2020: In Brief

“Be willing to be surprised; be open to the unexpected”.

Wow. To say we had no idea what was coming our way approximately 365 days ago is an understatement. I always like to sit down and reflect a bit before the New Year because it’s a nice transition point to pause, re-evaluate, and reflect. Last year, I wrote myself a motto – “Be willing to be surprised; be open to the unexpected”.

Obviously, the pandemic was the biggest shock. Bringing with it grief, despair, death, sickness, loneliness, poverty. I understand how catching COVID could seem like small potatoes compared to losing your job, missing family, concerts, travel. Many people experience no symptoms, or very mild symptoms. But have you ever witnessed someone getting chest compressions? It’s not delicate. Bones break as you must push hard enough to pump someone’s stopped heart from the outside. When someone “codes” it seems like the entire hospital gathers outside the room. To offer assistance to the providers working hard to bring the patient back to life. Literally.

At the beginning of December, a call from my medical school came out to 4th year students like myself to help. The COVID units were overflowing with patients and the hospitals were preparing for the holiday surge of cases. After many months of pushing hospital providers to their limits they needed help.

Let me tell you, it was scary.

I feel incredibly grateful for how sheltered I’ve been from COVID. Since I’m going into General Surgery, all the patient’s I’ve worked with over the last few months have to test negative before coming to surgery. In the trauma ICU, we were considered the COVID-free ICU. December was my first time coming face-to-face with the sickest of COVID patients. I called families to update them on their loved one’s health and our plans for the day since they couldn’t come to visit. I checked labs and monitored kidney function. I did whatever I could so that the providers could go home when their shift ended instead of hours after.

Thankfully, our hospital numbers have gone down, but there are many places where cases are still spiking, and while we can certainly make space to put patients, who is going to take care of them? There are only so many nurses, respiratory therapists, nurse assistants, doctors, housekeeping staff.

It’s exhausting always feeling like we have to weigh the risks of our decisions. But we need to keep doing just that.

I got the first dose of the vaccine (will get the second soon), but I will continue to check in with my choices before I walk out the door. To protect my family, my friends, my loved ones, and then ultimately to protect you because we are all connected.

As I’m sure you can relate, I’m hoping for a little less of the unexpected this coming year. More certainty sounds nice. But, if life has taught me anything it’s that uncertainty is for certain. So, while I pray for some peace and certainty, I’ll keep on trying my best to live in the moments and love the people who come my way.

This will be my motto for 2021: “Ask more questions than I answer – seek to understand”.

//Seasons Change//

We started this season with the blooming of new life and increasing sunlight, yet things felt dark and uncertain. We didn’t understand the virus or its impact on us. We were figuring things out as we went. 

Day-by-day. Week-by-week.

Now, here we are, and the weather has changed again. The leaves that once sprung from nothing have dropped to the earth. The days are shorter, the temperature colder. The only constant is the raging of an invisible war claiming the lives of many.

We entered a new normal of mask wearing, elbow bumping, and panic every time you wake up feeling a little less than 100%.

Is this COVID? I asked myself when my alarm went off at 4 am. As I pulled myself out of bed and dressed for the hospital the list of questions ran through my head.

  • Headache? Yes, but that’s always there. I should probably drink more water today.
  • Cough? No.
  • Sore throat? No.
  • GI upset? No.
  • Fever? No.
  • Can I Smell? Taste?  Yep. Thank goodness.  

No new symptoms other than fatigue. 

Over these last few months I’ve caught myself wishing the days to pass faster – “We just need to get through this to the other side”.

But what if we leaned in a little more? What would we find?

At the beginning of 2020 I wrote that I wanted to be willing to be surprised, and to be open to the unexpected. We have certainly been surprised, and 2020 has been full of the unexpected, both good and bad.

Some of the things I’ve been incredibly grateful for have only happened because of the pandemic. Things like:

  • Facetime in general
  • Facetime celebrations of love
  • Backyard brunch and dinner
  • Drive-in movie theaters
  • Learning to fly fish
  • Park gatherings with loved ones
  • Date nights at home

What have you been grateful for since the start of the pandemic?

Black//White

I remember the first time I became consciously aware of my whiteness and the lack of racial diversity I experienced growing up.  It wasn’t when I first moved to Atlanta, but actually much later when I flew home to Colorado. It was a late-night flight when I stepped off the plane at DIA and started walking to the train. I looked around at all my fellow travelers, the employees closing up airport stalls and other staff thinking, “Gosh, where are all the Black people?”.

I remember the first time I became aware of institutionalized racism in the United States. I was 26 years old and it was called “Redlining”. A practice that allowed banks to deny mortgage and loan applications for credit worthy Black people in specific neighborhoods. Notably, this was backed by the US Government.

My astonishment at the fact that this was a legitimate practice lead me to dig deeper which lead me to the book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. An extremely well-researched telling of the disproportionate incarceration of Black men in the United States. Effectively, stripping these men of their individual rights to vote, own homes, raise families and participate as equals in this society, compared to the White men committing the exact same crimes and getting away with them.

Excuse me, what?

Next, I began to learn how racism impacts health. Not in the direct way that you might think because Black people don’t experience unique diseases. We all have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, substance use disorder…the list goes on. What Black people do experience is worse outcomes. Why is that the case?

Well there’s distrust of the health care system (Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Henrietta Lacks), lack of Black physicians caring for Black patients, the effects of generational stress and hardship, redlining that dictates you only have access to housing in certain neighborhoods that don’t have access to safe parks, healthy groceries, good air quality, reliable transportation.

Health is not simply the absence of disease. 

In May when Amaud Arbery was shot while out on a run in his neighborhood, I too went for a run. Then I thought about how meaningless of a gesture that felt as the hardest part for me was summoning the motivation to get out the door. I never once feared for my life as I jogged down the sidewalk.

In June when the officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck as he whispered, “I can’t breathe” I saw the surge of social media posts declaring silence as an act of racism. But, I struggled to find the words to say. I remember wondering if I should speak out, share posts, exert my opinion on a topic that I am in no position of expertise to discuss. I felt paralyzed by the conflict between my desire to listen and learn and the cry to act and demand justice.

Of note – it doesn’t escape me the irony of those words. I struggled to speak from the safety of my home while black lives are lost while literally struggling to breathe. This is my privilege.

This feels like too little, too late, as I’ve sat on these words for too long. We will always feel overwhelmed when it comes to starting something that challenges us. Simply think back to your messy childhood bedroom when it came time to pick things up. Okay, I’ll think back to mine… It was daunting and I didn’t ever know where to start. But I did start, and eventually order was returned. I think the same goes for here, even though it won’t be easy to take that first step.  Perhaps though, after the first step, the next few will be easier. So, it’s time I spoke out. It’s time to get uncomfortable. To have the difficult conversations.

I’m asking you to come alongside. To hold me accountable. To allow me to hold you accountable. We can’t do this alone. 

Sources for fact-checking and further reading:

  • Owens, D.C., Fett, S.M. Black Maternal and Infant Health: Historical Legacies of Slavery. American Journal of Public Health. 2019.
  • Pachecho, C.M., et al. Moving Forward: Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust Between American Indians and Researchers. American Journal of Public Health. 2013.
  • Rodriguez, M.A., Garcia, R. First, Do No Harm: The US Sexually Transmitted Disease Experiments in Guatemala. American Journal of Public Health. 2013.
  • Brandt, A.M. Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report 8(6): 21-29.

Did I Get a Gold Star?

What is success?

I’ve asked myself this question a lot in the last few months as I’ve battled with thoughts of comparison and self-doubt. My performance has been under the microscope as we hastily wrap up our third year of medical school where our grades are mostly determined through individual evaluations by our clinical preceptors. For them it’s a task on their to-do list, but for me these comments have impacts on my future opportunities. That feels like a lot of responsibility for a couple of sentences typed into a box on the internet.

As their words appeared on my screen some of them made me stop to think, “Is this enough to…?” To get the ranking, the membership to some society, the job at that residency program, to get the gold star. I wasn’t sure.

A conversation with a mentor has helped me start to shift my perspective. She validated my feelings, but then went one step further to suggest that perhaps my definition of success could come within. She challenged me to answer the question – what is success?

This past year success has looked like my patients telling me they would want me as their doctor in the future. It’s looked like someone telling me they trust me. Success has been making space for important people in my life outside of medicine. It’s been performance on exams, but it’s also knowing that this information I’ve learned will help me change a life. Success was overcoming my fears, trusting myself and leaning into the difficult and tireless moments. It’s reflection, tears and humanity.

The combination of letters in my evaluations might tell the story that I can take a good history and present it in a clear and concise manner. They might say that I’ve learned the neuro exam and have been a good advocate for my learning. But those are only a piece of the story and they’re missing all of the details.

I had the day before Thanksgiving off, but I had just finished a week on in-patient medicine and one of my patients was still in the hospital. I decided I would go visit her because she seemed so lonely, and I didn’t want her to feel alone around the holiday. We sat and talked about how she was feeling, then she told me about her family and what they normally do for Thanksgiving. As I was getting ready to leave, her eyes filled with tears and she looked at me and said, “Can I ask you to do me a favor?” “Yes, anything” I replied. She said, “Tell your Mom and Dad that they should be proud”.

That’s the gold star. Those are the details worth mentioning.

Equity//Equality

Are we playing at being God when we are forced to choose who gets the single remaining ventilator? When we decide to withdraw care in order to free up scarce resources?

Who will be there to pick up the pieces for these physicians who are making these decisions that no human was meant to face?

So, we create recommendations and positions for people who aren’t involved in direct patient care to decide. It makes it less emotional. We distance ourselves from the humanity of it all to protect ourselves from the trauma.

I have to wonder though…

Do the algorithms and guidelines consider things like unconscious bias when they ask us to decide who will be more likely to survive if a treatment was allocated to them?

They say that the triage protocols are being developed using population data based on several social determinants of health. Consider if you had asthma because your childhood home had mold. Or that your hemoglobin A1c is off the charts because your only access to groceries is the local convenience store. Will these metrics decide that you don’t get the ventilator because your survivability is lower compared to the person who has grown up in a safe, stable household?

What about decades of institutionalized racism? Do the flow sheets account for the reason why a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic individuals have co-morbidities because of a society that undermines and diminishes their rights as humans?

**this post was originally written on 4/5/2020

We Spin On

**trigger warning**

A family friend shot himself in the head last week.

Is that jarring?

I thought so.

He’s still alive, but probably not for much longer. Going home on hospice care because the ventilators are needed for other people who want to live.

Anger. Sadness. Despair. There is no room for second chances here.

How did we get to this place? Where doctors have to decide who lives and who dies due to a shortage of supplies? Where we desperately use a single mask for a week?

It’s covered in virus.

We have a president who thinks we are okay because this is America and we have been made great again.

Dare I ask, what are we great at? Self-preservation for one as evidenced by empty grocery shelves and stocked cabinets of those who can afford to spend extra at the market.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed greatness through simple acts of kindness. Humans being humans and looking out for one another. Through individual states who had led the way to protect the vulnerable. The grass that’s beginning to turn green outside my window.

Though it may seem that the world is on pause while the coronavirus wreaks havoc.

The Earth still spins.

24 hours per rotation.

**this post was originally written on 3/29/2020

Who Sets This Curve?

In college, there were always those students who “set the curve”. They did the best on exams and therefore defined how the grading would play out for the rest of the class. We have a different kind of curve on our hands, but we all play a role in how this curve is set. We will all play a role in who will be beneath the curve and how steep or flat it ultimately becomes.

At first, I thought that I was outside this curve. I’m 28, young, healthy and exposed to viruses on a regular basis at the hospital. I had a trip to Paris planned for as soon as I finished third year. We were going to sip on wine and eat baguettes. I didn’t care if I got sick after the trip, as long as I got to go. This was in February, as we were first starting to see flights canceled and the numbers spread. Still, we held onto our trip.

Then, in the beginning of March I participated in a tour of community resources for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Accompanying me on the tour was a physician who cares specifically for the IDD population and I heard her express concern over how COVID-19 was going to impact this community. What would happen to them if their primary caregivers became sick? What would happen to Day Programs where many people with IDD go during the day if someone who attended became sick and still went?

I grew concerned when I began to see first-hand who was going to be impacted the most.

I still didn’t want to give up my regular schedule. There were only 6 weeks left in my third year and I had patients I was looking forward to seeing back in clinic. I had skills I was looking forward to perfecting. I had surgeries I was looking forward to scrubbing in on. Pausing clinical rotations was a devastating turn of events. But then, I thought about how many people I interacted with on a daily basis when I was working in the clinics. I did the math. At least 25 people in one day. How many others do those 25 contact in a day? I understand now how things go viral.

Maybe I will be outside this curve meaning that I won’t get sick, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability to affect it.

So, I stay home and hope that others do too.

We get to determine how this plays out.

We get to decide to flatten the curve.

There Are Lessons to Be Learned

I sank to the floor and tears rolled down my cheeks when I read the email titled “Pause to Third Year Clerkships”. I was trying to stay calm before this huge decision, but I felt overwhelmed and out of control the moment it was made. Between the stresses of finishing up third year, studying for final exams, choosing a specialty and planning for our fourth year this was the straw to break my camel’s back.

What would happen next for us?

It’s been over one week since the news that brought me to my knees. In the last week, I’ve been on numerous virtual calls while spending a lot of time with my cat. I went to the grocery store and bought a half-dozen eggs because that was all that was left. I learned how to put a phone on hold, transfer calls, and checked on my grandma to make sure she didn’t go to her regular card playing event.

No one knows the answers, but my school has jumped at the chance to use this pandemic as an opportunity to learn, to grow as leaders, to serve our communities in other ways than with direct patient care. We are open to allowing these uncertain times shape and mold us for the better. That being said, it would be dishonest to say that I’m not worried for what will happen next or wonder how this will all pan out.

At the end of the day, I’m incredibly thankful for the lessons I’m learning and the grace that there is for everyone who is just figuring it out as we go. 2020 will be the year of rolling with it and we will come out stronger no matter the course set before us.  

Another Cancellation

COVID-19

This seems to be the word on everyone’s lips. Followed by anxiety, fear, astonishment and uncertainty. We get multiple emails a day with updates but even that doesn’t feel like enough. It’s changing rapidly and now I’m sitting in my apartment for what feels like the 100th hour practicing “social distancing”.

We aren’t canceling events because the virus is incredibly dangerous to the healthy many, but because it poses a threat to those of us who aren’t privileged enough to have strong immune systems. It poses a threat to our capacity as healthcare workers to properly treat and heal, because even though we are the great United States, and we spend almost 18% of our GDP on healthcare, we still have limits. Limits that exist in the form of ICU beds, ventilators, doctors, nurses, and even N95 masks.

This is why we are isolating. It’s not for our own personal benefit, but for the benefit of other humans. Does that make it any easier to swallow?

Even as I sit here, I struggle with the need to do something, the feeling that all will be okay, while also heading the advice of the experts.

On my clinical rotations, I feel like a nuisance. I’m “non-essential staff”, technically they can treat and care for patients without me. I’ve been told not to see patients with fever, cough, or shortness of breath as their chief complaint. We aren’t allowed in the OR’s in order to save masks for those who need them. ED shifts are being canceled and the communication from the medical school administration are too few and too vague. They too don’t know the answers that we all desperately want to have. I feel pushed to the side while the real doctors are overwhelmed with the prospect of pandemic.

This feeling of helplessness when you’ve been training to be the exact opposite is something I’ve struggled with all year. What do we do when we can’t do anymore?

I think the answer is LOVE. We meet people where they are and say, “I’m here with you”.

And while I stand the recommended 6 feet away, we’re in this together.

This isn’t about me, or you, but about us.

Not My Patagonia

I slowed my pace as I walked from the Emergency Department CT scanner back to my computer in Care Unit 1. My shoes briefly disturbed the down that had settled on the floor. Gravity pulled it back to the ground. 

As I passed the recess bay, my eyes turned to where more feathers rested amidst the gloves discarded in haste and drops of blood left behind on the sanitized stage. He was in the hands of the trauma surgeons now with act two listed as a pelvic artery embolization, followed by an appearance in the operating theater. For a moment, the emergency department had returned to calm as the actors dispersed at the end of a rehearsed performance.

He came to us for help after he was struck by a car. The charge nurse told the room as we prepared for his arrival by ambulance, “pedestrian versus motor vehicle”. My preceptor would later draw an image on a sticky note for me; pictured was a car and stick figure as they made contact. One of our learning points for the day would be the classic pattern of injuries seen in these types of situations.

Who was he, our main character? John Doe, a man who happened to be wearing a blue Patagonia jacket when he became the victim of an unfortunate accident. The EMS team wheeled him in and the room sprang to action; a dance unfolded before my eyes. We methodically assessed his airway, breathing and circulation. “Do we have a blood pressure yet?” 80/40. “Let’s get some fluids running.” He shouted in pain when we pressed on his pelvis. We wrapped him in a pelvic binder. Abdominal ultrasound didn’t show any free fluid, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. We rushed to the scanner in search of more information. There was a blush down in his pelvis on CT, a sure sign of ongoing bleeding and an explanation for his soft pressures.

It was almost a comical scene as I recalled the feathers marking his path through the hospital, the lead trauma surgeon failing to remove them from his pant leg while we waited for the scans, the suppressed laughter from the staff watching these repeated attempts, the EMT apologizing for creating this mess.

But, what was this mess? Would John have made a different decision on his choice of outerwear had he known that he would later be center stage?

In the wake of John’s appearance in the ED, we lamented the inconvenience of the feathers and commented on how we would continue to find them in various corners of the department for weeks to come. My preceptor and I discussed the sticky note. I wondered how he was doing in the next act. In the midst of this tragedy, I wondered if John would be upset upon finding his down jacket ruined and scattered across the hospital halls? Would he find some humor from the way he entered from stage right? Or would it not matter that his coat was destroyed in the effort to save his life?

It wasn’t my Patagonia, but it’s caused me to pause all the same.

Since that morning in the ED, I’ve had the chance to visit and learn more about who John is. When I told him about the jacket, a knowing smile erupted on his face and his eyes pointed to the cupboard in his hospital room – “It’s in there”.