Posts tagged Patient-Provider Relationships
When the Best Prescription is Not to Cure

The unit is separated from the outside world by two pairs of locked double doors. A blinking green light and a soft beep herald our passage through them into a no-man’s-land where a guard sits, patiently unlocking the doors as we come and go. When I enter the airlock the first morning, hang my coat and stow my backpack, it feels as though I’m in a sci-fi movie, an intergalactic explorer awaiting my first excursion into the uncharted expanses of space. The atmospheres equilibrate and, I will soon learn, norms are stripped away, decompressed. Not sure what to expect, the door chirps open and I step into my month-long rotation on the inpatient psych ward.

Each morning, residents, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, and I pile into a tiny, windowless room with chairs pushed up against the walls in two rows facing each other. I am the only medical student among them, a wide-eyed interloper squeezing into a center chair. Patients are led in one by one to sit beneath a watercolor painting of goldfish in a pond while we ask them things like, “How is your mood today?” and “Did you need your Zyprexa to sleep last night?” A pleasantly psychotic woman, untroubled by her delusions of being a powerful real estate lawyer – she is homeless but insists that her office has faxed her discharge paperwork – doesn’t seem to notice that I’m there. With fifteen or twenty minutes per patient and our elbows and knees bumping up against each other, these encounters are concentrated in time, in space, in feeling, and they leave me jelly-legged and dazed when I finally stand up hours later. Every minute I’m cycling through the full range of human emotion, from proud to sad to irate to hopeful. I fidget in my chair as tremulous patients beg for benzos. I hold back tears as a suicidal businessman crumples wet tissues in his bandaged hands. Sometimes I just stare at the goldfish and wonder if this is what it’s like to be crazy.

One day a few months prior on a surgery rotation, I stood in the OR at the end of a long case, carefully running a subcuticlar skin closure.

“You’re a natural.” The surgeon, arms crossed, looks over my shoulder. “What specialty do you want to go into?”

“Neurology.” I watched the last stich pull the skin into a taught pink line the patient would remember me by.

“Neurology?” She sounded confused. “But don’t you want to fix people?” Her jaw was tight and face serious.

This was nothing new. From the beginning of medical school we are taught to diagnose and treat. We recite mnemonics for the acute management of myocardial infarctions, and can name first, second, and third line therapies for asthma. We titrate blood pressures to evidence-based levels, and feel weirdly satisfied when our heart failure patients pee after a dose of diuretics.

We are taught to grow from the first year student who can report that something is wrong to the doctor who can do something about it.

On the psych ward, my patients’ foggy insights clouds my own. I find myself in the thick of the confusion with them, trying desperately to “fix,” to “cure,” to achieve some venerated end I had been conditioned to strive for, and driving myself insane with an inexplicable rage when I can’t. A woman with a functional tic can’t accept that her problem is not the result of medical errors and refuses psychiatric intervention. A kind man with bipolar disorder and an addiction who got high and tried to crash his yacht tinkers with his medication doses and stares silently out the window at the sailboats dotting the river below. A deeply depressed attorney can’t allow himself to just feel sad. Seeing them every day is excruciating: each carefully articulated question I ask falls flat, and simple conversations quickly turn into circular back-and-forth’s that devolve to the absurd. Every day I feel like banging my head against the wall, and each night I drag home the weight that others can’t carry.

Shelly* is 30-something, wiry, all clavicle and bony knees– breakable, almost – with thick glasses that magnify her round eyes and give her a permanently forlorn look. She wears Victoria’s Secret sweatpants with a black sweatshirt and Ugg boots, her long brown hair pulled into two braids that fall down her back.

The night before her arrival, she had lined up her anxiety pills, her mutinous artillery of serotonin and GABA, in one last attempt to create order in her chaotic life, before swallowing them one by one. However, her final act of treason was interrupted, and she ended up with us. When we first meet, she is reticent, eyes downcast, giving up only a word or two in barely a whisper. But soon, she opens up.

Two young women in a foreign land, we hit it off: she shows me the drawings she makes in the journal she guards tightly against her chest with crossed arms as she walks around the unit, and talks about seeing her dog when she gets home. She is tougher than her small frame lets on, both physically and mentally. After a week of dutiful CBT practice, she is deemed ready to go conquer her automatic negative thoughts on her own, out in the real world. On the last day of my rotation the two of us sit under the goldfish, talking about going home, about passing through the airlocked doors back to the outside world. Suddenly, her face clouds and she begins to cry for the first time since she’s been here. I hand her tissues.

“What’s wrong?” I break the silence.

“I feel like a failure,” she says through tears. “I’ve worked so hard, what if I’m not actually better? What if I go home and it all starts again?”

I pause.

“Well, at least you’re trying, right? That’s pretty good.” I watch her think about this for a moment, brow furrowed, tiny fists balled in her lap.

“Yeah,” she smiles a little to herself, eyes looking thoughtfully at the floor. “I guess that’s something.”

Back between the doors, I wait for the green light one last time. Four weeks, ten discharged patients, dozens of prescriptions, and countless long silences later, I don’t think I fixed anyone. I sat with them, though, through all the tears and all the tic-ing, and heard what they had to say. Maybe this is how we help: we shelter, we stabilize, we listen, and we together we take steps, however small. We may not always be able to fix. We may not know what happens when our patients leave the quiet of the pond for the rough ocean waves. But we try. Well, I reassure myself, I guess that’s something.

* Name has been changed

Emma Meyers is a third year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neurobiology. She plans to do a residency in neurology. Outside of medicine, Emma enjoys art, reading fiction, hiking, cycling, and traveling.

One Moment in Time: A Patient’s Story

I want to tell you a story.

It took place during the radiation phase of my breast cancer treatments.

My radiation sessions were scheduled at the same time, every day, for six weeks. Each day I saw the same patients and the same technicians. We were all on a first name basis.  I saw the same hot chocolate-cappuccino-coffee machine, the same cheap plastic bowl of fresh apples, oranges and bananas, the same stack of well-worn out-of-date magazines, the same relatives and friends accompanying their loved ones, and the same zapping of radiation. The one thing that didn’t stay the same was our changing bodies. We were all deteriorating. Not only was my body changing from the radiation but also the deep chemically-induced menopause I was in, was severely affecting my quality of life. If you can imagine how regular menopause affects women who lose their hormones gradually over a period of years, just think how it felt to lose mine in two weeks. I was having extreme hot flashes every ten minutes, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, some so harsh they left me faint. Menopause can also create a depressed feeling and I felt that creeping in as well. My doctor told me that losing my hormones so fast due to chemotherapy was doing such a job on my body, it was like driving my car into a brick wall at forty miles an hour. I found his analogy validating because that’s exactly how it felt. Smash! Bang! Boom!

Just to let you know, radiation in itself is actually quite painless. Unfortunately, what happens as time wears on is the skin that’s been radiated gets burned. Sometimes it looks like a fashionable tan, sometimes it looks like a sunburn, and sometimes the skin gets so badly burned, the doctors have no option but to stop the treatments completely. That’s exactly what happened to my friend Lily. Lily and I met in the radiation waiting room while she was being treated for breast cancer. She was of Asian decent, and even though she stumbled with her broken English, and I with my Chinese, we understood each other perfectly. Just like schoolgirls, we saved seats for each other every day. We connected on many levels and as the weeks moved along, we developed a deep love and respect for each other.  One day Lily confided in me that she would no longer be coming for treatment.  She opened up her shirt and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The severity of the burns on her chest was shocking. I didn’t know if Lily’s skin was more sensitive than mine or her level of radiation stronger. What I did know was that Lily’s chest couldn’t tolerate any more and her treatments were stopped permanently. I felt terrible for the hopelessness of her situation and, selfishly, I also felt terrible for myself — I would miss her.  I made several attempts to stay in touch, but sadly Lily and I never saw each other again.

That’s not the story I want to tell you.

Another patient I met while sitting in the waiting room, day after day, was Peter.  He had prostate cancer and we soon became buddies. Peter’s treatments were affecting his hormone levels, similar in ways to mine. He was going through a male menopause of sorts, complete with hot flashes, weight gain, frequent bouts of crying, periods of insomnia, low libido and an overall lack of well-being.  He often shared his emotional and physiological changes with me in great detail because he knew I would understand. Peter and I developed quite a bond, playing pranks on each other regularly. Each afternoon, while waiting for his name to be called, he ate a banana from the fruit bowl.  Peter just loved bananas.   One day, he was late for his treatment and I noticed that there was only one banana left in the bowl.  I didn’t want anyone to grab it, so being the thoughtful prankster that I am, I snatched up that Chiquita and hid it in my pocket.  When Peter finally arrived, he ran over to the fruit bowl but alas — no banana.  His disappointment was palpable.

“What’s wrong Peter?” I asked.  “You look so sad.”

“I wanted a banana but there’s none left,” he answered.

“Awww…that’s too bad.  Well, look down here. Oh my goodness. Is this a banana in my pocket or am I just happy to see ya?”  Quickly I whipped out that banana and Peter’s face lit up. What a sight. To most people, this may have seemed like such a small thing, but those kinds of exchanges amused us to no end and it helped get us through the day.

That’s not the story I want to tell you.

We all had our own routines when it came to our radiation appointments. This was mine: I’d sign in, walk into one of five closet-like changing rooms located within arms reach of the patient’s waiting room, put on one of those terribly revealing hospital gowns and leave my clothes on the hook, praying that no one would steal them.  Of course, I really didn’t have to worry too much about that. Being 5 feet tall, my pants would look like knickers on anyone else. After that, I’d sit in the waiting room, have a cappuccino, chat with a friend, read a gossip magazine to get up-to-date with the really important issues in life, and wait for my name to be called. When I’d hear ‘Marla Lukofsky’ over the speaker, I’d be escorted into a cold room with a large radiation machine and would hoist myself up onto an even colder metal table. Then I’d slide the hospital gown down to my waist, lie there and watch the huge high-tech contraption move across the ceiling until its projected grid pattern aligned itself with the tattoos on my chest. The machine would then zoom in close, and the technician-of-the-day would run out of the room as fast as he or she could, and hide behind a five-inch-thick Plexiglas-sealed container. That got me to thinking, ‘Hey, if it’s that dangerous for them, then what am I still doing in here?’

“Are you ready, Marla?” the voice on the intercom would ask.

“Yes, I am.”

 “Okay, then. You can keep breathing, but DON’T MOVE.”

Talk about a contradiction. Then the radiation machine would let out a disturbing sound that alternated between a high-pitched squealing noise and a machine gun popping. In a minute or two it would be all over, only to be repeated several more times on other areas of my chest. Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it. They’d do their job by zapping me and I’d do mine by lying still and taking in the rays.

Each day was becoming harder than the next. I started to feel like I had nothing important to do.  In order to bring in some money and keep myself somewhat active and stimulated, I got myself a part-time job at the only place that would hire me, Tusquellas’ Fresh Fish Market. Can you imagine feeling nauseous and choosing to work in a FRESH FISH MARKET?  What was I thinking?  Talk about upsetting aromas!!! On the plus side, when I went into a huge hot flash, I’d just leave the customer in the middle of their order and jump into the walk-in freezer at the back to cool off.  Sometimes I’d come out with icicles hanging off my hair. I’m not kidding.

Every day like clockwork, while my spirits were plummeting, I’d leave work and go to my radiation sessions. The technicians would always ask me, “How are ya doing, Marla,” before we’d get started and no matter what I’d answer, they’d never say much back except for the expected platitudes.  I hate platitudes. On a regular basis I would challenge them.  “Don’t be so guarded with me or any of the other patients. We’re not going to hurt you, you know!”  I guess I made an impact because when I received my Certificate of Completion from the Comprehensive Cancer Center, there was a hand-written inscription on it saying, ‘Don’t be so guarded! All the best! Andrew and Judy.

That’s not the story I want to tell you either.

One day, while sitting on the cold slab in the radiation chamber, Andrew, my technician-du-jour, asked me how I was doing. Maybe he was expecting me to say the usual ‘I’m fine thanks and you?’ but I didn’t — not that day.

“To be quite honest Andrew, I’m awful. I work in a fish market, I smell like Tilapia, and I feel like I don’t have a purpose in my life anymore.” Then I started to cry and cry and kept crying as if I was making up for all the days that I hadn’t let myself cry. Andrew handed me a Kleenex and gently said,

“Marla, I think you do have a purpose. Maybe you just can’t see it right now.”

“What are you talking about Andrew? All I do is come in here every day stinking of fish, get zapped, glow in the dark and go home. Nothing more than that.”

"Well, I’ll tell you what I see, Marla. The other day we had a new patient. Remember? She came in with her husband, the one with the blue scarf on her head.  Well, as you know, we have to take a Polaroid picture of each new patient for our records, so that we can make sure we’re giving the right radiation to the right person.  Anyway, you and Peter were sitting together, chatting away as per usual.  Then we came into the waiting room to take that woman’s picture, but she refused to let us and started to cry.

‘No, you can’t take my picture. I’m ugly. I look terrible and I feel terrible, and I don’t want anyone to see me like this. No! You can’t take my picture.’

We explained to her that we couldn’t start her treatments until we had the Polaroid, regulations, you know.  Her husband tried to change her mind and another technician tried too, but she wouldn’t budge.  So, we left the room to re-think our strategy while she sat there still crying.  Then I saw you, Marla. You walked over to her, knelt down right in front of her, put your hands on her knees and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Marla. I couldn’t help but hear what you said about the picture, and the way you look.  I really understand some of what you feel — not all of it, because I’m not you, but I have to tell you something. Underneath my scarf, I look just like you.’

And Marla, you took off your red bandana and exposed your bald head to that woman, a total stranger.  Then you said, ‘You see?  I look just like you. And you know what else? I think you’re beautiful, and trust me, I know a beautiful woman when I see one and you…are beautiful.  I wish I had your looks. I let them take my picture and I’m nowhere near as beautiful as you. Now, if you don’t let them take your picture, then you won’t be able to start your radiation and the sooner you start it, the sooner it’ll be all over and you’ll start feeling better again.’ Well, Marla, the woman sat there for a minute, thought about what you said and blurted out, ‘OK… I’ll let you take my picture.’  As soon as she said that, we scrambled back in, snapped the shot, and got her into the radiation room.  Her husband was grateful and so were we. And now you come in here and tell me that you don’t have a purpose?  Well, all I can say is that what you did for that woman was a wonderful thing. You helped her get through a difficult time. What’s more important than that? I saw you take that banana for Peter and make him laugh. I saw you get that hot chocolate for Cheryl and get her to open up to you. Even though you feel terrible right now, you have to remind yourself that you help people…in more ways than you realize and, in my books, that’s having a purpose — a very important purpose.”

I was shocked by what Andrew had told me. I was more shocked by his total recall.

“How the hell did you know about that Andrew?” I asked. “Do you have hidden cameras everywhere?”

“Actually, yes, we do, in every room, with intercom systems. We watch and listen to everything that goes on around here.”

“Geez…if I knew that, I would’ve put on some lipstick.”

After Andrew left the room, I sat there absorbing all that he had said. He made me feel better.  He gave me a new perspective on things. You see…he took the time for me, to point out that I took the time for someone else.  It was only one moment out of our lives, one moment in time, but it gave so much and sometimes that’s all it takes to help each other get through to the next day and the day after that. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.

That’s the story I want to tell you.

Previously published in the International Journal of User-Driven Healthcare and Cell2Soul.

Marla Lukofsky is a Canadian/American veteran stand-up comedian, writer, breast cancer survivor and keynote speaker. Her voice can be heard as Good Luck Bear on The Carebear Cartoon TV series. Her writings have been published in various medical journals in North America including Cell2Soul: The Journal of Humane Medicine and the Medical Humanities, The International Journal of User-Driven Healthcare (IJUDH) as well as The Online Journal of Community and Person-Centered Dermatology (OJCPCD). Ms. Lukofsky shares her unique journey with cancer and life in the highly acclaimed show ‘I’m Still Here…and so is my Hair!’ to audiences across the Globe. She has also written her memoir by the same title.  Marla’s belief is that if she can touch even one person and have them feel they are not alone, then she has succeeded.

www.marlalukofsky.com

mmlukofsky7@aol.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marla_Lukofsky

What I learned in the Haitian Batey: Reflections from a dentist-in-training

The fact that Dominicans of Haitian descent are treated as foreigners in their own country was hinted at before we even arrived on the island. Contemporary Haitian immigrants to the Dominican Republic and prior generations experience racism and economic exploitation on a daily basis. Our Global Health service trip team was mostly white, so this discrimination would not affect me or many of the other students. However, a black girl from New Jersey was warned that if our guagua (bus) was stopped while in transit, she would likely be asked to step out by military personnel in an effort to control immigration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. Luckily, we avoided this situation, but during my week on the island I observed many occasions of blatant racism that interfered with healthcare access for Haitians.

Each day our team traveled into “bateys” – communities – outside of Monte Cristi to support the local health center and their mission of guaranteeing patients the right to health. In the early 1900s, banana companies established bateys for the Haitians and Dominicans who worked the fields during the day, to provide them with a place to stay overnight. Many banana companies have stopped supporting the bateys, making life extremely difficult for those who live there – fruit pickers have been left without the means to support their families, and the economy suffers.

While I witnessed impoverished living conditions in all of the bateys, the Haitian batey was the most disadvantaged by far. We arrived at 7:00am to the abandoned banana packing plant and quickly transformed the area into a clinic. 30-40 patients were already lined up. Many of them had walked miles. Some of them had no shoes. Others were carrying one child on their back and another in their arms. I quickly gobbled down my granola bar while huddled over; in hindsight, I should have eaten it on the bus beforehand, away from the patients, considering many of them don’t have such easily accessible food.

As a pre-dental student, I had been assigned to spend the morning helping the dentist and her assistant. What struck me most were the Haitian children’s reactions to seeing the dentist, or lack thereof. In the U.S., it is not unexpected for a child to tantrum when propped up in the dentist’s chair. They clench their teeth closed and turn away from the approaching dentist’s hands. They cry for Mom or Dad whenever it’s deemed safe to open their mouth and howl. In contrast, not once at the pop-up clinic did I see a Haitian child fight the dentist. Not once did I hear them scream at the top of their lungs. Instead, often there without a parent, the child would lie on the chair with his or her mouth wide open, totally vulnerable, and not make a move or a sound. The dentist would scan and scrub and scrape, and then the child would sit up, lean over the side, and spit a mouth full of blood and plaque into a cardboard box filled with dirt. There were no stickers to reward their bravery or high fives from Mom or Dad. The kids were sent off with the only toothbrushes we had (boring adult ones instead of the fun, cartoon-themed ones often handed out in the U.S.), and started the long journey home.

I also experienced the impact a language barrier can have. Communication is perhaps the most important element in building a positive doctor-patient relationship. My day in the Haitian batey where everyone spoke Creole reminded me of this. Not being able to greet, instruct, or comfort these patients made me feel helpless. I still remember a middle-aged woman who let out groans so deep I couldn’t help but furrow my brow as I imagined her pain. “¿Qué le duele? / What hurts?” I asked. It was challenging enough to understand the woman’s response as she gritted her teeth and whimpered in agony, but when she answered in Creole instead of Spanish, I was filled with frustration. The language barrier made it difficult for me to clearly listen to or readily comfort her. Fortunately, we had a team of translators helping us. They translated from Creole to Spanish, and then another group translated from Spanish to English. Nonetheless, there was no way for us students or the non-Creole-speaking American doctors to directly communicate with her. I found this to be extremely limiting in assessing complaints and prescribing medicine.

As a pre-dental student majoring in Spanish, I hope to one day be able to combine my passions in order to communicate and empathize with both English and Spanish-speaking patients. My week in the D.R. affirmed the value of incorporating a Spanish language education into my dental career. Had the groaning woman spoken Spanish, I could have reassured her: “You were right to come here. Everything is going to be ok. We are going to help you.”

My week in the Dominican Republic ignited in me a desire to fight for equal access to healthcare worldwide. I will never forget the struggle of those who live in the bateys. Indeed, they will inspire me as I continue on my journey, and I hope to return one day as a practicing dentist. Until then, I plan to serve in my local community, as great disparities also exist in our own backyard.

Rachel is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in Spanish and minoring in medical humanities. She aspires to practice dentistry and cultural humility in a medically under served area.