”

 

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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”

 

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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.

 

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The Art of Showing Up

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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”

 

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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…

 

 

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The Mere Exception

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We should always endeavour to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception. We should be startled by the sun, and not by the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more about the earth.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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As a physician, I’m trained to notice the exceptions – the human body equivalent of
an eclipse or an earthquake,
a wildfire or drought,
a hurricane or flood,
or a simple pothole.

Ordinarily I’m not particularly attentive to everything that is going well with the human body, instead concentrating on what is aberrant, out of control or could be made better.

This is unfortunate; there is much beauty and amazing design to behold in every person I meet, especially those with chronic illness who feel nothing is as it should be and feel despair and frustration at how their mind or body is aging, failing and faltering.

To counter this tendency to just find what’s wrong and needs fixing, I’ve learned over the years to talk out loud as I do physical assessments:
you have no concerning skin lesions,
your eardrums look just as they should,
your eyes react normally,
your tonsils look fine,
your thyroid feels smooth,
your lymph nodes are tiny,
your lungs are clear,
your heart sounds are perfect,
your belly exam is reassuring,
your reflexes are symmetrical,
your emotional response to this stress and your tears are completely understandable.

I also write messages meant to reassure:
your labs are in a typical range
or are getting better
or at least maintaining,
your xray shows no concerns,
or isn’t getting worse,
those medication side effects are to be expected and could go away.

I acknowledge what is working well before attempting to intervene in what is not.

I’m not sure how much difference it makes to my patient.
But it makes a difference to me to wonder first at who this whole patient is before I focus in on what is broken and what is causing such dis-ease.

I just might be astonished.

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