medicine


I’ve written this post in my mind nearly every week for the last six months, and finally I’m so angry it’s coming out.

Half the bitterness and cynicism among residents comes from the job itself – long hours, seeing people suffer and die and often being helpless to change that. But half of it comes from the way we’re treated by administration. When I was a student I saw this, listening to the residents talk about their grievances against the hospital. Back then I couldn’t understand; I heard the aching bitterness, but I had no idea where it came from.

Now I know. The residency administrators are one thing; they use us like pieces in a puzzle, to fill out the schedule and get the work done, but at least they know our names, and have some slight regard for us as individuals who will carry the name and the honor of the place when we graduate. The hospital administrators are a separate breed. I don’t think they even know that residents exist. Perhaps they suppose the work gets done by robots, or by magic. Certainly they have no hesitation to take actions which gut our educational experience, and change our lives permanently, for the worse, at a moment’s notice.

This is what really gets me: I work so hard for this hospital. I do more than is written in the contract, or than is my obligation as an employee. I go out of my way to try to keep patients happy with this hospital. I apologize when apologies are needed, even when it wasn’t my fault (poor communication to families; housekeeping inadequate; nurses too busy to respond to call bells). I talk to irate families even when it isn’t my patient, I’m just covering, and technically am not required to get involved at all. For all its shortcomings, I do like this hospital (perhaps even love it, because it’s my home, and because I like the people here, although not the administrators); I actually do think about making it successful, keeping it in business. And for that, we get slapped in the face by the administration. They don’t realize or care that the face of the hospital, to all of their patients, is the residents and nurses whom they abuse.

Within the next year, I think I won’t be able to care about public relations anymore. Like so many of the other residents, I’ll retreat into doing only what’s required by the book, nothing more, because the people we work for don’t even give us the benefit of the rules. (I really think they’ve broken our contract in more than one way, in a legal sense as well as moral, but I’m too exhausted to look it up, and what would I do about it anyway? Fight them? I can’t risk my place.) And when I graduate and go to work on my own, you can believe that I’ll never trust a bureaucrat farther than I can throw them. Administration is always out to screw the physicians and nurses – that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned in residency so far; and when I’m not part of the slave labor force any more, believe me I’ll remember it.

Yes, I know Lost is almost concluded; and here I am starting the first season. My only excuse is that I was waiting to make sure it would have a conclusion, before I got involved.

My favorite part of the show is Jack, one of the main characters, who is a surgeon. The writers seem a little confused about what kind of surgeon he is; in the first episode, he refers to having learned not to fear when dealing with a potentially catastrophic bleed during an operation on the cervical spine of a young woman. Characters who don’t like him refer to him as “the spine surgeon.” However, halfway through the season, his most serious conflict with his father, previously the chief of surgery at the same hospital Jack worked at, is revealed to be related to an incident in which his father operated while drunk on a young woman with abdominal trauma from a car accident, and Jack was forced to scrub in to help, but ultimately was unable to save the patient, due to an error his father had made. So I’m not completely sure what a spinal surgeon is doing as the pinch hitter in a trauma laparotomy; but he’s certainly very talented. Maybe he’s double boarded in general and neurosurgery. Or maybe he specializes in young female patients. . .

Apart from that, and the typical cluelessness about medical protocol (horribly incorrect CPR on multiple occasions; the OR is pitch dark; etc), this is only the second realistic TV portrayal of a doctor I’ve ever seen (the first was the murdered fiance, a cardiothoracic surgery resident,  in the first season of Damages, and he was killed off, which I didn’t appreciate). And boy is it realistic. I can completely picture a doctor, and especially a surgeon, behaving exactly the way Jack does, with a hero complex obliging him to attempt to rescue every one, no matter what kind of disaster has occurred, and with a penchant for leadership which really holds the community together, although it also antagonizes some people. Also, most of his medical activities are fairly possible; supposing a plane to actually contain all the useful implement and drugs which he finds, the wilderness medicine he practices doesn’t seem too outlandish.

But the truest part is Jack’s perpetual flashbacks to medical tragedies which haunt him, and drive him on a perpetual mission not to lose another person for whom he feels responsible. I can’t believe the writers had any idea of how true this is, since even the medical dramas, with medical advisers, don’t capture it; but without being lost an a magical island, all doctors are haunted in this way, and this is the most vivid portrayal I have ever seen.

Another part of my role as a junior resident, rather than an intern, is to handle consults from the medical ICUs. There is always a constant stream of these: mesenteric ischemia in patients who’ve been hypotensive for too long for whatever reason (MI, sepsis); toxic C diff; upper and lower GI bleeds which elude medical management.

The consults themselves are not so bad. The patients are usually intubated, which means one simply examines them, and then collects data from the chart, and calls the attending.

The part that’s driving me crazy are the MICU residents and nurses. The surgery residents have a saying: if you get paged with a stat consult from the MICU, it’s probably nothing important, and you can take your time getting there. If, on the other hand, you receive casual notification, through a string of secretaries, of a consult for which the original order was placed some 12 or 24 hours ago, you’d better run, because that patient needs to go to the OR already.

Partly it’s sarcasm, but there’s a lot of experience behind it: innumerable stat pages regarding bowel obstructions which are really ileuses (ilei?), as determined by an abdominal xray, or for uncontrollable GI bleeds which have after all only received two units of blood, and haven’t been scoped (or sometimes even seen) by GI yet (we have to have a scope, or some other study, showing where the bleeding is coming from; you can’t operate at random), or for mesenteric ischemia in which the patient has no abdominal pain, and is severely acidotic from urosepsis and lack of resuscitation; and so on.

Then there are all the times when a CT scan is done early in the evening for abdominal pain, and when radiology reads it around noon the next day, then we’re notified about the gross free air, the occluded superior mesenteric artery, the glaring small bowel obstruction in a toxic patient: all patients in whom 18 hours lost between the initial complaint and the OR time could mean, if not death, certainly a dramatic increase in morbidity. Why can’t they look at their CT scans? I’m not asking for detailed reads, just a glance: gross free air (as opposed to a microperforation) shouldn’t need an official radiology reading to be acted on. I know I’m no good at all at chest CTs, but I can see a saddle embolus, a lobar pneumonia, an aortic dissection. If I can stumble through the pulmonologists’ scans, can’t they look at the abdominal ones a bit?

And the nurses: I’ll stick to one chief complaint: NG tubes. It’s like a trap. No matter how many times I check on the NG (nasogastric) tube, by the time the chief comes to see, it will not be to suction. It may be buried under the pillow, or under the blanket, or down the side of the bed; it may be tied in a knot, or the connecting piece may have been artfully abstracted and lost. Somehow, the MICU nurses seem to believe it would be detrimental to the patient to actually leave the NG to suction. (For your information: an NG is a sump pump, meaning it has an air port, so there is no danger of damaging the stomach mucosa by leaving it to continuous low suction. On the other hand, it stents open the upper and lower esophageal sphincters, so having it in place increases the patient’s risk of aspiration, unless it is being used as intended, to suction.) If the MICU team sincerely believes that their patient has a bowel obstruction, why on earth do they insert an NG tube, and then not put it to suction? It’s not a surgical thing; it counts as medical management! Even three written orders to that effect will frequently not prevail on the nurses to put the thing to suction (I’ve tried).

Fortunately, every now and then I encounter the surgical ICU nurses moonlighting in the medical ICU – a breath of fresh air, although they sometimes look fairly frustrated too.

(And yes, ok, neither I nor the surgical ICU nurses have much knowledge of steroid drips or neutropenic precautions or the intricacies of hyponatremia. . . but an NG is not that complicated!)

I finally figured out what’s wrong with all the portrayals of doctors on TV. They show emotion.

They have to, of course; they’re actors, for one thing. And basically, the drama would be a lot less gut-wrenching if the doctor didn’t act heartbroken when delivering bad news.

Real doctors don’t do that. We learn to hide emotion, from everyone – our colleagues as well as our patients. For example:

- Fear. This one is especially important to hide, perhaps because it’s such a constant companion. After all, fear is what makes us good: you have to be scared of how easily something bad could happen, in order to work hard at preventing it. You have to have seen vent-associated pneumonia, and fear its return, to really care about preventive measures or early diagnosis.

But it has to be private. After all, they say surgeons are like sharks: they attack at the smell of blood. Fear of not knowing the right answers only draws more pressure.

As for fear of the outcome for a patient, that has to be hidden, because such things only get stronger by being shared. If everyone in the trauma bay getting ready for a bad level I admitted their fear, we wouldn’t be able to function. Some of the seniors lately have been demonstrating that to me. The trauma pager has been going off again and again, one trauma after another, and now a really bad one. The patient was intubated en route, which is not good, and the confused early reports suggest that there’s something seriously wrong. The nurses and techs run around, laying the room out, assembling the monitor wires, getting the ventilator set up beside the bed, laying out the needles for starting ivs and drawing blood. They’re efficient, but the atmosphere is hectic. Then the senior physician in charge walks in. It could be the ER attending, or a chief surgery resident. They walk slowly (when there’s time), and move deliberately; no wasted steps. Calmly, loudly enough to be heard, they start arranging: who will stand where, who’s responsible for which part of the resuscitation, who’s in charge of the airway, who’s standing by to place a central line, where the thoracotomy kit is if it should be needed. Their calmness settles everybody down, and keeps the room from exploding into chaos when the patient actually arrives. (The worse a trauma is, the quieter the room is. When things are really bad, no one chatters, for fear of drowning out important information.)

Fear also has to be suppressed when talking to patients or families. They ask for the truth, but they don’t really want to know what we know. Even when things are unquestionably bad, the news has to be broken gently, maybe over the course of a couple conversations – because they need to be able to keep functioning. And if the worst-case scenario is only a shadow in my head, there’s no need to torment the patient and family by discussing what will most likely never happen. If I look excessively worried, that scares people so badly that they can’t think; the other children still need to be fed and put to bed.

- Sorrow. I learned this probably in August or September of intern year, and keep relearning it: if you cry about every patient, there’s no time or energy for actually working. Really, I’m hurting my patient if I allow more than a minute or two to consider how awful their predicament is, and how tragic it must be for their family and friends. I need to be thinking about can be done to make him better.  Crying wastes time; meditating on the nature of evil wastes time.

- Of course anger has to be hidden as well (another emotion that TV doctors are frequently good at). Anger, like fear, wastes time and clouds judgment.

Above all, emotion is unprofessional. We’re supposed to be cool, calm, rational – in charge. And that means not showing our colleagues or our patients what we really feel. Drama is for the soap operas, not for professionals.

Sorry for the light posting, folks. Life is extremely dull these days.

Which leaves more time to observe the political delicacies of the transplant service. Transplant is unique as a surgical specialty, in that it is a surgical cure for a medical disease. Normally, there’s no surgical role in diabetes, renal failure, or cirrhosis. But once the patient is sick enough to have a transplant, the surgeons and internists have to work together. Very closely.

I don’t know how other places manage it, but nobody has ever defined, here, exactly who is in charge, although everybody agrees that I get to admit and discharge all the patients. There is a great deal of collegial conversation among the attendings (“I trust Dr. Smith, let’s do whatever he says;” “don’t worry about it, I’m sure nephrology/GI/endocrine has it under control”). The residents and fellows also do a fair amount of the same, perhaps a little more barbed (“Good morning, I was just wondering what you thought about. . .” [which being interpreted means, what on earth where you thinking when you did this?])

And then I end up in the pleasant situation of the patient asking me the meaning of a test I didn’t order and had no idea about, or the purpose of a medication I thought he wasn’t supposed to be on. Or better yet, the attending asks me what the immunosuppression is/what the iv fluids are/what the blood pressure medications are, and whatever I tell him is wrong, because someone changed it since I last looked at the chart.

The key seems to be politeness, no matter what you think or are saying, because as long as you say, “what on earth was the point of that?” or “did you not notice this major problem?” in a very polite way, you can keep working together. And I’m sure the nephrology and GI fellows feel the same way about me; perhaps with more justification, because after all, what is a surgery resident doing with these medical patients?

You may perceive that my ambition to know all about medicine has long since vanished. I don’t care about the intricacies of lopressor vs atenolol, or all the possible ways to control blood sugar, or unasyn vs zosyn. It doesn’t need to be cut, I’m not particularly interested.

Bonus: after he counted me coming in at 5:30am for nine days in a row, one of my patients told the attending, when we rounded several hours later, that I was an exemplary doctor and deserved a raise and/or a day off. Makes things worthwhile.

I thought WhiteCoat’s story about medical professionals not having heard about Medicare’s new strategy to avoid paying healthcare professionals for services rendered (otherwise known as the “never” events) had to be an exaggeration.

Then I mentioned their upcoming enforcement (next Wednesday, Oct. 1) to a senior resident, and he gave me a blank stare. He seemed to think this was another piece of raving insanity, along with my defense of Palin (what can I say? when all the men in the room start attacking her, I morph into a Republican) and my objections to abortion. It took me quite a lengthy explanation to get him to think I might be right – this despite signs all over the medical records department warning physicians of the events that are now not permitted to occur, as well as notices popping up all over the charts, and random walls in the hospital. I had no idea that my time in the medical blogosphere was so well spent.

(For further information on the concept developed by some genius in Medicare (who really deserves a million dollar bonus – this scheme is going to save the government so much money – except didn’t they take it all from us in the first place? – until all the hospitals go bankrupt; do you think the government will bail out hospitals who fail because they tried to take care of patients, the way they’re bailing out the financial institutions that made foolish choices?) – excuse me. Back on track: for further information, see Buckeye Surgeon’s analysis, and this piece by Dr. WhiteCoat (as well as a good deal more on his site). Basically, the idea is that Medicare (and the private insurance companies will inevitably follow suit) picks several events which everyone would prefer not to happen, and unilaterally mandates that they will now not pay for these occurences; the goal being to promote “quality” healthcare. Which is fine for the “never” events like wrong-site surgeries and mismatched blood transfusions; those are rare and truly preventable. But then you come to things like urinary tract infections, central-line associated bacteremia, C difficile infection, wound infections, and on and on – things which we all deplore, but which there is no scientific evidence to suggest the possibility of completely eliminating. All the studies show ways to decrease their incidence, but not to prevent them from ever happening at all. I can quote you the statistics; that’s stuff I get pimped on. Anyway, basically, Medicare is going to penalize hospitals for existing in the real world. They’ll all go bankrupt. Somebody please help me figure out some alternative career options? I need to get out of this circus before the whole thing falls apart.)

(And in case you were wondering, I know that the goal of all this is to decrease costs to Medicare, not to improve patient care. Because if patient care were the point, hospitals could be held to evidence-based standards for acceptable rates of infections and other complications. But this whole rigmarole is being arranged by some accountants and their secretaries, who know nothing about taking care of sick people. . . . I’m looking for the exit, and that’s only partially rhetorical. I do not want to spend my life explaining myself to bureaucrats, and begging for permission to take care of the patients that I am morally and legally responsible for.)

I’ve discovered something extremely useful that the medical doctors do.

I hate walking into patients’ rooms (or into an office encounter), introducing myself for the first time, and within the next ten to fifteen minutes trying to familiarize a patient with an operation enough for them to consent to it. It feels like such an imposition – Hi, I’m Alice, you have cholecystitis, you need to have your gallbladder taken out, we have an OR slot available tomorrow morning, the risks include death, heart attack, stroke, damage to your liver/intestines/bile ducts, bleeding, and infection, please sign this paper. That is really what I say, except more smoothly, and spread out over fifteen minutes. Or, Hi, I’m Alice, your father really is not getting off the ventilator any time soon, he needs a trach and a feeding tube, he can fit into the schedule tomorrow afternoon, please sign this paper. Or, Hi, I’m Alice, I regret to say that your increasing abdominal pain is due to an obstructive colon cancer, you need to have surgery, you’re first on the list for the morning, please sign this paper.

That’s how it happens, because we try not to drag our feet about inpatients. If they’re inhouse, and they need surgery, we’ll do it within the next day or two. And I simply don’t have the time to walk by the room three times in the next 24 hours, to give the patient time to think about it, and then answer questions, and then get the consent signed. The attending will come around, too, but I’m the one who has to get the paperwork in order.

So the medicine guys are great, because they get the patients and families accustomed to the idea of having an operation, and give them some time to come to terms with it, between when it first comes up, and when we arrive to talk about it. Ok, maybe they could stand to check some coagulation labs for patients on coumadin when they call us for an urgent problem, but there’s a limit to how much surgical thinking you can ask from nonsurgeons. Maybe the patients end up with the strangest ideas about how the operation proceeds, or what they can expect afterwards, but I daresay the majority of those miscommunications come from their ears, not from the medical doctors. It is nice to get into the room, introduce myself as a surgical resident, and have the patient say, “Oh yes, they told me I need to have my gallbladder out, my children agree, let’s get it over with, where do I sign?” Sometimes I regret having the wind taken out of my sails, since the patients often don’t want to listen to my speech about the chances of recurring incidents if they leave the gallbladder in, and the possibility of nonsurgical treatment, but I can’t exactly argue about that.

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