One of the things that continually amazes me, intrigues me even, about medicine is the scale of personalities that exist within our community. From the obnoxious "know-it-all" to the warm-hearted "everybody's friend" types, you can find just about any recipe for a personality among us. Take a dash of kindness, a pinch of self-doubt, a teaspoon of over-eagerness, and a dollop of sharp wit, and viola, you may have this nurse during your next visit to the ER.
Me? I'd like to think that I am a straight-shooter, the furthest orbit away from the central pedestal that so many doctors feel they deserve to be perched on. Their livelihood depends on this precarious position. Mine doesn't. I ask my team to call me Jim. I don't wear a white coat during a shift (except in the family room, where I insist on a higher level of decorum to be followed). I welcome anyone to question why I am doing something in a certain way. I am kind and compassionate. I love to laugh and smile among the infectious camaraderie of a good team during a rough shift
However, I am human, too, which means I sometimes need to really fight myself during a crazy shift or odd patient-encounter to avoid cynicism, sarcasm, anger, or disappointment. Although rare, I have had some breaking moments. For example, to have a patient with a top-of-the-line cell phone, decked out in a designer outfit and $300 dollar running shoes, with a pack of cigarettes hanging from their pocket demand (in an irate, demanding manner) a free ride home and free prescription fills is still something I struggle with, although my answer remains the same. "No." And patients who have attained their medical degree via a ten minute Google search prior to their ER visit, trying to dictate the course of their treatment, can test my limits in a weaker moment.
My idols, those inspiring physicians I've encountered through my career, seem to be the "regular Joe" doctors who have a quiet confidence and a humble self-assuredness combined with a normalcy of expected kindness and respect. They don't want their coffee brought to them, they don't want everybody to bow at their feet, and they don't feel the need to brag and show-off their endless knowledge base (a pet peeve of mine--I'd rather one show me how good they are, through their actions, rather that waste their words by telling me). They just want to be a friend, a mentor, a good person defined by their entire world, not just their world of medicine. Their greatness as a physician is simply an extension of their excellence as a human being.
It is a fact I stress with our residents. "Don't emulate just one of us," I say, "but rather, skim from each of us the characteristics you want to carry with you throughout your life, your career." I reiterate that none of us, their mentor physicians, are perfect. We are all human. I can only hope that they choose to combine hard-work, compassion, and humility among their other qualities.
If I ever decide to pursue a big head and an uppity view, though, about my professional accomplishments, I think I will fail miserably. Too many times through the day I am humbled by reminders that I am nothing special.
Case in point? Just last week, during another busy shift, I was standing in front of the counter of Room 22. In the treatment cot lie Mr. Smith, his mental status dwindling and his extremity weaknesses gaining. His wife, expectedly concerned and apprehensive, sat in a corner chair just a few feet to my left, watchful of her husband and our treatment team. Her worried look, her disheveled gray hair, her furrowed brows, her dilated pupils, the way she edged her body forward on her seat, utilizing but a few inches of its support, all spoke of her love of her husband. Of her inherent sense that something was terribly wrong.
And she was absolutely right in her suspicions. Mr. Smith's CT scan had confirmed a significant intracranial bleed, a stroke of devastating proportions. A stroke that limited us, between his previous strokes and extensive medical history, in our aggressiveness. Together, the ER nurse and I had walked into the room to share their grim news with them while we contacted the neurology and neurosurgical teams.
"Mr. and Mrs. Smith," I spoke, quietly and gently, yet urgently, "I have some disheartening news. It appears that Mr. Smith has had another stroke, this one quite involved within the entire brain." We talked at length about the findings, our plan of action, of how aggressive they wanted our team to be, despite our hands being tied from this CVA's severity.
Mrs. Smith took the news much better than I expected, her acceptance belying her body's expressions. While her husband floated in and out of awakeness, she explained their position. "We were told last time that the next stroke could be the final one. It appears we have arrived at this final one, yes?"
I couldn't help but like Mrs. Smith. Her inner strength was simply astounding. I nodded "yes" to her, but added "Let's at least have the specialists see your husband and make their recommendations to you."
Now she nodded "yes." "But," she added, "neither of us want heroic measures."
I understood. "I'm just going to remain here with you a few minutes," I said, "if that's alright, while we wait for the specialists to arrive." Although the ER was busy, I wouldn't let that fact prevent the nurse and I from providing a few minutes of necessary companionship.
And then, it happened. Another realization of my humanness. After removing my supportive arm from around Mrs. Smith's shoulders, I stepped back to the front of the counter, bowed my head, and cupped my hands in front of me. I looked to the floor, to my brown Clark clogs, as I started to say a silent prayer for this family.
Instead of finishing my prayer, though, I became distracted. Thoroughly and completely. Because there, in this extreme moment of crisis, in the middle of my wishful thoughts for this family, I noticed my zipper.
My wide-open unzipped zipper. How long had it been down? I shuddered at the thought that my zipper may have been this way for several hours and through several other patient encounters.
Not only was my zipper open and lingering at its lowest possible point, but its edges were widely gaping, exposing my hunter green, 3% spandex and 97% cotton, boxer briefs. My hip-huggers were there for the world to take in at possibly one of the most inopportune moments. "Hello," they screamed, "look at me. Look here!" Ugh! For some unexplained reason, I remember thinking the situation would have been better had I chosen to wear my tighty-whities that day.
Slowly, I tried to cover this embarrassment with my cupped hands, but to no avail. I shifted my legs back and forth, trying to see if the sway of my motion might magically reacquaint my zipper edges. No go. I looked up at the nurse, who was oblivious to my predicament, and Mrs. Smith, who was not. She was focused on my every move. It didn't help, either, that she was sitting in her chair, eye-level of my indiscretion. Secretly, I think she was quite entertained by my distraction. Heck, I'd go so far to say that she enjoyed watching me squirm of embarrassment.
Suddenly, though, she looked me in the eyes, her eyes sparkling with amusement and yet glistening with sadness. I returned her gaze. We both remained quiet. All was okay. I abandoned any sense of correcting the situation and remained leaning against the counter. Graciously, she turned her head from me and refocused on her husband. As did I. As was the nurse this entire time.
By the grace of God, I got paged overhead for a phone call. Probably the neurologist, I thought. I excused myself from the room and rushed to my physician station, where I yanked up my zipper before attending to any other tasks. Later on, as we do in our twisted ER ways, the team would have a hearty laugh at my expense.
Yep, I'm human. I put my underwear on just like the next person. As do every one of my fellow physicians. Oh, and my zipper will occasionally fail me and that's okay. How can one possibly get an exaggerated ego with that in mind?
I will remember Mrs. Smith and her quiet resolve, her inner strength, in the face of such a crisis. And I'm sure she will remember me, too, but, unfortunately, not for the same reasons.
I hope my residents take my words to heart and emulate the best I have to offer. Which, during that shift, was this advice--never, ever go into a patient's room without checking your zipper first!
Otherwise, I'll just keep preaching kindness and compassion. And, oh yeah, humility...
As always, big thanks for reading. I hope this finds you all well. On HHI for the week and having a grand ol' time. Any embarrassing medical stories you'd like to share? Please do...