Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Burying the message

We recently had an ant problem at home. After getting through the hot months without any real indoor ants, which are usually a summer problem in this area, we began noticing during a couple ants on the floor in late September, a little trail marching by the patio door, a few appearing under the sink...then full-on ant explosion. They were everywhere. Major ant problem. We made a valiant effort with the Trojan horse model, the little environmentally-sound childproof baits that are supposed to result in poison being carried home to the grand matriarch, then watched as our ants consistently walked a wide circle around them to get to the food remnants my 10 month old is eternally throwing on the floor. After a week or two, we gave in and called an exterminator.

A nice fellow came out, looked around, sprayed some stuff inside and out, then rang the doorbell again to give me the receipt. I thought the transaction was over, but it was just beginning. He also had a very long verbal list of suggestions of things to do to keep the ants from returning. It included removing all of the flowers from the beds adjacent to our home and sidewalk and replacing them with stone (or nothing), taking out all of our bushes whose roots might contact the home, removing the vines and other random vegetation touching our foundation, cleaning out the dishwasher filter twice a day and promptly cleaning crumbs, drips of juice, etc up when spilled, recaulking our kitchen counters and every other little gap in the kitchen, installing quarter-round moulding in several areas of the kitchen, emptying out our sandbox on the deck and powerwashing the desk, and "ideally" redoing our relatively new deck floor so that the gaps between the boards would not be so small as to provide a place for the ants to set up shop and build their nests. I'm sure I've forgotten some of them, but those were the biggies. When he started talking and told me that just spraying wouldn't be enough, we would also need to do a little work around our house, I thought, "Sure, of course, that's reasonable. He's going to tell me to try to mop the kitchen every day--I can do that, in fact, I'd like to anyway." Then the list started and went on and on and on. At some point in the list, I was amused, then kind of annoyed, and eventually came to a complete and final stop at hopeless. There was nothing to be done. We would have ants forever. So be it.

The next day in clinic, I heard myself giving a patient the list. It was a woman with cancer and a number of other medical problems, many of which were caused or exacerbated by lifestyle choices. I sensed that we had a strong connection, she was really listening for the first time ever, she seemed motivated and invested, and I had my in. This was my chance to really change her behavior. So I went for broke. I said she had to stop smoking, period. Her chemo wouldn't work as well if she continued smoking. Her breast reconstruction was more likely to be unsuccessful, from a vascular standpoint, if she continued smoking. If she survived the cancer she had, she'd be far more likely to develop another unrelated cancer if she continued smoking. She needed to eat less fat and lose some weight because we know that obesity is associated with a worse outcome, and a low-fat diet has been shown to reduce the risk of recurrence in a large randomized trial. And she should stop taking phytoestrogens--there were lots of them among her lengthy list of supplements. If she could manage to do an hour per day of exercise, that would be helpful too, and ideally, the program would include a half hour per day of the most vigorous exercise. Oh, and the other thing is...on and on and on. I saw her eyes glaze over the way mine did with the exterminator. I had her for a minute, then she looked vaguely amused, then she got a little irritated, and then she just got the zombie eyes and nodded in completely non-genuine assent. She had no intention of doing anything I asked. The requests were too numerous, too overwhelming, too unrealistic. The message--that she had the power to change her lifestyle and really impact her health in a positive way for the first time in her life--had been buried. In my enthusiasm, I had slammed shut the window of opportunity.

I saw another patient later that day who admits to smoking 3 packs a day, which probably means 4, and has for over 40 years. She also has a long list of medical issues related to lifestyle choices. At the end of the visit, I said, "I'd like to see you try to smoke less. Do you think there's any way you could cut your smoking back by one cigarette per day each week?" She said, "One less per day? That's it? Sure, I could probably cut out 2 or 3 without even missing 'em. You really think that matters, a couple cigarettes less per day, when I smoke 3 packs a day? Yeah, I can definitely do that. You watch, doc, I'll be down to 2 packs a day when I come back to see you in a couple months."

Sounds like a plan.


  1. I'm not sure where the appropriate place to leave this comment is, but I just wanted to say hello and tell you how much I enjoy this blog. I am a married, female, second year medical student. It just seems like medical school/physician's careers are not set up so as to be conducive to a family. It is so encouraging to read your insights into doing the job as females, wives and mothers. Thank you!

  2. Tempeh, that's a great insight, and one I'll use at work tomorrow (not to mention with dear husband this weekend :)). Thanks!

  3. I keep thinking about your post. Keeping the message simple; choosing one's battles. Although we can't always fix everything all at once, doing a little at a time can be more effective...


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