Thursday, November 15, 2012

Death and all of his friends

Hmm. I just realized that quite a few of my posts are related to death (or dying). I don't mean to be doom-and-gloomy. Seriously I don't. I hope when people read through my posts they realize I'm trying to encourage people to live their lives to the fullest, or help someone else do so. Why? Because (as I mentioned in an older post) - only one thing is truly guaranteed in life: death. So if you've got a limited amount of time - do something worth talking about. If not, at least do something fun. So on your death bed you can say "damn, what a ride". So that life was worth it in the face of all the suffering, obstacles, and annoying people you had to deal with.

Today's post is based off a video posted by the class of 2015 at Penn med. It'll likely bring tears to your eyes:

My Last Days: Meet Christopher Aiff

This is a great, well made video, but what I wanted to highlight were the Christopher Aliff's words at the end:

"When we devote our energy and time to trivial matters and choose to stress over things that are ultimately insignificant, from that point we perpetuate our own sadness and we lose sight of the things that really make us happy. And rationalize our way out of doing really amazing things."

I don't presume to know anything about Christopher, but it seems the general population doesn't seem to think about things like this till the end of their life. As the (14th) Dali Lama once said (paraphrased):
"Man [...] sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present [...] he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived"

It saddens me greatly, but this is very true.

So what's my take home point? Besides being doom-and-gloomy?

"Dying doesn’t need to be a bad thing – it is in fact a necessary thing. I want to be remembered as someone who did their best." - Christopher Aliff.

I intend to do my best, and be able to say "Damn. What a ride" when it's my time. But, for now, I'll be nursing my R knee's patellofemoral pain syndrome (the most commonly diagnosed knee pain! And you thought I was going to do a post without any medical context whatsoever..) while practicing my dance routine(s). 

All in the spirit of procrastinating homework assignments for school.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The calm in the storm

So blogger was kinda forcing me to update my blog's looks (apparently the template I was using isn't really supported anymore). So, after long deliberation (i.e. procrastinating studying), I decided to go with this.

Hope you like it! Overall, minimal change from the previous layout - what took me the longest was figuring out the background image. Lots to choose from, but I liked this the best.  Now, most people will jump and say - "obviously you picked this - you're Indian!" Yea well, ok that might have played a part in it. But more so, I like the image for what it represents in my mind: hope. The light of hope can be very small, like the lamp in the background, but it provides a gentle warming glow. This warm glow is just that - a warm glow - if you see with just your eyes. But if you open up to it, open your soul to it if you will, there is so much more you can see. To me, lamps and candles have a glow that brings a sense of calm. The glow encourages me to persevere. To not look for a calm in the storm, but to be the calm in the storm of life.

I find it interesting that Doctors can be the storm and the calm in the storm for patients. I can't imagine a storm worse than walking into a 22 year old patient's room, telling her she has lupus, and that she has severe consequences from it too like alveolar hemorrhage. This can potentially be a very dangerous complication - fatal even. And then you have a choice. Do you leave them in the storm, or do you help guide them through the storm? It frustrates me that so many doctors are not trained to do this. And trained they should be for 2 reasons:

1. The more obvious reason: it's part of our job. The human factor of medicine is what brought me here, and I'll be damned if I didn't learn this very important aspect of it. Gladly, Penn has an extensive Doctoring curriculum that does just that. And, for the most part, my attendings and residents are great about being the calm in the storm for our patients.

2. You aren't born with these skills. First instincts differ, but in general reacting on instinct doesn't help the patient. The worst first instinct is that doctors feel like a failure and very quickly try to draw out a plan for what to do next. Well and good, but that shouldn't be the first step. Or they try to grasp for false hopes. Or just don't know how to handle it and turn it over to people who they think will be more helpful (of all "inappropriate" reactions I've seen, this is arguably the lesser of the evils).

Interestingly, this was not going to be the point of this post. A friend of mine (let's call her Nandi):

was surprised I was "frustrated on multiple fronts" - she asked "aren't you doing great in everything?"

My response was along the lines of: "hah, no, the one thing I learned from working in pharma is to fake it. And I fake it damn well".

The point I was trying to make was - life's a storm. Everyone's life. It's not always easy to see because you aren't in their shoes. The question becomes, what do you do about it. For me, I can't possibly try to optimize everything and have the best outcomes on every front - I know and accept that. Doesn't keep me from trying though (which I'm sure is a catalyst for my frustration). So what's my solution to life whenever it feels like things are spinning out of control and I can't possibly keep it together? To stop myself from being a failure?

"When you're going through hell, keep going" eh?

And that is why I started off this post by talking about:

Hold tightly to the things that calm you - your friends, your pillow, your family. Because only you can be the calm in your storm.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In the end

As medical professionals (and soon-to-be medical professionals), we deal with death.

As living beings, we deal with death.

The one thing you are always guaranteed the moment you are born, or even the moment you are conceived, is that you will die. (depending on where you go, you can even avoid the paying taxes bit of "death and taxes").

As part of my Family Medicine clerkship (which is a subset of the 3 month medicine block) we have a hospice experience. I have an issue that the general public (and a good part of healthcare) associates hospice with death. As in hospice = you are going to die. Or hospice is where you go to die. I hate that. That's not all that hospice is. A very important aspect of what hospice provides is end of life care. But that's like saying the purpose of a car is to have air conditioning. The true spirit of hospice revolves around palliation. But I'm not sure I even agree with the all-knowing wikipedia definition of hospice.

But, as always, I digress.

As part of our hospice experience, we have to write a short paper on either:

- What was the most meaningful part of the experience?
- What surprised you the most during this visit?

My paper addressed the second question. I'm sharing that paper with you below. As always, I've scrubbed out all identifying patient information. And, as always, these are my opinions. No one else's. It is not meant to reflect or imply any parties share the same feelings etc. This is also not a completely accurate description of what happens in hospice - this is just a slice.

So with all that couching out of the way:

During my hospice half day, I got the opportunity to watch and help two families through the loss / inevitable loss of their loved ones. In the first situation, the patient had quickly slipped into a bad state of health secondary to late stage esophageal cancer. He had only a few months with his wife after his diagnosis. He  quickly slipped into a state where he couldn’t make his own decisions. His wife was very distraught at having to make the decisions – having to read his mind, to guess what he would’ve wanted. 

The second family I worked with had a different dynamic. An older patient went through multiple treatments for breast cancer, but the cancer recurred. It started to invade her heart. As of the time I saw her, she was still in relatively good health. She had a large family – she had 7 children (who all had children of their own). The kids were all in the room when we started discussing hospice. 

Her kids were leaning towards doing everything to prolong their mother’s life whereas the mother (the patient) simply said “no, that’s not living. I don’t want that. If it’s my time, it’s my time.” What surprised me about the whole encounter is how a family wants to deal with the end of their loved one’s life vs. how the loved one (the patient) wants to go through it. It seems like when we see the pain the patient is going through, we want to help. The first instinct for an outsider (and this seems to include family as well as health care professionals) is to act – to do something to extend their life. 

Whereas for the person actually going through the pain – for someone who has actually had to face their mortality, their perspective seems different. I am sure that many patients who are going through the stages of grief have a hard time accepting that they may pass soon and want everything done in a bid for gaining as much time as possible. I am not here to make any character judgments. I do have my own personal thoughts on the matter, but that is not the focus of this paper.

I guess what surprised me was how calmly some people approach the end of their life. This second patient was very sad about everything that was happening. She wasn't cheery about the idea of dying. About leaving her loved ones behind. But even though she teared and cried, she was still calm and direct about her wishes. It was also interesting to see the interaction in the family. There was no question she was the matriarch –  what she says goes. No arguments. No back talking. 

Encounters like this reinforce my strong feeling that patients with grave diseases need to have these difficult conversations earlier rather than later. If the inevitable does happen, leaving the loved ones / family members to deal with making final decisions is a horribly difficult burden. Death is difficult for everyone. Planning for end of life care ahead of time - whatever those plans may be - lets people focus on what matters most near the end.


I don't mean to be fatalistic, but the end comes for us all. Thinking about it (in a healthy, productive way) doesn't make it come any sooner or delay it any longer.

Going through documents like "5 wishes" helps people have these difficult conversations. Even more - it helps to quickly draw up paper work for what you want health care workers to do for you. So that your wishes are respected and carried out. 

Ok, now my lunch break is over. Back to seeing patients!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Clinics and perspective

I started my clinical rotations in January (2012). Here's a few random thoughts about what's been happening. I did 3 months of "Surgery" - 1 month of emergency medicine, 1 month of GI (Gastrointestinal) surgery, 2 weeks of plastic surgery and 2 weeks of orthopedic trauma surgery. I then completed 6 weeks of pediatrics (3 weeks inpatient at CHOP, 3 weeks outpatient at Cherry Hill), and now I'm about to start my second week of my OB/GYN rotation (which lasts 6 weeks as well). 

During clinics I've been completely awed by medicine. On the one hand I'm saddened by the limitations of medicine, but on the other hand I'm amazed by how much we can do and how many people we can help. It's just plain awesome - and it's amazing I get to be a part of it. I'm actually starting to help people now! In a very, infinitesimally small way - but hey we all have to start somewhere eh? This is something I've been working towards for a long time, and it feels great to see tangible progress. 

Recently on pediatrics I actually had one of these moments:

(I listened to and found many heart murmurs and accurately diagnosed them! Then again, the residents and attendings had already beaten me to the punch (obviously) - but it was still cool!)

At other times, I legitimately feel like this:

This was especially true during my month of Emergency Medicine. Obviously they don't let me do the initial triage of someone in severe distress, but one patient encounter stands out for me. He came in after passing out at a bar (he wasn't drinking, and this happened the day before too) and I got him to admit a history of cocaine use. While I was finishing up my initial questions, the EKG tech had just completed getting an EKG and I looked over at the strip as it was coming out... and rushed it over to the attending and said "room __, looks like a STEMI - atypical presentation" (the patient was having an ST elevation myocardial infarction - a heart attack. The cocaine use fit the picture because it increases your risk of having a heart attack even if you're young - which this patient was).

Love it. 

Medical school? Clinics? My initial response:

And I'm still going strong. High five for awesomeness.

Now having said that... there are many, many, many moments of:

This is how I feel when it comes to applying my (extremely limited) medical knowledge to the real world. And this is definitely how I feel when I take the Shelf exams (they are the "final exam" for a clinical rotation block). Clinics aren't all rosy. The patients can sometimes be difficult. The people you work with can be difficult - some bitch all the time, some have a bad day and decide to pick on you to no end. Almost like they are trying to prove how little you know. And, of course, some people are just plain mean - almost like they've forgotten how it feels to be in our shoes. Finally, the hours can be horrendous (4:45 am - 7pm regularly for multiple weeks). 

Often, this is how I feel like when my "higher ups", exams or patients ask me questions:

But for those who know me, you'll know I like to focus on the positives. There's crap to deal with in every aspect of life. 

The question is: is there a reason for to put up with it?

This is why I try so hard to remember why I decide to medicine in the first place. I want to help people. I am not here to chase a grade. I am not here to impress my residents or my attendings. Or that hot chick at the end of the bar (I've definitely tried that last one multiple times... being a med student doesn't work as well as TV says it would). I'm here to be learn as much as I can so I can be the best damn doctor I can be. Why? Because I want to save people's lives. I want to alter their course from just surviving from day to day to living each day to its fullest

People warn you that it is difficult to maintain that humanistic perspective as you go through medical school - especially clinics. Things conspire to beat your compassion out of you (not on purpose, but it is unfortunately what happens). Quite a few people are bitter residents by the end of medical school (but it seems to improve a bit when they become attendings).

Anyway... I digress. The main reason I decided to take some time out from "studying" and make this post? Because of a video I saw this morning. It's for the reasons depicted in the video that I work so hard. The reason why I'm here. Here's hoping I can help kids like this some day.

And in other news, a special shout out to my good friend Anna - we are all excited about your pregnancy and I wish & pray for the best for you. You and your husband are awesome people and I can't imagine a couple more deserving of a little bundle of joy than you guys.

Starting the Obstetrics part of my OB/Gyn rotation Monday. Let's catch some babies!