A friend of mine is serving with this team. Keep them in your prayers, and consider donating or volunteering.
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
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
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.
Merry Christmas! This is my December column in EM News. The Nativity in the Emergency Department.
I once wrote a story for Christmas in which the nativity happened in an old, beat-up hunting trailer behind a man’s store, somewhere in the South on a cold winter night. From everywhere and all around, rough people and businessmen and politicians found their way to it, situated as it was in a cluttered backyard of a poor but compassionate store owner. Mary and Joseph had a car that broke down, you see, and they were stuck. I doubt if it’s that original. I suspect Hallmark or someone has done this story over and over.
Yet it still resonates; it still bounces around inside my mind. I envision that cold night, and the star, and the people in my neighborhood, camo-wearing hunters and bearded bikers, the guy with the meth lab that blew up (no kidding), the men in the garage across the highway. I suppose it’s because the story fits everywhere.
As you might expect, I have this image of the manger scene set in an ED. I think back over my patients, and it makes perfectly good sense to me. I can’t decide if it’s a busy night or a slow one. But there are Mary and Joseph, maybe homeless. We do see the homeless, don’t we? And certainly the poor. “Doctor, we don’t have any money or anywhere to go. Can we stay here tonight?” We might try social work, but face it, they probably went home already. The poor are always among us.
If it’s a slow night, the nurses are stricken with a kind of magic. They fluff Mary’s pillow, and one of them (who used to do OB) notices the way Mary is breathing and holding her belly. “She’s going to deliver!” (For the purpose of the story, Labor and Delivery is full to capacity.) All of the nurses are hovering, getting ice for Mary and coffee for Joseph, who has not so much as the change to buy one.
If it’s a busy night, everyone is frantic, and when Mary says, “I think the baby is coming!” the staff roll their eyes, as if they needed one more thing between the overdoses and the chest pains, the weaknesses and the demanding daughter in the hallway insisting on endless attention for her aging mother.
But they do the right thing, don’t they? They almost always do. We almost always do. Before you can sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the baby is there. He’s crying because they do that. And Mary nurses him immediately after the nurses clean him off. But the nurses, and the doctor who caught him (fumbling, frightened … he hates delivering babies), all of them are somehow breathless. The hair on their necks and arms rises up, chills run along their spines. It’s not fear; it’s wonder. Inexplicable. Another poor baby. So what? Everyone is crying. Nobody knows why. Mary just takes it all in as Joseph wraps his arms around both of them, still in the same dirty sweater, still disheveled.
Of course, there are no animals. And yet. If it’s slow, the sleeping drunk in the next room wakes and stumbles in to see. Looking down, he cries, too. He understands something so deep he can’t express it. Something he forgot about hope and love and parents and forgiveness. He reaches into his pocket, pushes $100 into Joseph’s hand, and goes to lie down again. He sleeps in lovely dreams.
If it’s busy, things suddenly move slowly. Things happen. The mumbling, confused lady with dementia (whose daughter is so demanding) speaks for a few minutes with utter clarity, and finds her way to the door of the baby’s room. She holds her daughter’s hand and laughs, and recalls the details of her own maternity. The meth addict, tweaking and rocking back and forth, sits on the floor and just watches. He is calm. He does not scratch or scream. He is transfixed by the inexorable wonder he always hoped to find in drugs, and by the possibility that he might be whole again, that he might have his own wife, child, and delight. The man dying of lymphoma, passing the room as he is wheeled up for admission, asks the nurse to stop so he can look, and the child fixes its tiny eyes on him. He still dies, but he does it in peace.
The cardiac patient’s chest pain resolves, and the febrile infant in the hall-bed (the one who looked so sick) begins to laugh, cackling, breathless laughter. His fever is gone. Only the babies can see the angels swooping round, touching, healing, encouraging.
I can imagine all sorts of things. An angry mayor, searching for the child. Or professors and priests and ambassadors looking for him later, giving him gifts.
But all I see now is the dawn. Mary is strong. She has no time to be admitted. Joseph says they have to go. They are loaded with formula and money, with snacks and blankets (and diapers). They are hugged and kissed by strangers, and everyone waves goodbye.
The next shift asks, “What was that all about?”
“Don’t know,” is the answer, “but I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”
And the chaos descends again, tempered by inexpressible hope, washed in love.
My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!
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.
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!
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.
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?’
Now that the presidential election is past, national emergency departments are seeing an increase in election-related health problems. While anxiety, depression and homicidal rage are what one might expect, it turns out, according to emergency physician Dr. Chuck McShortridge, the bigger issues seem to stem from people sitting at computers all day long and linking to political posts on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and assorted other online outlets.
“Just last week we had three patients with massive pulmonary emboli. I asked their spouses about surgery, cancer, fractures, trips overseas, and the common thread was this: ‘No, but he (or she) spent the last six months linking to articles about how Hillary is a crook or Donald is a liar, or something like that.’”
Other physicians have noticed the same. Dr. Maggie McFarris reported another issue: “I keep seeing patients who complain of a constellation of symptoms: blurred vision, sleeplessness, carpal tunnel syndrome and in some cases, acute renal failure. I call it Donald-Clinton Syndrome. They never get off the (expletive deleted) couch. All day long it’s ‘that Hillary is a crook who can’t be trusted’ or ‘he hates women’ and links to dozens of articles a day. They don’t eat, they don’t drink, they don’t exercise, they don’t even have sex.”
One spouse we interviewed in the waiting room of a large ER said, “My wife has lost a lot of weight because she won’t eat! Just the other day I made this great vegetarian dish she loves and all she said was ‘I don’t have time, I just found this incredible piece on Trump at Politico and I have to share it!’ I ate dinner alone. Thank God the election is over say she can finally get the Xanax and IV fluids she needs.”
On a related note, some politically active physicians we met in the course of this article are lobbying to have advocacy counted as CME. Dr. Joseph Mooring, known for his bumper-sticker-laden Subaru, political buttons and frequent presence at online forums, stated: “CME? Who has time for that? I’m trying to save America, and in the process American healthcare! I should totally get credit for the hours I’ve logged trying to save the nation!” American Board of Emergency Medicine representatives said the board might be able to work political advocacy into the new Lifelong education modules.
Practitioners are urged to continue to be diligent in looking for election related illness and injury.
My column from the October edition of Emergency Medicine News
It’s August. I’m looking out the windows of our log house and across the immense variety of green leaves, on oak and birch, mountain laurel and sycamore, magnolia and honeysuckle. It’s a rain forest here. Indeed, after a long dry spell, we’ve had days and days of soaking rain, with breaks in the clouds so that the sun can raise steam from the earth like water coming up in the garden of Eden.
But the greens have hints of yellow. And the clouds are not just summer thunderheads but low, fast, and broken. The dogs are lazier than normal, as their crusted red-clay coats begin to flake off to reveal the fur underneath. Even the cats seem less mobile, if that were possible. The evenings, despite the blast furnace of August, cool more than in July.
All in all, the signs are there for those who watch. I grew up watching the weather, watching leaves flipped before storms, listening to the sound of winter winds, smelling storms on the air. I know Autumn is hiding across the Blue Ridge Mountains, a child peeking over and shaping the weather, teasing us, reminding us that summer will soon go on its own vacation and the wind will chill us and drive down the leaves, their red, orange, and yellow as varied as summer green.
But for all my love of Autumn, for all my desire for cool air and the smell of wood smoke, Autumn hurts me. It is the end of summer and the beginning of fall that takes my children from me and forces them back to school and schedules. It’s difficult enough to leave them for work, more so to know that my schedule and theirs conspire to separate something so vital, so elemental, as the time families spend in communion with one another.
Even as I write, my daughter Elysa, a high school sophomore, is finalizing her summer reading. Her brother Elijah, a high school senior, is spending his last days with his girlfriend Tori, who leaves for the University of South Carolina all too soon. My oldest boys, Sam and Seth, will return to Clemson in a few days, closer and closer to independence. The leaves change, the sky is darker, the children are growing up and moving on, with the imperatives and requirements of their own lives, their own passions, their own needs and desires, their own loves.
As difficult as this can be, I recognize that I did the same, as did my wife Jan. And our parents and theirs. This is the cycle, the natural history of the world. We raise and guard our precious children and launch them forth to do the same. And we hope that the chords that tie us remain intact; that the circle remains unbroken.
Time is Fleeting
What has any of this to do with our work? Our physician lives? The lesson is this: Time is fleeting; life and love are precious. Wives and husbands and children are rare gems in the rolling seasons of life. So waste not, want not, as it were.
The seasons will turn. The clouds race, the school buses arrive, and the graduations loom. In the midst of this, we must never delude ourselves that our money, our directorships, even our retirement accounts will ever be sufficient solace if we look back and feel that we did not use our time wisely with the ones who mattered most of all.
Our work, our patients, our skills all matter to the extent that they help others to live long and well, that they help those parents and children to enjoy the passing years together. Beyond that, they are important but less so than our own people, the ones we are committed to, bound to by vows and rings, by birth and blood, by adoption and choice.
So as the year turns and new opportunities and shifts arise, be honored. But be circumspect. Keep before you the fact that everything changes, but with attention and love, all of our connections can remain intact despite years and geography. If only we value them more than we do our certificates, degrees, incomes and positions.
The clouds will roll and the leaves will fall, my friends, and we might as well watch them pass with joy, not regret.
Copyright © 2016 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.
MonstERs Aren’t so Scary!
It’s Halloween Emergencies
beneath the cloudy skies,
And every beastie that we see
Is worried it might die.
But ghosts and ghouls that terrify
Are actually big chickens,
They moan and wail and loudly cry
and whine to beat the Dickens.
Wolf-man fears the rabies
from his canine inclinations;
he mauled some little ladies
but he wants a vaccination.
Mummy chased an aged docent,
Now he’s out of breath.
Usually he won’t relent
Until his victim’s gruesome death.
Vampires dapper count their losses,
suffering from many things;
garlic, wooden stakes and crosses,
wailing ‘holy water stings!’
A witch’s coven comes in haste
in fear of deadly toxins;
their brew had such an awful taste
like someone put a pox upon ‘em!
Hulking monster Frankenstein
is quite the sobbing wreck;
while terrorizing villagers
the bolts fell off his neck.
And skeletons of every size,
have bones of all sorts broken;
the orthopedist shakes his head
since all the breaks are open!
By morning all have slunk away,
the blood and fur swept up.
The staff can see the light of day
and cling to empty coffee cups.
Doctors, nurses, medics all
and seasoned secretaries
know this happens every fall;
to them the beasts ain’t scary.
Compared with all the normal nights,
the mayhem and the pains,
the wrecks and strokes and hateful fights
that leave the staff all drained,
The monstrous band of Halloween
does not cause much alarm;
It’s mortals and their earthly woes
that suffer all the harm!
It’s an ugly political season. But I still love America! This is my most recent column in the Greenville News. Please share liberally.
Over the Summer I was working in the ER at North Greenville Hospital, doing some temporary work for GHS. I arrived in Traveler’s Rest early one morning to get some breakfast and a drink for work.
As I pulled into a drive-thru, I looked at the nearby gas-station. I was amazed at how busy the place was. And I was suddenly overwhelmed with love for America and her people. It was about 6:45 in the morning, but there were cars and trucks of every variety. I saw utility company trucks and pest-control vans. Those pulling trailers full of lawn-equipment, with mowers and weed-eaters. Electricians, plumbers, contractors, police and EMS workers were getting out of all manner of vehicles. Many essential, difficult jobs were represented, as men and women were headed to work. Motivated by dreams of success, and by love for those they support, they were up with the sun. There were people of every race and ethnicity, many of them working on the same crews, for the same companies, laughing together.
It was going to be a long, hot day, so they were loading up on breakfast, coffee, snacks, water and other drinks. Trucks were being fueled, the staff of the gas station hurrying to keep up. There was an energy there that was quintessentially American. I felt honored to see it.
The wonderful thing is that America and Americans, for all our contentious behavior, remain wonderful. We work and innovate. We strive and create. We educate and parent and look after our loved ones young and old. And despite the reality of bias and discrimination, we are one of the most welcoming nations on earth. We adjust to social changes, we generate and rapidly adapt to technology, and even when it looks bizarre, the average citizen and average politician try to make democracy work.
We are conflicted at times, but usually over means, not ends. We want to help refugees even if we reasonably fear terror. We may worry about immigration but typically enjoy immigrants as our friends and neighbors. We desire to see the poor and their children lifted up. We still, as a nation, want to see justice done. Thus we are equally offended by false imprisonment of the poor and by the way the wealthy and connected sometimes stand apart from the law.
I meet all kinds of Americans in my work. I meet poor, rural Southerners struggling to find jobs, and facing chronic diseases with limited resources. I meet immigrant families trying their best to care for sick children. And even though we live in the South (where popular media loves to paint us as just so hateful), I regularly encounter doting white grandmothers and grandfathers cuddling and adoring their beautiful, mixed-race grandchildren, looking after their sons and daughters-in-law who have different skin colors, and sometimes different languages. I am often amazed at the men and women whose English grammar may not be perfect, but who learn Spanish out of love for a partner; not for a grade in a class or semester abroad.
I see my colleagues care for everyone, with never a thought to treating them poorly because they are gay, lesbian or transgender. I watch as physicians and nurses struggle mightily against the death and suffering of people different from them.
There are churches and pastors, congregations and church groups as well as government and secular organizations (and individuals) who help provide housing for the poor and drive people to work who are battling the nightmare of drug addiction. Those same people adopt children and spend time and money to give food to hungry families.
In America the laborer and the academic are both passionately devoted to fairness and those who never graduated high school are as important to the republic as those with advanced degrees.
Are there exceptions? Obviously. And it doesn’t take many hateful, cruel, manipulative people to cause great damage. ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough,’ said St. Paul.
And yet, the lovely reality is that we remain a great nation, going through a hard time. I don’t know where it will lead. Maybe to darker places, maybe not. But for now in America, the America I see every day that I work, the America that starts the day early and ends it late, working together for common cause, the love outweighs the hatred, the strength outweighs the weakness, every time.
That’s something to celebrate.