Showing posts with label clinical practice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label clinical practice. Show all posts

Monday, September 19, 2016

Living Your Questions

I’m sure you’ve heard Sheryl Sandberg's advice to women, "Don't Leave Before You Leave". Well, several years ago, I faced some choices. I had finished Family Medicine Residency the year prior. As planned, I did a series of temporary positions filling in for other doctors - the usual course of action for new grads in my field and location. These experiences were crucial in showing me the kind of practice style and environment I desired. After a year, though, I longed for "my" patients - to be able to get to know people, and follow them over time, both personally and clinically. It was unsatisfying to frequently step into a new clinic environment, never knowing how complete (or legible) the patients' charts would be, and never being able to follow a patient for very long.

Then, I filled in for a colleague's vacation at a great clinic and I didn't want to leave. Another doctor there asked for maternity leave coverage and I happily obliged. It was so refreshing: the clinic physicians were collegial, the staff was efficient and professional, and the electronic medical records system worked like a dream. The great news was that they had room for me to start a practice there. 

This idea daunted me: was I ready to commit to a practice? I wasn't sure, actually, because Family Medicine has its challenges and those that concerned me most were dealing with patients whose expectations greatly conflicted with what treatment I was comfortable providing, as well as assessments of disability for which I felt woefully untrained and unqualified.  I also had interests beyond clinical medicine - in academics, including medical education and research. Wouldn’t it be great not to be tied down? Many of my colleagues continue doing locums for years, and have great freedom and flexibility. Finally, my husband and I wanted to start our family: wasn't it foolish to start a practice when planning a pregnancy? I had uncertainties, and wasn't sure what was the best next step. 

I went for it anyway. I read and reflected on a couple of things: one, that I owe it to myself and potential patients to try practicing "real" Family Medicine. I knew it was the only way I'd find out whether I liked it. After all, having your own patients and directing their clinical care is so different than covering for another physician -- you set the tone of your practice. Further, I came across this powerful statement during that time - "if your next step doesn't scare you a bit, you're not pushing yourself hard enough”, which further reinforced my decision. This, I might add, is quite uncharacteristic for me - I am a very careful decision-maker. And the truth is, for the first few months, I still wasn’t sure that I had made the right decision.

Nearly six years later, I love having my own practice.  I get to establish a rapport with my patients, and partner with them on their journey to improve their health. I have been able to really delve into the problem-solving that makes medicine so engaging. I was also able to serendipitously find and develop an interest in refugee health.  Skill-building in this fairly new, actively growing field added another dimension to my practice, and allowed me to incorporate teaching with medical students and residents and involvement in community initiatives. 

As it turned out, it took my husband and I longer than anticipated to conceive. We are now grateful to have two young children, and I’m grateful that after each maternity leave I looked forward to returning to my practice. The experience of being completely unsure of my decision brings to mind these lovely words by Rainer Maria Rilke, which I first encountered several years before, during another period of uncertainty:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Saturday, August 6, 2016

In praise of skin

Another work post from the burn unit, Kamuzu Central Hospital, Lilongwe, Malawi. I want to tell you about dressing change days, and interject a little ode to skin. I wrote a version of this for my private blog, but wanted to share with you all as well. As always, thanks for reading these ramblings!

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays bring dressing changes in the burn unit. This means that every patient—as many as 42, plus the many others who come in from home just to get their dressings changed--line up at the end of the hallway and wait their turn, while 3-4 intrepid nurses unwind and wind miles of bandages, slather ointments, and squirt morphine into their mouths. Except when there is no morphine. Then it’s diclofenac, which is, I imagine, the equivalent of getting a swig of ibuprofen right before you get scalped alive.

Walk with me. From the outside, down a dark hallway filled with people, toward the light at the back and up the stairs, three flights. The staircase is open to the outside and on each flight there's a big window with a view of the city--today it's hazy and hot, so the buildings are distant under a screen of red dirt and smog--but it's not airy or breezy. The stairs are worn from countless people walking up and down it for years, and on the second flight a woman wearing yellow wellington boots is mopping, with a broom that's seen better days and concrete-colored water. On the third floor we briefly bump along behind two policemen, big guns swinging freely, talking exuberantly and walking oh-so-slooooooowly—and finally we arrive on the third floor, and walk down the hallway to 3B, the burn unit.

Before you open the door, take a little deeper of a breath, for you're about to experience that smell. On a good day you manage to take 3 steps inside before it hits--the odor of maize meal cooked into grits-like porridge, or a paste, or a hard cake (nsima); of bodies, urine and boiled cabbage, dirty wounds, feet, doughnuts, and fear--and then you see the mother carrying her five year old daughter wrapped up like a mummy with an IV tube sticking out of her neck--and you feel ashamed for even noticing the smell.

There are six rooms, 4 beds each, lining the hallway to your right. Linking them is the open breezeway down which you’re walking, which opens onto a shared courtyard where people dry their laundry and family members cook their meals. On the other side of the rooms is another hallway, the khonde, or “outside,” which becomes another long communal room during the months when there are more patients in the unit than there are beds. During the cold season—June, July, August—the khonde is full.

Two boys, aged four and six, one with a bulky bandage around his leg and the other with a belly dressing, are playing with a glove balloon, and you toss it back and forth with them for a little while, their smiles lighting up the day.


Are you procrastinating? We have to keep walking down the hallway, to the room at the end, where all those people are queued up, since that’s where all the action takes place. Each mother dons a protective plastic gown and gloves and takes the child—the median age here is 3—on her lap. The mothers hold the children down. The first trial begins, that of forcing the morphine into the children's mouths. Most take it willingly, especially ones who have been here a while, but sometimes they purse their lips, or cry, or swat with their arms. It doesn't matter if the morphine trickles inside or outside of their mouths--there is no refill and the dressing change happens with or without it.

Next, the nurses soak the bandages in saline to help with removal. Since there are 42 patients and 3 nurses, waiting for a complete soak would take way too long. Some of the kids start screaming in the hallway; some when the mothers take them on their laps; some with the morphine; but all of them are screaming by this point. These kids are burned over 10-40% of their bodies, on average; over all possible body parts; in two main ways: they scald themselves or catch themselves on fire. It's the cold season in Malawi, no one has heat at home, and very few people have stoves; cooking happens over open fires, outdoors, and accidents happen frequently. Malawi is burnin', y'all:




Skin gets so much criticism. We stare at our pimples as teenagers and wish them away; at our wrinkling faces as adults, and hate their testament of the passage of time. We scrutinize moles and massage cellulite; we want elasticity and spend millions on creams and lotions that promise to keep us looking young. Even as we enjoy skin's gift of touch, in embraces, caresses, and kisses, we resent and focus on its fragility, its ability to hurt, and too often, its color. We don't appreciate scars. Skin should be blemish-less and baby-soft. Not at all like the skin I see in front of me--discolored, twisted, partially healed, in some cases with the tell-tale cheesecloth appearance of a healed skin graft. This is beautiful skin because it works in its intended way: not as pretty packaging but as a barrier to infection and pain, as the selectively permeable wrapper that allows the rest of the body’s functions to proceed uninterrupted and unthreatened, with just enough openings to allow a regulated exchange with our environment.

It's the absence of skin that exposes its absolute necessity. This six year old girl being unwrapped now has full thickness burns (what we used to call third degree) over 55% of her body: anterior and posterior thorax, both legs, both arms, a bit of face and neck, buttocks. Her big, deep brown eyes look at me with tears trickling down her cheeks as her mother’s helper raises the IV bag above her head and arranges it so the tubing is not kinked. This is a bad burn: flame generally causes deeper burns than hot water, and in this case, it looks like her clothes were on for some time, and the contact did a lot of damage. Like countless others, she was playing with her friends and tripped into a fire, where her clothes caught the flame. She cries, but not much: a bad sign. Although we teach that full thickness burns are insensate, since by definition the heat has destroyed the skin's sensory apparatus, not everything burns to the same depth, and partial thickness areas surround most full thickness burns—and those do feel pain. Her name is Chisomo, meaning Grace. She will die in 3 days.

I think about the ones we can’t save, back home, and here. I hold on to them for motivation to keep studying, keep waking up, keep leaving my family, and keep trying—and to honor their memory, although I see them usually only in a dehumanized form, although I know them usually only as bodies wrapped in dressings and not as children chasing goats, eating mangoes or diving into the lake. Knowing what makes a patient human makes me a better doctor but it also hurts more—and many times I don’t want to admit they are people because doing so makes me transiently incapable of returning to work. It’s like this in the States and it’s definitely like this here. The constant blur of activity insulates you from processing both the good and the bad, but both stay with you, and sometimes when you get a breather it all comes out, and it’s very hard to figure out what to do with all of it—so I try to just notice it and not cry, and carry on, because in the end, there are more of the ones who get to be human again than the ones who don’t, and so you keep going. As shown by the parents and patients in this burn unit, every day, with their smiles, their high fives, and their endurance, despair is a luxury. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Zuckerberg: Space Does Matter

Hello everybody!  I am one new to the group and just wanted to introduce myself.  I'm originally from Massachusetts, currently a Bay Area Internal Medicine Hospitalist with a 2 year old daughter, siberian husky (mini) and techie hubbie.  Hope to contribute some entertaining stories.  The following is something I wrote last month after we moved into our new hospital. 

            The ‘space’ can make a difference.   I had already spent two years working as a physician/hospitalist at San Francisco General Hospital, and I had become accustomed to the old building and all its challenges.  Fast forward to the end of May 2016 to one my first shift working in the new building … Zuckerberg San Francisco General (ZSFG/The Zuck); change had never felt so good.
            I walked across the bridge connecting our old building to the new ZSFG which consisted of expansive windows and white beams that outlined the hall. It was a sunny day in San Francisco, and I was able to witness it for once.  At the entrance there was a quote etched into the wall  “Be the person who touches the lives and hearts of people. Be a positive light to others as you put a smile on their faces”.  I found myself taking a brief pause and a smile was taking form and there was no stopping it. 
            Onwards I trudged, only to be greeted by a security officer who looked at my badge, and then said ‘Good Morning Doctor’.  As I stepped off the large steel elevator onto the 6th floor, different routes presented themselves; I was warned about this and the likely confusion that would ensue. Nonetheless, the room numbers were highlighted with San Franscisco themed unit names like “Mission Dolores” and I walked to the zone I needed to get to.  The heavy blue doors which were often manually opened were now beige and badge activated, opened by a mere hand wave.   This might sound trivial given that its 2016, but let me emphasize that it is not.  The design of the building was doing work for me instead of me pushing my way through everything.  
            Now came the real test…how were the actual work floors and units.  What struck me immediately was the lack of noise; it was completely quiet! A brief instance of panic set in and I thought, ‘ Oh my god, I’m on the wrong floor…. Is this the morgue’ but no, I was exactly where I needed to be.  As I walked further around, there was a spacious work station with an lcd screen showing patient room information and nursing assignments with call numbers. 
            The time had come to finally enter my patients’ rooms.  I knocked and then with ease opened the door only to find my patient sitting in bed comfortably with the most spectacular backdrop of the city I had ever seen. The room had ceiling to floor windows that beautifully displayed San Francisco at its finest, and the sunlight poured in.  I sat down at his bedside, and began to go through my assessment and learn about his concerns.  Usually at this point I would be raising my voice to overcome my patient’s neighbor who was either watching television, or talking to others in the old building.  The rooms had no natural light, so lights always had to be turned on, which was of course bothersome for many as some patients were sleeping, and others were not.  The rooms were also filled with walkers, trays, and other medical equipment that were strewn about as there was minimal space, and it became an obstacle course for staff, patients, and family whenever anyone moved about in the room.    Now with this all gone, feng shui was in full effect.  I reviewed the plan with the patient, and calmly exited the room.  As I entered the next patient’s room, similar exchanges and observations happened.  With my mind unburdened by the environment, I just focused on the subject at hand.  My patients too were not being set off by surrounding stimuli; they now had peace and quiet.
            I finally ended that morning with some downtime in one of the new provider rooms to start the lovely exercise of completing my documentation, and again I was struck by the silence.  It was like a library where I actually had the space and time to think about what I was doing.
            Noise and chaos was often the defining feature of our intense environment, and as faculty and staff, we perfected our ability to deliver high quality care to our troubled and sick patients despite our surroundings.  Now with ZSFG, San Franciscans along with our many generous donors have contributed to a building that has shifted the mileu of our work environment.   My patients now have a space that truly honors them in tough times and gives them the space within which to heal.  As a provider, I now have the space to work more seamlessly and to think and reflect on my work.  Of course our space is not perfect, but you have to start somewhere right? So let the healing begin…

Friday, June 17, 2016

On Five Year Plans

This is a throw-back to a MiM post back in 2013 that really resonated with me at the time, and still does, in which T writes about someone asking her, "Do you have a five year plan?"

When asked this recently, I fumbled. Actually, I tossed back the answer, asking the asker to mentor me through getting such a plan. It wasn’t even someone who knew me well and it had been asked in a fairly casual way. Regardless, I was not able to answer the question. But if I were to answer it, the answer would be, “No I do not.”


The comments that followed included other MiMs stating that they too did not have five year plans. People cited living in the present, and checking in periodically to ensure satisfaction and fulfillment, but not necessarily a structured plan. Others did have plans, which they found informed their present-day decisions. I was on maternity leave with my first when I read this post, and was feeling very unmoored. I felt that I should have a very clear path of where I wanted to go in my career.

I remember being asked the same question by a male faculty member during my first week of medical school. I fumbled too, as I entered medical school interested in family medicine but open to possibilities. My surgeon-keener classmate piped in with his plan for surgical specialty x, making me feel even more self-conscious. In retrospect, I don't blame myself one bit. I think some people do well with a well-defined, honed-in focus. Others, like myself, find the goals harder to identify; my priorities have to emerge - they can't be easily forced out.

I have broad goals - community contribution through medicine and beyond, strong faith and family, a healthy lifestyle. I have diverse interests; one is health equity, which has led me to refugee health. Various other interests have led me to different projects over the years.

I do find it helpful to have short-term career priorities; a necessary honing-in to avoid over-commitment and burnout. Dr. Mamta Gautam, the Canadian physician wellness expert, tells physicians that as people who have plenty of interest and enthusiasm about many things, there will always be more interesting things that we want to do, more than we could possibly have time for. So, it is a matter of choosing and narrowing down options.

Right now, I'm focusing on clinical work, local refugee health coordination efforts, and writing - both here, and on a blog aimed at patients. I supervise learners periodically, but have flexibility. There have been other tempting opportunities recently, but I have declined them in order to preserve family and self care time. Personally, I need regular downtime. I schedule a day off every month, sometimes more. I need some "empty space" on the horizon in my calendar, which can involve self care time, and sometimes catch-up work and projects. With two young kids, I've found the regular days off invaluable for recharging.

With the births of my two children, the last four years have been full of transitions. I think motherhood fits naturally with evolving priorities and goals. I look forward to more changing priorities over time. And I'm still OK with not having a five-year plan.

Monday, May 9, 2016

What does it really mean to be a mother in medicine?

As in, in real life, day-to-day, down and dirty?

Genmedmom here.

I'm working on a writing project about being a mother in medicine in practice. This is going to be the everyday stuff: the logistics, the scheduling, the practical aspects, the balancing, the conflict. Funny stories, lessons learned, suggestions, and mistakes.

As I was thinking about this project, I realized that my experience in clinical practice is drastically different from women in other specialties. There's no way I can write this without input from moms in every area of medicine!

Things I was wondering about:

When I was pregnant, it never occurred to me not to tell people. I can't keep a secret to save my life. But I have colleagues who kept their bumps hidden for as long as humanly possible, for many different reasons: worries about discrimination; fears of being passed over for promotion; superstition. What did folks out there do? If you felt like you had to hide your pregnancy, how did you, and for how long? Looking back, what do you think, was it necessary?

What about those specialities where there is risky occupational exposure, I'm thinking radiology, surgical subspecialties… How did you manage that in pregnancy? If you needed to step out of the room, how did your colleagues react?

A lot of doctor-moms don't take a full three months of maternity leave. Some take more. Does this vary a lot by specialty? Did folks feel pressured to take less than three months? Did anyone have to fight for three months?

I never pumped at work. (Long story.) For the moms that did, can you share some of the good and the bad? Were offices and hospitals supportive or not? Were facilities acceptable or not? What were your worst pumping experiences? Would you do it again?

As a general internist with no inpatient duties, my call weekends involve, well, phone calls. What is it like for doctor-moms who have to go in? For the surgeons and anesthesiologists out there, is it better to be on call from the hospital or from home?

My office clinic is low-key enough that if I need to, I can step out and answer a phone call from my kids' teachers or the school nurse. But what about for moms working in the operating room or the ICU or on a busy inpatient floor? If you need to step away to take care of your family, are you supported?

My husband travels, and occasionally, I've had to cancel a clinic day to stay home with the kids: blizzard closed the schools, kids throwing up… Have others needed to cancel their workdays for childcare? Did colleagues make you feel bad, or did they step up? For those who haven't or can't, how do you manage those unforeseen events, the school cancellations and nasty illnesses?

I am eternally grateful that I can work part-time. I know that not all physicians approve of that. For those working full-time, how do you make that work? What supports and systems need to be in place for you?

And of course there are more questions, more scenarios… We can all learn from each other!
All specialties should have representation. I would love to hear what you have to say.

Don't feel comfortable commenting here? Email me: mauroratello2@gmail.com