Posts tagged Perspective: Provider
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.

Healing Trauma Through Narrative: A Social Worker's Story

I met Denise last spring, in a 6-week Narrative Medicine course I co-taught for social workers. She stands out in my memory of the group in many ways: her outfits were always exquisitely coordinated; her eyes sparkled and often glistened with tears; she easily offered humor, truth, and consolation. She always made comments that illuminated the texts we read together in ways I had not previously considered. Perhaps most striking of all was how profoundly the workshop seemed to impact Denise: “It was a monumental experience for me, in my life, as a clinician and as a person.”

For 28 years, Denise has been serving victims of trauma in Brooklyn and Queens. Although she considers herself strong emotionally and mentally, she inevitably experiences vicarious trauma through her work. Narrative medicine - a field based in the belief that effective clinicians must know how to receive, interpret, and help craft their clients’ stories - offers her a means to work through some of that trauma: “(It) is a healing measure that I can tap into that will keep me grounded, keep me available, keep me conscious. To never ever find myself in a position of ‘Oh, I’ve heard this, I’ve seen this before…’ No. Each time is my first time with that person. And (narrative practice) helps with that.”

As traditional narrative medicine occurs in a classroom, the course consisted of closely reading and discussing a piece of poetry or prose every week. Then each participant, facilitators included, composed a brief response to a prompt related to the reading, and shared our writing aloud with one another.

Denise has always used writing to sort out her experiences. But the practice of narrative medicine expanded her appreciation for the power of the written word: “Reading someone else’s writing and trying to make sense of it, how I might interpret it, and then using that to be able to reflect and write about a personal experience I’ve had – that blew me away.”

Denise models how clinicians can incorporate narrative practice into both their personal and professional life. She finds it helpful to do on her own during a busy day at work: “Sometimes I’ll have to sit in my office and close my door and start writing a thought that I had about an experience I just had with someone, and it’s safe. It’s in a place where I know I can go back to it. I can ground myself. I can be in a place of objectivity instead of subjectivity.”

Denise also introduces her clients to their own narratives during therapeutic encounters, by asking: “What was the first thing you thought when this happened to you?” She observes how an invitation for them to tell their first-hand experience of the trauma “allows them to push everyone else to the side. Often people don’t think about their first thought, their first emotion. And that gets them to a place where they can write a (first-person) narrative.” 

She guides them to develop their story, through writing or speaking: “Some write a paragraph, some only write three sentences. And those three sentences we can talk about for weeks. Some of them choose not to write at all, but instead to record their own voices. And they save those recordings in their phone, and they (listen to it) every so often.” Some of her younger clients even choose to narrate through rap.

Once they begin writing - songs, lyrics, poems, any genre - Denise sees them “healing and moving forward towards closure. They’re experiencing and developing or recognizing skills they had but suppressed or pushed to the side, because they didn’t consider it important. But it’s that very strength they have in them that draws them to a place of healing.” There is a sense of ownership, mastery, and pride that they gain from becoming authors of their life experiences.

Denise encourages her clients to see themselves as she sees them: individuals who have experienced traumatic events, not victims whose stories can be lumped together in domestic violence tropes. She discourages them from telling their stories as: “I’m a victim of domestic violence and this is what we victims of domestic violence…” Denise instead tries to help each client realize, through crafting a unique story, that “You’re an individual. This is what you went through. How did it affect you: your thoughts, your body, your emotions? I want them to be able to write that out. That narrative is so crucial.”

Denise recognizes, in herself and her clients, the radical changes that narrative practice can cause: “It keeps you from being stuck and unmoveable, to a place where there is mobility, and there are choices. And those choices can be so powerful that it can get people to move from A to B, but in some cases all the way down to Z (where they) find closure.”

Denise vows to carry onward in her clinical practice and personal life using narrative medicine as an unparalleled resource: “This story practice…I don’t think that there’s any medication that people can take that does the particular piece that this work does. On a cognitive level, physical level, emotional level – it’s not anything that can be replicated anywhere else.”

Below is a poem Denise wrote in honor of her clients and their experiences.

Out of the Darkness

Wounded outside in

I felt as though I have sinned

Wounded inside out

Oh how I wanted to shout

But there was no way out

 

Confused by the tormenting of my mind

It often told me to flee

And escape this life of mine

These intrusive thoughts

Powerful and fierce

Lead me into a world of

Self-affliction and fear

 

In the shadow and secret nights

You told me I was your Queen

Once you called me wife

Confused by your touch

Why did you love me so much?

 

Your hands strong and mighty

Forming a fist that would crush my body

So, still I stood, unaware of my own breathe

Somewhere in the corner of my mind

Wondering when will the night terror end

 

The story is out now and my song is strong

No longer will I hide in the corner of my mind

No longer confused and afraid of the midnight air

It stops here

 

Listen to my story loud and clear

I am free of the misery and constant fear

No longer vulnerable or invisible I am here

I will sing loud and strong for the courts to hear

What you have done to me over the years

It stops here.

 

The table has turned now

Hide in the shadow and behold your fate

As you will spend the rest of your years

Fearing those who have heard my song 

More about Denise Briales:

Denise has worked in the field of social work for the past 28 years servicing victims of trauma both from secular and sectarian backgrounds.  She herself has been exposed to many traumatic events that have made powerful imprints in my personal and professional life. Denise has long used journaling as a therapeutic tool. Since being exposed to narrative medicine, when she reads back her written words, she attains centering, grounding, awareness, and healing from the experience of vicarious trauma that affects caregivers in mental health professions. 

More about Annie Robinson:

As a patient, and as a caregiver in the role of a doula supporting women through birth, abortion, and miscarriage, I have experienced the power of stories in healing. I recently graduated from the Narrative Medicine master's program at Columbia University, and will begin at Harvard Divinity School next fall to explore the borderlines between ministry and medicine.

I also curate an oral narrative project called “Inside Stories: Medical Student Experience”, for which I interview medical students about their experiences in medical school with the intention to provide a platform for their own person healing, self-realization and empowerment through the sharing and receiving of personal stories. You can listen to their stories on iTunes podcasts or here: http://in-training.org/inside-stories.

Over the coming year, I will be working as an intern for Health Story Collaborative and writing a series of blog posts that profile remarkable individuals committed to honoring and making use of stories in health care. If you or someone you know might be interested in being interviewed, please contact me at healthstorycollaborative@gmail.com.

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.