Specialties & Topics
- Arthritis/Rheumatic Disease
- Breast Cancer
- GERD/Peptic Ulcers
September 25th, 2015
Do doctors work too much? Residents would probably say “Yes! I’m burnt out,” and supplement it with some form of “I’d much rather work less.” Outside of residency, the answer may be a mix of yes, no, and maybe.
Recently, Lancet published a meta-analysis on work hours and its effect on incident coronary disease and stroke. The study showed that those who worked more than 55 hours weekly on average had an increased relative risk of 33% for stroke and 13% for coronary disease. Stroke risk increased linearly as average work hours rose. NEJM Journal Watch’s Dr. Bruce Soloway reviewed this article; his comment is below:
“Mechanisms for an association between long working hours and incident CHD and stroke are unknown but might include prolonged or repetitive stress, physical inactivity, and excess alcohol consumption. Average working hours vary widely among developed countries and represent modifiable social decisions. Social policies encouraging or requiring people to work longer hours could have substantial health implications.”
These results must sit in the consciousness of nearly all residents, regardless of specialty, as our average work hours usually are greater than 50 and often average greater than 60 or 70 hours on a busy inpatient month. At our residency program, we realize a personal work/life balance is key, given our rigorous clinical demands. Wellness initiatives at Emory this year include more happy hours, a research mentorship program, Fitbit competitions, and food at conferences. Even as residents graduate, attending/fellowship life does not get any less stressful, although work hours usually are fewer. But how do we prevent burn out? After all, we are a primarily service-oriented occupation that often requires selfless sacrifice in the name of greater good for patients’ well-being.
One solution might be a Stanford ER program that relies on the concept of ‘time-banking’ to save physicians from burning out (Washington Post article). This $250,000 2-year pilot rewarded ER attendings who spent extra time at work mentoring residents, covering shifts for colleagues, or spending time on committees. The extra ‘banked’ time resulted in benefits such as grant-writing help, dry cleaning pick-up, or even food deliveries to home. The result was astonishing, as most physicians improved their work-life balance and job satisfaction and, importantly, wrote more grant proposals (22 were submitted, with an above average 40% success rate for a whopping $10 million in support). The latter alone is a compelling reason to fund these types of time-bank pilots elsewhere, as they can very quickly pay for themselves. A second reason is that the culture within this emergency department became more collegial and friendly — many attendings volunteered to cover coworkers’ shifts as they realized their service would not go unappreciated because of the time-bank system.
This innovative method to avoid burn-out and improve work-life balance may be a way to address the stress that can contribute to excess strokes, especially because work hours will not go below 55 anytime soon for residents or attendings. Physician-wellness curriculums are also key to teach physicians how to cope with stress or manage their time effectively. My own personal tip to is to not lose whatever defines you as you go through medical training — for me this included playing basketball or Frisbee, talking to loved ones, and attending church whenever possible.
I would love to hear any other social-wellness initiatives that were successful for you personally or within your residency!
September 16th, 2015
With the start of the residency year comes a new batch of excited residents who will have many of the same successes and failures as those who tread the path before them. They will quickly fall into cliché niches within the residency class: the gunner, the humanitarian, the slacker, the superstar, the researcher.
Their medically immature hands will explore their new environments the way my 2-year-old discovers that things that are hot will burn her and that sand is icky but shapeable and that every action has consequences. The new interns will learn that what comes out of their mouths can be the shovel that buries them with the scrubs of residency or the rocket that elevates them into the ranks of legendary residents before them. A few will reveal themselves as superstars, and a few unfortunates will come out on the dreaded bottom. The reality is that most residents are average, and average doctors are great!
So what are 8 (semi-serious) categories of residents that you do not want to become? If you are labeled as one of the following, your residency experience will be a bit rougher than it needs to be. And, then, 7 things that will help you be above average!
- Lazy/Apathetic: This is the category of death for an Internal Medicine intern. If you gain the reputation as the doc who does everything he or she can do to NOT do anything, you will have a hard time. Word travels through residency programs like poison gas. You may not know it is around but, by the time you realize you have been exposed, it’s too late to recover from the fumes. NEVER be the lazy one.
- Debbie Downer: Every resident complains. You should; it is natural to complain about the absurd torture that is residency: sleepless nights, stressful days, and immeasurable workloads, mixed in with the gumbo of constantly coming face to face with mortality and suffering. In fact, it would probably be strange if you did not commiserate with your colleagues after a long day of work. Debbie Downer, however, takes it to another level. Nobody wants to work with someone who never has anything positive to say. At the first chance for a break in the hectic day on the wards, the last thing a team of residents want to hear is one of their own constantly reminding them how bad they have it. You have to bite your tongue once in a while and try to find a silver lining, even if that silver lining is simply being able to go home at the end of the day.
- Always Late Guy/Gal: This is self-explanatory. If you want to get extra negative marks, walk in 10 to 15 minutes late with a cup of coffee, a perfectly crisp white coat, a big awkward smile on your unpunctual face, and muffin crumbs in your beard. Everybody wants to get home to their family, food, and bed… Don’t mess with that.
- Arrogantly Ignorant: In traditional Islamic scholarship there is this concept of simple vs. compounded ignorance. A teacher’s goal is to move people from compounded ignorance to simple ignorance and with that achievement, the teacher can claim that he or she did his or her job. The major ingredient that differentiates failure from success is the presence or absence of a dose of humility. Examples of each:
- Simple Ignorance — this is OK!
- Question: What is behind that wall?
- Answer: I do not know.
- This is a completely acceptable answer. In fact, we know you do not know! That is why you are here, to learn. Take it a step further and follow that up with, “I will go look it up,” and all of a sudden you look like a go-getter superstar!
- Compounded Ignorance — NOT OK!
- Question: What is behind that wall?
- Answer: There is a lion behind that wall… ?!?!
- The problem is this: You do not know what is actually behind the wall, because you do not yet have the tools to see over or behind it. You have confidently (and likely overconfidently) answered a question about which you had no clue. This is frustrating for team members and, more importantly, dangerous for your patients.
- Simple Ignorance — this is OK!
- Missing the Forest for the Trees: BUN went from 11 to 12, MCHC is at the lower limit of normal, and the patient’s left toe nail is a little green… The problem? The patient is hypotensive and crashing, and you have wasted 10 minutes telling me that he has a pet dog with a family history of anxiety, and you forgot to mention the meningeal signs you elicited on exam. Sometimes you have to take a step back, take a deep breath and reassess. Asking your seniors will also help big time.
- Jaded on the First Day of Residency: You have no reason to be jaded on your first day of residency. If, by the end of your first week, you come into work with beard stubble, a stained white coat, a litany of derogatory things to say about ‘all of the drug-addicted low-lifes’ for whom you provided care, and you sigh every time you get an admission, you may need to check yourself. You should be coming up with wide differentials with zebras at the bottom and not just be assuming that your poor patient is ‘just another drug-seeker.’
- The Rambler: Say what needs to be said and nothing more. Present objective facts and not how you feel about every ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ finding. You are an intern, and your job is to collect and disseminate information while learning during the process. One of the most painful things to see is a resident who does not know when to say nothing… Do less talking and more nodding and listening, and you will be golden.
- Improper Hygiene: How expensive your clothes are does not matter… whether they are clean and ironed does matter. I am a proud member of the Marshall’s and Kmart clubs, and they have worked out just fine for me. Hygiene includes smelling ‘neutral.’ No heavy cologne or Axe spray required… you are getting very up close and personal with many people, and their nostrils will appreciate not smelling you (good or bad).
So far, I have given you insight on what to avoid. Here are some things you can do to rise to the top and survive that first year of residency:
- Come to work on time, and be grateful for the opportunity to treat people and to make a phenomenal living while doing so.
- Keep your head down, and get the work assigned to you done before you go home. You would be surprised how just doing exactly what you are instructed to do in the expected time translates into people knowing that you are ‘one of the good ones.’
- Recognize that perception is everything. This may often seem (or be) unfair, but no matter how smart, efficient, and compassionate you are, if you have an image problem or a bad reputation, it is very hard to shake.
- Be optimistic! You are in a field many would love to be in. You get to be closely involved with people who are at the most vulnerable moments of their lives; accept the responsibility, and own it.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. If punctuality is a weakness for you, plan to get to work 15 minutes earlier than you have to. Not being punctual can really ruin the reputation of an otherwise solid resident. If you’re bad at documentation, spend extra time on it. (If you’re good at it, help your colleagues!)
- Remember that nobody in the room knows everything and that nobody expects you to know everything either. Be willing to be humble and say you do not know. Use this as a motivation to go find the answer in a book or through a senior/attending.
- Usually interns have the most book/basic science knowledge on their team, but the least clinical sense. This is expected, because the only way you pick up the latter is with sheer volume and exposure. You need to see everything many times before your Doctory Spidey Sense becomes reliable. Give yourself a break and be willing to make controlled mistakes so that you can learn what really matters.
That’s it! You got this! Keep your head up, caffeinate often, and ask your seniors/chiefs for help. You are going to be great!
September 11th, 2015
BEEEP BEEEP BEEEP BEEEP – I pressed a button to silence my pager and rose groggily from the bed in the on-call room. I hadn’t truly been asleep, just catching a quick rest between pages. It was 2am. I was 19 hours into my shift and, from the looks of the page, there was a new patient ready for admission to our family medicine inpatient service. I picked up the phone and called down to the ER to get the full story.
“New admission: 47-year-old male who’s dehydrated and needs IV fluids and pain control before upcoming flight to his home in east Africa. He’s got widespread metastatic cancer; oncology thinks days-to-weeks to live, without additional options for treatment. Enrolled in hospice last week but hasn’t seen them yet. He bought plane tickets for him and his sister, and his plan is to fly home in 2 days to be with his wife and child for the remainder of his life.”
The ER physician’s words echoed in my head as I reviewed the patient’s chart. This was not the typical admission to our service. I slipped on my white coat and began the long walk from the 8th floor of the hospital down to the basement — the home of the emergency department. As the senior night resident, it was my job to admit this man to the hospital.
As I approached his room, I remembered a lesson from one of the palliative care specialists in our department. He taught that, at the end of life, it’s most important to first determine the patient’s goals and then let those goals guide recommendations and therapy. For critically ill patients, we have IV fluids and medications to support dropping blood pressures, oxygen and mechanical ventilation to help with breathing, and strong antibiotics to stave off disease. However, if the patient’s goals are to be comfortable and at home, surrounded by loved ones at the end of life, then these invasive and often-times uncomfortable medical interventions are better left on the sideline, replaced by medications to help make the patient more comfortable.
I knocked on his door, waited for permission, and entered. Inside the dimly lit room were two people: A middle-aged woman adorned in a beautiful light-blue hijab stood and introduced herself as the man’s sister; and the patient, bald and with sagging eyes, laid on the hospital bed looking up at me. I introduced myself to both of them, glanced at the monitor, saw with relief that his vital signs were within the normal ranges, and then sat in a chair next to his bed. He sat up and extended both of his hands towards me, enfolding my right hand in a warm and gentle handshake. He smiled and told me his name. Despite these signs of strength, he looked cachexic and weak.
“What are your goals for this hospitalization?” I began.
“I know I do not have long in this world, and I am at peace with this,” he began. “I want to go to my home country to be with my family for my remaining days, but am worried because I have not been able to eat or drink.”
BEEEP BEE… I pressed the button to silence my pager and urged him to carry on. Whatever it was, it could wait.
“I would like to get fluids to regain my strength,” he continued, “and medication to help with pain and nausea so I can endure the flight to my home.”
I nodded in understanding. I reviewed his medications and discussed what had worked best for his symptoms in the past. I assured him and his sister that our objectives as his doctors would be in line with his goals, and we would aim to get him safely on his flight in 36 hours.
At the end of our conversation, he smiled at me. “Thank you for your humanity,” he said.
I never saw him again. I ordered IV fluids, and medications for his pain and nausea. I gave sign-out to the morning team to let them know his goals and, when I followed up with the team later that week, was happy to hear that his symptoms had improved and he was able to get the appropriate prescriptions in time to make his flight.
I played a very small part in his care, but the brief interaction still sticks with me. And, I hope that by doing my part as the overnight resident physician, I helped to make him more comfortable on his journey home.
September 4th, 2015
We are approaching another September 15. This date is probably the second-most important in the U.S. residency application and selection season; the most important is obviously the match day. But, on September 15, residency applicants can start sending their applications to Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredited programs through Electronic Residency Application Service, and programs can also start downloading the applications. Nowadays, it is crucial to apply early to the programs. Some of them screen applicants on a rolling basis and start scheduling interviews as early as in mid-October.
For me, this brings back memories of September 2012, when I applied for residency. Working on my ERAS residency profile started a month before. It included writing my personal statement, choosing appropriate programs, uploading my CV, and sending letters of recommendation to the Educational Council for Foreign Medical Graduates. Like many other international graduates, I was also part of a USMLE residency forum on a popular social networking site. The forum members posted immediately as programs started sending interview requests. Then came those days when I refreshed my email every 30 minutes for any possible interview invitation. A 2013 survey by National Residency Matching Program showed that U.S. medical school seniors who successfully matched in residency usually attended a median 11 interviews. After interview confirmation, it was all about booking bus or flight tickets — finding the cheapest bus or plane fare and the closest reasonably priced hotel to the hospital. The entire process of interview travel was very grueling, exhausting, and expensive. I remember finalizing the answers of prototype residency interview questions while driving to the interview: Why internal medicine? Why our program? Why this city? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Now, being a chief resident, I am part of the core team that will select next years’ residents. I can see the enormous work our graduate medical education staff puts to streamline the recruitment process. It’s not easy to identify suitable interview candidates from a pool of close to 3000 applicants. Today, I’m on the other side of the table. Our interview selection is not based just on good USMLE steps scores but also on research and publication experience, good letters of recommendation, and prior U.S. clinical experience for international medical graduates. I, along with my two co-chiefs and the GME staff, are currently busy outlining program selection criteria, updating the residency website, making slides for presentations, and preparing on interview schedule. I close my eyes for a moment and can vividly remember my interview experience with the same program director and core faculty 3 years back: It was a mixed bag! It’s an extreme honor and responsibility to sit next to the same people who brought me into this program and to help them choose the best suited candidate for next year. This enormous administrative experience is probably the most enriching lesson of my chief residency year.
I would like to send my best wishes to all the 2016 residency candidates. Good luck!
August 28th, 2015
When I first applied for medical school, I beamed about exploring not just the science of medicine, but also the art. But what is that art? Some would say it’s clinical experience, combined with being cultured and compassionate and communicating with clarity/conviction. But how would one teach that art?
Journal Watch’s Dr. Allan Brett recently reviewed a multicenter US study following ~300 metastatic cancer patients who had failed initial chemotherapy (NEJM JW Gen Med Aug 6 2015). The study showed that additional chemotherapy for patients with poor life expectancy <6 months had no better quality of life or prolonged survival. In fact, patients who had the highest performance status had worse quality of life when given additional chemotherapy.
Even with our remarkable scientific discovers in medicine, we still have a very tough job to deliver the science of medicine in a patient-centered format. Oftentimes, it is a judgment call to decide if a patient with end-stage liver disease or heart failure or COPD or cancer would benefit from any additional aggressive treatment. From my experience, many patients, and their families, are initially resistant to accept a terminal prognosis and want to pursue aggressive measures. What happens next involves a moment in which the physician can analyze the situation, with risks/benefits in mind from a scientific point of view, and then deliver a message that keeps the patient’s goals of care in mind while also informing the patient that you do not wish to harm them with interventions that may be not in their interest. This is one of the toughest things to do as a clinician, often leading to many of us tip-toeing a fine line.
One story that has stuck with me from residency is the story of Mr. G, an Ethiopian patient. Mr. G had end-stage cardiomyopathy and had been in the hospital for 3 months while on inotropes. Unfortunately, he did not qualify for any advanced heart failure therapies. As our team was trying to explain the dire situation, he initially wanted all aggressive measures. He also said to me, “please, don’t tell my wife and children.” He squeezed my hand as he spoke to me, and I squeezed back.
As a clinician who prides myself on my empathy and compassion, this was one instance where I had to go against honoring all of my patient’s wishes. Our team felt aggressive measures would not give any quality of life and would likely lead to more harm than good. We also contacted his wife and children to inform them their loved one was going to die soon. This was the most difficult part, as Mr. G was extremely upset from a cultural and personal standpoint that his family knew his prognosis. It was a judgment call that, because I misunderstood the cultural implications, fractured my physician-patient relationship with Mr. G at the time. However, I did not give up on delivery of care, and I treated Mr. G and his family as my own family — and a remarkable turnaround occurred in our relationship. His children delivered a card and flowers to me, thanking me for all the personal care I gave to their father, and Mr. G embraced me as his physician, holding my hand yet again. Mr. G died peacefully 2 days later, with his family at his bedside.
Maybe the art of medicine is not something you teach. Maybe it is an individual style you develop with experience with direct patient care or with role models and mentors. But what we often forget is the patient should be at the center of anything we deliver in medicine. That may be the art.
I would love to hear thoughts from others about their experience developing their own art of medicine, or in scenarios where sometimes treating a patient may have caused more harm than good.
August 25th, 2015
As my co-chiefs and I try to figure out how to best serve our residents and deliver a worthwhile education to them, I have begun contemplating what it is that really motivates doctors in training. What is the driving force behind a resident striving to be a more knowledgeable clinician? How do we convince them that they need to work hard and take an immense amount of time and exert an enormous amount of effort to acquire both the didactic knowledge and the clinical sense required and expected of them by their profession and patients?
After a lot of thought and discussion with colleagues, I have found that the drive for each resident is a unique combination of 4 major factors; every resident’s makeup varying the exact ‘amount’ of ingredient that needs to be tapped into to make their training experience worthwhile and productive:
- Fear/Guilt… That knot in the pit of your stomach… that globus sensation that makes it impossible to swallow… that nightmare that wakes you up in the middle of the night as you replay all of the things you missed earlier in the day. It is the fear of killing someone — a drive that is so potent that it leaves residents googling the side effects of the Benadryl they just prescribed as they sit on the toilet between bouts of irritable bowel syndrome at 2AM. This fear and guilt is healthy, but, if not tempered at the beginning of residency, it can be all consuming and harmful. It is a powerful motivating factor when you recognize the immense responsibility that you have — that your order might permanently change the lives of another human being and his or her family.
- Signs that your resident is highly motivated by fear/guilt:
- Twitchy and nervous on rounds
- Frequent bathroom breaks
- Checking and then rechecking orders and notes the way Jack Nicholson checks his door locks in “As Good as It Gets.
- Shame… Do you remember when the teacher called on you and asked you a question that you definitely should have known the answer to, and you froze? Can you recall how you felt the warmth of embarrassment crawl up your chest, pass your palpitating heart, move through your almost completely closed throat and into your now red cheeks? Do you recall the deafening silence that you were responsible for weighing down on all your peers, and the 9-month-pregnant pause your teacher allowed to mature into a full-grown baby of shame and self-loathing? Do you remember thinking about that time over and over again and re-living the terror of that moment of humiliation? That is the moment of shame that drives some of your residents to read, to work harder, and to always be prepared.
- Signs that your resident is highly motivated by shame:
- Crumpled up notes in overstuffed white coat pockets
- Coming to the hospital 2 hours before the next resident for pre-pre-pre-rounds with multiple cups of coffee on board before the team attending has even rolled out of bed.
- Overly concerned about evaluations that peers and attendings spend about 4.7 seconds of mindshare completing.
- Ego… or the Id, if you want to get all Freudian on me. It is the impulse to want to be the best and to triumph over all others. This is the drive that makes you seek the admiration of all, the respect of those beneath you, and the recognition of those ethereal beings we know as attendings and administration. It is the desire to attain a status in which you can look in the mirror and say you did it and declare to everyone, or sometimes nobody but yourself, that you are the epitome of what a doctor should be. I also take the liberty of placing attainment of loftier position/money in this category of motivation — i.e., fellowship and dollar bills.
- Signs your resident is highly motivated by ego:
- Aspiring cardio fellow (likely a ‘gunner’ intern) that walks around with calipers in his pocket despite being on an outpatient rheumatology elective.
- Pristine white coat over an Armani suit, far too much hair gel or the clickiest shoes in town.
- The resident who takes every opportunity to quote obscure papers from Scandinavian research cohorts written in the 1950’s that almost never pertain to the patient or patient population at hand. Impressive? Yes. Clinically applicable? Never!
- Vocational Aspiration… Close your eyes and think about the physician you always wanted to be like. The one who gets down to eye level with his/her patient, speaks confidently about the matter at hand, shows love and compassion that cannot be faked or learned in a textbook, and exemplifies the characteristics of a healer. You see this in the resident who has taken medicine on as a vocation… as a calling. It is who they are and as a consequence, they take it as their responsibility and duty to strive for well-rounded excellence because, to them, there is no other option. This is the drive we strive for but only catch glimpses of when we are not devoured by our fears and shames and egos. If you ask every resident why they do what they do, they give answers that fall into this category: “I want to help people.” “I want to make people better.” “I want to make myself a better person and doctor.” It is what we write in residency application essays but seldom see in ourselves while in training. This is the most important motivator to trigger and mature in the residents we work with. All of the others are important tools to get people going, but without this, we are producers of machines and not physicians.
Factors/Motivators that deserve an honorable mention:
- Golden Child Syndrome
- “My parents made me do it.” You know these people. They were told what to do and are good at being told what to do.
- The Challenge
- The intellectual challenge of medicine drives so many physicians. The puzzle that a clinical case represents can be enough of a driver for some residents.
- Silencing the Naysayers
- There are some who do what they do because they have been told they cannot do it. Medicine…then Mt. Everest. See Ego for further detail.
- The Narcissist
- “Let me take a selfie while I sew up this laceration like a plastic surgeon.” Are you noticing an ego trend?
There are probably tons of other motivators you see that get people going. Share them in the comments and tell us the tell-tale signs that come with someone who is motivated by that factor.
August 14th, 2015
“Please answer my call.”
That was the text I received over the weekend from a friend after having missed his call. I called back and he was panicked: “what is alpha… al… alteplase?” There was a pause as I waited for context… “My mother-in-law… she went into cardiac arrest. They got her heartbeat back, but they said she needs that medicine… should they give it?”
After hearing the context, I advised him that I thought it made sense — that they should give alteplase a try, given how critical the situation seemed. I hung up the phone. I had been sitting on a lawn chair in my backyard studying for the boards and, although I knew what the answer to this clinical question was on the ABIM, a feeling of uncertainty filled me. Without knowing what had just occurred on the phone, my wife saw my face and could tell something was wrong. I explained what was happening and that I needed to go to the hospital to be there for my friend.
By the time I arrived to the hospital, the situation had deteriorated further. The patient’s loving family was in all stages of grief as their mother/sister/aunt held on to life with the support of pressors and a ventilator. I wanted to do something but knew it was not my place. I was a doctor in an alternate universe but today… today, I was just a friend. I gave a hug or two and awaited news on the status of the sweet woman who lay critically ill behind the ER curtain. She was the mother of 5 wonderful adult children, 2 of whom I have the pleasure of knowing. They are the type of people who never meet you without warm smiles and that ‘big-family’ type of love. On this day, however, I only saw pain in their eyes. I stood in the ER corridor with family I had never met and bowed my head and prayed with them.
An ER resident emerged from behind the curtain with a walk I was all too familiar with. He had bad news, and I could see his mind racing with the words that were going to be needed as he approached a large family who sat on the edge of hope and despair. The family collectively leaned forward as the resident fumbled with medical jargon like “coded,” pulmonary embolism, tPA, vasopressors, and futility. The eldest son frantically asked the questions on the mind of everyone except me: “What does all of that mean? Is she going to be okay?”
The resident took a deep breath and reworded his initial statement in an even less coherent manner. He was struggling. They were struggling. He concluded his ramblings with a request of clarification of code status and ‘DNR.’
It has always been a personal frustration of mine to see a physician drop a bad-news bomb on a family and, then, in the time of their biggest vulnerability, saddle them with the burden of a perceived ‘decision’ that never really existed to begin with. I put my hand on the shoulder of the resident mid-sentence and asked him to give us a few minutes. He gave me a look of relief and quickly escaped away to the sanctuary behind the nurse’s station. I have always felt comfortable delivering bad news and saying what needs to be said, but this day was different. I felt like a man between the two worlds of healthcare: the deliverers and the receivers.
She peacefully passed away about an hour later with her caring family around her. She was surrounded by their affection and prayers. I was a witness to their love and in awe of their display of absolute class and dignity. At one point, I absconded to my car and looked at the stethoscope and white coat that lay in the passenger seat. I concluded that so little of medicine had to do with those archetypal items that lay there and so much more of it with the intangible… The figurative space between a physician and his patient/family is full of that unquantifiable mixture of love, respect, fear, and worry. It is up to us to manage that space. That is our domain and our responsibility. The white coat… the stethoscope… the prescription pad… never has and never will be the answer.
August 7th, 2015
“The day you earned your MD, you became a leader… A leader to your future patients, a leader in your community, and a leader within the healthcare system.”It’s May 7th, 2015 – day 1 of the annual Chief Resident Leadership Development Program in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s an event meant to welcome the newly selected chiefs from family medicine programs around the nation and instill them with leadership skills and enthusiasm as they enter their third year of residency and chief years at their programs. The program’s director is delivering an introduction speech to his audience – roughly 150 bright-eyed chief residents, including myself and my co-chief, who traveled from across the country to be part of the 3-day conference.
“And as chief resident, you are a leader of leaders – not an easy task!” he continues. “Leaders are often independent and opinionated, and trying to direct an entire group of them is as easy as trying to herd a group of cats.”
He pushes a button on his handheld pointer, and a video begins on the big screen projector, showing images of rough-and-tough cowboys trying to circle up and direct large groups of small cats.
“Anyone can herd cattle,” one of the cowboys says as cats meow in the background, “but holding together 10,000 half-wild shorthairs, now that’s another thing altogether.”
We had a good laugh, and the chief conference was under way.
During our 3 days together, we learned that we all share common challenges. Scheduling conflicts are near the top of the list. Low morale and burnout are other common themes — attributed to long hours and the natural stress that occurs during residency. We also realized that family medicine programs across the country share several positive themes, such as the sense of community and teamwork that exists within programs, and the strong bonds that develop through working together at the hospital and in clinic.
We learned that as chief residents, we wear many different hats. In an average week, we serve as leaders, organizers, motivators, negotiators, problem solvers, teachers, and of course, third-year resident physicians in clinics and at the hospitals. Through Myers-Briggs personality testing, we discovered our different leadership styles. As an ENFP (Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving), I fall in the category of “idealist,” with strengths that include diplomatic persuasion and cultivating morale, and weaknesses that include an aversion to conflict and difficulty with setting limits for bad behavior. We learned about five leadership practices: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart.
By the end of the conference, I felt inspired and ready to take on this whole chief resident thing. I had been performing chiefly duties for about a month — dealing with scheduling conflicts, leading the annual residency retreat, participating in monthly meetings, etc — and it was the perfect time for this type of motivating and thought-provoking experience. Now, close to 3 months later, I think back to my time in Kansas City whenever I start to feel tired or overwhelmed.
July 1st has come and gone. The new interns arrived with their nervous smiles and freshly ironed white coats, and we all moved up a rung on the ladder. As a chief resident, the beginning of a new academic year brings new challenges. But it also allows for new and exciting opportunities — chances to serve as a resident advocate, to “model the way” for the interns and second-years, and to inspire positive change, little-by-little, day-by-day. Thankfully, my co-residents and faculty here in Ann Arbor make it rewarding and fun.
So, onward and upward. Cat herding — ain’t a feeling like it in the world!
July 31st, 2015
It was not a very typical Saturday morning in Cleveland, at least not to us. My soon to be 1-year-old daughter woke up with surprise in her big doe eyes. That’s right… she woke up not in her nanny’s lap or in her crib, but in between both of her parents who were still sleeping. This was probably the first time since she started recognizing us that she found both of us beside her in the morning.I smiled at her. “That’s how it is supposed to be, dear, but your parents are still residents, they are budding physicians. Moreover, for you, my little munchkin, your mom and I split calls so that one of us can be with you, although that leaves us in a situation where we live together but don’t see each other for days. Now I can see the obvious question in your innocent mind, ‘why do you work so hard, mom and dad?’ I could give you a simple answer, like, to get you more toys.”
A sudden cold zing waved through my back and jolted through me this lazy morning. I asked the same question to myself… why did I choose this path? More than 12 years ago, when I started medical school on a different continent, I actually had to work harder than this to get there. I thought it would be cool to be in a profession that involves saving lives. I chose clinical pharmacology as my residency specialty because I felt I needed to know about drugs that can cure suffering people. After I finished residency, I decided that my path wasn’t good enough. Call me ambitious or an overachiever! But the reality was, that feeling was chasing me. The decision to leave my country, my parents, and an established career was not easy. Now, when I’m in the final year of my second residency, have become a chief resident, and have almost started seeing the glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel again, part of me is back to asking hard questions. “That’s it? Or shall I go for subspecialty training?” I don’t know the answer yet. The only truth is ‘miles to go before I sleep.’ The primary reason I chose to apply for chief residency was to teach and give back to my juniors what I have learned so far. This is the most satisfying part of practicing medicine to me — being intellectually challenged every morning. However, this ambition takes away a few extra hours from my daughter’s play time, as daddy is still busy with his Ipad after coming home from work. I’m now used to switching between UpToDate and YouTube Baby Songs while she sits on my lap. But, it’s the rare Saturday morning that the three of us wake up together.
I never felt bored during my long course of training. Physically, I was tired at times, but mentally, I was never fatigued. It gives me feeling of extreme accomplishment and happiness when I see my patients can connect to me. They want to come back and see me again even when they’re not sick. This liaison keeps me going. There is no better feeling than throwing some rays of hope into some hopeless eyes. Even when I have lost the track at times, my teeny tiny, but extremely strong, girlfriend-turned-wife and now mother of my child stood by me like a lone cypress for last 15 years. She has been my pillar of strength in my topsy turvy roller coaster ride, and undoubtedly, she’s the woman who made me what I’m today.
So I come back to the eternal question, “do I want my daughter to become a doctor?” Of course, I want her to make her own choice at the end, but my answer is YES. Because I think there is no better way to live than to feel content at the end of the day for what you do. I do sleep well at night, not because I am tired, but because I am happy.
July 24th, 2015
We live in a time of great cynicism and skepticism. We seem to see only the mundane and boring in even the most interesting and spectacular things. The electrical rhythm of the heart that pulses through cardiac tissue and results in a coordinated muscle contraction that effectively ejects blood to the rest of the body for appropriate oxygen delivery is just… a bland grouping of chemical/physical terms that relay information, without the awe that should accompany it. Perhaps it is the overload of data hurled at us from all different technologies that make everything seem ‘blah.’ Or maybe the cultural barrage of the age of ‘enlightenment’ that comes with modernity has left us so intellectually arrogant that we refuse to allow our hearts and minds the satisfaction of wonderment. Either way, it is as though we have lost the ability to appreciate the magnificence of existence around us and we have instead replaced it with dull expectation and assumed banality.
I was recently watching a debate between a few friends about which comic book superhero had the most depth. One of my friends claimed Batman was the most layered character, and his reasoning was as follows: Bruce Wayne was actually the costume and he was only himself (in his own voice and character) when he donned the Batman suit and cape. Anytime he was Bruce Wayne to the people of Gotham, he was just acting and putting on a show. It was only when he was Batman that we could see what the real man was all about. I mulled over the argument in my mind and could not help but think of the child-like awe comic book heroes still elicit from me, even as an adult. I thought: “Could it be that the heroes I adore are all around me already in suit and cape?” I began to think of the men and women that have affected how I think, act, and work.
There is the one physician who carries so much medical knowledge in his superhuman mind that he nullifies the suspense of case conference by simply stating the rare diagnosis before anyone else can even process the differential. And the one doctor whose very intellectual prowess can result in the collective anal sphincter tightening of an entire intern class… And one whose eyes are surrounded by dark circles formed over a multitude of sleepless nights as he mulled over what else he could do for his ill patient. They all don their capes every day. The ICU doctor who conveys bad news like soft kisses or the one who seems to restlessly pace the halls of the cancer ward deep into the night like a vigilante there to stomp out any chance of pain and misery. There is the doctor who has been serving long enough to walk the corridors like a sentry, protecting the hospital from inappropriate care or unneeded costs. They move among us and look like us… but they are so much more. They are what we aspire to be. The one who doles out chocolate like justice or the one who holds the weight of the academic program solely on his shoulders. They uphold the honor and dignity of a profession that has turned to bitterness, misanthropy, and the bottom line. They live for this. For their patients. For their Robins. They are the heroes we need, if only we could see past the darkness of our preconceived notions of medicine. They are there. On the proverbial rooftops of our hospitals… watching over us… teaching us… making sure that someone is ready to replace them when they are gone.
But then, they remove their white coats and return home to their families to continue their ‘normal’ lives as they try to convince the world that they are but mere mortals like the rest of us.