Welcome new physicians! Watch where you step…

Today is the day that new resident physicians begin their training all across the United States.  Today, our future family physicians and pediatricians, neurosurgeons and emergency physicians, plastic surgeons and laser tattoo removal specialists (OK, not really a specialty, just a side-line) will begin learning how to be physicians, having completed four years of expensive college and four years of even more expensive medical school.  Anxiety-filled and debt-ridden, they will embark on four to seven (or even more) years of training to make them knowledgeable, technically proficient physicians.

I will occasionally wax poetic and philosophical for their benefit.  But not today.  Today there are practical matters.  Today I want to give them a few pointers, to ease their transition into the maelstrom of post-graduate medical training.

1)  Any flat surface that holds still, is free of gross body fluids and not used as a walk-way or cook-top will serve for a quick nap.  Practice sleeping in odd positions:  sitting upright, reclining at various angles, lying sideways or with your head cradled in your hands.

2)  In my day (always wanted to say that!) we filled our fresh, white lab-coat pockets with review books, algorithms, reference manuals, scissors and calculators.  And candy bars.  You, doubtless, have a smart-phone of some incarnation, which contains all that we had, as well as the Web.  Which means, where we had to play video games in the lounge and find answers in giant, antiquated things called attending physicians and books, you can look up fun facts on hyponatremia and instantly play Angry Birds, whether you’re on rounds, in the cafeteria or hiding in the call-room, pretending you didn’t hear ‘code blue.’

3)  Eventually, you may decide the lab-coat isn’t worth it.  Don’t be surprised.  Your kids will eventually wear it for Halloween.

4)  If you keep the lab coat, what with the extra space in your pockets, carry extra candy bars.  Or protein bars, or whatever it is you crazy kids snack on these days.

5)  Watch where you step.  Trauma patients and cardiac arrests are exciting!    But there’s almost always some body fluid on the floor when the shouting is over.  Try not to get too covered in blood early in your call night.  It’s sticky and gross.

6)  You know so much.  You don’t know anything.  Keep those two ideas in constant tension.  Odds are, your command of modern evidence-based medical research is extremely impressive.  Eighteen years after residency, I can still leave you in the dust when it comes to making decisions and knowing who is sick and who isn’t.

7)  See above.  Learn, as quickly as you can, who is sick and who isn’t.  Hopefully medical school helped; but don’t count on it.  If you know this simple thing, you will know when to go for help, when to panic (or not) and what to tell your upper level residents and attending physicians on rounds.  And you will become that greatest of commodities:  useful.

8)  Look professional, develop your own style.  Be comfortable.  My friend Sherri used to wear pearls on call, with her green scrubs.  They always made her appear elegant, no matter how much pediatric vomit had been hurled her direction.

9)  Patients can be frightening.  But remember what they told you at camp, about bears, raccoons and snakes.   ‘Don’t worry, they’re just as afraid of you.’  This is kind of true.  Except patients really aren’t afraid to ask for pain medicine or call attorneys, whereas you are afraid to do anything since you can’t believe you know anything yet.

10)  You may be more frightened of physicians than patients.  But remember, the people assigned to train you are smart, capable and experienced.  And they put their tentacles in their pants just like everyone else.  Ask them questions, listen and watch.  And remember what I said above:  be useful.  My surgery resident was fond of saying, ‘Help me, don’t hurt me!’

11)  You will soon have a thing called a paycheck.  It will have a stub that shows how much the government is taking from you.  Do not be surprised.  This happens to everyone.  It’s just that you owe a lot more money than most people.   Cheer up!  Everyone expects you to be rich someday, so they can complain about the fact that your rich.  (Whether you will be or not remains to be seen.)  Remember that no matter how little or much you make, never tell a contractor or car-dealer you’re a physician.  Tell them you work in customer satisfaction, or something nebulous like that.

12)  Crazy people, even really crazy people, are sometimes terribly ill.  Pay attention.

13)  Ill people, really ill people, are sometimes very crazy.  Pay attention.

14)  Medicine is inexact.  I promise you will make mistakes. Don’t live in fear, and don’t let error define you.  No one in medicine, or law, is capable of perfection.  Except for being perfectly insufferable, of course.

15)  If you poke things that look like they are filled with blood or pus, they will explode into your face; if you tend to hold your mouth open when you focus, well you know what will happen.

16)  Scalpels really are sharp.  Pneumonia and HIV and TB and Hepatitis really are communicable.  Psychotic patients really will try to choke you.  Medicine is dangerous.  Be careful out there!

17)  Human beings are really frail, vulnerable and hurting.  Be gentle and kind whenever possible.

18)  Have fun!  Don’t think of it as residency, think of it as a chance to spend most of your waking and many of your sleeping hours in a huge, cold-building where people are dying!

19)  Everyone is proud of you.

20)  Pay attention to what the nurses say.  They aren’t always right.  But for quite a while, they’ll be right more than you are.

21)  Only three to seven years to go!  Hang in there.  Remember, it’s no different from Boot Camp.  It just lasts much, much longer.

Good Fathers are the Ultimate Safety Net.

This is my latest column in the Greenville News, published Father’s Day. Dads, we’re relevant at every point in our lives as fathers!  And even beyond…

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/06/16/good-fathers-ultimate-safety-net/381733001/

This Father’s Day is a good time to remember that we fathers sometimes drive you kids crazy. We hover. We give unsolicited advice and undesired help. We say things like, ‘nothing good happens after midnight,’ or ‘please be careful out there!’ We view your love interests with suspicion, even if we greet them kindly.
Sometimes, we load your car with stuff you don’t want. A box of tools we think you might need or food you used to love (even if you don’t anymore). We keep your things for the sake of nostalgia, long after you have forgotten them.
We try to intervene when you’re in trouble; by calling your teacher or posting your bail. We would stand in front of you if you were being attacked by a bear or insulted by a stranger.
We are hard-wired to teach and protect you. We want you to succeed and be independent. But this desire lives in dynamic tension with our deep, aching hope that you will still need us all your lives.
For all of this and more, you should love and honor your father today. He has worried about you, hoped or prayed for you and provided for you for years. The slightest hug and kiss, the minimal ‘thank you’ note, the kind word of genuine appreciation, these are our paternal treasures.
But dear fathers, let me now reassure you that you are always relevant to your young. This is obvious when they are small, and bring you cards scribbled in crayon, clamber onto your lap for comfort in a storm, or hug you to ‘pop your head off.’ When they cling to your hand in crowds, ask you to read puzzle books for hours, or say ‘I love you big more.’
Over time it’s harder to know. The children become busy shedding their old selves, and some of their old emotional displays, so that leaving is easier. But you are always in their hearts.
You see, brothers, even when the toys are packed away, the videos taken, the photos saved, the tassels moved, the rings exchanged, the cars packed for leaving, the apartments and colleges and careers and deployments accomplished, you fathers, all of us fathers, still have things to do.
We can model love by showing them that our love for them is not contingent on their presence, their gifts, their cards; even their acknowledgment. This is love, that persists and simmers even when it is ignored, and is ever ready to rise up like a hot fire in times of need.
We can stay with their mothers. We can show them that marriage is about raising children, but also more than that. That the love that made them is the love that remains. That as long as we live, we are a unit; mom and dad, deeply in love with one another and with our progeny.
We can show them the power of purpose. That whether in work or retirement, life has meaning and joy, especially in service. That age need not be empty or dull. We can work, and volunteer, and give ourselves for the good of others so that they learn the lesson by watching, and one day emulate us.
We can give them, in our words and actions, the powers of a personal faith so that they can deal with loss, struggle, mistakes and suffering long after we exit stage left. And so they know that in a great, wide universe that there is meaning, forgiveness and redemption.
Finally, as regards our inevitable exits, we can show our children what it means to grow weak, and sick, and then to die, with grace and honor. This is the last lesson we can model for them, but one of the most vital. We can teach them, if we believe it, that there is reason for hope beyond this life, and reason to live this life well to the end. Others, who do not believe, can teach them that to look back on the good of their lives, and to know that their love and memory will live on in the lives of others they have touched.
In so doing, we not only teach them, we protect them from terror and despair when life’s final darkness passes over.
Children, love the old man and remind him of his importance. But dear old men, dear fathers, never for a second think that you no longer matter. You matter to the end and beyond.

Pandora’s Pill Bottle. (A poem about the narcotic epidemic)

Pandora’s Pill Bottle

‘Patients who suffer from painful conditions
Should always be treated by caring physicians,
Who never forget to give good medications
For problems from fractures to awful menstruation.’

‘The fifth vital sign is your bright guiding light
The pain scale will lead you to do what is right,
So doctor remember to show some compassion
Since giving narcotics is now quite the fashion!’

Thus we were told for a decade or two
As patients stopped breathing and turned rather blue.
But hospitals loved their new high survey scores
And doctors were turned into pill-writing whores.

Yet things are now changing across the whole nation.
There’s blame all around and new drug regulations.
‘What were you thinking? What were you doing?’
‘How could this happen? Someone will start suing!’

In ER’s and clinics and every location
We docs shake our heads with increasing frustration.
We did what they told us despite all our fears
And Pandora’s Pill Bottle spilled out for years.

The pain scale betrayed us and caused too much trouble
The fifth vital sign is a big popping bubble.
The statistics we’re reading have left us quite nauseous.
So we’re trying new things to save lives and be cautious.

Dear doctors it’s you that must make these decisions!
Push back against administrative derision!
And when those ‘above us’ make policy errors
Stand in for the truth to prevent further terrors.

Introducing Social Orbit

This is a post by the good folks at Social Orbit, an excellent new social media application. Which, by the way, has been giving away signed copies of my book ‘Life in Emergistan.’  I encourage you to check it out and sign up. There’s a banner add over to the side that will take you directly to their site to learn more.

Medicine is changing.  A lot of the comradery and connection with our physician peers has been eroded because physicians are all so busy worrying about CPOE, EMR, TJC, metrics, billing, pop-up alerts, patient satisfaction surveys…the list goes on and on.  Orbit was founded to create a community where doctors can connect with each other and reconnect with what they love about medicine.  Greg Hadden, MD FACEP (co-founder of Orbit) notes, “There is an overwhelming feeling in medicine that the physician is turning in to just another cog in the medical machine.  The providers are the heart of medicine and the center of healthcare delivery. While every other company and organization is focused on trying to make medicine more efficient, they are forgetting the individuals in healthcare that actually make it all work.” Orbit wants to focus there.

 Orbit is a unique product unlike anything else out there.  By putting together a resource that has things that doctors value and by creating a fun environment of collaboration, Orbit hopes to provide something that doctors want to contribute to and engage in. The ultimate goal is to see all physicians sharing, collaborating, and supporting each other.  The app also wants to be a one-stop-shop for doctors. Orbit can keep them up-to-date with breaking medical news, help them plan their CME travel, help explore job opportunities, do HIPAA compliant chat, and learn…all while winning some really awesome prizes that focus on helping them recharge their emotional batteries.

 The future of Orbit is bright and the developers have a lot of grand plans for the app!  “In order to get there, we need doctors to give us a shot.”  More Orbiters means a bigger community, more collaboration, more sponsorship, bigger prizes, more frequent prizes, etc.  There is incredible potential with this and the developers have a lot of fun stuff they are constantly working on adding and integrating.  In addition, Orbit has big plans for expansion into other specialties in 2017 with the ultimate goal of developing additional platforms for APPs, RNs, EMS, and international healthcare providers. However, it’s important to the developers that the rollout is measured and strategic.  Says Hadden; “We need to be confident that when we get to that stage we are still able to serve our members by protecting the integrity and privacy of the group. US-based physicians are the only group that our app currently is able to verify and validate.  We want to ensure that we are not letting in attorneys, MBA/MHA hospital administrators, recruiters, etc.  Also, I think there are a lot of physicians that want to connect in a physician-only platform.  As we build out the app, our users will be able to customize the content they see and with whom they interact.  As an example, as we progress to include APPs, if a doctor wanted to participate in a physician/APP community then they would be able to do so.  On the flip side, if an APP only wanted to connect with other APPs, then they could customize their account to exclude physicians as well.”

 ACEP16 marked Orbit’s emergence out of beta testing and its introduction to a larger audience.  The Orbit booth at ACEP16 was packed the majority of the time with most of those people coming up to find out what the tagline, “Seriously Fun Medicine”, was all about.  Hadden explains, “In Orbit, medicine is a serious business…but it can also be fun!

 

www.socialorbit.com

Apple Store link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/orbit-medicine/id1120695349?mt=8

Back Pain, a Prisoner and a Lenten Reminder of Mercy

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She was large, and heavily tattooed.  She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain.  Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality.  Her family, husband and children, a victim of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.

They can’t have narcotics in jail, and in fact, narcotics don’t have much role in back pain, we’re finding.  But in jail, she lay on a thin mattress on a concrete pad.  Getting up and lying down were, she said, agonizing.

Was she lying?  Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible.  The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years.  This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain?  It’s tough doc.’

It’s tough for sure.  Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only  in her 30s.  Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.

Ultimately, after two visits, she seemed worse.  She seemed to have difficulty standing.  Her sobs continued.  Her officer and I sympathetic but worried about being tricked.  She was given pain meds and transferred for an MRI.  Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a hematoma, maybe an abscess.  Who knew?

Here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were.  The compassionate will be cheated, fooled, and lied to.  This is life in the ER. This is life on earth.  The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.

But we have the last laugh.  Because the right thing is just that.  The right thing.  And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season.  To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.

I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me, even if she gamed me, it’s OK.   I’m not offended.  She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken.  She was a prisoner. And here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners.  And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned.  Isaiah 61: 1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,a
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of his ministry.  Luke 4: 16-21.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this passage is healing and liberty.  And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’  Jesus wants to offer this to all.

This Lenten season, can I do any less?  I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption?  God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.

And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.

Edwin

The Women and Men who Love Emergency Physicians

This is my February 2017 column in Emergency Medicine News. Now, doctor, go hug your  husband or wife.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2017/02000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Women_and_Men_Who_Love_EPs.20.aspx

When I go to work I take a lot of things with me. Everyone has their ritual, right? I take my backpack with my computer inside. I take my phone. I take charging cords, the true modern life-line. I take lunch. I carry a pen, flashlight and pocket-knife.
On a more abstract level, I take the wonderful education I received as a medical student and resident, coupled with my years of experience as a physician. I take my drug-store +2 diopter glasses, not only to read and suture but equally important, to look venerable and wise.
But I take something else. It’s certainly as important as all of the other stuff, if not more so in the long run. I take the love and support, encouragement and care of my wife Jan. Now mind you, this is not some hyper-sentimental claptrap. A spouse, for better or worse, is part and parcel, warp and woof of our lives. And in the best of circumstances (which I enjoy), my dear bride gives me encouragement, laughter, stability, passion and the not-so-rare kick in behind when I’m lazy, whiny or grumpy. (As I am so often wont to be.)
She reminds me of my priorities, reassuring me that I matter to her and the children however I may feel. She reminds me that feelings are often terrible lies. (A lesson we would all do well to remember.) In times past she has guided me through career changes because she could sense my unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is because she loves me and knows what I need; often better than I do. In short, she is my most dedicated advocate.
While I work in the ED, she works hard to manage the children (rather, the teens who require more diligence than mere children.) She looks after the family finances, a thing which is useful in keeping me out of prison for delinquent taxes and in keeping the banker away from the door so that we keep our home.
And in order to keep me moving forward through busy, difficult runs of shifts, she ensures that I have things to look forward to with family when she does our ‘master schedule.’ Even though two of our children are in college, she tries to arrange family events around my days off so that I don’t feel left out. In addition, so that I can enjoy our life together for a long time to come, she takes me to the gym. She sometimes makes me plank. I hate to plank but I do it.
This might sound, to the modern ear, as if my wife is living out some sort of domestic indentured servitude. It is not. It is teamwork. It is unity. It is covenant. We are one. We have common cause in our marriage and offspring.
The result of her remarkable effort is that when I go to work, I can focus on my job. I can carry the love and care I feel at home into the exam room, into the resuscitation room. I am secure and happy. This makes me a far more effective, calm, satisfied physician than I would otherwise be.
Thus, I make the money that we share equally as partners. Not only in our personal corporation but in our lives. I don’t get paid for me; I get paid for us and for ‘clan Leap’ as a whole.
When I come home from work, I come home to smiles, hugs and a welcome-home kiss. I come home to laughter and dinner, or date-night. To stories of her day, and the many other lives she touches, in our family and beyond it.
Sometimes I come home to strategic family planning sessions. Occasionally I come home to a tired or angry or sad wife and it’s my turn to be the one in the supporting role. My turn to fuss at teenagers or call about car insurance claims. My turn to shoo her to bed early and manage things. My turn, on days off, to send her for sanity breaks.
Those of us who are married, or in long-term committed relationships (which we in the South call a common-law marriage) must admit that without our wives or husbands, this whole gig would be much harder, and much more lonely than it is with our dear ones. Furthermore, that the patients we care for are touched and loved on, vicariously, by those who love us. Their role is not subordinate but intrinsic.
Through me, through our marriage bond, every sick child in my care has my wife’s eyes looking down on it gently. Every struggling nursing home patient has some of her kindness. Every difficult, irritable complainer has her patience and every smart-aleck teenager (or grouchy consultant) has her raised eyebrows and crossed arms gazing firmly on their behavior.
All of us owe so much of our professional lives to the women and men brave and loving enough to stay with us through all of our stupid, arrogant, surly behaviors. And to those men and women, let me just say: you are as much a part of our practices as we are. Thank you for being the other half, the silent partner, standing invisibly by us as we do the hard work of medicine.
We couldn’t do it half so well without you.

Life and Limb: the Rural ER

Welcome, readers, to my new column in the Daily Yonder!  It will concern rural emergency medicine and things I see through that particular lens.  Have a great day and feel free to share liberally!  I’m honored by the Daily Yonder to be included on their team, dedicated to all things rural.

Life & Limb: In Rural E.R., Exams Include the Obvious Questions, Like ‘Did You Get a Turkey?’

Once Upon a Time in Medicine

Gather round kids! Let Grandpa Doctor Leap tell you a few things about the old days of doctoring in the emergency room…

Back in the good old days, medicine was what we liked to call ‘fun.’  Not because it was fun to see people get sick or hurt or die, but because we were supposed to do our best and people didn’t wring their hands all the time about rules and lawyers.  Sometimes, old Grandpa Leap and his friends felt like cowboys, trying new things in the ER whether we had done them before or not.  Yessiree, it was a time.  We didn’t live by a long list of letters and rules; we knew what was important. And we were trusted to use our time well, without being tracked like Caribou through electronic badges.  Those were the salad days…

When I was a young pup of a doctor, we took notes with pen and paper and wrote orders on the same. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t always fast. But it didn’t enslave us to the clip-board.  We didn’t log-into the clip-board or spend twenty minutes trying to figure out how to write discharge instructions and a prescription. We basically learned in grade-school.  EMR has brought great things in information capture and storage, but it isn’t the same, or necessarily as safe, as the way humans conveyed information for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

Back then, kids, the hospital was a family!  Oh yes, and we took care of one another. A nurse would come to a doctor and say, ‘I fell down the other day and my ankle is killing me! Can you check it out?’  And the doctor would call the X-ray tech, and an X-ray would get done and reviewed and the doctor might put a splint on it or something, and no money changed hands.

In those days, a doctor would say to the nurse, ‘I feel terrible, I think I have a stomach bug!’  And she’d say, ‘let me get you something for that,’ and she’d go to a drawer and pull out some medicine (it wasn’t under lock and key) and say ‘why don’t you go lie down?  The patients can take a break for a few minutes.’ And she’d cover you for 30 minutes until you felt better.

We physicians?  There was a great thing called ‘professional courtesy,’ whereby we helped one another out, often for free. Nowadays, of course, everybody would get fired for that sort of thing because the people who run the show didn’t make any money on the transaction.  And when you have a lot of presidents, vice-presidents, chief this and chief thats, it gets expensive!

When medicine was fun, a nurse would go ahead and numb that wound for you at night, policy or not; and put in an order while you were busy without saying, ‘I can’t do anything until you say it’s OK or I’ll lose my license.  Do you mind if I give some Tylenol and put on an ACE?  Can you put the order in first?  And go ahead and order an IV so I won’t be accused of practicing medicine?’ Yep, we were a team.

There was a time, children, when doctors knew their patients and didn’t need $10,000 in lab work to admit them.  ‘Oh, he has chest pain all the time and he’s had a full work-up.  Send him home and I’ll see him tomorrow,’ they might say.  And it was glorious to know that.  Or I might ask, ‘hey friend, I’m really overwhelmed, can you just come and see this guy and take care of him?  He has to be admitted!’  And because they thought medicine was fun too, they came and did it.

In those sweet days of clear air and high hopes, you could look up your own labs on the computer and not be fired for violating your own privacy.  (Yes, it can happen.) You could talk to the ER doc across town about that patient seeking drugs and they would say, ‘yep, he’s here all the time.  I wouldn’t give him anything,’ and it wasn’t a HIPAA violation; it was good sense.

Once upon a time we laughed, and we worked hard. Back then, we put up holiday decorations and they weren’t considered fire hazards.  We kept food and drink at our desks and nobody said it was somehow a violation of some ridiculous joint commission rule.  Because it was often too busy to get a break, we sustained ourselves at the place we worked with snacks and endless caffeine, heedless of the apparent danger that diseases might contaminate our food; we had already been breathing diseases all day long, and wearing them on our clothes.  Thus, well fed and profoundly immune, we pressed on.

In those golden days of medicine, sick people got admitted whether or not they met particular ‘criteria,’ because we had the feeling there was something wrong.  We believed one another.  Treatment decisions didn’t trump our gut instincts.  And ‘social admissions’ were not that unusual. The 95-year-old lady who fell but didn’t have a broken bone and didn’t have family and was hurting too much to go home?  We all knew we had to keep here for a day or two and it was just the lay of the land.

I remember the time when we could see a patient in the ER and, because my partners and I were owners of our group, we could discount their bill, in part or entirely.  We would fill out a little orange slip and write the amount of the discount.  Then, of course, the insurers insisted on the same discount.  And then nobody got a discount because the hospital was in charge and everyone got a huge bill, without consideration of their situation.  The situation we knew, since we lived in their town.

Back when, drug reps left a magical thing called ‘samples.’  Do you remember them, young Jedi?  Maybe not.  Young doctors have been taught that drug companies, drug reps and all the rest are Satan’s minions, and any association with them should be cause for excommunication from the company of good doctors.  But when we had samples, poor people could get free antibiotics, or antihypertensives, or all kinds of things, to get them through in the short run.  And we got nice lunches now and then, too, and could flirt with the nice reps!  Until academia decided that it was fatal to our decision-making to take a sandwich or a pen.  Of course, big corporations and big government agencies can still do this sort of thing with political donations to representatives. But rules are for little people.

When the world was young, there was the drunk tank.  And although mistakes were made, nobody pretended that the 19-year-old who chose a) go to the ER over b) go to jail, really needed to be treated.  We understood the disruptive nature of dangerous intoxicated people. Now we have to scale their pain and pretend to take them seriously as they pretend to listen to our admonitions.  They are, after all, customers.  Right?

These days, we are perhaps more divided than ever.  Sure, back in Grandpa Doctor Leap’s time, we were divided by specialty and by practice location; a bit.  But now there’s a line between inpatient doctors and outpatient doctors, between academics and those who work in the community, between women and men, minorities and majorities (?), urban and rural, foreign and native-born and every other demographic.  As in politics, these divisions hurt medicine and make us into so many tiny tribes at work against one another.

And finally, before Grandpa has to take his evening rest, he remembers when hospitals valued groups of doctors; especially those who had been in the same community, and same hospital, for decades.  They were invested in the community and trusted by their patients and were valuable.  Now?  A better bid on a contract and any doctor is as good as any other. Make more money for the hospital?  In you go and out goes the ‘old guys,’ who were committed to their jobs for ages.

Of course, little children, everything changes.  And often for the good. We’re more careful about mistakes, and we don’t kick people to the curb who can’t pay. We don’t broadcast their information on the Internet carelessly.  We have good tools to help us make good decisions. But progress isn’t all positive.  And I just wanted to leave a little record for you of how it was, and how it could be again if we could pull together and push back against stupid rules and small-minded people.

Now, Grandpa will go to bed.  And if you other oldies out there have some thoughts on this, please send them my way!  I’d love to hear what you think we’ve lost as the times have changed in medicine.

Love,

Grandpa Doctor Leap

 

 

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!

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