Narrative Medicine Monday: In Shock

Although I’ve never met her, author and critical care physician Rana Awdish on some level feels familiar. Not only are we both part of a supportive online group of physician-writers, but I just finished reading her wrenching memoir, “In Shock: My Journey from Death to Recovery and the Redemptive Power of Hope.” Awdish’s gripping account of her near-death experience, subsequent hospitalization in her own ICU and revelations about the shortcomings in both support for and education of medical providers in the realm of empathy are illuminating. Her book is infused with challenge and hope and a call to transform the way we train physicians and care for patients.

Awdish is thrust from the world of providing medicine into that of receiving it – a patient under her own colleagues’ care. The contrast of these positions of power and vulnerability are striking and Awdish describes the jarring experience and her own enlightenment as she pivots between these two roles. She shares with the reader her revelations regarding how we provide medical care to those in crisis and inspires us to find a better way.

I was particularly convicted by Awdish’s insight into how medical training encourages physicians to suppress many of our emotions. She traces this ideal back to the father of modern medicine, Sir William Osler, who encouraged “‘aequanimitas.’ Osler regarded this trait as the premier quality of a physician. It represented an imperturbability that was described as manifesting in ‘coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril.'”

Awdish asserts that as physicians “we aren’t trained to see our patients. We are trained to see pathology. We are taught to forage with scalpels and forceps for an elusive diagnosis buried within obfuscating tissues. We excavate alongside our mentors in delicate, deliberate layers, test by test, attempting to unearth disease. The true relationship is forged between the doctor and the disease.” Do you agree with Awdish’s assessment? Why or why not?

If you’re a physician, if you’re a patient: read this book. Discuss it with your colleagues, mull over it with your book club. The questions Awdish raises, the challenges she poses are vital to improving the way we care for each other in our most acute times of need.

Writing Prompt: If you’re a physician, did you learn to develop “aequanimitas” through your training? Did you feel this trait was a requirement, overtly stated or otherwise, to be a “good physician?” Have you yourself ever been a patient feeling, like Awdish, “powerless in a way that is impossible to imagine, from a privileged position of wholeness and well-being?” Awdish lists biting phrases that were directly said to her or that she overheard when she was a patient. Have you experienced similarly painful words from a medical provider? Have you said such words to a patient before? Try writing from both the patient and the medical provider’s perspectives. Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Baptism by Fire

Pediatric Intensivist Gwen Erkonen’s fast-paced essay “Baptism by Fire” was recently highlighted in one of my favorite online creative nonfiction journals, Hippocampus Magazine. The piece begins with Erkonen sitting in Grand Rounds, a newly minted attending physician. Erkonen deftly describes the apprehension and weight of responsibility all physicians experience when, after a decade of training, they are finally in charge: “Four years of medical school, three years of pediatric residency, and three more years as a pediatric critical care fellow. My time as a medical apprentice is done. I no longer have an attending physician to help me with my decision-making. I am solely responsible for my patients.”

Erkonen’s pager calls her to an excruciating emergency: a toddler with extensive life-threatening burns. The reader is thrust into the dire situation with her as she assumes care of the critical patient, running the resuscitation efforts of the medical team and communicating with the young girl’s mother in the waiting room.

Erkonen not only relays her own inner turmoil during this first challenge of her new career, she also conveys her keen observations of the other participants. The surgery resident she first meets in the trauma bay “looks cool and in control with his hands folded across his chest and a broad-based stance, but I can tell from his shaking voice he’s not sure what to do.” Erkonen’s details describing the patient’s devastated young mother gives us insight that the family’s narrative is multi-layered and tragic even before this catastrophic event: “She starts to sob, and buries her head in the older lady’s chest. Then I notice that she has a disposable Bic lighter in her hand. She keeps flicking it so that flames jump from the spark wheel…. I notice that her hands are dirty. Not from the fire but because she hasn’t showered in several days.”

Most any physician can empathize with Erkonen’s inner dialogue. Years of training doesn’t negate the adrenaline-infused uncertainty when you first encounter the incredible weight of trying to save another’s life: “Feeling like an idiot, I nonetheless plow forward.” Erkonen is unflinchingly honest in her description of the events and her vivid details leave the reader breathless, exhausted and empathetic, as if we were watching them unfold on a medical drama, yet responsible along with her.

Writing Prompt: Think of a time when you were in a new position that held intense responsibility. Maybe it was your first week as an attending physician or a new job managing a large part of your workplace. Maybe it was your first hours as a new parent. Describe your own inner dialogue and your perception of others you interacted with during that time. Alternatively, try re-writing Erkonen’s essay from the point of view of the surgical resident, the burn nurse, the patient’s mother, the priest, the trauma surgeon. Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Feeding Tube

In “Feeding Tube” author Susan Kelly-DeWitt relays a memory of paper birds that a patient’s family hung over the hospital bed “wild tropical birds, macaws and toucans, parrots and cockatoo.” The visual that Kelly-DeWitt provides is vivid. The reader comes away feeling that humanity reigns over the mechanical devices that tend to dominate the hospital landscape.

I remember very little about the physical details of the critical care hospital room where I participated in my first code as a medical student. I do remember sitting by the resident physician as he wrote his note in the patient’s chart at the nurses’ station just after the man had died. I looked across the desk into the patient’s glass-walled room, my eyes fixed on an elaborate dream catcher hung carefully, just over his bed.

Writing Prompt: The hospital can sometimes feel a like a sterile, mechanical place. Think of a moment or an item, like Kelly-DeWitt’s paper birds, that struck you as out of place or particularly telling about a certain patient, their family and their life. Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Dilemma Doctors Face

The spotlight has recently been on the opioid epidemic ravaging our country. As a primary care physician, I’m acutely aware of this issue and the challenges it poses to individuals, medical providers and the public health system as a whole. NPR’s The Takeaway recently did a program on understanding this crisis and approached it from many angles. Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote short a piece in Glamour magazine that gives a primary care physician’s perspective. In “The Dilemma Doctors Face,” Ofri notes that chronic pain is very real but differs from other chronic disease in that there is no definitive test or measurement for pain, it is subjective. “Chronic pain is real. It can ruin people’s lives. But the anvil of addiction and death can’t be ignored.” Ofri asserts that one challenge is that a system that doesn’t often pay for other ways of treating pain, such as physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, makes it easier for the medical provider to “just write a prescription.” Can you relate?

Writing Prompt: Have you or a loved one struggled with chronic pain? What were the challenges you faced when trying to find appropriate treatment? Have you or a loved one struggled with opioid addiction? What was the first sign that this had become an issue? If you prescribe opioid pain medications, how do you approach counseling patients about the risks and benefits of taking these medications? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in having this discussion? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Lithium and the Absence of Desire

Virginia Chase Sutton’s wrenching poem “Lithium and the Absence of Desire” warns of what may be lost in taking a necessary medication. She deftly describes the world before starting lithium and the reader is entranced along with her, “dozing in light and soaked color.” Despite side effects causing a graying of her world, the author dutifully takes “the medication as prescribed.” Written in second person, the reader is drawn into her longing for what she has lost and together we collectively struggle in vain: “Strain all you will but you have given desire away.”

Writing Prompt: This poem describes a negative, even devastating, side effect of a medication, yet the writer recognizes there was “No choice since you must take the pills.” Have you experienced a minor or life-altering side effect from a medication? Describe life before and after starting the medication. Did you keep taking the medication as prescribed, or did you search for a different treatment? Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Locked-in Syndrome

Pakistani bioethicist Anika Khan reviews Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable story in her essay “Locked-in syndrome: inside the cocoon.” In it, she describes how Bauby, an editor of a prominent magazine who suffered a debilitating stroke, lived out his days entirely paralyzed but with mental clarity completely intact. Bauby’s only method of communication, and how he eventually wrote his 1997 book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was by blinking with his left eyelid. He used a French alphabet provided by his speech therapist to painstakingly blink his way to communication with the outer world.

Khan relays some of Bauby’s remarkable insights into living in such a state and she also reflects on how medical providers need to take a “more empathetic look at the incapacity and helplessness experienced not only by patients with locked-in syndrome, but by analogy, other patients who have no way of giving voice to their experience of sickness. Often, patients become diseases, numbers and syndromes to healthcare professionals who have repeatedly seen illness and have lost the capacity to relate to the experiences of patients.”

Writing Prompt: Have you as a patient ever felt misunderstood by your medical provider? What were you trying to relay and what was the response that revealed to you the miscommunication? Think about your visceral reaction to this encounter. As providers, what specifically have you done to combat the risk of patients becoming “diseases, numbers and syndromes?” How do you maintain this empathy while still preserving some emotional boundaries? Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Going Solo

Nurse and writer Amanda Anderson describes the final moments of caring for a patient in the ICU in “Going Solo“.

Anderson opens the piece noting that she decides to scrub the patient’s teeth clean. Why do you think she’s determined to complete this simple act?

The author comments that this passing feels different than others because she doesn’t also have the patient’s family to nurse through the process. Her actions are per protocol, “governed only by a set of instructions:
1.  Administer pain dose once, prior to extubation.
2.  Extubate patient.
3.  Administer pain dose every three minutes for respiratory rate greater than twenty,
or obvious signs of pain, as needed.
4.  Notify house staff at time of asystole.”

How do you feel when you read through the protocol that Anderson follows? How do you think she feels and how does she convey that through her writing?

I appreciate Anderson’s candidness in immersing us in her thought process. She plays jazz for him, then realizes, what if he hates jazz? As medical providers, we only get a snippet of a patient’s life. If you’re a medical provider, have you ever wondered about a specific patient’s life outside of the hospital? How could that information inform their care? As a patient, what do you wish your medical providers knew about who you are?

Writing prompt: As a medical provider, think about a protocol you follow, a procedure or list of instructions you adhere to in a certain situation to provide care. List the steps. Now consider an unwritten protocol, such as a nurse in caring for family members throughout their loved one’s death in an ICU. List the steps. How do they compare? Alternatively, think about an encounter you’ve had in the medical world: a ten minute doctor’s office visit, visiting a friend who is hospitalized, getting or giving an immunization. Imagine the broader life of the person who was giving or getting that medical care. Consider their life narrative. Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Heroism of Incremental Care

As a primary care physician myself, I found Atul Gawande’s new article “The Heroism of Incremental Care” encouraging and empowering. The New Yorker piece highlights the importance of longitudinal care between a patient and their primary care provider.

When Gawande visits a headache clinic in Massachusetts, the physician there tells him she starts by listening to the patient: “You ask them to tell the story of their headache and then you stay very quiet for a long time.” What have you found is the most important component of a physician-patient encounter? If you are a provider, do you feel you’re always able to listen to the patient’s full story? If you’re a patient, do you feel listened to when you see your doctor?

When Gawande visits the primary care clinic in Boston, he’s told the reason primary care is important to bettering patient health is due to the “relationship”. Do you agree? Have you had a relationship with a primary care provider that has invariably improved your health over the years? If you are a primary care provider, has this been your experience with patients?

Writing Prompt: Gawande writes of the clinic he visits: “At any given moment, someone there might be suturing a laceration, lancing an abscess, aspirating a gouty joint, biopsying a suspicious skin lesion, managing a bipolar-disorder crisis, assessing a geriatric patient who had taken a fall, placing an intrauterine contraceptive device, or stabilizing a patient who’d had an asthma attack.” Think about the last time you saw your primary care provider. Write about that visit in the present tense, then project a decade or two into the future. Imagine how that visit, and many others like it, might have made a difference to your health decades from now. Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: You Will Feel A Pinch

With a title like “You Will Feel A Pinch“, I couldn’t help but read Marylyn Grigas’ poem in the Bellevue Literary Review. Whenever I’m doing an injection with a numbing medication for a procedure, I say exactly this: “You will feel a pinch, then a burn.” This is just how she begins.

There are so many phrases that I use automatically and repetitively with patients on a daily basis. Leaving the room for the patient to change for a physical exam, I inform: “The gown opens in the back, the paper drape unfolds over your legs.” Performing a Pap smear and gynecologic exam, I explain I’m going to “use my other hand to feel your uterus and ovaries and make sure I don’t feel any masses or anything abnormal.” I listen to the lungs on the back and ask the patient to “take deep breaths through your mouth”, then as I move to auscultate the lub-dub of the heart on the chest I ask them to “breathe normally.” I once had a patient laugh and reply, “What does that mean?” These phrases come out of our mouths, rote habit, without thought as to what a patient, who might be hearing those words for the first time, might perceive. 

After much trial and error you discover what tends to work to communicate with patients in a way they can understand. You begin to anticipate the questions they’ll ask, such as if the gown opens in the back or the front, and preempt with answers. But I think over time, over years, it becomes such second nature that the words fall out without pausing to think about the meaning.

Two years ago I had a skin lesion on my back that was bothering me and I asked my doctor to “burn” it off with liquid nitrogen. This type of so-called cryotherapy is a treatment I perform on others regularly. I always warn “this may sting” and have had incredibly varied responses, ranging from people barely flinching to  crying out in pain. When my own turn came I was acutely surprised at how painful it was, much more than just a “sting”, both during the application and for several days after. I developed a new empathy for the recipients of my cryotherapy treatment going forward. I shudder when I think of all the coaching phrases confidently uttered to my patients in labor a decade before I experienced labor pains myself. 

Why do you think Grigas opens her poem with this oft used warning? What does this phrase seem to make her think of? How does her poem evolve and what do you think it’s about?

Writing Prompt: Think about something you say regularly to patients, almost automatically. Unpack the phrase. Imagine yourself in the patient’s position hearing this for the first time and write from their perspective. What other things might come to mind when a patient hears this phrase? If you’re not a medical professional, can you think of sentences you’ve heard from doctors or nurses that were confusing or funny or easily misunderstood? Write about this for 10 minutes. 

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