Posts tagged Perspective
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.

My Breast Cancer: Reflections Sixteen Years After Diagnosis

By Leah Meyer

As a social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Sandy often works with young adults who receive potentially life-threatening diagnoses. “I think it’s absolutely jarring”, she reflects on the experience, though not solely in her capacity as a provider. Sandy was diagnosed, herself, with bilateral breast cancer when she was 35.

That first year included bilateral mastectomies, two different kinds of chemotherapy, and radiation. Then followed 15 years of hormonal therapy, so “technically”, she states, “I didn’t end treatment until a little more than a year ago.” Though cancer doesn’t affect her day to day existence anymore, it has certainly not disappeared from her life. She refers to it, wryly, as “the gift that keeps on giving.” She still sees the oncologist every year and waits anxiously for the results of her annual blood tests, and her history as a cancer survivor has forever shifted her self-perception and the way that others perceive of her.

When reflecting on her own treatment, Sandy thinks of the work she does with people in recovery from addiction, citing the value of the “one day at a time” philosophy prominent in 12-step treatment models. “I really took my cancer diagnosis and took life a day at a time…I think I was already living that way in part because of the work that I did,” she recalls, but cancer made this way of life even more pressing. Early in her diagnosis, soon after completing the most aggressive stage of her treatment, she remembers that she stopped saving in her 401K. “In part”, she says, “because you wonder, am I gonna be around for retirement?” She wanted to spend her money, to go on fun trips and do the things she had always dreamed of doing. Nowadays, with the fear of recurrence less of a constant in her mind, she has shifted her perspective slightly. “I have to make plans for tomorrow, but I have to live in today.”

And so it comes back around, her experience in return informing her work. “I think it’s actually helped me be a better social work provider because I know both sides...you know what it’s like.” She urges providers not to make assumptions about patients and their priorities, as she herself experienced when preparing for her own double mastectomy. Sandy, who is a lesbian and an accomplished athlete, recalls that one of her doctors made a comment on how the surgery would give her the “athletic body” that she had always wanted. “That was what I wanted? No,” she corrects, “I’d rather have my boobs.”

Some of the memorable lessons Sandy holds close required a different kind of strength from her usual persistence and fighter’s attitude. As an example, she remembers attempting to tackle a strenuous ropes course as part of an Outward Bound community building activity with her breast cancer support group while in the midst of treatment. Always one to try the hardest route, she fell her first time through, but she got up and tried again, this time taking a gentler approach. “Sometimes the easier way is the better way,” she realized, and she has carried this lesson forward.

She has found the humor in her experiences too, believing that “you can do stand-up comedy about some of the things” that cancer brings along, telling the story of a prosthetic breasts mishap on the golfing range. And there’s always new material. You have to keep laughing.

As for advice to others navigating similar health challenges, Sandy says “don’t let it stop you.” She acknowledges that you may have to “accommodate” the cancer, but you can (and must) keep going. “You can have aggressive cancer and aggressive treatment and still get better,” she reminds us. Also, she encourages people undergoing treatment to identify what kind of support is helpful and to seek it out. Personally, she finds the hushed, knowing prompts of “how ARE you?” annoying, but knows that some people like to be asked. “Whatever works for you, teach your friends,” she urges, “find community.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “try to celebrate each day.” Some days, Sandy remembers, “I was miserable, I was sick as a dog. But I still tried to put good things in each day no matter how crappy I felt, and that made it easier to get through.”

Dr. Annie Brewster, a Boston internist and founder of the Health Story Collaborative. Leah Meyer is an intern with Health Story Collaborative and a student at Yale College.

Valerie—Not A Diabetic

I'm not a diabetic, I’m a person with diabetes. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1993. I thought my year of exhaustion, weight loss and crazy mood swings were the result of a bad marriage and the stress of parenting 2 active boys, ages 3 and 6. But for some reason, that day, after drinking my umteenth glass of water which did nothing to quench my thirst, I stopped and thought about the symptoms I'd been living with for over a year that suddenly seemed to coalesce in a moment.

I called the doctor and described my symptoms. “Do you think I have diabetes?” No one was going to tell me that over the phone. I went in for a test and 24 hours later I had a diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes. A week later, I was staring at a much-xeroxed piece of paper titled Diabetic Diet with boxes and columns to fill in: food item on the left, amount in ounces and cups on the right. There were other pieces of paper: Diabetic Eating Guidelines and Diabetic Food List. The diagnosis was traumatic enough, but these guidelines and sample diets shrank my world into one miserable, tunnel-visioned focus. I was a diabetic–walkers, blindness and kidney failure loomed on the horizon.

But I followed the guidelines and life came into balance. I gained weight, which was good though initially unappreciated. After months of uncontrolled high blood sugars, I had lost quite a bit of weight from an already thin frame. A few months before my diagnosis, friends began saying, “You look gaunt. Are you OK?” They said “gaunt” but I heard “thin,” another reason it took me so long to see a doctor. I was eating what I wanted and loosing weight–how could this be a problem? But of course it was.

In those initial months I faithfully followed the Diabetic Diet. I ate the suggested amount of food from the suggested food groups and took the suggested amount of insulin to cover the carbs I was faithfully counting. One night, after gobbling down half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to cover plummeting blood sugars (I still had no idea how much to eat to offset a low), I was hit by a bolt of insight. I said to myself, “I’m going to fit diabetes into my life not the other way around.” In other words, I would define what I ate and when. I would define how I lived my life, not diabetes.

It’s taken years to develop healthy self-care practices. I'm not rigid but I have routines–routines I created myself not routines imposed upon me. I’ve come to believe wellness has 3 interactive practices: pursuit of knowledge about the condition, a creativity practice, and a mindfulness practice (or some kind of spiritual practice). The word "practice" is used deliberately to mean an activity that is part of life, essential to life and life affirming.

My blood sugar control can still be erratic and difficult at times. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, irritated and discouraged. Feelings can’t be avoided but they can be handled with skill and kindness. Creative, meditative practices have encouraged me to take care of myself with kindness and compassion, using knowledge, creativity and mindfulness. There are no quick fixes. Sometimes situations turn around rapidly after a diagnosis but deep and lasting change is the work of a lifetime.

Words are powerful. I may be dealing with a condition or illness but I am not the illness or the condition. The word "diabetic" defines me as a disease. I’m not. Sometimes groups or individuals claim a noun or adjective as a way to re-claim power, but I’d rather nix labels altogether.

I actively explore the question, "what does it mean to be truly healthy?" Advances in technology, nutrition and exercise are important, but I want creativity and empathy at the center of my life. I'm a public health professional, health advocate, editor, writer, artist, parent, and so much more. I also happen to have type 1 diabetes. That perspective has deeply affected how I take care of myself and interact with others.

About Valerie:

Valerie has lived well with T2 diabetes for 23+ years. She credits a mindfulness meditation practice, access to health care, healthy food and exercise, a circle of supportive friends/family, her creative pursuits in visual arts/writing–and luck–to being complication free so far. She works in community health, and trained as a diabetes lifestyle coach. She believes both clients and providers would benefit from narrative medicine practice in the healthcare system.