teamwork


I’m tired of my patients dying. Can we just not do that anymore?

You people won’t believe this, but I really am too nice. Even when my attending isn’t on call, the medicine people go out of their way to consult me on things – things which ought to be directed to half a dozen of the other surgical services before they got to me. I take that as a very backhanded compliment, because I know I always consult two cardiologists, because they’re nice and explain things, one pulmonologist because he discusses the plan and doesn’t extubate or intubate your patient without fair warning, one endocrinologist because he’s always available, one GI doctor because he does a very good job. And on those services, I’m afraid there are about four medicine residents that I always call because we play well together, and trade favors back and forth. Especially neurology: I set up a trach and peg on a difficult case, and he writes helpful notes on brain-damaged patients. Give and take.

But I could stand not to get interminable calls from medicine when it’s not my day to be taking consults, just because they know I won’t bite their heads off about how they should be consulting colorectal surgery for colon cancer, or vascular surgery for leg lesions caused by poor circulation, and so on. I’ll just take the call, figure out how sick the patient is and which surgeon they really need to be seen by, and pass it along to the right resident. One of these days, in about two more months by my estimation, I’ll snap, and start not being patient about it.

At least it’s encouraging that when I get into practice I might be able to build a referral base quickly (but perhaps not for very exciting cases).

I was fuming this evening, and the rest of the residents were tickled. They think it’s a joke, to see how much strong language I’ll use when I get upset. So far I only go in for colorful epithets; they’re waiting to catch some dirty words, which makes it dangerous to get angry around them.

One of the critical care consultants is driving me crazy. He interferes with my patients, and he shouldn’t, and I haven’t quite got up the nerve to tell off an attending from another specialty (and I rather doubt that it would do any good if I did; he strikes me as being very good at looking down his nose at anyone who tried it).

The last time I had to deal with medical consultants trying to manage critical surgical patients was in the burn unit last fall, and then at least I could tell myself that I knew nothing about critical care but what I was picking up from the nurses (if they reported something to me from overnight, I knew they considered that important, and I should pay attention), so I couldn’t possibly presume to criticize the medical folks. Now, admittedly, I am far behind a board-certified critical care specialist, but I do know more than I did then. I also think that spending a month learning to think like the most finicky doctor I have ever met, one of the trauma doctors who will spend an hour making sure that every single thing is perfect for one patient, has taught me something.

So, I (and my chief) object tremendously when this particular consultant (the rest of his group does it too, but he’s an egregious offender) tries to take over the entire management of a surgical patient whom he was consulted on either for vent management, or as a courtesy because the patient is in the ICU.

Today, without talking to anyone from the surgical service, he sat down with the family of a patient he’d met yesterday, and told them the patient was essentially brain-dead, and they ought to withdraw care, basically now. Then he ran into me inside the unit (I had just come up to have a similar, but perhaps more gradual and gentle, conversation), told me flatly that he’d told the family care was futile, and he expected “we will end up withdrawing before too long.” I was furious; I think there was smoke coming out of my ears. That’s my patient. I spent a month taking care of him, nursing him along, watching him slide out of my reach; I was heartbroken when I came back one morning and found him on death’s door in the ICU. I have talked to his daughter every day for a month. I know him; I know his family. He’s mine; or at least he’s my attending’s. This jerk met the whole group yesterday in the middle of a disaster; who does he think he is, to go telling them things like that, without talking to us? My attending or I should be the ones to say, We’re sorry, we failed, we couldn’t save him, he’s going to die, it’s best if you let him go. (And he’s not brain-dead; he’s not good, he’s not conscious, but he’s not brain-dead. I really hate it when consultants, usually critical care or neurology, try to call my patients brain-dead when they’re not.)

Grrr. I think next time I meet the guy doing things with my patients, I might say something; hopefully (in that grand British phrase) more in sorrow than in anger: “I’ve known this guy for a month, I’m really upset by his condition, and I feel like it would be more appropriate for someone like me or my attending, who have a rather longterm relationship with the family, to be the ones to break this news and discuss this situation with them. Now git!”

I thought it was hard being the intern and figuring out how to relate to the attendings and all the various levels of residents senior to me.

Figuring out what to do with my intern is even more complicated.

He’s not brilliant, but he tries hard enough that I can’t just write him off as a bad job. But how do I balance between pushing him hard enough that he learns what he needs to do to make a surgical service work, and being friendly? How do I let him make enough mistakes that he takes things seriously, but keep anybody from getting hurt? There are so many things that he ought to be doing, that we’ve told him about, but he forgets or doesn’t know how. So do I just do them myself, which would be the simplest, remind him endlessly and start looking like his mother or older sister, or let them go until he gets embarassed in front of the chief and/or attendings, to make him remember?

He’s not like I was as an intern, which also makes it complicated. If I’d had an intern as naive and hopeful and trusting, and incompetent, as I was, maybe I’d know better how to relate. Someone who says, I want to do it right, but is rather clueless, seems to me easier to deal with than someone who talks brashly and confidently, but doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to back it up. An intern mouthing off like a senior resident throws me off. The older residents have earned the right to make flippant remarks; my intern doesn’t have the experience that in my minds earns a little tolerance for making unkind remarks about nurses or patients. If the chief says he doesn’t care, I know that his record of hard work, long hours, and lives saved show he doesn’t really mean that. But for my intern to say that – it’s too early. The attending can say, “Ah, fibromyalgia, consult rheumatology,” because we know he has the experience to be confident that there’s nothing really the matter; the intern needs to think a little deeper before brushing someone off.

But I’m not the censor. My intern is an adult, and needs to sort things out for himself. I try not to comment on his attitudes or remarks, just on his work. Hopefully in a few months he’ll learn what’s acceptable and what’s not. I trust the nurses, too, to set him down when he needs it. They can do that better than I can. Time will tell. Like me, he needs to see bad things happen just to learn that they can; then he won’t talk about them so lightly.

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.

July 1 – a very good day for staying out of the hospital.

Actually I don’t know why everyone repeats that, because nothing very bad happened. The attendings and seniors were practically breathing down the juniors’ and interns’ necks, and there was not much opportunity for error.

My service was relatively light, so I wasn’t called on to do anything out of the ordinary, which was just fine with me. I mainly babysat the intern all day. At first it was fun, because I wanted to help them and smooth the transition. By the end of the day, though, I was rather annoyed, and am trying to figure out whether all the interns are that infuriating, or mine was special. I’m going to try to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt for at least another week, and try to remember that I must have some of the same mannerisms, and must have been annoying my seniors in a very similar way through the last year. But hmmph, he/she/it is going to get in some trouble if they carry on at this rate.

Friday, on call, if the rest of the interns are like this, is going to be quite a nuisance. I guess I’m mainly used to my intern class, for the last several months, being able to do all kinds of work; which it isn’t fair to expect of the new guys at first here, so I need to adjust my expectations of “having an intern to do work with me” to “having an intern whose work I need to do as well as my own.” Ah well, a few weeks should straighten them all out.

It is funny, though, to see the new interns in the halls. Even the ones I didn’t know as medical students wear their new long coats so stiffly that they look out of place, as though they picked up someone else’s coat by mistake. Now if I could just find my new coat (supposedly somewhere in the hospital) so I can stop looking as though I’ve been sleeping in mine.

Welcome to the gang.

One more day of internship left. It’s a little hard to believe.

I’m making a couple of notes for myself about what I most admired in the junior residents I worked with over the last year, because I know that within a month, if not less, I’ll have completely forgotten what it was like to be an intern. (The same way that I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a medical student. For the med students out there wondering, “How can the residents treat us like this? Don’t they remember what it was like?” the answer is, no, we don’t remember, because things change so fast in just a few years. I remember third year of medical school about as much as I remember college, unless I concentrate. Even my own blog from back then seems foreign. I’m a different person now, immeasurably more cynical, skeptical, overbearing, determined, confident – hardened. For instance, when people ask for pain medicine, I have no problem saying flatly to the nurse, “That patient has been told that they will have no more iv pain medication. Tell them those are the rules that the attending discussed with them, and please try not to have to call me about it again.” The other day, as we were setting up the trauma bay for a gunshot victim, one of the residents told me, “You can put in the chest tube, but you have to really throw it in. No time for lidocaine, no dissection – cut and push. It doesn’t matter if the patient feels it. In fact, if he feels it, that’s good [because it would mean he was alive enough to care].” I told him, “It doesn’t matter to me what the patient thinks. You watch, I’ll throw it in.” And I did, because by this time I care a lot more about the technical affair of getting the tube in fast, and the overall implications of getting it in fast enough to prevent a tension pneumothorax or overwhelming hemothorax from killing the patient, than I do about whether it hurts him for a short time.)

Getting back to the stated topic: There were some residents I worked with for whom I would do absolutely anything, from something I simply could barely get up the willpower to do, like calling family members with bad news, to pure scut errands, like running to the other end of the hospital to get a paper they should have remembered to bring with them in the first place. Other residents (the minority) could make me silently furious simply by reminding me to do a job which was clearly my responsibility, and which I had been planning to do.

I think the biggest difference between these two groups was that the first kind of resident acted as though we were on a team, together; working toward the same goal, taking care of the same patients; they knew as much or more than I did about our patients, and didn’t have to have the whole story told to them fresh when I came to ask question. They routinely helped get all the work done, no matter whether it was “intern-level” or not; and if they didn’t help, I knew it was because they were overwhelmed with their own work. They cared about whether I got to sit down or eat, what time I came in and left. (Speaking of which, all year, all the seniors seemed to work at getting the interns home at a very decent time, no matter what that meant for themselves. I think now that I’m ready to commit to the longer hours the seniors worked; I need to remember to think about the interns’ hours.) Since I knew they cared about me and my patients, I would do pretty much anything for them, and still will, as we both advance in seniority. The second kind of resident clearly regarded me as a working machine, who existed to save them from having to do any work, and preferably from having to know much about my patients. That is purely bad leadership, and bad medicine.

So my primary resolution is, not to enjoy having an intern to do the scut work so much that I stop caring about the intern’s patients, or stop sharing in the general work of the team. (Although after these last two weeks, desperately short-staffed, without even medical students to help out, having someone junior to me, to do work, when I haven’t even had a senior to help out, will be an unbelievable luxury. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.)

The other thing that I know I loved about seniors was when they let me do procedures, or enabled me to scrub in on cases. That may be a little more challenging, since I know I’ll be grasping to do every case that comes my way, now that I’m finally allowed/expected to do more, and as for procedures, I’ll still be gaining confidence at doing them on my own – let alone supervising someone else. Many juniors, who seem to have ice in their veins, taught me how to place lines in coding patients, by standing back and forcing me to try myself, before they would take over. I don’t know if I can be that cool.

Correction to the last post: I guess there was one attending in the group whom I didn’t totally antagonize. If we were playing a game of “pick one attending you’d like to be on the good side of,” I’d have chosen him, since he’s powerful, and has a very sharp tongue when he’s displeased. Actually, I don’t know how, I seem to have impressed him well enough that as I spent the morning stumbling through rounds, he remarked a couple of times: “I know Dr. Alice is a very good resident. In fact, she’s one of the best we’ve had all year. I don’t know what’s happened to her this morning, but I guess we can excuse her for one day.” Mmm, thanks; I suppose there’s a limit to how many days I can work straight, no time off, pushed to the limit, pulled in a dozen different directions for critically ill patients every ten minutes, without starting to crack a little bit. So I picked a good attending to stay friendly with.

In other ways, this day has to have been one of the worst of the year. More than one patient with seriously bad outcomes, which are maybe somehow someone’s fault. I can’t honestly tell whether it’s truly my fault, but I keep getting caught in this whirlpool: I should have done something different, I really should have; could I have changed this? was it physically possible for me to be in enough places to have caught this? I should have known; I should have, I should have. Some of the more senior residents saw me standing still, I guess looking as miserable as I felt, and made some remarks that I shouldn’t get too personally involved with the patients. I told them briefly what had happened, and they backed up. “Well, as bad as that, ok.”

All year, when I breezed through things, the seniors and chiefs have told me, “We’re paranoid, and after you have enough patients get hurt around you, you’ll be paranoid too.” The last month I think does it for me, and especially the last few days. Now I know why the best doctors here are obsessive about every single detail – because you never know which detail is going to come back to bite you, maybe to kill or maim your patient.

The best junior residents I’ve watched all year were the ones who came in early and stayed late, even when they were working night shift, or post-call, to double-check on things, and watch over patients till the oncoming team had thoroughly grasped the situation. Now I know what drives them, and I resolve to simply stop caring what time of day it is. I’ll mark my hours how I please, but I’ll stay, every single time, till I know all the details, till the next team knows all the details. Nothing outside of the hospital matters compared to making sure I’ve done the best possible for every person I’m responsible for. I am sick of seeing what can happen when things slip through signout; perhaps more precisely, I’m sick of worrying about whether something slipped.

On the other hand, as I contemplate being on call the Fourth of July (I was expecting that; given the small number of junior residents, and the surgical attitude of “throw them in the deep end and see if anyone figures out how to swim,” I knew I was going to be on call very early in the month), I realize that this month, as nightmarish as it’s been, has made me feel very comfortable with handling all kinds of calls about ICU patients, and semi-comfortable with the prospect of juggling admissions, consults, and disasters by myself. I guess there’s an element of familiarity about it too: I’ve been looking ahead to this kind of responsibility for a year, and I think I know better what’s expected of me (if not what I should expect) than I did heading into internship. (Now if various seniors would just stop making rueful remarks about me being a junior in three days. I can’t tell if they’re serious or not, or how concerned they are.)

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