Halfway Betwixt Worlds

Alfred is 95 years old, and sits quietly in his wheelchair, rocking back and forth.  His strength is gone, and his veins and tendons bulge through fair, translucent skin, stretched over muscles of long lost size and use.  His greatest foe is gravity, which holds his lithe, bird-like form in the chair enough to cause sores on his hips, but only barely.  It looks as if he might float away.

He remembers little, but smiles often.  And his simple joys are coffee and sweets, pecan pie, banana pudding, chocolate cake  These things, these beautiful, delicious gifts anchor pull him into in reality, and out of the reverie which possesses him for hours at a time as he stares out the window at passing seasons, and passing lives on the highway.

He is not bitter.  Sometimes he sings, and sometimes he laughs.  And she knows the name of his roommate, Jake, but forgets it weekly.  He kisses the hand of his nurse, Kendra, who loves him like a grandfather and sometimes reads the Bible to him, drawing from the well-worn and underlined pages in his copy, which his children brought years ago.  When the verses are read, he closes his bright, tired, grey eyes and leans back in repose, ready for the journey.  But he cannot recall a word that was said; there is no need, for the are well carved into the stone walls of his mind, whether he remembers or not.

Alfred dwells, it seems, betwixt worlds.  His muscles and bones, his frayed and frazzled nerves and short-circuited brain, his assorted plumbing and weary organs all remain in part, but not in youthful whole.  His thoughts so scattered, his memories like abstract art, known only to the painter.

Perhaps, Alfred has already begun the journey.  Maybe across the bar, there is a house where he lies asleep; or the beginnings of him, what will be fully Alfred.  His memories are traveling there like files being stored.  His wisdom and laughter, his busy hands, by which he farmed and worked, making and fixing, fathering and providing, and with which he cared for his dear Ruby before she went ahead.  All of these pieces surely precede him and are being assembled by God’s angels, guided by the King Himself.  Like bits of a great temple crossing the sea to be reassembled; but even better and more solid than before.

A shape is there, a form, a place prepared for him.  All that is strong and good and well is becoming more and more real as he, every day, becomes less and less real in his room, in his chair, in his world where he sweetly greets the strangers that are his own children and grandchildren, and hugs them and kisses them with tears he could not explain, his love deeper than breath even if he does not understand it.

Do not fear for Alfred.  He is, slowly and patiently, becoming more and more than we can possibly believe.  He only appears to be less.  He is, unseen by any of us, transforming before our eyes.

One day, Alfred will depart.  He will leave the broken, failing bits of form behind, an empty shell on a beach, a shed snake-skin, old antlers.  One day Alfred, finally and fully himself, will draw a deep, first, precious breath from air in a place he prayed to go, and open his new eyes on landscapes and visions and joys he could never in his best imagination hope to have.  He will touch his own arms, firm and strong, and new blood flow through vessels that will never narrow.  He will stand and be amazed. He will hear waves crash, or wind in trees, and the music of being truly alive at last.

And if all goes as he dreams (and it is likely his dreams are now visions), he will see God first, and his Ruby second and all the others who make the same trip and longed to see him again.  And then all the journey and trouble, all the wait for finality, all the pain and loss will not only make sense, but be irrelevant to his new, redeemed, perfect life.

Forever.

 

 

My column in the Winter 2017 Gray Matters, Newsletter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman University.

 

THE NEWSLETTER OF THE OSHER LIFELONG LEARNING INSTITUTE @ FURMAN

http://www.furman.edu/sites/OLLI/member-resources/Documents/GMJan2017-PDF_reduced.pdf

PAIN MANAGEMENT AND THE TIE TO ADDICTION – PART 2

Sometimes medicine offers us wonderful, almost unimaginable gifts. Heart attacks that were devastating, life-altering events a few short decades ago are now treated with an expediency and skill that our grandparents couldn’t imagine. A couple days pass, and the victim is home with stents in occluded arteries and directions to modify activity and diet. Pneumonia, once the ‘old person’s
friend’ (so called because it took the aged to eternity), is far less terrifying, thanks to both antibiotics and the pneumonia vaccine.

However, some of the things we do give benefits that are less clear. Although it could be an entire column in itself, the ‘stroke center’ movement, with the promise of miracles from ‘clot-busting drugs’, is a thing full of as many questions as answers. And what about depression and anti-depressants? When I looked up the side-effect profile of an anti-depressant a friend was taking, I was reminded that all of them have the potential side effect of increasing suicidal behavior.

But what about pain management? Thanks to improved understanding of the physiology of pain, the persistence of medical providers, and the investment and research of pharmaceutical companies, we have a wide array of pharmaceuticals available for the treatment of pain. Some are over-the-counter, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. And others, those we refer to as narcotics or opioids (because in previous times they were derived from opium), are useful, potent, and (as is increasingly evident) fraught with danger unless used very cautiously.

Of course, for a very long time, physicians were taught to be judicious in prescribing narcotics. Our venerable teachers warned young doctors in training to be frightened of the side effects. We were especially aware of the very immediate danger that patients would stop breathing and die due to excess sedation. We were also aware that over time, patients on narcotics might develop problems with addiction.

About 20 to 25 years ago, that whole paradigm shifted and physicians were suddenly accused of callous disregard of suffering for prescribing too few narcotics. I remember this because I was in my emergency medicine residency at that time. We were constantly reminded to give more narcotics and be sensitive to pain. We were taught to use the ‘pain scale,’ in which a patient-reported score of zero meant no pain and a score of ten meant ‘the worst pain of your life.’ Never mind that it was entirely subjective and that there was no objective standard, no ‘painometer’ against which to measure it. We were instructed to see pain as the ‘fifth vital sign’ after blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and temperature. Of concern to many, these initiatives coincided with the development and aggressive marketing of ever more powerful, addictive medications like Oxycontin tablets and Fentanyl patches and lozenges.

Patient satisfaction surveys included the question ‘was your pain adequately treated?’ Physicians were castigated when those satisfaction survey scores fell. Physicians were instructed, by non-clinician

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administrators, to give more pain medication to make patients more satisfied. (A satisfied customer/ patient is one that may come back!) Physicians who resisted, in the name of science or safety, were too often met with threats of reduced income or job loss if patient satisfaction scores fell. In some instances, physicians were (and still are) reported to state medical boards for alleged inadequate treatment of pain.

I sincerely believe that most of those encouraging us to write more narcotics prescriptions did so out of genuine concern and compassion. People are in pain, so why not treat the pain? In medicine, where science meets suffering humanity, it’s so easy for us to say, ‘Well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it?’ We assume that our compassion will be supported by our science. It happens with infections; sure it’s probably a head cold, but what’s the harm in an antibiotic to keep the patient happy? The child bumped her head pretty hard, so what’s the problem with a CT scan, even though she looks good? The parents are customers, after all, and want a scan!

With tragic consequences, our compassion sometimes causes harm as the Law of Unintended Consequences rears its ugly head. For instance, those antibiotics for colds? They can cause dangerous allergic reactions and life-changing intestinal infections requiring hospitalization or surgery, and resulting in death. Those CT scans everyone wants? Physicians are trying to reduce the number of scans, as many of us are concerned that they may induce malignant tumors later. And those pain medications? The evidence looks pretty damning.

Addiction to prescription narcotics is growing at a terrifying rate in the U.S. Likewise, death rates from narcotic overdoses have soared. The U.S. has seen 165,000 deaths from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html. In fact, opioid-related deaths have now surpassed deaths from firearms in the United States. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/drug- overdose-deaths-heroin-opioid-prescription-painkillers-more-than-guns/ Admittedly, some of those deaths are not due to prescription opioids but rather to injected heroin. However, many heroin addicts began their addiction issues when taking legitimately prescribed pain medication.

Sadly, seniors are not immune. Physicians don’t want to see seniors suffer, so they often give narcotics even for pain that in decades past would not have been treated with those drugs. We give them for back pain, headache, arthritis, or other less serious conditions. And we use them extensively in treatment of chronic, intractable pain. In fact, in 2015, one-third of Medicare recipients received a prescription for an opioid analgesic; some 40 million prescriptions. https://www.statnews.com/ 2016/06/22/many-opioid-prescriptions-seniors/

Furthermore, seniors not only develop addiction, not only die from accidental overdoses, their narcotic analgesics have a host of side-effects, including (but not limited to) the following: excessive sleep, impaired thinking, increased pain sensitivity, nausea, constipation, and cardiac arrhythmia. In addition, opioid drugs contribute to weakness and loss of balance and thus to falls, resulting in head and spine injury, various fractures, and other trauma. Their already impaired reflexes are dampened by their medication so that for those who still drive, it becomes an even more dangerous activity than before.

No one is immune from this devastating epidemic, not rich nor poor, not young nor old. The medical profession, the mental health community, law-enforcement, social services, churches, families, and friends all have to come together and find ways to roll back the rising tide of death and addiction, which came as an unforeseen outcome of attempting to ease suffering with compassion and science.

This problem will be highlighted this spring at an OLLI bonus event, March 31, 2017: Seniors and Opioids: Unexpected Origins of a Greenville Epidemic. I will be speaking in conjunction with James Campell of the Phoenix Center addiction and rehabilitation facility. We really hope you join us to learn more about this pressing public health crisis.

New Year’s Eve With My Best Friend

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Official link not up yet at the News website, but I’ll post it when I can.

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I remember being an adolescent, ringing in the New Year with my family. My mother a nurse, and my father a pastor, we just weren’t big ‘party people.’ Their mantra (which is now mine) was ‘nothing good happens after midnight!’ (I have plenty of anecdotal doctor stories to back up that assertion, by the way.)
We’d shoot some illegal fireworks off, or fire a gun from the back porch at midnight, and we’d eat some shrimp as the ball dropped in far-off, sparkling, exciting NYC. Then mom and dad usually fell asleep early and I wished for something to do. They were busy folks, and reasonably tired, so New Year’s Eve wasn’t much different from any other night. My wife’s childhood memories were similar, as her parents worked hard and rested when they could. Furthermore, those were the ‘dark ages’ when the Internet wasn’t part of life, and communications to the rest of the kid world were restricted to the house phone and the postal service. (Can you imagine?)
So it was no surprise that Jan and I celebrated a remarkable event on December 31st. For the first time in 22 years, we spent New Year’s Eve together… with nobody else. No kids, no relatives, no friends. Zero.
We aren’t opposed to enjoying the holiday, mind you. Over the years of our dating and marriage we’ve had lots of wonderful New Year’s Eve celebrations, from small affairs with friends to dress-up evenings in crowded restaurants.
We’ve had many parties at our house on the hill, with plenty of food and fireworks, bonfires and chaos. We’ve had church youth group events where dozens of young people played capture the flag in the freezing cold, the night illuminated only by flashlights, after which shivering teens (and leaders) warmed themselves by the fire and passed out on the floor from fatigue.
Most years the attendees were simply bunches of our kids’ friends and our own, along with as many family as possible, whom we promised that the fun and laughter would outweigh the danger of stray bottle rockets, brush fires or jackets set on fire by sparklers.
But this year, all of our ‘children’ from ages 15 through 22 (not so much children now), had things to do, people to see and places to go. Based on our own experience as young people, we could hardly blame them. And rather than try to make them feel guilty, rather than be stuck on some dead-end, potentially toxic nostalgia, we said ‘be careful and have fun! Keep us posted where you are and what you’re doing!’
I had worked all day in the ER and arrived home, where Jan had a yummy meal waiting. I took dinner to our room where we settled in for a very, very uneventful evening. Good Clemson parents, we periodically paid attention to the score of the Clemson-OSU game. Good former homeschool parents and life-long nerds, we watched Tolkien’s Return of the King on TV. We weren’t cold, nobody around us was intoxicated, we didn’t have to drive anywhere and the wait for food was non-existent.
I seem to recall learning that Clemson had won, and the dark forces were pouring out of the gates of Mordor, right as I said, ‘I love you baby! Happy New Year!’ At that point the dark forces of fatigue enveloped me and I was out around 11:30. Jan, with more fortitude than I, stayed awake until after midnight.
Emotions are funny things. And we humans can keep lots of competing emotions in constant tension together. That night, even as we missed our children and thought back on all the beautiful, laughter-filled evenings of the past, we were buoyed up by the deep, underlying love and friendship that we have had since our first date almost 33 years ago. We rang out the old, and rang in the new together, with joy and contentment.
Parents everywhere should try to remember that as wonderful as our kids are, and as delightful it is to spent time with them and others, our marriages are the deep, holy bond that will remain, and see us to the end. We know there will be parties again. But party or not, the best New Year’s Eve, the best day, the best night, the best life, is the one we spend together.
How do the vows go? In sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, at parties or at home with only you? I do. Always.

The Christmas Gift we All Desire

My Christmas column from Christmas Day, 2016

Merry Belated Christmas!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/25/commentary-christmas-gift-we-all-desire/95788966/

The Christmas Gift We All Desire
It’s here at last! What seemed to take forever for children arrives and passes like a shooting star for adults. But joy of joys, it’s Christmas morning! And a special morning since it’s Sunday. Families who attend worship services will, based on personal experience with small children, be up at zero dark thirty, as kids rush to the presents and the chaos begins.
Photos will be staged. (My parents made us stay in the hallway while they prepared the camera…Jan and I have since done the same, forcing children to stay on the stairs while we took our time tormenting them, they like horses headed to the barn for oats.) Families will have systems, as gifts are handed out in a manner devised to avoid wholesale riots.
Food will be prepared; in our home Christmas breakfast is bacon and cinnamon rolls. Cats will be watched carefully to avoid the climbing, and tipping, of trees. Mostly they will busy themselves with wrapping paper,licking and pretending not to be as excited as the kids. The dogs (at least our dogs) will look in through the glass of the door in puzzlement, and wait for partially eaten anything (and any chance at cat food).
Gifts will be opened, as parents and partners hope that they have given joy to those they love with this gift or that. There will be joy and squeals, hugs and kisses. Hours will be spent enjoying new items or searching through wrapping paper for batteries or lost instructions.
Those off to church will have to pry the kids away from their recently obtained treasures, or take some along. Older children will wear new clothes. Parents will fall asleep in chairs, as they were up until the wee hours wrapping, assembling items or simply enjoying the sweet wonder, the special silence of Christmas Eve. That stillness, in a dark house with tree lights, is every drop as precious as the big day itself. Personally I find a much greater connection to the whole nativity story on Christmas Eve, as if I were watching the tale unfold in a starlit lens to antiquity.
And yet. There are those families where the above is as fantastical as Santa and his reindeer. For some, for those in poverty, those with family members separated by prison sentences, those whose homes are the slave-quarters for addiction, Christmas will not look this way. Nor for those with loved ones far away in school, in work, in war. For many the separation from loved ones is the great gulf of death, and even sweet memories are painful reminders of what is no more. Still others find the day hard because of recent illness, injury, surgery, diagnosis of cancer. Our family walked through some of that too. However beautiful the wrapping paper and lights, however delightful the gifts, a pall hangs in the air and the thoughts turn to what was, or what might be, ‘if only.’
But that is, ultimately, the purpose of this day. It is not, it turns out, a day especially made for the joy of the now, nor for pets to get new sweaters, or adolescents to stock up on electronics. The joys and wonders of Christmas, from Santa to gifts, from feasts to surprise visits, are magnificent side-effects of the joy and purpose of the day. The day we remember the one born to set all things right.
The passage that I have come to most associate with Christmas (having lived life a bit) is not found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity. It is found, oddly enough, at the end of the Bible, in Revelations, chapter 21. Dear old St. John reports:
‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”’
That’s Jesus telling us that one day, things will be more grand than we can ever imagine; even better than our best dream of Christmas. He will meet our deepest needs and desires and banish suffering. Forever.
Now that’s a Christmas gift I can’t wait to open. Merry Christmas!

The Questions we Cannot Answer

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My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Questions_We_Can_t_Answer.13.aspx

I remember the early trials of thrombolytics; not for stroke but for MI. During my residency we were still comparing tPA with Streptokinase. It was pretty incredible stuff. Now we’ve moved beyond that positively ‘medieval’ method of treating heart attacks and have advanced to incredible interventions in coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Furthermore, we are able to rescue more and more people from the brink of death with advanced medications and with techniques, like ECMO, that our medical forebears couldn’t even imagine. These days, people can say things like: ‘I had severe sepsis last year, but I recovered,’ or ‘A few years ago I nearly died of Stage 4 cancer, but here I am!’ Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, their families would have told their stories with sadness.

What we do is amazing. The science behind our saves, coupled with our training and passion, make medicine all but miraculous. I am proud of what I know, proud of what I do. I am so impressed with my colleagues. And I am often awestruck by the scientists and engineers, without whom we would be apes poking bodies with sticks (good-looking apes in scrubs, mind you).
If we could, at the end of our lives, look back at the gifts we gave to the sick and injured, we would see that they far outweigh our errors and mistakes, our losses and failures. And yet, for all our modern innovations, we have limits. We can ask and answer a constellation of questions, and we can fix untold numbers of problems. But there are questions that defy us, and problems that leave us shaking our heads.
In spite of our pride in science, and our common dismissal of all that is ‘unscientific,’ suffering remains, and we can’t answer why. Who knows this better than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to emergency care?
For all of our miraculous saves, men and women, boys and girls, still suffer horrible injuries and have cardiac arrests, fatal pulmonary emboli. They still die at the scene of car crashes. They still develop mental illness and kill themselves. Addiction still separates families and leaves parents weeping for children, lost from life or lost in the jungle of drugs and desperate lives.
Despite the extension of life we offer so many, even the healthiest men and women will, at some point, leave one another and pass away from this life. And, knowing this fact does nothing to ease the pain of the loss. The most ancient husband or wife still shudders and weeps with the loss of a spouse the way a newlywed would; perhaps more bitterly, knowing love more deeply at 85 than ever they did at 25. And yet, for all our scientific wonders, we can’t say what lies beyond this life.
What I’m saying is that for all our medical wonders, there are just questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t fix. And it is likely that our science, however wondrous, never will have that capacity.
We know it. It’s why we cry after failed resuscitations, and why we call our children when they travel, frantic to know they have arrived. It’s why every EMS tone terrifies the parents of teens and every scan of a loved one is terrifying to those of us in medicine. We can’t control the troubles of this life nearly as much as we think.
Mankind has always known this. Ancient physicians, as limited as they were, did their best and wanted more. They saw the dangers of this life, and their own incapacity, with what was likely more immediacy than we. And sick, injured humans have always known the fear of loss, the questions of suffering, the pain of death.
Into this ‘vail of tears’ we proceed every shift. This is why I often tell young physicians that they should read and understand more than medicine. I favor religious faith, natural to mankind as it is. But if they decline religion, they must have a philosophy. Or they should read great novels, stories, poetry; or reach into the depth of music for some kind of solace in this mess of the unknown.
But let me say this, now that December is here: Christmas comes to offer hope to the hopeless and answers to the hardest of questions. There are those of us who believe its message with all our broken hearts. But even those who find it a charming myth can surely see beauty in the story of God (however you perceive God to be) become man. God suffering with men and women and rescuing them. God come to give a hope of forever to humans trapped in mortality. This is especially poignant to those whose lives have been a succession of one devastating loss after another. It is comfort beyond medicine for them to believe in a God, come to forgive their wandering ways, answering them in the midst of their cutting, suicidal, self medicating cries for rescue. No pill is as good as God come to make every loss whole, and heal every pain in eternity. No resuscitation comparable to God come to die and defeat death.
The pain of this life is enormous. We try so hard, but we can do only so much. The manger in Bethlehem is, if nothing else, a beautiful story to remind us that just maybe, there is healing for the wounds that lie beyond our science. Perhaps the very dream that there is meaning, that there is hope, is a suggestion that there is more there, more here, than meets the eye.
And maybe, the manger is even more than a distant dream, more than a quaint bedtime story, glowing as it does in the chaotic night of human suffering that darkens our ER’s and trauma centers.
Merry Christmas!

The King is Here. Merry Christmas!

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http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/11/commentary-king-here/95198746/

Whenever I see the opening scene of Lion King, when Simba is presented to all the animals of the plains, I get emotional. Not because his character is a cute, sneezy fuzzball, but because of the reaction of all of the other beasts. As the music rises to climax, and Rafiki the wise mandrill presents the future king to his subjects, the animals do something that seems decidedly ‘non-Disney.’ Certainly it doesn’t appear ‘modern.’ All of the animals on the ground, looking up at the cub, begin to growl, roar, trumpet, jump, shriek, stomp the ground and, in the end, bow down silently in honor of the newborn king of the beasts. It gives me chills every single time. The kingdom is giving honor to the king.
I get the same feeling when I read about Aragorn in Tolkien’s Return of the King. He is the suffering servant, the mysterious wanderer of many names who travels the wilderness for years, growing stronger and wiser, protecting the innocent. He ultimately confronts evil and tyranny on fields of battle before he is crowned. No longer Aragorn, he is King Elessar, the latest in an ancient, nearly lost line of nobility, returned to rightful rule at last. It is an image of joy and hope, as the King ascends the throne and all’s well with the world; or at least Middle Earth. I want Elessar to be my king too.
Just as I always loved tales of Arthur, who may or may not have existed as we have been told, I enjoy stories of the not-at-all mythical Alfred, the only king of England ever to be called ‘The Great.’ He unified smaller kingdoms into one, promoted Christianity, order, justice and education. This despite many troubles, including invading armies and a chronic intestinal illness that left him wracked with pain.
There’s just something about kingship. I know, this is America and we don’t have kings. (Well, not exactly.) But deep in my heart, I want a king. I want a good king, a just king, a holy king. I want a king I can kneel before, serve, live for and if necessary, die for with joy in my heart.
This isn’t about misplaced patriotism, or some rejection of democracy. Monarchs are perilous things. But the king I want deserves to be king. Not only is it his birthright, he has earned the crown through fire and battle. He knows his people and has gained his kingship by love and sacrifice. The king IS the country. He loves the people and wants only the best for them. The king I long for, ache for, not only lives for the country but would die for it and his subjects.
Which brings us, round about, to Christmas. Hidden beneath the camouflage of fat Santas, elves, sentimentality and commerce, Christmas is the Christian celebration of the coming of the King. Not held high, but born low. Sought by poor shepherds and wise men, also searching for a king. Feared by another king, Herod the Great. Condemned by Pilate (not quite a king but close). Born among the people he lived a most ‘unkingly’ life on earth, living his few years as a common man, who was nevertheless most uncommon. He worked, healed, taught and rebuked the great. He told his followers that he came to serve not be served. That was the model for his reign. He announced his Kingdom with a thundering whisper, like no king mankind had seen.
The prophets knew this: ‘…of the increase of His government there will be no end…’ The apostles did too: ‘Then, opening their treasures they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.’ The carol writers understood it. ‘Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn King.’ That word, lord. We use it so flippantly as just another church code-word. But the lord is the one to whom we owe devotion, the one with authority. Our ancestors in less democratic times understood. ‘Thank you Lord. Help me Lord. Have mercy on me Lord. Send me Lord.’
Christianity is far more breathtaking than its detractors, or even many adherents, realize. For it celebrates the coming of the King and his Kingdom. Same king, past, present and future. The King that puts all other kings, counsels, parliaments, presidents and ministers to shame and flight. And gives the word King it’s proper meaning for all time.
If that’s not a reason for a celebration, nothing ever was.

Malpractice Isn’t a Sin

Dear physicians, PAs, NPs, nurses, medics, assorted therapists, techs and all the rest:

The great thing about our work is that we intervene and help people in their difficult, dire situations.  We ease pain, we save lives. Our work is full of meaning and joy.  However, we sometimes make mistakes.  But remember, in the course of a career you’ll do far more good than any harm you may have caused.

I know this issue lingers in many hearts.  I know it because it lies in mine.  And I’ve seen it in other lives.  I said this once to a group of young residents and one young woman burst into tears. I never knew the whole story, but I imagine there was some burden of pain she was carrying for an error she had made.

But just in case you too have lingering anxiety or guilt about some error you made in patient care, I feel it necessary to say this: neither honest errors nor even malpractice are sins.  They are mistakes, born of confusing situations, fatigue, inadequate experience or knowledge, overwhelming situations, the complexity of disease and the human body, social situations, systems problems, general chaos.  Born of your own humanity and frailty.  Your ‘shocking’ inability to be perfect at all times, and in all situations.  They do not make you evil, bad, stupid or even unqualified.  (PS If you’re not actually a physician but pretending to be one, you’re actually unqualified so stop it.)

As a Christian physician I have contemplated this over and over and have come to the conclusion that God knows my inadequacies and loves, and accepts me, regardless.  He has forgiven my sins.  I embrace that reality every day.  He forgives my pride, anger, sloth, greed, lust, all of them.  But he doesn’t have to forgive my honest errors.  Because they are not sins. Go back and read that again.  Your honest errors are not sins.

Mind you, all of the brokenness of this world is, in my theology, the result of ‘Sin’ with a capital S.  (Not in the sense of minute, exacting moral rules, but in the sense of the cosmic separation of the creation from the Creator.)

So, my mistakes, my failures are born of Sin, but are not ‘sins.’  If my mistakes, if the harm I may cause, come from rage, vindictiveness, cruelty, gross negligence, murder, drunkenness or other impairment on the job, then they could reasonably be due to ‘sin.’  But even so, those sins can be forgiven, and washed away with confession and true repentance.  (Not platitudes or superficial admissions of guilt, mind you, but genuine heart felt ‘metanoia,’ the Greek for repentance, which means ‘to change direction, or change one’s mind.’)

If you are not a believer, join us!  But if you aren’t interested, I love you too and want you to move forward, not burdened by unnecessary guilt.  If you are a believer, and a practitioner, remember that Jesus (The Great Physician) set the bar pretty high and doesn’t expect your perfection, only your honest, loving best.

Mistakes, even mistakes that rise to malpractice, are not sins.  But even if they rise to sin for reasons listed above, they are no worse than any other.  Which means Jesus atoned for them as well.

Move forward in joy.  You were forgiven before you even started worrying about it.

Now go see a patient. The waiting room is full of people who need you!

Merry Christmas!

Edwin

 

 

Sports Impairment and My Southern Man-Card

 

This is my column in today’s Herald-Dispatch.  My hometown newspaper in Huntington, WV!

http://www.herald-dispatch.com/opinion/edwin-leap-don-t-worry-you-won-t-lose-your/article_3706dd19-3472-520d-856d-09e3580d3886.html

It’s a terrible confession to make as a Southern male, but here it goes. I don’t care a lick about sports; not leagues, not high school, not college not pro. It feels liberating to say so. I figured I might as well be honest about it, because I’m forever confronting the reality of my sports-impairment in various and sundry ways.
One way my dilemma arises is I’m standing in the check-out line at a store, wearing my WVU t-shirt when another customer asks what I think of the Mountaineer’s chances this year. I usually make some sort of generally non-committal remark about how ‘I sure HOPE they do better this year!’ Which means that at some point in the distant future, if they manage to win a championship, I’ll have to be more careful and say ‘well, if LAST year was any indication this should be a good one!’ I try not to make eye-contact. It’s too uncomfortable.
What I usually want to explain, but never bother, is that I wear the shirt because I grew up and went to school there. And it was awesome and I have wonderful memories (same reason I wear my Marshall shirt). But it’s hard to stop a die-hard sports fan and say, ‘well, the truth is I really didn’t have time for sports because I was studying a great deal, but I’m proud I graduated!’ That makes people go to the next checkout line and shake their heads.
I’ve noticed the same thing at church. I remember finding myself in deacon’s meetings with little to contribute to the discussion at zero dark thirty Sunday morning. As everyone made the rounds of the previous day’s games, it was ‘Ed, Marshall did well yesterday didn’t they!’ ‘Sure did…(I guess).’ I put my head down, ate my biscuits and gravy and (since I live in South Carolina) I just let the orange or garnet wave pass over.


I’m not trying to be a snob, please understand. In my childhood I just wasn’t formally taught anything about athletics. Admittedly, my dad built a basketball court for me in the back yard. All the neighborhood kids and I had a great time there at all hours of the day and evening. But the rules were not exactly formally enforced. It was as much social time as athleticism. I also learned a little about football in the front yard. Specifically, I learned that ‘touch’ can be widely interpreted. I realized that lying on my back gasping for air one day, looking up at the fading blue sky.
I remember once around sixth or seventh grade that I went to the mother of one of my more athletically inclined friends and asked about joining a basketball league. She was kind, in a ‘bless your heart’ sort of way, and said we might be able to cram on the rules but it wasn’t looking good. Age 12 and I was already too old to start. I got the message and moved on without looking back.
Instead I filled my days with walks in the woods, turning over rocks in the creek for crawdads, seining for minnows, riding horses with my grandfather, shooting arrows into bales of straw, carrying my BB gun everywhere, shooting bigger guns whenever the opportunity afforded itself and generally acting like a joyous junior barbarian. Those became my preferred activities, until I discovered martial arts, then girlfriend, in high school.
My wife Jan grew up with brothers playing football. If I don’t understand a game that’s on, I just ask her and she guides me through. Two of my children attend Clemson University, and the other two are also fans, which is great. But they didn’t get it from me. Just recently they were all talking about the season and daughter Elysa said, with surprise, ‘why look at us, talking about sports like a normal family!’
I have great respect for all those devoted to their teams, who can quote stats like chapter and verse of scripture. May your team get all of the touchdowns, field-goals, runs and everything else it needs. But to all those who never got it, who never fell in love with sports, it’s alright. You aren’t alone.
Do your thing. You aren’t less of a Southerner or less of a man. And when the discussion turns to yesterday’s contest, learn to smile, nod and just say this: ‘that was some game!’

Holidays and Holy Days; My Christmas Book

This is a book of columns about Christmas and Easter that I put together with the SC Baptist Courier two years ago.  It’s still available and I think you would enjoy it!

https://www.amazon.com/Holidays-Holy-Days-Grace-Sacred-ebook/dp/B00PBHEF58/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480385263&sr=1-1&keywords=holidays+and+holy+days+edwin+leap

 

Learning to be Careful; The Hard Way.

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One of the terrible things about being a physician who has spent his adult life working in emergency rooms is that you have a certain terrible clarity about the dangers of this life. It’s why we’re forever pestering our loved ones with phone calls and texts: ‘are you there yet!’ Or telling the children, ‘be careful! After midnight there are too many drunks on the road!’ Met, of course, with rolled eyes.

We see, we have seen, a shocking variety of ways in which people shrug off this mortal coil. However, it’s always a bit of an eye-opener when you walk through the valley of the shadow in person. I can think of a few times I did. Once, coming home from a residency interview, my dad and I nearly went full bob-sled under a jack-knifed tractor trailer driving downhill on an icy interstate in Maryland. There was the time I was almost stuck in the middle of a 10 foot wall of flames in the woods on our property. I ran out but only later realized how close I came to being barbecue. There was also the time I was bent over a tree that fell in an ice-storm, cutting it with a chain-saw. I stood up to stretch and another tree fell right where I had been bent. My doctor brain ran the possibilities and none were pleasant. I know what happens to the human body.

Now here I am, 23 years into my practice following residency, and I had another brush with my mortality. First, a little back-story. Like many families with multiple kids in high school and college, we are afflicted with vehicles. One of these cars (and I use the term loosely) is assigned to my high-school senior son, Elijah. For a few months the car (an automatic) would simply drop out of gear and lose all power. Thus it was consigned to the local transmission expert for a six week spa treatment, after which the transmission issues seemed fully resolved. But then it wouldn’t start.

So, one day last week Jan (my wife) and I decided to push it into a better location to try and jump the battery and trouble shoot. It was also in the way of the propane delivery truck, so it had to be moved. We were pushing it backwards, she at the front and I behind the open driver’s side door, pushing and steering simultaneously.

It’s a light car, an Infiniti I-10. Moving it was fairly easy. What became immediately clear was that stopping it was more difficulty. We pushed it across our driveway into the yard, which (we sadly forgot) slopes away at about 15 degrees.

The car picked up speed as objects on inclines are wont to do. But I was still behind the door. And it was headed for the many trees and stumps of our own forest. Jan yelled for me to be careful as I ran backwards. Then I tried (like the 52 year old fool I am) to jump into the seat and put on the brake. ‘Au contraire,’ said the involved force vector, which was hurtling the vehicle ever faster into the kingdom of the squirrels. And in my attempt, I fell to the side of the moving metal death-dealer, in front of the open door which my paramedic brother later described as a ‘scoop blade’ or some other horrible thing.

In a not very manly manner, I yelled. A lot. Perhaps to increase my strength as we do when lifting. Or perhaps because I knew it wasn’t going very well and I was very scared. I had visions of the car rolling over me and realized I had to push away. Finally, after being struck on the left shoulder and knee by the car door, I hit the ground hard and rolled away. As did the car, about 75 feet downhill into the woods, in the process nearly tearing off the driver’s side door, knocking down several trees and ending with a dent in the rear bumper and trunk.

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Many a small animal suffered panic attacks that day, and several trees crossed the rainbow bridge, or whatever it is trees cross when they are killed by hurtling bits of steel powered by stupidity.

Jan came to my side and I stood up, my pride injured, my arm black and blue, my knee tender and swollen. Nothing serious at all. The car? Less so. It had to be pulled out of the woods with a winch and hauled off on a flat-bed truck. In truth, I was ready to be shy of that car. I always had fears that it would lose power on the Interstate as Elijah pulled in front of a larger vehicle, or something like that. I’m ready to be done with it. I just didn’t realize we’d dispose of it by crashing it into the woods.

Christian that I am, I see divine providence all around. Maybe this was God’s way of making me sell the car; or scrap it. Certainly, God’s hand was in my escape from the Infinity that might well have launched me (somewhat ironically) to eternity. I am convinced that my guardian angel pulled me clear then threw his hands up and walked away for a snack break, or the weekend off. ‘Lord, I can’t be responsible when someone does something so ridiculous,’ he (or she) might have told the Father.

Even as I am thankful to God, I am also glad that I work-out, and so I have reasonable strength and agility. Among the many health problems associated with obesity and a sedentary life-style, one that is seldom mentioned, is that since life is dangerous, we must be prepared to rescue ourselves from said dangers as much as possible. As Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s mother said, ‘A fat mongoose is a dead mongoose.’ I’ve always tried to live by that maxim. Except of course for not being a mongoose nor regularly encountering cobras.

I do think the lesson also reminded me to be more wary. I’m a guy who works in an emergency room. Not only do we treat the results of dangerous events, we are around the violent, the ill, needles, chemicals, infections and all sorts of things. I have to be diligent. Furthermore, I drive at all hours of the day and night. I work with power tools, including chain-saws. I handle firearms. I have a (sadly neglected) metal smithy where temperatures reach upwards of 3000 degrees F. I wrestle with my teenage sons. It is possible that God was just saying, ‘look, you’re no Spring chicken. I want you to do a lot more stuff for the Kingdom, so please be careful!’ To which I reply with a heart-felt, ‘You bet Lord, and thanks again!’

I shudder to think of the possible injuries I could have sustained the day the car rolled out of our control. They come to me in flashes of anxiety now and then, as I consider the horrific alignment of physics, anatomy and physiology. Head smashed against tree, hip dislocated, femur snapped like a dry branch, ribs broken, lungs collapsed. But the bottom line is I’m here, I’m fine, and God is good.

And I will try to never accuse any future victim of an accident of being stupid. Because bad things, dangerous and deadly things often start off with the most innocent of motives and accelerate much faster than we can imagine. All too often to terrible conclusions.

So we all need to just pay attention and think before we do, well, almost anything. Life is short. As one of my neurosurgeon friends used to say every time I consulted him, ‘hey, be careful out there, OK?’