Friday, December 24, 2010

Continued Prayers, Wishes, & Hopes

I pulled up my last-year wishes for you and found myself nodding my agreement as I read, finding that the sentiment and spirit are as strong today as when I wrote them one year ago.

My continued prayers, wishes, and hopes for you and yours...have a Blessed and Happy Holidays.

Another holiday season is upon us. For all the unbridled joy and excitement that surrounds us, however, there is an uneasiness within my core that seems to seed itself every year. I don't think I am alone.

I have seen enough heartache through the year to know that joy and excitement can be very temporary. Can you even imagine wrapping presents only to return them after the holiday season because of an untimely death, never having the chance to give them? Over the holiday season, especially, heartache seems to magnify itself into a swirling tornado ready to touch down on so many lives. I've seen a lot of energy spent outrunning that tornado.

So, for all the happiness, I still can't help but be reminded of how hard these upcoming days will be for so many. My heart goes out to them. Especially the children.

How do I remember the important things in my life? And not just over the holidays, but every day? I know I have been blessed in my life. When I think of these blessings, none of them have to do with material things but rather things that spiritually feed my soul. Companionship, loyalty, kindness, and love. And more love. These make me a better person.

So, in the spirit of this holiday season, I share just a few of my prayers, my wishes, and my hopes with you.

I pray for my family, my friends, and those in the world that are in need. I pray that my son remains in remission for another five years, and another five years after that. I pray that my mother can look down on my family and smile. I pray she knows the power of her prayers, asking a forgiving God to show my son mercy and take her in His arms instead when they were both battling their malignancies. I pray that I can be gracious in adversity, always.

I wish for my family, my friends, and those in the world to know love, to embrace kindness, and to step outside the box and give more of themselves. I wish for endless hugs. I wish for good health. I wish for every child to know warmth in their heart and comfort in their soul. I wish for peace.

I hope that the ripples from compassion will disperse beyond our wildest imaginations. I hope that random acts of kindness multiply. I hope that thoughts of others will replace thoughts of ourselves. I hope that we all remember that we are in this together. I hope that your joy, your happiness, and your excitement is not temporary but rather infinite.

I pray you have a wonderful holiday season. I wish for all your expectations to be fulfilled. I hope the most important presents you will give this holiday season are gifts you can give each day through the year.

Happy Holidays...

As always, big thanks for reading... To my amazing readers...I truly hope this holiday season is blessed and happy for you and all the people in your lives.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Defining Emergency

Emergency, as per the all-knowing Webster, is defined as an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action. Furthermore, an emergency is also defined as an urgent need for assistance or relief.

These definitions sound pretty spot-on, right? When thinking about emergency room settings, even, one can easily correlate the words of Webster to what one would necessitate to be a situation requiring emergency medical treatment. A trauma. Broken bones. A heart attack. A stroke. A seizure. Respiratory distress. A cardiac arrest. The list goes on and on and on. When a critical illness or injury occurs, then, we should all be thankful that we live within a society where emergent, life-saving medical care is available.

Lately, though, it seems the system meant to provide this care is being bogged down by questionable decision-making. Instead of providing emergent care, it seems I spend at least half of my emergency room time now playing doctor to chronic illnesses. To pain control issues. To mildly elevated blood pressure readings. To months of nonspecific weaknesses and fatigue. To office appointments sent to the ER because "we are overbooked today." And our ER is not alone. I hear the frustration of my colleagues and see first-hand how overworked most of us who provide health care in the ER setting have become.

A month back, I was in the middle of a very busy shift. Several patients with chest pain (one requiring immediate catheterization), two patients with respiratory distress (one from skipping dialysis and one from a COPD exacerbation), and three patients from a motor vehicle collision presented almost simultaneously to our ER. Within minutes, all of these critical patients had been treated with efficient, appropriate life-saving care. The team on deserved kudos for doing their job well and making a difference in these patients' outcomes.

Walking back to the nursing station, then, I was surprised to find our secretary being berated by a gentleman in his thirties at the counter. His voice was loud and menacing. His face was pinched with anger. His fists were clenched by his side.

"Whoa," I said, walking up to him, standing between him and the secretary, "what seems to be the problem, sir?"

"We've been waiting two hours to be seen by a doctor!" he exclaimed. "What the hell is going on around here?"

Are you kidding? All he had to do was look for himself to find the organized commotion that was occurring in our ER setting. What followed was the briefest of conversations.

"Sir," I asked, "what brought you to our ER today?"
"My daughter's left ear is hurting her."
"For how long?" I asked.
"Two hours," he replied.

Two hours of ear pain? I get it--maybe he was worried about his daughter. I would be as well. But my daughter would also have gotten Tylenol and Advil and watched her daddy patiently wait for their turn to be treated once the dire situation had been explained. Better yet, we would have probably waited until the morning when a call could be placed to her personal physician.

I explained to him that we had multiple critical patients brought to us and we would be with his daughter as soon as possible. "We're all trying our best, sir," I added, "but you're going to need to be a little more patient."

The father stared me in the eye. I stared back. Finally, he blurted out what he had been thinking to say. "Well, then," he spoke, sarcasm dripping from his pathetic words, "try harder." It didn't end there, though. He continued. "This is bullshit waiting two hours to be seen."

Before I could respond, he turned his back and huffed himself back into Room 27 where, the nurse shared with me, his eleven year-old daughter comfortably sat watching TV. "And," the nurse added, "I had already explained to him why they were waiting to be seen."

After this, one of our regulars who had been to our ER over 200 times (since we started tracking in March of 2006) arrived via ambulance. Then a gentleman carrying a big bottle of Mountain Dew was escorted from his ambulance, by foot, into our ER because his main complaint was "I just want to take a nap and was too far from my apartment." Next, an asymptomatic patient with elevated blood pressure for three years, non-compliant with her medications for financial reasons (yes--I noticed the pack of cigarettes hanging from her purse), was sent to us from her family doctor to be cured on the spot. "Go right to the ER," she was told.

Can you appreciate the obviousness of the long waiting times in the emergency department? Although we all pride ourselves on providing expedient care, a four to six hour wait is sometimes the reality for some of our noncritical patients.

As if to hammer the point home, my last patient during my shift that night (I was working 5pm to 3am) was a sixteen year old female who had presented to our ER, via ambulance at 2am, with her mother.

I walked into her room to find this patient and her mother both lying in the cot, laughing while watching TV, the patient in no obvious distress. I introduced myself to them before I started asking questions. "What can I do to help you tonight? What brought you to our emergency room?"

The girl looked at her mother and started giggling, my first sign that she would survive whatever her ailment may be.

"Well," she said shyly, "I've had some burning when I pee for about a week. And," she added, not done "I have something gross leaking from down there (she swept her hand towards her pelvis as she spoke)." Upon further questioning, I learned that she had been diagnosed with a yeast infection from her family doctor one month ago but failed to get her prescription filled. I also learned that she was sexually active with not one, but two partners. Unprotected.

I was disheartened. "What made you come to the ER at 2am when these symptoms have been going on for over a week?" I asked, hoping there was some rhyme or reason to her seeking out emergent care at this time. There wasn't. Her answer to my question--"Why not?" I didn't even approach her on why she came in by ambulance. Some things are better not known, I guess, especially at 2am.

I'm not sure this is the system that was imagined when emergency departments started gaining favor in our society. Don't get me wrong, though. I, like all of my colleagues, are 100% committed to providing respectful and appropriate care to anyone who shows up in our department, whether it be a critical, life-threatening illness or a chronic "nuisance," so to speak.

I can only hope that people will be patient and understanding as we all cope with the evolving changes that seem to be occurring with our health care system. And my hat is off to all the medical folks who work hard, day after day, treating our fellow mankind as best we can within this currently accepted system. Because, even as bogged down as we can sometimes become, what an awesome privilege we have in meeting and greeting and treating our fellow kind. Of helping them out in their time of need.


As always, big thanks for reading. I wish a blessed holiday season to each and every one of you...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Keep Your Cranky

Although the majority of my emergency department time is spent in a local 36-bed trauma center, I continue to work a few shifts each month in the small rural hospital near my childhood hometown, several hours away. It is a great change of pace, treating the local folks, while affording me a chance to spend a few evenings with my father and siblings' families.

Last week, I had to drive through white-out blizzard conditions during my most recent two-hour trip, taking approximately four hours each way because of the weather. White knuckles, breath-holding, tense and contracted muscles, stress headaches, and bouts of complaining to myself in the car--these were all part of the package deal. I imagined the cozy, 12-bed emergency department awaiting my arrival, however, and kept plugging along the icy roads, refusing to abandon my place in the thirty-car line of traffic. Going 20 mph. And braking every five seconds. Yep, good times, as any of you ever caught traveling in a snow storm are familiar with.

Arriving at the small ER, then, I was pleasantly surprised to see the festive decorations that adorned the department. Gold, shimmery garland draped the nursing station. Felt stockings and striped candy canes hung in random fashion along the glass enclosure walls. A Christmas tree was standing tall, twinkling and proud, in a nook of inactive space in the corner. It felt Norman Rockwelly and old-fashioned, and I felt welcomed. 'Tis the season.

The first of my scheduled shifts was quite hectic. From my prime seating in front of the ambulance bay doors, I was able to appreciate the outdoor weather. Blustery gusts of snow and heavy thick blankets of engorged snowflakes descended and tormented, without pause, the small town through the day. Although I felt worry and concern for anyone out in this weather, a blazing fireplace, a good book, and a glass of wine were the only things that would have added to the enjoyment and appreciation I felt for this crazy weather.

Three hours into my shift, though, I remembered what the first snowstorm of the season means to an ER staff. Multiple MVCs (multiple vehicle collisions). First-time-of-the-season shovelers developing chest pain as they try to clear their sidewalks. Frequent falls resulting in contusions and broken bones and lacerations. Cough and cold symptoms magnified tenfold with every ten degree drop. Frostbite. And on...and on...and on...

By mid morning, we were swamped. And I loved it. All twelve beds were filled and the waiting room was starting to spill over. The multiple ambulance runs to pick up and drop off ill patients created a steady, rhythmic sense of humming chaos. Despite the craziness, the staff I was working with (many of them friends from my childhood) continued to smile while pushing onward. I was proud to be part of such a team, their hardwork quite evident. We were providing excellent care in a very efficient manner, discharging and admitting and transferring patients left and right.

So, was it really a surprise to me to find that, eventually, all good things come to an end and this run of busy but gratifying work would be interrupted by something unpleasant? I guess not, although I could still hope, right?

The unpleasantness came early afternoon, in the form of a man's booming, angry voice resonating from the hallway. I had been in Room 2 at the time, examining a new patient, an elderly female with dizziness.

"If you'll excuse me, maam," I said, "I need to go see what's going on in the hallway."

I left her room and shut the sliding glass door. Several nurses were in the hallway already, standing in front of a 60ish man, his mouth moving while he leaned forward into his walker. The obvious source of the angry yelling.

"Excuse me, sir," I said, walking between the nurses and right up to him, "what seems to be the problem?"

If any of you have seen the movies Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men, picture a shorter version of Walter Matthau with slightly more gray hair peeking out from his baseball cap. A pinched-up face. Angry, flaring eyes and a reddened, ruddy complexion. His flannel shirt was untucked from his blue denim pants. And his hands were balled into fists while maintaining his grip on his walker.

Those angry, flaring eyes didn't take long to focus on me. "Who the hell are you?" he asked, practically spitting on me with his disgust.

"I'm Dr. Jim, the emergency room doctor on shift for the day," I said, keeping my cool. "And you are...?" I deliberately left the question open.

"I'm the God-damned boyfriend of Room 6, if any of you lazy sons-of-bitches care," he screamed out, "and I need somebody from this God-damned first-aid station to tell me what the hell is going on with her."

I was surprised at this man's behavior, wondering to myself if he had tipped a few back during lunch. The level of rudeness and obnoxious behavior I encounter through my shifts continues to amaze me. Trying to placate this man would turn out to be an obvious failure.

Room 6, this patient's girlfriend, contained a woman in her 60s who had lingering burping and belching for six months. Today, this day of stormy weather, was the day she decided to pursue her symptoms, for no other reason than just "because I figured it was time to get checked out." She was right to come in, since her EKG revealed signs of heart ischemia that were confirmed by her elevated cardiac enzymes via blood work. I had seen and treated her immediately upon her arrival to our ER, as well as checked-in with her multiple times, making sure her symptoms had resolved and explaining the results of her tests. Currently, the cardiologist was on his way to the ER to make further recommendations.

At no time during this woman's hour stay did a boyfriend present himself. She had been in the room alone.

"Sir, keep your voice down," I told him, "we have a lot of sick patients in this ER today. And when did you get here," I continued, "since I've been in your girlfriend's room multiple times in the past hour."

"Me, too," piped in Marsha, the patient's nurse.

"I just got here," he said, shaking his head in disgust, "and nobody made it a point to explain things to me." He continued to rant and rave, insulting anyone associated with the small rural hospital.

"That's not true," Marsha disputed, "I explained everything I knew to you, just a few minutes ago, after you walked into your girlfriend's room. I even offered you a chair, coffee, a blanket."

"Regardless, sir," I said, proud of Marsha, "you could have asked in a much better way than walking into the hallway and screaming like this for everyone to hear." He eyed me up, surprised at my confronting him on his behavior. "Now," I said, "these are your two choices. Either leave the department and wait in the waiting room, or go back into your girlfriend's room and act like a gentleman. After she answers your questions, I'll be in to answer anything further. With her permission, of course."

There was a standoff. He eyed me. I eyed him. The nurses all held their breath. Finally, he spoke. Or yelled. "Screw you. I'm going to go, God-damn it, and feed her God-damn mutt of a dog. But I'll be back," he said.

Before leaving, he tried one last parting shot. "I envy your God-damn generation," he muttered, "none of you know what hard work is. Not a single one."

Well, I thought back to my 14 hour days working with my father's crews in the woods when I was a teenager. I thought about waking up in my childhood on Saturdays and Sundays to cut and stack firewood and cut grass. I thought about the numerous chores our parents expected of us. I thought about the endless sleepless nights I spent, first studying through college, then medical school, and finally through residency, before some semblance of normalcy finally arrived to my life.

"Sir, you don't know me or any of the nurses, do you?" I asked, sweeping my hand towards them. He nodded "no." "Then how," I continued, "can you say such a rude thing? I would never consider insulting you the way you've insulted our staff. It's not necessary and your bad attitude isn't helping anyone. It's time for you to go."

"Well," he stammered, "even if you aren't lazy, most of your God-damn generation is."

And with that, he continued on his way out of our "first-aid station," decorated to celebrate the joy of the wondrous holiday, shaking his head in disgust until he walked through the waiting room doors.

After he left, our staff regrouped in the nursing station. Amazingly, not one person was affected negatively by this gentleman. Everyone had the good sense to dispel his insults and demeaning behavior without a second thought. "I can only hope," I warned them all, "that I'm not that grouchy when I get older."

I visited Room 6, the girlfriend. She was still clear of all her symptoms, but looked teary-eyed. "I'm so sorry for his behavior," she said, obviously hearing the conversation that had just occurred in the hallway, "he's like that all the time. But Doctor, just so you know, your staff treated me wonderfully today." She assured me, upon my questioning, that she was safe and not being abused physically. She declined any counseling offers. "He's a dog with a big bark and no bite," was how she put it. I wanted to ask her "Why?" Why in the world would she stay with a man so unpleasant, so abrupt and obnoxious? But I didn't. We all have our reasons for living our lives the way we do, and she was no exception. Besides, the world was continuing to revolve and I was needed in several other rooms.

An hour later, Mr. Crank was back. Before even entering his girlfriend's room, he walked himself right through the nursing station, stopping on its edge. "Now what the hell is going on?" he yelled, lifting his walker from the floor before banging it back down, startling me from the chart I was working on.

And the conversation continued as before--him insulting our staff and hospital with vulgar language, me giving him the option of either going to his girlfriend's room or the waiting room. In my book, this was his last chance, and I conveyed it respectfully to him.

He walked to his girlfriend's room, entered it, and shut the glass door behind him. Surprisingly, he was only in there for a minute or two before opening the door, walking into the hallway and out the ER while muttering to himself. Whereas before he had conveyed, with his body language, some misplaced pride, this time while walking past our nursing station he looked like a man who had just been brow-beatened. No doubt, the girlfriend had the last say in this matter.

Throughout this holiday season, we will have many opportunities to spread good cheer and love. Compassion and kindness. And endless smiles. Or, we will have opportunities to spread poison and malignant anger. Hurtful words and deliberate insults. And pinched-up frowns.

The choice is yours. The choice is mine. Just remember to pause and look at the infinite garland, the Christmas trees, the stockings, and the candy canes--all of the beauty of the season that surrounds us. Notice and acknowledge the smiles on the faces you pass. Remember your inner child's spirit and reflect on the deeper meaning of this holiday.

I can only hope your choice fills your heart with warmth.

And I wish for nothing less for Mr. Crank.

As always, big thanks for reading. Despite our respectful attempts to break through Mr. Crank's grumpy exterior, we were unsuccessful. Darn it! I hope this finds you well and ready for the holiday season and all it brings your way...see you early next week.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I Got Me Some Flu

I am one of those people who has avoided the flu shot, at least for the past six years. Outside of diligently receiving it during the few years that my son, Cole, and my mother were on chemotherapy, I find that the constant bombardment of exposures to various infections during a typical shift in my emergency department has given me the small doses of immunity needed to remain healthy and infection-free.

Although I'm not one to ascribe to the notion that the flu vaccination is the cause of a multiple sequalae of ailments after receiving it, several years ago I myself had developed an odd peripheral neuropathy after my third yearly shot. After multiple MRIs and blood work, including a spinal tap, failed to reveal the reason, I have since avoided the flu shot on this basis. And my peripheral neuropathy, thankfully, is a thing of the past.

Do I think the peripheral neuropathy was due to the flu shot? It depends on the day you ask me. After witnessing the flu shot being blamed for everything from causing heart attacks to promoting cancer, though, I was hesitant to put the blame on it for my own symptoms. I was young (in my thirties), healthy, and in great physical shape. I was admittedly stressed out, however, between Cole's relapse from remission and my mother's battle with leukemia, all the while desperately struggling to show the world nothing but a smile on my face. We all know how important a healthy mental state translates into physical well-being (known as "psychosomatic" in the medical community), so I had obvious other reasons, besides receiving a recent flu shot, to suspect my body's failings.

That said, I think the flu shot is a wonderful option for people who pursue it after an informed decision, and I have no doubt that it is responsible for saving a significant number of lives, especially those from the populations of being elderly, young, or immunocompromised.

It's just not for me.

Recently, after having several days off during this past Thanksgiving holiday, I returned to work, on Sunday, only to learn that the nasty GI bug had exploded in our community. Diffuse abdominal cramping, nausea with uncontrolled vomiting, diarrhea, fevers, aching muscles, headache--it seems this little bug was responsible for a multitude of holiday gifts to a multitude of people from every background. Gifts, unfortunately, that kept on giving. According to one of our senior resident physicians, during his prior day's shift, he treated twenty patients, seventeen of which had this flu syndrome. And, it seemed, the virus was working its way through our staff.

Uggggggghhhh. Welcome back to me.

I took every precaution I typically take before starting my shift. I got the industrial, kill-everything wipes (in the container warning to wear gloves before touching them) and wiped down my phone, my computer and its keyboard, my workspace counter, my pen, my stethoscope, my chair handles, etc. If there was a chance I was going to touch it during my shift, it got wiped. I may have even gone overboard, obtaining a clean bed sheet, folding it several times, and putting it on the cloth chair I was using. In my mind, I ridiculously believed I had effectively halted any bug from climbing from the navy blue seat, through my khakis, through my underwear, to my skin, where it would multiply and overtake me, unselfishly sharing all of its pleasant symptoms with me. I'm surprised at myself, on hindsight, that I didn't soak the bed sheet in ammonia first.

I'd be damned if I was going to get that nasty flu.

As usual, I made sure to put on latex gloves, from the hallway station, before entering any patient's room. Every time. Without exception. I wasn't going to be shaking any hands or touching any bed railings if I could help it. When necessary, I also donned a mask and disposable body gown, rendering me as a wrapped mummy. You can only imagine the screams from the pediatric patient who, on a normal basis, suffers from white-coat syndrome now being approached by a tall blob of a person bulkily wrapped in pastel-yellow paper, purple latex gloves, and a light-blue mask, two eyes peeking out of its top border. I think I would probably scare myself, even.

For added precaution, to make sure I didn't pass anything on to my family, I stripped myself immediately after walking into our mudroom from a shift, depositing my clothes in the washer and running quite briskly through the house to our bedroom shower, where I proceeded to scrub myself down. I'm hopeful I won't hear from any of our neighbors claiming to see, through our house windows, a naked man running around. Make that a sexy naked man, thank you very much.

So, after all of my precautions and not getting the flu for the past six years, I was pretty confident that I wouldn't be one of the unfortunate many getting ill during this recent outbreak. Nope, not me. Get out of here, you nasty bug, and find someone else to populate a new colony in.

Fast forward to my third and final shift. Tuesday evening. Eight hours into my ten-hour shift. Me, sitting at my computer in my tan cords and long-sleeved rugby shirt, happily typing in orders on yet another patient, thinking about having off the next four days.

And suddenly, just like that, I heard it. And then felt it. A loud gurgle, followed by a wave of cramping. "On no," I thought to myself, "it must be the fish sandwich and steak fries I ate for dinner." How easy our minds can hide the truth from us, sometimes. Despite my denial, the gurgling continued and the cramping waxed and waned. Finally, the shift over, I drove home, mumbling useless prayers, barely making it into my house before visiting the bathroom.

What a great way to spend a few days off! After missing basketball practices with my son and youngest daughter, skipping family meals, taking numerous small sips of water with repeated doses of ibuprofen, and imbibing in several warm baths followed by extended naps (yesterday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.), I am actually able to stand up from bed this morning without getting dizzy. I am hopeful that the cause of these past two days of misery is now on its way out.

I even missed writing group last night, which speaks volumes of just how miserable I was.

Are there any benefits to having the flu? Heck yeah. Like I just mentioned, the warm baths and extended naps. Trust me, those two things alone almost made being sick worth it. And being pampered by the family; for example, having a cup of tea made lovingly (after threatening to lick her face) by my youngest, Grace. However, if I am being honest, I don't think I was pampered nearly enough by my kids or wife. Whether it was simply avoiding me to prevent getting the flu themselves, or possibly avoiding my incessant manly whining, I'm really not sure. A moan from me, though, was more often met with laughter rather than concern. Maybe I was imagining it, in my febrile delirium, but I don't think so.

When I'm done finishing this post, I may go lick the clean rim of my wife's coffee mug before replacing it back on the shelf. That would teach her to give me more lovin' when I'm near-death.

Not really, of course. After all, at some point during my recovery, she and the kids carried up all of the numerous boxes of Christmas decorations from the basement and began to transform our house into a welcoming winter wonderland. What an appreciated, beautiful sight for me to behold after being bed-ridden for a few days.

If anything, though, now I may just have to reconsider the flu shot.

Oops, I have to run--the bathroom is calling for me. I hope this finds you all flu-free and healthy during this post-Thanksgiving season.

Flu shot or no flu shot? That is the question...

I'm back. As always, big thanks for reading. I hope you all had full bellies during this past Thanksgiving holiday. See you soon.