Mama Heart

A sticky blue flurry with tangled, blonde hair attack-hugs my leg as I open the garage door, home from work after an exhausting day. It’s my 6-year-old daughter. It’s as if she’s been waiting by the edge of the mudroom all day, ready to pounce at the first sound of our mudroom door alarm open.

The force of her weight on me is the human embrace I need to let me know I am home.

I am home.

I am home. 

It is the deep, long sigh I need to start to wash the heaviness away.

I gently peel her off my leg, promising real hugs and snuggles once I am clean. I obsessively wash my cracked, dry hands one more time. Shower. Put on clean clothes. I am so tired, but now I feel safe, and now I feel I can pick her up, smoosh her face against mine, and tickle her neck with my nose.

My mind starts to quiet, my adrenaline starts to still, and my heart transitions through its rollercoaster of emotions. My 6-year-old sits curled up in my lap. She holds my cheeks with her sticky, sweaty hands. Half holding my attention, half distracted by the fun of squishing my cheeks. “Mommy, when I’m a doctor, can I come to work with you?” she tilts her head and looks up at me.

My heart soars and sinks. I don’t know how this is possible, but the way a mom’s heart can stretch and bend, isn’t something science can explain. I am so proud of this little girl that has ambition, and knows she can do anything her mind and motivation set forth to do, but I cannot help but wonder what challenges she will face in adulthood that parallels that of a global pandemic. 

I think about my own mama’s heart. How her heart burst with the greatest pride to see me give a speech in front of my medical school class on graduation day. How her heart soared with me when I matched at the residency program of my dreams. How her heart felt full the first time she saw me in a white coat with stethoscope slung around my neck. How her heart felt joy seeing me walk down the aisle in a white dress. How her heart expanded to make room for more the first time she held her grandkids in her arms. 

Then I think about what this pandemic has meant for her heart. How her heart has pounded so fast on sleepless nights worrying about if I have the PPE I need to keep me safe. How her heart has brimmed with crippling anxiety waiting for my call on my way home from work, because that is the reassurance she needs to know that I am okay. How her heart has ached with hollowness over the last 10 months of missing me and not being able to see me in person and hug me. How her heart has sunk down low alongside mine when she has caught me in a drained, helpless, or defeated place, weighed down by the patients that have affected me that day.

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen my mom. It goes without saying, I have never gone over a year without seeing my parents. And it breaks my heart, but I love them too much to suggest putting them at risk. My mom is 76-years-old. I have seen 76-years-olds struggle in ways I will never forget. I’ve seen them struggle to breathe, struggle to keep food down, struggle to live. 

My mom, who is not on social media, sees my face only on Facetime, and I see half her forehead and one eyebrow as she tries to figure out where this mysterious hidden camera is in her phone. She inspects my face and tells me how I need to pat my face after each face wash so the skin around my mouth isn’t so dry and flaky. She dismisses my protests that I can’t help what my mask does to my face. She rapid fire gives me instructions for recipes of “quick easy meals” I can make so I can have something at the ready to eat at work, thinking quick easy recipes will combat the fact that I need to keep my N95 mask on and physically and logistically simply cannot eat for the duration of my work shifts regardless of what recipes I make. 

Every time I call her—she doesn’t dare call me, she is convinced I must always be working or sleeping, and both would be terrible to disturb—she asks me if I am still seeing “the COVID-19 patients” and if I ate yet today. “Yes Mom. From when you asked me yesterday, I am still seeing them today. And yes Mom. I eat everyday.” She tells me she knows, she knows, but she just has to ask. This is her way of telling me about her mama heart, that it loves me, misses me, worries about me, and is proud of me, with every single beat. 

I think about how my mom’s heart stretches and bends to hold all her emotions right now. I think about its immeasurable strength. I think back to my flushed-cheeked 6-year-old sitting in my lap with her baby teeth still all intact. I think how her ambition makes me so proud of who I will watch her become, and for the first time, with the rollercoaster of this pandemic, fill me with a new trepidation. 

There will come a time, when all of this will be part of our world history. Standing on this side, where ahead of us is a blindingly bright star, coming into focus in the silhouette of a vaccine, I am full of hope. I am comforted by this residual soreness in my left arm where the Band-Aid over where I got my first dose of vaccine still sticks. 

I am full of hope because it is true and because I need to be full of hope to keep moving forward. 

This will be a part of our history, our greatest teacher. I hope when my mama heart is alongside that of my own mom, I’ll be able to feel more pride than fear for my little girl, out to change the world. 

She’s Back

There is a list of names in every Emergency Department that is well known to each individual that works and fuels that ER. And I’m telling you, it is never a good thing when you are the patient with the name that we immediately recognize upon popping up in our waiting room. For the most part, it indicates that you are chronically sick and chronically in need of emergency healthcare.  This runs the gamut of chronic illness.  You may have a weak heart that frequently gets overloaded and you end up short of breath with fluid filling your lungs.  This may mean you have failing kidneys that cause your electrolytes to go dangerously high as they cannot be filtered through your kidneys. This may mean you are an alcoholic with poorly managed diabetes coming in with abnormally high blood sugars. This may mean that you have mental illness that causes unmanageable panic attacks or leaves you feeling unsafe and suicidal.  This may mean that you have chronic pain and frequent exacerbations of uncontrolled pain.  This may mean you are addicted to narcotics and doctor shop for refills on pain prescriptions. This may mean you look for providers that will give you IV medications to give you the high that some pain medications can provide.  Whatever the reason, a familiar name in the Emergency Department is never a good thing.

On this particular day, I stepped into the chaos of an already bustling Emergency Department.  My colleagues mid-hustle, moving swiftly and deftly about the chaos of a busy day.  And there, waiting to be seen was a name I was all too familiar with. She is a mother, a wife, a member of our community, a person who struggles with mental illness and self-harm.  Triggered by events that send her stress into an insurmountable wall.  I don’t pretend for one second to know what she lives through on a daily basis.  I don’t pretend to understand these uncontrollable urges.  I don’t pretend to understand what it must feel like to come to the same emergency department, see the same healthcare providers, anticipating how they may react, judge, or act. I don’t pretend to comprehend how difficult, how humiliating, or how much courage that must take. What I know is that she comes into our emergency department on a regular basis with undeniable self-inflicted wounds that take a prolonged period to repair.

There was a time when I called for social services every time she came in.  She always gently declined their services.  Even when they came to talk to her anyway, she dodged and ducked out of their way.  She will assert how she has a therapist appointment right around the corner. That her therapist knows she is here.  That she is working through some very hard things.  I’ve called her therapist on occasions and she has corroborated what she has told me.  It is a difficult case, her therapist tells me.  During one instance, she was admitted to the hospital for a more intensive mental health evaluation and management.  It turned out, this only snowballed her mental illness and made her spiral deeper down a dark hole.

I’ve seen her enough to know she means it when she says she is not suicidal.  She often greets me cheerfully.  Talks about the weather, about her day and her week and her kids, as if she wasn’t there for self-inflicted injuries, but just for a regular slip and fall. In the same conversation, she gives instruction and suggestions on how she would like her repairs done.  I slow my breathing and try to wrap my head around how I should act.  This is not normal and I cannot help her normalize this behavior.  On the other hand, she is a mother, a wife, a member of a community that is deserving of basic human courtesies and respect.  She is a human being that is struggling.  Struggling so hard to just live a daily life accepting all the triggers and finding a way to assimilate them in a healthy fashion.

If I am being one hundred percent honest, it can be hard for us with patients we see frequently to not see them through a lens of judgment.  The patient with a weak heart that is on a low salt diet that eats ham and gravy over the holidays with his family.  The patient with failing kidneys that routinely misses one or two rounds of dialysis and is in need of immediate intervention to ensure his heart doesn’t go into a lethal rhythm.  The alcoholic patient that has uncontrolled high sugars and will continue to drink when he is discharged from the hospital.  The young patient with debilitating anxiety convinced he is having a heart attack that comes in monthly to have it checked and is in need of persistent reassurance.  The patient with chronic pain that comes in with abdominal pain regularly and requests large doses of narcotics.  The patient who has been to every Emergency Department in the local vicinity in the last week, accumulating narcotic prescriptions, who yells aggressively when confronted.  My patient who inflicts harm on herself on a regular basis and wants us to do nothing but fix her wounds.

It is easy to make quick judgments. It is easy to feel as if they are less than.  It is easy to push all the fault on their shoulders.  But who are we to judge?  We come from a place without heart failure where we can excitedly enjoy an unrestricted holiday meal when reuinited with our families without worrying about our breathing.  We come from a place without three day a week dialysis, a place where we are sober, a place where we are not crippled with anxiety, a place where chronic pain doesn’t have a vice grip on our lives, a place where we haven’t fallen to the addictive properties of narcotics, a place where we have never experienced or worked through mental illness that urges us to harm ourselves.

Who am I to judge? I am no different. I am a person with my own issues; I am just exceedingly lucky my issues do not lead me to the Emergency Department on a regular basis. So, I’ll work harder to challenge myself.  I am not here for judgment.  I am never here for judgment.  I won’t fault myself for being human, but I will check myself and know the bottom line is that my patients are in need.

They are in need.

Whatever that need may be, in the Emergency Department, we are better equipped to help them navigate it at this moment than they can do by themselves.

That day I took a deep breath.  I checked my judgment.  I repaired all of her injuries.  The Emergency Department outside her room was bursting at the seams, but she deserved my full care like everyone else.  It took me about an hour.  I looked her in the eyes, mother to mother. Wife to wife.  Human being to human being.  I asked her openly if there was anything else I could do for her today.  “No”, she said.  “That is all.”

Never How it Should Be

Also published at: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2019/02/when-a-baby-arrives-dead-in-your-emergency-department.html

When a baby arrives dead in your emergency department

When a baby arrives dead in your emergency department

When a baby arrives dead in your emergency department

The world stops. You stop breathing. You are gasping for air.

She is limp, she is cool, she is pulseless.

Chest compressions on the tiniest 6 month old I have ever met are done with the finger pads of my index finger and middle finger. Quick, synchronized beats. I look at her blue, blue lips. It should never be like this.

Her eyes are fixed and dilated telling me that she has been like this for quite some time.

We stop and check for a pulse. No pulse. Chest compressions resume, we work to put a tube in her mouth to help her breathe. It is how I imagine a doll’s airway must look like. Stiff, tiny, a small pink flap over the throat.

There is a cool calm, a cool horror, a cool this-is-never-how-it-should-be. We work deftly to bring her back. But she is gone. She was gone before she arrived. She is gone now. She is gone.

There is hysterical sobbing heard by the family. Our insides are gutted. Our hearts, shattered. But the emergency department keeps pulsing, and we need to keep it afloat.

I meet my nice gentleman with the irregular heart beat in the 160’s. I check on my patient with the migraine headache. I discuss at length with my patient with the extraordinary high blood pressure and horrible headache the need to do a lumbar puncture to rule out a head bleed. She ultimately leaves against medical advice despite my coaxing and persuading. I evaluate a diabetic with intractable vomiting and abdominal pain. I see a sweet woman with severe pain who is now wheelchair bound and whose 80-year-old husband can no longer care for her at home. His shoulders relax and his eyes sigh in relief when I tell him I am going to admit her to manage her pain.

Throughout all of this, the weight of a dead 6 month-old suffocates me and holds me captive. My heart is in pain, and I am devastated, and this is too catastrophic to set aside to mourn later, but I do. I do, because this is what I do. This is what we do.

I’ll never forget walking into this. That sweet purple, lifeless, limp 10 pound baby on a huge white stretcher. The tiniest of chest compressions giving her heart an external beat. For those suspended moments in time, she was all of our child. We loved her, we ached for her, we didn’t want anything to harm her. We will all weep in our own ways over the days, weeks, months to come. Not even the usual armor that we constantly garner will keep these feelings at bay. This is one that will rattle us. Keep us jarred.

Because there is nothing natural

When a baby arrives dead in your emergency department

The Man That Scares Me and The Man I Love

Republished at: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2018/10/the-man-that-scares-me-and-the-man-i-love.html

There is a man. He is in my house. I don’t know where he came from. But he just came into my house. And now he is living there. And I am afraid of him. I do not know who he is. There is a man in my house. I am so scared. I don’t know why he came. But he is there. And he tells people he is my husband. And he is not! He is not! And no one believes me. Do you believe me? He is not my husband. I am so scared. Do you believe me? I am a good person. I have seven children. I am an honest person. There is something wrong. I know there is. I know there is.

 My patient. Age 68. She perseverates about this man. She is insistent. She was found wandering in the hospital parking lot. No one is with her. She wants to let out her fear in screams, but her voice is thin and frail. She is so frightened.

 They told me she has early onset Alzheimer’s dementia a year and a half ago. Last week I found her standing outside in the rain. A few days ago she had walked down to the neighbor’s house three doors down at 11 o’clock at night without a coat on. Today, she had an accident in the bathroom. She hollered for me to come to the bathroom and then hurried me away because she said she was going to clean it up. I went to check on her and she was gone. She had taken the car and left. She drove herself here.

 My patient’s husband. He is soft-spoken. His left hand tremors as he stands. His face is slightly glossy and his expressions are muted. I explain that she currently is confused. She thinks he is not who he is. She may be frightened to see him.

Sometimes she gets like that. She yells at me. “Get out! Get out! You don’t love me! You don’t love me! You son of a bitch! Get out!” It hurts my feelings. It does. It really hurts my feelings. And then sometimes she tells me she loves me. She thanks me for being her husband.

He speaks with a hollow, flat voice. He stares at me with foggy, pale blue eyes. His sadness and defeat lean into me. He tells me to wait for his son. His son is arranging for her to go to a center. He’ll have the details to tell me.

We’ve been married 44 years. We have seven children. And 16 grandchildren! She is my world. Can I go in?

 We stand outside her room, and his eyes fall on the closed door handle. I tell him that she seems frightened at the moment, but he knows best. If he thinks she will be comforted by the sight of him, he is more than welcome to go into her room. If he thinks it may make matters worse, he is welcome to wait in the waiting room. Whatever he thinks would be best for her.

Well. I think I’ll try, Doc. If she shouts and hollers and shoos me away, I’ll go outside. But if I go in quietly, sometimes I can talk to her and she is okay with me staying there. And then sometimes she warms up to me. I’m going to try.

 He is soft spoken but resolute. I peer through the crack he leaves in the door as he slowly inches in. He leans over the railing of the bed. He straightens her white crisp hospital sheet. She looks at him and I can’t hear their conversation, but that is relieving. He settles into the seat next to her side.

The next time I enter the room, the husband has left with family to rest and the patient’s son sits at the bedside. He loves his parents and he tells me that they are arranging for her to go to a memory care center.

He won’t be far behind her. He can barely take care of himself, let alone her. It’s just been too much for him, you know?

 The last ten days has been draining on their family. This seems like a quicksand downhill plunge. They have been in and out of hospitals. She was at her neurologist’s three days ago and there is nothing to do. Maybe these new medications will help. They will take time. In the mean time, they are chasing her in the rain.

I come back when the work-up is finished. I am relieved. She has a urinary tract infection. I am not relieved there is something wrong with her but I am relieved there is something fixable. You see, urinary tract infections can make you more confused than normal. Confusion can be the absolute only sign that you have an infection. And there it was. The last ten days of rapidly losing this adored wife, this beloved mom, this treasured grandmother, explained with a urinary tract infection. IV antibiotics were started and I admitted her to the hospital where she would not wander into the rain and she would get better.

I am not saying this is the end of their battle, that it won’t still be a declining slope, but I am saying that maybe they haven’t completely lost her the way they had thought.

I go back into the room to tell them. She is no longer tense and tearful. She is relaxed and loved and safe next to her son. I tell them about all the things I have done. Laboratory studies, CT scan, and that she has a urinary tract infection that is very treatable. She laughs out loud and all sense of that frightened woman I had met before seem to be drowned right out. She holds her hand up high in the air to give me a high-five.

Wow! Good job, Doctor!  So thorough! Thank you!  

She laughs joyously like I have just uncovered the eighth wonder of the world for her to see. I thank her for the first high-five of my day. We all chuckle together like old friends and it feels good.

There it was. A glimpse of her real self. All the charisma, all the spunk, all the warmth. There was the woman he has loved for 44 years. There is the woman that raised seven children with all the strength in the world. I see her now. I can see why this is so hard. To see her, then lose her, then see her. It would hurt my feelings too.

Hold close to those you love. Remember all you love about them. Tell them often. Let what you love imprint itself onto you, because you never know which way life may turn.

 

.

Therapeutic Tears

Also published: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2018/05/a-doctor-cries-therapeutic-tears-with-her-patient.html

He wasn’t particularly likable on first encounter. He wasn’t apt to answer questions asked. He had a long pause and a long drawl and a tangential, winded story–and back story–all of which he was bound and determined to tell to its detailed completion. With an irregular heart rate in the 170’s and a respiratory rate in the 30’s, I tried to steer him in the direction of concise answers so I could obtain as much information as possible and do my job. This is an emergency. He is an emergency. An emergency who had waited until the last possible millisecond; we did not have the luxury of time.

But he was not to be rushed. My mind raced around his long pauses. My hands flitted around. Feeling his pulse, feeling his distended abdomen. Feeling the smoldering, red, hot cancer that took over his right thigh. I had never seen anything like it. It took my breath away and chilled me with impending fear of the extent of disease yet to be uncovered.

I tried to redirect him, but each interruption was met with a pause, and an indignant return to where he had left off in his storytelling.

It had been three years since he found out. Then, it was just a small bump. They told him it was cancer. It was easily covered up with clothing and easy to deny. He muffled it’s pervading presence with his stubbornness. He was indignant. This wasn’t happening. But it continued to happen. With or without his permission. It grew and grew and grew. And now, it was an undeniable monster. Growing on his thigh, in his liver, in his lungs. Filling up all his space, causing him to take staccato, labored breaths. Fighting to steal some room for oxygen every moment of his days.

His heart medications had gotten mixed up, confused, or refused. It was hard to completely tease out what had happened, as he wasn’t ready to be completely forthcoming. His stories took us farther away with every follow-up question asked. Now his heart worked in an overloaded chaotic state.

Infection had found its window of opportunity and seeped its way in to make sickness sicker—his organs on the cusp of failing.

His last name ended in an “-er”, like “Tyler” or “Kramer”. I brought the consent form for the procedure, he turned his head sharply towards me; we were practically nose to nose, as I had leaned in close so he could hear me in his good ear. “That’s not me. My name has no ‘S’” he said. I looked at the name I had written a top the consent form. I had mistakenly added an “S” to the end of the “-er”, like “Tylers” or “Kramers”. “You’re right”, I said. He gave me a gruff, indignant grunt.

We did what we could to stabilize him. I prepared for a procedure. “Have you done this before, Doc?” He looked suspicious. “No.” I said resolutely. “But I just looked it up on YouTube, and it looked really easy.” He was startled and appalled. I winked and smiled. “Oh, you got me. You got me good. That was good.” He let out a bellowing laugh like a man with all of his breath and strength. It filled the room. We both needed to share that.

I spent my time in Room 7 with him. Fluids, antibiotics, labs, imaging, procedures, talking. I softened. I grew to see his heart. His light. And I grew to like him very much.

I ultimately admitted him to the hospital. He may not have too much more time.

The next day was a day off clinical work, but I was at the hospital for meetings. My mind settled time and time again on Mr. “-er” with no “s”. I wandered between meetings up to his hospital room.

It took him a second to register who I was. My hair was down, and I wore normal clothes, not scrubs. “Oh hi Doc. Well, what are you doing here?” He asked breathlessly.

“I was just thinking I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“You want an update? Well, I can’t says it’s looking good Doc.”

He recounted his last 24 hours.

“I think I waited too long, Doc. And now my wife, you know. She’s home. She needs someone to take care of her. So, you know. We have to figure out how to tell her. My son was here, you know. He slept here last night. You just missed him.”

We sat for a long time. I watched his monitor. An irregular fast heart rate still in the 140’s. I listened to the rapid jagged, sharp breaths he sucked in and out.

“This must be tough. You have to remove yourself. You can’t let yourself feel. You see terrible things. All the time. But you have to Do, not Feel. It must wear on you.” In a moment about him, he made it about me.

“Well,” I said. “I just want you to know you have touched my heart.”

We cried. That awful stifling cry where so much needs to come out of what feels like a pinhole. I gripped his forearm with its weathered, dry skin. My finger scraped the edge of the medical tape that held his IV in place. He patted my hand with his other hand until the blood pressure cycled and forced him to straighten it out.

“Oh Doc. Thank you. For your therapeutic tears. They are warming. You worked last night, and now here you are. Right next to me. What a doc you are. What a doc you are.”

He lay with his eyes closed. Tired. Silent. Just his labored breathing.

Mr. “-er”, no “-s”, you are on my mind. Know that I’ll be here. Right next to you.

How Was Your Shift?

Also published: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2018/03/emergency-physicians-shift-really-went.html

She is 61 and she can’t help but smack her lips together repetitively. She has no teeth and the curvature of her spine makes her a miniature version of what she once was. Her frizzy hair is a purple-gray tone, and there are dark particles of something in the knots alongside her left temple. Her clothes are too loose and there are food stains on her shirt. The ambulance arrived at her home and there were pills strewn all over her floor and scattered pill bottles. She tells me that it wasn’t her. That someone had been in her apartment. That they were putting different pills in those bottles that weren’t hers. That pills were showing up on her floor. She was being followed when she went places. Her lips smacked harder as her anxiety mounted. She had to flush all the pills down the toilet because they weren’t her pills and so she didn’t have her own to take.   I ask if there is family I may call.  She stares back at me with hollowed eyes and does not respond.  She had just been released from the hospital a week ago for paranoid thoughts, but it is clear she will need to come back in.

He is 70 and his anxiety is like a storm cloud exploding in the room. He is overwhelmed because he cannot pay the bills and someone has stolen his identity. His furnace is broken and he is afraid the pipes will explode. He is concerned there is a carbon monoxide leak in their home and they are all being poisoned. At times he cannot speak because he is so overcome with his panic. He stutters and spits and cannot get the words out. I hold his hand and rock it back and forth as if to relieve the tremors that riddle his body.  I tell him it is okay over and over as I hold on; at times he appears momentarily calmed and is again able to speak until the next wave of emotions takes prey over him. His family arrives, and there are tears of fear, pain and love filling their eyes. None of this is real. No one has stolen his identity.  There are no broken furnaces and no carbon monoxide leaks. He paces at home and cannot eat or sleep. They have even called the fire department to the house to prove to him that there is no carbon monoxide leak. But it has not helped. These delusions have become his reality.

He is 57 and drinks every day and lives on the streets. He comes in one to two times a week for pain. Sometimes, he says his pain is so bad he wants to shoot himself. He says he has guns at his son’s house. This time he said he fell and his hip hurts. I help him take his pants off and he smells of urine and stool. Where can he go to take a shower? There are no bruises, scrapes, or cuts, but I x-ray his hip and there are no fractures. He says he won’t actually shoot himself if he can have a sandwich and bus tokens to go. He asks for a sandwich and bus tokens with every visit. He says his pain is 10 out of 10 and immediately falls asleep. It is the warmest and quietest place he will sleep until he comes back next week.

He is 20 and he overdosed on heroin. He was not breathing when the ambulance arrived. They gave him medication and resuscitated him and now his heart is racing and he looks bewildered as if he is on fire with anger. He says he knows it is dangerous. He has seen his friend dead in a car from a heroin overdose with the needle still in his arm. Maybe this is his rock bottom. I ask him if he is ready for me to help him get help so he doesn’t die too. He was really close this time. He says he understands what I am saying and he appreciates it. He says he is ready to stop, but he just doesn’t need help today.

These were four people I met on my evening shift last night. There are endless more stories like theirs. I don’t know where they were before they got to here, but I know life has not handed them anything. Their days are constant, steep uphill climbs. It may be addiction. It may be mental illness. It may be violence. It may be homelessness. It clasps its grip around them and won’t let them go. Day to day it swallows them and pulls them back down deep. There is little voice that advocates for and represents them. There is endless judgment that looks down upon them.

Friends and family will ask me how my shift went. I often don’t know what to say. Sometimes I feel I can help and do great things. Sometimes it is a vat of endless hopeless stories in a system with limited resources that continually seems to fail in one way or another. We will keep showing up and keep doing what we can, but it certainly is not enough.

A Love Story

Most love stories we see in the movies begin with a young man, a young woman, a chance encounter, or these days—maybe a swipe right on an online profile. But the greatest love stories are those that go untold. And this love story—this is one of the greatest I have had the honor to witness, if only for a few hours of their story.

She started with her confusion four months ago. Initially, it started as small things that most would not have noticed. A misplaced purse. Forgetting where the car was parked. Forgetting to mix the eggs into the cake she was baking. Nothing any ordinary person hadn’t done. But soon it turned into something more, he explained.  Getting lost in their apartment. Realizing she had opened the closet door instead of the bathroom door and the shame that followed that he couldn’t shoulder for her. The full out heaves of tears he couldn’t calm when she couldn’t find the bathroom after all. The heart ache of watching her grab armfuls of clothes from the closet and place them on the floor with such purpose, knowing there was only a mass jumble of thoughts and hysteria behind her frantic actions. It was a test of stamina to care for her, to look after her, to help her find the way in this narrowing, dark tunnel of her mind. It tired her too. And she slept. She slept after breakfast, she slept after lunch, she slept after dinner. Her waking hours became so sparse, but when she was awake, it was so filled with hyperactive conviction and activities that were seemingly purposeless. He would spend her sleeping hours placing all her shirts, pants, and dresses back in the closet. Washing stains off her clothes that she had spilled soup on. Salvaging what he could out of the trash of the oranges he bought yesterday that she had thrown away.

And soon, she lost her ability to dress herself. And it angered her. With such frustration, she would pick a dress, throw it on the floor, not knowing how to put it on. She would pick something else out of the closet, throw it on the floor, acting as if it wasn’t that she didn’t know how to put it on, but that she no longer wanted to wear it. Yesterday, she settled after picking a towel, laying it neatly on the ground, and with a satisfied content look, declared that this towel was in fact the dress she had decided to wear that day. He told me this, then fell into silence; keeping his eyes locked on my reaction, as if he couldn’t believe his own words, as if he wanted me to tell him they were not true.

He shared most of these things with me in rapid succession, with the same low, quiet, monotonous voice. His eyes tired but gentle; he spoke with such tenderness and love for his wife. This was a love that had grown over 51 years of marriage. Four months of hardship was worthwhile so long as he still had her.

She lay in the hospital bed with her eyes closed. I talked to her softly as I examined her. He chuckled at me, “you know she is probably stone cold asleep, don’t you?” She awoke when I sat her up to listen to her lungs. “Marty?” She said, startled by my presence. “Yes, May? It’s okay. It’s just the doctor. She is just taking care of you.” “Hm.” she grunted as her shoulders relaxed.

Last night had frightened him. “It scared me the way she was acting.” For the first time, he had seemed to slip from her mind. It had been different when it was the location of her purse, the location of the bathroom, or even how to put on her pants. Last night, she couldn’t remember him. She had asked for her pain medication, and when he gave her only one tablet as prescribed, she had become upset. Looking straight at him, she had said, “I don’t know why Marty wouldn’t give me the whole bottle so I could take what I want. He would only give me one tablet! ONE tablet! Can you believe him?” she had shouted at Marty. She proceeded to ask him to call the police, as there was a man in their home. She tried to leave the apartment without her shoes on with the car keys in hand. “And she doesn’t drive. She’s never been like this. It scared me.”

They met 60 years ago in fifth grade. They spent much of their adolescent years getting to know one another, and at the age of 20, they married. They spent the next 51 years married, 20 of those years married with multiple sclerosis grabbing a hold of her and settling into their marriage with them—an unwanted, dreaded third wheel. There have been good days and bad days, early on the good days outnumbering the bad days and making them tolerable.   These days, the bad days like a storm cloud ravaging all their days. There are days with falls. There are days with anger. There are days with forgetfulness. And every day that slides by, he tenderly holds onto the girl he met all those years ago. His one love.

I walked into room 14 of our emergency department, 4 hours into their visit. I found him sitting still next to her bed holding her hand in silence. The TV off, her eyes closed, the lights dimmed. Her presence—even in these dark days that have consumed them, even when he is losing his ability to care for her in the way he has for 51 years—her presence still his greatest comfort.

Where they go outside of the doors of our emergency department will be a new chapter in their lives. Their story is one of the great love stories that deserves to be told. A love that knows no end.

Beyond The Final Breath

Republished at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/we-didnt-save-his-life-but-we-didnt-disrespect-him-either/2017/02/03/74612afe-d1f6-11e6-9cb0-54ab630851e8_story.html?utm_term=.9e665c02ec43

Republished at:  http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/12/didnt-save-life-better.html

“Well?  Did you save him?” “No. We did better than that.”

He came in pulseless. The machine performing chest compressions with the rhythmic thud, thwack, thump. His ribs heaving under the force of the compressor, keeping his heart artificially beating. The plastic tube secured in his airway forcing puffs of air to inflate his lungs.  His skin slightly purple-gray, on that narrow brink between life and death. His eyes like speckled round pieces of glass, with fixed pupils, staring nowhere.

Our team was assembled, prepared, ready. We worked deftly with experienced hands, our focus and determination fueled by adrenaline, a synchronized team, we worked side by side; this was our life to save and we were going to do everything.

But his glassy, fixed eyes spoke to me. As we regained a heartbeat, and we halted the chest compressions, and our adrenaline settled–here he lay, not out of the woods, but heart back from a standstill. His glassy eyes told me his heart was back, but his life of living was gone. The life that laughed, that smiled, that held his wife’s hand–there was no amount of life saving measures that could bring that part of him back.  We didn’t know how long ago he had stopped breathing. But it was long enough to have robbed him of his mind, his memory, of everything that made him that man his family loved.

His wife and only daughter arrived. I left him in my able teams’ hands and sat down with them. I looked them in the eyes. I told them the story of his final hour of life, from the perspective of his fighting, beating heart.

His heart was here with us, but his  brain had gone too long without oxygen before we could reach him. He would never walk out of this hospital. They listened to my words.  Words spinning and exploding beyond comprehension. They nodded their heads, as if to ask me to keep talking.  So long as I was talking, we didn’t have to move.  Tears were inevitable. It was so sudden. How could they be asked to make a decision of whether to continue with the resuscitation or to just let life walk its final march.

Yes, this was about them, but this was ultimately about him. What would he want? It is true it was sudden. It is true it is the toughest decision anyone will make.  But with the return of his heartbeat, the decision to continue resuscitation is as big, as active a decision as it is to stop all aggressive measures and let him be comfortable. These are both big decisions with big paths for us to travel down.  I needed them to understand that this wasn’t their decision to shoulder. It was their time to respect–in the most selfless of ways–the man they loved.  To step outside themselves, slip into his shoes and honor his wishes in the greatest way possible.  What would he have wanted if he saw himself in this moment?  Representing him in this way is a responsibility no one cares to bear, but this final act is the biggest, most giving way they could love and honor him.

His daughter immediately said, “oh, he would want none of this. He would want you to stop.”

They stood by his bedside. We withdrew all aggressive cares. We turned off the beeping monitors, we stopped artificially putting oxygen in his lungs, we turned off all pumps, we covered him with warm blankets, we let him be comfortable with his wife holding his hand for his final minutes, and his daughter stroking his hair.

And that’s how he left us.

Did we save his life?  No we did not.  Not today.  We did better than that. We upheld our promise to continue to respect his wishes beyond his final breath.

About A Boy

8 years old. Blond hair, neatly cut. Fair skin with flushed cheeks. Curious, trusting, clear blue eyes. Rosy, red lips in a perfectly content, relaxed grin. Wearing a plain red cotton t-shirt and blue jeans with the elastic waist and Velcro sneakers. I meet you in your wheelchair. I asked your dad what was the best way to get you onto the hospital bed to examine you. He picked you up easily in a bear hug, and your lanky, skinny arms wrapped around him, as your tight, contracted legs held their bent position as he plopped you gingerly on the bed. I listened to your heart and lungs, I pressed on your soft tummy, I noted the pull-up you wore with Buzz Light Year printed on the front. You never took those calm, trusting eyes off of me. You never smiled, but your whole face smiled at me. You never spoke, but your whole being spoke to me.

This was maybe two weeks ago, but my visit with you still pops into my mind frequently. It’s unpredictable which patients stay with us. We see patient after patient, and some just settle into our hearts and mind, lingering in our thoughts, reminding us that after they leave our care, they are still here.

What I remember about you is how sweet and happy you are. How you didn’t have to say a thing to let me know you trusted me. You trusted your dad. You trusted this world that you live in. On this day when you weren’t feeling well, you still smiled with your whole face.

What I remember is how well cared for you are. Your styled hair. Your clean clothes and newly changed pull-up. Your new Velcro sneakers and socks without holes.

What I remember about you is how much you are like my own son. Your lanky arms, your lanky legs, your fair skin with flushed cheeks. Your big, curious eyes, trusting me.

You came in for nausea and vomiting.  While this is something that has plagued you in the past, this time, it was just a stomach bug rippling through your daycare.  Your dad relayed this in sighs of relief.  Because this was something common. This was something other kids were going through. This was a “just-like-everyone-else” problem and not a “just-unique-to-you” phenomenon.

See, there are milestones that you and your family have not experienced. Your first word. Your first steps. Your first laugh. But there are milestones that are like gold. Those first hugs. Those first nods of understanding and communication. The realization that you are taking it all in, and those eyes are your window to experiencing and memorizing this whole world around you.

I cannot begin to comprehend how hard this life is for you, for your parents, for the three brothers that came before you. I also cannot speak for the immense beauty and happiness in your life.  But the one thing that I do know is that you are loved. You are enriching and touching the lives of your family, of those like me that have had the honor of meeting you. This I have experienced first hand.  You are louder than you could ever be in your steadfast ways.

You didn’t have to say a word, but you have touched me. I see you the way I see my son. A wonderful boy that is filled with love and that is loved.

Life is hard. It is hard in different ways for different people. But it is these moments of strong, quiet beauty that keep it tender and keep it worth our hardest work.

The Best Friend You Never Wanted

This moment has been rolling around and around in my head. I sat down on the stool. I turned to my patient. He was intoxicated. I realized I had seen him here in my emergency department just six days ago. “Hey.” I said gently. “What happened?” Tears welled in his eyes. He went into the story of his past six days. I had seen him six days ago, and he had begged to go to rehab. As he had innumerable times in the past. He really wanted help. He needed help. But it never helped. He had gone to a Detoxification Center and had stayed there three days where they ensured he went through withdrawals safely. Then he went home. And he started drinking again. And here he was. Back again. “Please. I need help.”

I leaned in. I listened. I nodded. I felt his sadness. He suddenly stopped talking abruptly. And he just stared at me. “Why do you care so much?”

The question startled me. Took me off guard. No one had ever asked me that. And trust me. I have been asked some fairly awkward questions. Why do I care. How do I even answer that question? Isn’t it just a fundamental part of what I do?   At the time, I had no eloquent answer.  I just stared back.  And dumbly said, “I just DO. I care because I know you need me to.”  At the time, I thought, I care because you are hurting. I care because you are human and everyone makes mistakes. And I believe you. You need help. This is your hellish cycle: You get help. It fails you, or maybe you slipped back away yourself.  Or maybe it is a combination of both.  It doesn’t matter. Then you need help again. I don’t know. The system is broken. It is so broken. And for you, something is failing, time and time again.  I do care. I don’t know. I can’t explain it, really.

But when he asked that question, I felt it knock the wind out of me. All of the caring I had bottled and neatly packaged into some crevice of my chest resurfaced into this avalanche of emotions. Yesterday, I saved a life. I brought his heart back from a standstill just as my daughter and son’s kindergarten open house was starting. I missed the open house waiting for his brother to arrive so I could talk to him. But I got there (mostly) in time for the kindergarten meeting. I sprinted up the walkway to the elementary school entrance, out of breath, just in time to see my daughter’s face light up when she saw me.  I mouthed an apologetic “sorry” to my son’s kindergarten teacher who was in the middle of addressing all the on-time parents as I slipped into a seat in the back of her classroom.

Before I walked into this room, I delivered a 16-week-old baby that the mother had spontaneously miscarried. I left her to grieve in private with her husband. And her baby girl. Tiny fingers. Tiny toes. Lifeless. Limp. Wrapped in a warm blanket. I’ll remember my heart-broken patient’s face. Stunned, sweaty, strong, brave. So many questions. So many fears. So much loss.

I care because it is all so much bigger than me. It is about lives. It is about families. It is about death. It is about surviving. It is about hopes.  It is about milestones. And I don’t know how to make sense of it all, how it all strings together and falls into place. Sometimes, I don’t know what else to do but care. To be present. To listen. It seems so very, very surreal that I can grieve the return-to-life of someone that I am not sure will make it to tomorrow as I race in the door, breathless, to my son and daughter’s kindergarten meeting.

I care because I am the best friend you never wanted.  You come into my space and tell me your most personal thoughts.  You tell me how this was unexpected.  How this is a horrible day.  How you had so many exciting hopes and daydreams for this growing baby in your womb.  How ecstatic you were to be a cozy family of three.  You tell me that my dying patient is your brother and you are the only family he has and how you wished he and his daughter had made amends.  You tell me you have been in and out of 14 different rehabs and you just want help.  You just want help.  Is there anything else I can do?  These are all the things you want to tell your best friend.  The best friend that you haven’t had a chance to call yet as you were rushing to the hospital.  The best friend you never had but wished you did.  The best friend that has given up on you because you have had one too many chances.  But here we are, just you and me, staring at one another.  So, you tell me your story.  It is about your hopes, your fallen dreams, your gut-wrenching day of heartbreak.  And it is all so real and I can’t help but feel fallen with you.

This is what we do. My colleagues and I. We care. We care more than you know. We don’t know the best way to express it all the time, but we do. We wonder if you have already started setting up the nursery that you will now have to let sit empty.  And we secretly hope you have not, as we can’t imagine the heartache of deciding whether to leave it as is or take it down.  We wonder if you will live to walk out of the hospital.  We wonder if this time, maybe this time, you will get the help you need.

We are far from your best friends.  But today, we will be who you need us to be in your life.  We will time and again–without question–put our lives on hold for yours. We will grapple with the balance between life at home with lives at work. But we know what is important. I can’t explain it better than to say, our hearts are with you.

Your Last 24

Republished at: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2019/04/a-patients-last-24-hours.html

There are those 25 minutes before my work day begins that I either drive in silence, or blare the radio and jam out to pop hits priming myself for the unexpected hours ahead. When the music is loud and the tempo is upbeat, it transports me back to being 21 on a summer day in Chicago, before kids and bills, headed nowhere too important, definitely not too fast, stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive. But lately, I’ve trended more towards driving in silence. Calmed by the gentle hum of the engine, feeling the gentle pull of the turns in the road, letting my mind settle. And lately, my mind has been on you.

My heart settles into a dull ache. It pulls me in and hollows me out. I feel unjustified in feeling this way. These are not my feelings to feel. These are not my emotions to own and declare. There are people more deserving of telling this story. It is not me. But here I am. These emotions clinging onto me for the past 5 weeks now, and I don’t want it just to be in my mind. I don’t want this hollowness in my chest to go unidentified. It means too much. So, I’m going to talk about you.

I met you on a busy night in the emergency department. You were short of breath, you were sweaty, your heart rate was going too fast. I thought within seconds of meeting you, “He is sick.”

When emergency medicine providers say someone is sick, it doesn’t mean the usual sick.  We do not throw around the word “sick” haphazardly.  It does not mean you have the sniffles, or a bad cough, or fever, or appendicitis, or a broken leg. When we say “sick”, we are on high alert. Our heads turn.  Our focus shifts from everyone else in the emergency department to you. You are the one that needs us most. We will take care of everyone else, but you have taken priority over everything else that must be done. Bluntly put, when we say “sick”, we realize–perhaps before you do–that you are struggling for your life.  We are worried that you may get worse and die.

Everything had happened so suddenly, your wife told me. You had seemed fine. Maybe a little fever. Maybe a bit of body aches. Then tonight, you were suddenly short of breath. Sweating. Feeling your heart beat out of your chest.   You have no idea what suddenly changed. I don’t want to get into the medical specifics. Though I replay them over and over in my mind. I pour over your chart again and again. What more could I have done? I’ve talked to my closest colleagues. I’ve lay in bed at night and replayed everything.

I remember exactly how you looked when I walked in the room. I remember your wife sitting there on the edge of her seat.   I remember you said you have three kids. Two boys and a girl. I remember how old they are. I remember the name of your youngest. I remember the puzzled look your wife gave me, “What is going on?” I remember explaining to the both of you what was happening. How infection was taking over your body, taking over your organs, shutting down your body. You asked me how long you would be in the emergency department. I explained you needed to be admitted to the intensive care unit. You both were a bit puzzled. How could a healthy 43-year-old become sick so fast? I explained that I was worried about you.

I don’t worry about a lot in the emergency department. I can handle it. I can fix it. But you. I was worried about. I did everything my training had taught me to do.  You were getting better. I felt slight hope that maybe things would turn around. You were admitted to the intensive care unit.

The next day, I checked on your chart when I got to work. You had died.

You have a beautiful wife. You have three amazing kids. You are the nicest of people. You are hard working.

You are no longer with us.

My heart aches. My heart aches, but when it aches, it is an unworthy ache. Because the heart ache of those that love you, those that were your life: your wife, your children, your parents, your siblings, your nieces and nephews, those are the ones that are truly hurting. And this makes my heart ache more. I wish you were alive. They wish so more than my words can do justice.

I did everything I knew how to.  But it wasn’t enough to save your life.  I wish I could have done more. I am so, so sorry.

I was maybe one of the final ten people you met in your life. For you, I was only part of those last 24 hours. For me, you will be in my heart a lifetime. I can’t even say this without grimacing, because what you mean to me doesn’t even compare to those that love you most. But I just want you to know, you have affected me. You will stay with me. You will live on in every one you touched along the way. Even in your last 24 hours of life.

The Sound of Resiliency

As Previously Published:  http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/08/laughter-thats-sound-resiliency-hear.html

Sometimes, the loudest sounds I hear in the emergency department are laughter. It may seem irresponsible. It may seem discordant. It may seem callous. To me, it is the sound of survival. It is the sound of resiliency. It is the sound of making it through the day.

My father was at work when he suddenly became cold, clammy, and collapsed to the ground unresponsive. His staff did the right thing and called 9-1-1. He was rushed by ambulance to the Emergency Department. He had vital signs taken, an EKG done, and blood work drawn. It was an experience that shook my family. My dad on the other hand, was exasperated. He minimizes his health and upon arriving to the Emergency Department, was already scheming ways to get himself discharged. He had no such luck, and was ultimately admitted for further monitoring and testing. Today, he is back to his healthy self, and doing well.

I remember speaking with my father while he was in the Emergency Department. He commented, “All these people. Bunch of jokesters. Everything is a joke!” I could tell he appreciated it. He is not one for dramatics, and their sense of humor helped him get through that visit. It helped me too. It made me feel he was in familiar territory, that culture of humor that pervades all emergency departments across the nation.

It may seem like a strange place to hear laughter. But here is the thing. Working in the Emergency Department is more emotionally draining than I could ever have fathomed. No matter how high of spirits you are in when you walk in the door, the day will wear you down. You keep up your coat of armor, you navigate the fires, but inside, you feel yourself being broken down. It comes from all directions. It comes from the deepest sadness of sharing bad news with your patients. It comes from the confrontational situations you never wish you were in to begin with. It comes from the stress of hoping that everything is going to turn out okay in a way that will comfort your patients and their loved ones. It comes from the pressure of working fast, the responsibility of not missing any one thing, juggling too many tasks to count at one time. My words could never give that heavy pit in the stomach that follows us through the day true justice.

And so how do we cope? We laugh. We joke. We check in with one another through everyday banter to ensure that we are all still okay. It is the only lighthearted part of our days, and I assure you, we need it to get through. No day for us is a typical day. We are sharing in some of our patients’ lowest moments. We are here to provide support, to provide comfort, we are here to absorb it all, and ultimately, we find our own ways to release what we put on our shoulders. If we allowed ourselves to be consumed by our stress and our sadness from each moment, we just couldn’t come back and do what we do tomorrow.

So. I ask you. Please forgive us if our loud voices and laughter seem callous. Please know it is the opposite of that. It fuels our resiliency, it allows us to take care of the revolving door of patients coming in and out of our emergency department. It allows us to bounce back, it is our way to decompress and de-stress and face the next challenge of our days with the renewed energy and compassion that we need to get through today in the healthiest way possible.

Valentine’s Day

To my husband,

It’s Valentine’s Day, and I have something to tell you. I came home yesterday, and I didn’t tell you about the worst part of my day. I didn’t tell you, because it was so hard to say even once to that daughter yesterday that her father had colon cancer. It was hard to tell her that the reason he had been bleeding for months was because that cancer has been growing inside of him, undetected. When she brought in her father, the first thing she told me was, “I want a full work-up. We need answers. We cannot leave until you have done a full work-up and we have answers. Do everything. We need answers.” I wish what I found wasn’t the answer. I see her face, looking at me, slightly bewildered, in disbelief, as I told her the news that made her world cave in. Her tears followed, and so did mine.

I felt guilty to be able to damper my own emotions by leaving work. By not talking about them. I can make that choice, but she cannot. She will talk about it and talk about it, and continue to break down as she calls and tells her sisters, her mother that is at home, the rest of her family. I told her the news, and her world changed forever. Her dad was my last patient of the day. I saw him at the very end of my shift, and I stayed late to make sure he was taken care of. But that is all I did. Because then I left, and I came home to you. I came home to our beautiful, laughing, loud children, racing in our beautiful home. I came home to their squeals of “Mama!” and their hugs that nearly knock me over. I came home to our healthy, fortunate family.

I told her daughter first. I wanted to prepare her before I told her dad. When I went in to tell her dad, she started to cry. He said, “So, I’m going to surgery. Well. When I go to surgery, then you can go ahead and go home. Now, what are you crying about. There is nothing to cry about.” And this made her cry harder. Because there he was. Her dad at 89. Still her dad. Still taking care of her. He will always be her dad, and whether he is 35 or 89, he will love her with all his might. Sometimes he gets confused, and sometimes he can’t answer my questions because he doesn’t remember when he last ate or if he has been sick, but his love for his daughter—this he will not forget. He has loved her from the moment he met her. This is imprinted in who he is. This is their life together. This is their family.

My mind was wrapped around this family all evening. I came home and breathed in the smells of our 21 month old. I snuggled a little bit longer with our five year olds. I felt the comfort of your love and the way you busy yourself with taking care of me when you sense that I am limping along that last stretch of the day. I am eternally blessed with so much. And left at work, is a family sitting on the edge of those waiting room chairs. Waiting for answers. Hoping for the best, fearing for the worst. I feel thankful. I feel guilt. I feel happiness. I feel sadness.

I know Valentine’s Day is a contrived holiday, but I’ll happily take any reminders in whatever shape and whatever form they come. Today, I remind myself that there are so many people I love so deeply. I am thankful for their health and their presence in my life. Today, I remind myself, that above all else, I have you. You are my forever partner. You are the amazing father to my children.  You are my rock. Many decades from now, we may forget what we ate for lunch, we may forget if that cough was from last week or last month, but we will remember that we love each other. We will never stop taking care of one another. We will never stop putting each other first.

To be honest, I didn’t get you anything for Valentine’s Day, and I truly don’t want anything from you. All I want is time with you. All I want is to spend a day, just you and me. Because that is how all this wonderfully exhausting chaos all started, and at the end of every day, that is all that truly matters to me. Time spent with you. Time spent with our amazing kids. Because sometimes, tomorrow is the day that you hear the news that makes your walls crash. I hope that day is far away, but today, I will cherish what we have, I will love it all, thank my lucky stars, and count down the minutes until I get to see you after my work day.

I didn’t tell you about the worst part of my day yesterday.  I didn’t need that heaviness in my chest to grow heavier.  I just needed to be with my family. I watched you play with our squealing, joyful baby girl as she rolled around the floor with you, and called out, “Mama, look!” as she stood gleefully on your chest, bouncing up and down at your expense, listening to your overemphasized grunts to her jumps put her into fits of giggles.  I couldn’t help but imagine my patient with his daughter and feel comfort that they had had moments just like this one.

There are big things that happen. Big amazing things. Big devastating things. There are little petty things that bring our days down. But my favorite things are the every day mundane things that give us joy. That build our family. Today, I am reminded of this healthy, full life we have. This is our life together. This is our family.

Happy Valentine’s Day. I am thankful that today, we have nothing to cry about. I love you with all my might.

December 28, 2015

 

I met you on the worst day of your life. You will always remember the day. December 28, 2015. I walked into your patient room, I shook your hand, I told you who I was, and you told me your story. You told me why we were meeting that day. You told me that you were pregnant, 7 weeks along. You started bleeding that morning. But you didn’t have any pain. You looked anxious, but hopeful. You had your game face on. I told you what we were going to do. Some blood work. An ultrasound. These would be a long three hours for you to wait while fearing the worst and hoping for the best. To me, it was another day at work.

I didn’t know your whole story. I knew the man in the room was your husband. I could tell he was most worried about you. I could tell that he shared in your dreams. I didn’t want to pry. I let you tell me what you wanted to tell me.

Three hours passed. To me, it was a quick, fast-paced three hours. To you, it was the longest wait. You were trying to hang on to your patience. Why was this taking so long?

And then I got the results. And it was what you had been fearing. You were no longer pregnant. It was a jab to my heart. I sat at my desk and looked at the results. I paused. My shoulders slightly slumped, and I took a deep breath and walked to your room. I knocked. I sat down. And I told you the news.

It was your worst nightmare.   It has been your greatest daydream to have a baby. You stared at me, hanging onto my every word. Maybe hoping I had made some type of mistake. Maybe waiting to hear what was to come next. Maybe to comprehend every bit of what was going on. Maybe to distract yourself from your heartache.

I didn’t know your whole story. I told you what I knew, and then I sat in silence. I waited. Your husband said, “We’ve been trying for five years. This was our last embryo.” You didn’t take your eyes off of me, you reflexively said, “but it’s okay.” Because you had said it before, and it was an easy way to fill the silence.  But it truly wasn’t okay to you. This was your last embryo. That slight jab in my heart now felt like daggers. I wish I could help. I so wish I could help. I wish you had cut your finger instead and I could stitch it up. I wish you had broken your leg so I could put it in a cast.

But this. This was it. This was the end of your dream to become pregnant. Maybe down the line, it truly would be okay. Maybe you would decide to adopt and never look back. Maybe you would decide to travel the world and live an unexpected, but still wonderful life. Maybe you wouldn’t.

All I know, is that at that moment, you were devastated. I met you, and it was the worst day of your life. It hit me: everyday, I am meeting people for the first time on their worst days.   I wish it wasn’t that way.

It was another day at work, and I wouldn’t remember the date, but you would. As I processed the events of my day on my drive home, I felt that aching heaviness that hovers over me in these dark moments.  I vowed to remember this date with you. For you. For all my patients on the worst day of their lives. December 28, 2015. I’ll remember this date. I wish I could do more.

 

 

Let Grief Be

A 23 year old girl is roomed with abdominal pain. It is a busy Friday evening in the emergency department and on my mind is my patient that I just told is having a heart attack and am having sent to the cardiac procedure center where they can determine where the blockage is and hopefully open up the blockage before any more of his heart tissue is damaged.

I walk in to see my 23 year old patient, and see her near hysterics, writhing in pain on the hospital bed. She grabs the railings and thrashes back and forth yelling out in pain. I ask her quickly where her pain is, and she yells, “My stomach! My stomach! Please! Help! My stomach!” I try to get more of a story, but she is in so much pain. I find out that she thinks she may be pregnant but she doesn’t know how far along she is. She appears to be having contractions, lower back pain, maybe she is in labor, but she seems early along in her possible pregnancy. I tell her I am going to find her nurse so we can start an IV and get her some pain medication while I try to figure out what else is going on . So, I step into the hallway and look up and down, and see no one in sight. I step out further and see that all my nurses are in patients’ rooms taking care of other people.   I step back into the room, and see my patient sitting slightly up against the incline of the bed with her legs bent at the knees. She is calm. I also see under the edge of her hospital gown, an image I will never forget.  She has miscarried her baby.

I look up again at my patient. I’m not sure if she knows what has happened. I sit down next to her and rest my hand on her arm. “I am so sorry, but you have miscarried your baby.” I stare intently at her face, trying to read her expression. She stares at the warm glow of her smart phone. I want to throw my arms around her, comfort her, talk to her. She says, “Ok.” I tell her I am going to have to deliver the rest of her pregnancy, that I’ll need to deliver the placenta. She responds monotonously, “Ok. But please. I don’t want to see. Please don’t tell me how far along I was.” She never looks up from her phone. I finish taking care of her and sit back down next to her. I explain what I have done, but am sure to honor her wishes. I explain the next steps and what to expect. She nods, she is void of any expression. I ask her what questions she has, what concerns she has, how I can help, what resources she needs. She needs nothing. She has no questions. No concerns. How long until she can leave. Please don’t tell her boyfriend who is waiting in the lobby. I say again, “I am so sorry.” I linger. She nods again. I have so much empathy and support to give. She would rather not have any.

I think about her often. I wonder what I could have done differently. I wonder if she had questions or concerns. I wonder what thoughts were spinning through her head.

What I have learned over the years, is that everyone grieves differently. Some cry. Some panic. Some act brave. Some become frustrated and angry. Some are in denial. Some use humor to get them through. Some ask questions repetitively and talk in circles, as they are slowly processing this big moment in their lives. And some are like her. Expressionless. Detached. Dealing with whatever it may be in their own ways. And that’s the exact thing about grief. It presents in different ways. No two people grieve the exact same way. I may have wanted to throw my arms around her and I may have expected tears, but that is not what she needed. She needed space. She needed me to stop talking. And that is okay. Her grief and my grief and your grief are not the same. We need to respect that of one another and let each person take the lead on how they need to react and how they need to heal. No quick judgments that because there were no tears or outbursts, that she is not in pain. There is no need for her to explain her reaction.

I still wonder what more I could have done. But I was there. And I will be there again and again for my patients. And that is the best I can do and what I will promise to continue to do. I will wonder and ask what more I can do and be there however they need me to be there.

My Parade and Me

Republished at http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2015/12/physicians-jaded-keeps-medicine.html

Republished at http://www.scarymommy.com/life-as-a-doctor-and-mother/

I am constantly coming across articles written by physicians with strong voices.  Physicians that are jaded. Physicians that didn’t go into medicine to be dictated by patient satisfaction surveys. Physicians that didn’t go into medicine expecting that people wouldn’t trust in their training because “WebMD” begs to differ. Physicians that cringe at the drive-through mentality that patients can present with diagnoses in hand and demands for tests to be done. Physicians that want out.

As I read these articles, their sentiments resonate with my own experiences. But what we don’t talk about is what pulls us back in.

My patient in room 7 is 10 weeks pregnant, terrified she might be miscarrying. She hides her thoughts by pre-occupying herself with her blonde, curly-haired 2-year-old daughter. Ultrasound and blood tests confirm that she is in fact miscarrying. She busies herself with readjusting her daughter’s perfectly buttoned shirt while I confirm her worst fears are true. Willing away eyes welled with tears, she nods and smiles, keeping a brave face for her daughter. I sit by her side and hold her hand. I try to give her hope. Before I leave, she squeezes my hand.

My patient in room 1 is dying. She is 92 years old and her daughter is at her bedside. She celebrated Thanksgiving with her family, including her 17 great grandchildren. But her disease is progressing, and she has declined further intervention, because if this is her time, she wants to enjoy her remaining days at home with her family. And today, during my shift, is her time. Her son comes later, and asks me to please let his mom die with dignity. So we turn off all the monitors, dim the fluorescent lights, and remove her from all the wires, and let her be a mother, grandmother, great grandmother enjoying her last breaths flooded by memories of all the love of her family. Her daughter holds onto the necklace we had removed from her neck in our initial attempts. She sits at her mom’s side, this 57-year-old daughter and mother of four. She cries with her eyes clamped shut, and she rocks back and forth and murmurs repeatedly between sucked in breaths of air, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. Oh, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” I rub her back. I am sure she has forgotten I am there until she turns to me and asks me to put her mother’s necklace with a small angel charm around her neck. I take the necklace and drop it through my fumbling fingers. I pick it up and drop it again. She just has one simple request. Can’t I just do this one thing for her?  The fast pace of the emergency department slows, every beep of a monitor, every hurried set of footsteps, every ring of the ambulance phone seems to muffle and all I want is to put this necklace around a grieving daughter’s neck. One month later, I receive a holiday card from the patient’s son. It has evergreens with snow and glitter and a cardinal on the front. It reminds me the holidays for this family are forever changed. “Thank you for allowing my mother to die with dignity.”   Three years later, this card lies in my box of cherished cards and pictures from close friends, my husband, and my kids.

In room 11, first-time parents bring in their son. He is 3 months old and he won’t stop crying. He cries during the day, he cries through the night, he won’t stop crying. Why won’t he stop crying? They have been to their pediatrician innumerable times. But right now, it is 2 in the morning, and there is nowhere to bring him but to the emergency department, and we have found nothing wrong. How could there be nothing wrong? The three of us hold a quiet conference as to not wake the semi-sleeping baby. We talk, not about medicine, but about my own experience with my son who was 3-years-old at the time. We talk about how he cried too, and he wouldn’t stop unless we held him all the time. And we were so exhausted. My husband was so sleep deprived he was having visual hallucinations. We took turns on which day we would brush our teeth and shower. The three of us laugh (cackle quietly) at what absurd things sleep deprivation can do to a person. We talk about how I never thought it would end. But it did end. One day, he just started sleeping. We were so exhausted that we didn’t even notice until we had slept for four consecutive hours and woke up in a frantic panic. They listen intently. They sigh a tired kind of relief. There is someone that knows what they are going through. They are not alone. They leave with the same son they love deeply that still won’t stop crying, but feeling some sense of peace–or maybe even hope–they hadn’t had before. I didn’t figure anything out for them, but it was worth the visit.

Here is the truth. I went into medicine because I believed that if I put hard work into learning about illness and treatments, I could help people at their greatest times of need. What I know now is that medicine is about caring for people. But it is also about confrontation and conflict. It is about taking things in stride. It is about leaving your work at work so you can come home and be a mother or daughter or wife so you can preserve balance and your sanity.

Except for those moments that hit me in the gut, the heart, the soul. I hold onto those moments. Correction: they hold onto me. They roll over and over in my mind. They replay in my mind when there are quiet gaps in time. They are the parade growing and marching behind me five months later, 3 years later, 8 years later. They keep me going.

I acknowledge that those creeping feelings of wanting out are there. I sometimes hold my breath anticipating my cracking point. But then something happens. I get a squeeze of the hand. A card with evergreens and glitter snow. A couple that just needs to know they are not alone. And it is a big red reset button. And it is worth it. And I keep going, parade and all.