The Office Cleanse

Originally posted in heelskicksscalpel.com

I wrote a post this past weekend on doing nothing.

I think it was a successful strategy, albeit unintentional. I arrived fresh on Monday morning intent upon a full detox of my current state of academic and clinical affairs.

It was to start with the inbox. Somehow (well, I know how–too much spam targeting my clinical work, too much spam targeting my research, too many mass emails from my medical center, too many mass emails from my medical school, too many predatory journals,  too many published before print journal alerts, and well too many bogus unsubscribe links in the past), it has burgeoned to >3500 emails. Most were read but just had not be disposed of or allocated. In the ensuing 4 days I meticulously cut through these emails. I made choices not to be tied to past opportunities for knowledge or connection and got down to <10 rather efficiently.

In between I had several important meetings which were a good break from the task of purging all of these electronic communications. I also found a few almost missed opportunities and was able to take a break from the inbox to write a grant application due Friday and an abstract due Friday. I finally got around to editing a manuscript sent to me a few weeks ago. I updated my CV as with events/accomplishments I was triggered to remember by some of these emails.

Yah me!

When the inbox was a tamed beast it was time to shed more excess weight from my work life.

Though not really behind, I did not look for an excuse to wait another day to get my billing and coding done (yes, I was trained and educated to be a surgeon and a researcher. no, I did not go to school to become a medical coder. yes, I code and generate a bill for my own notes only to then have a trained coder submit them without ever having to code them for a portion of the fee). The electronic record came after that. Every time a resident gives an order over the telephone it has to be signed later. If it does not get signed, when the chart gets sent to medical records it becomes my job to sign the order. So on top of the discharge summaries, operative notes, etc. that I got of my front burner (yes, undropped bills and unsigned charts don’t really care what else must be done and there’s a stiff penalty looming so yes never on the back burner like say 3500 emails or a manuscript without a hard real deadline) I signed several dozen orders for the likes of “may go to x-ray off telemetry” and “okay to resume diet.”

And finally, even though I decided a few months ago to forego paper subscriptions to journals in so far as possible (mostly for the environmental impact but also to remove the possibility of visual clutter in my office; sadly, with this came a burgeoning of full journal contents in my inbox!) I had a pile about 5 inches high that I tackled. I read a few articles and scanned a few more after looking at each TOC and determining which were worth my time. I then filed some for my endnote library to keep for my future perusal. I have this thing about losing knowledge even if it was not mine in the first place (I think I got it from my immigrant parents). So if it shows up in my mailbox, it will get read lest I miss a chance to learn something I didn’t even know I wanted to learn.

And now, a mere four days after I walked into morbidly obese office situation, I feel cleansed and ready to tackle my real jobs.

I hadn’t planned on hitting the week this way. I did shift around my to do list a bit. I can’t help but wonder if it was the awesomeness of just doing nothing that gave me the pep to get through some of the most onerous stuff I have to do for my work.

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The Miracle Worker Gets a Hug

The tension between the desire to provide the best care and the system putting up road blocks was building the entire day. As the surgeon advocating for my patient, it felt like the smoldering rapidly progressed to full on conflagration. And, yet the patient and his family were calm and filled with grace.

On morning rounds, I told my patient that his hernia remained reduced but there was an area along the bowel that had been stuck the prior evening that looked worrisome on CT scan. His vitals, exam, and blood work were reassuring, I explained. There was no imminent rush, no immediate threat to bowel or life. But, it made sense to get this done as soon as possible. The patient, and his wife at the bedside, understood. I had explained a clear set of options for what to do about the hernia depending on a) how the bowel looked when we put the cameras in and b) based on my understanding of his baseline co-morbidities. He was a smoker with a chronic cough that exacerbated his hernia. I spent a little bit of time counseling him that this might be an ideal time to quit. Anything to ameliorate the cough during the recovery process and beyond would reduce the chance of recurrence.

Those words “as soon as possible” resonated in my head as the wait for OR time dragged on all day.  Circumstances were at a systems level well beyond my control; the absence of an immediate life threat meant I had no real leverage other than rants about patient satisfaction and costs of prolonged length of stay. This meant nothing given that there were patients who truly needed life or limb saving interventions, including one of my own who arrived at 5pm with free air.

This patient was too stable.

I had run up to his bedside a few times during the day with updates to the effect of “not sure yet…but you continue to look good…as soon as possible” He and his family–thankfully–were remarkably affable while I was becoming more and more agitated at the OR inefficiency in between urgent cases.

[I could write a dissertation on OR efficiency, or lack of it. And, certainly this is not a problem limited to my workplace. But that’s not what this blog is about.]

I was not on call that night. The OR could finally accommodate the case in the late evening. It went as well as could have been expected. The bowel looked great. The patient got the best case scenario of the options I had presented to him some 16 hours previously.

When I went to talk to the patient’s wife afterward in the waiting area it was almost midnight. She was exhausted from a day of anticipation. From two hours of anxiously waiting while her husband was in the OR. She gave me a giant hug and thanked me so profusely for sticking by him. “I know you have been here since so early this morning,” she said. In the moment of that most genuine embrace, the fire went out and the frustration of the day slipped away.

The next day, in preparation for discharge, the patient was exuberant. “You’re a miracle worker doc!” he exclaimed. “I’m done with the butts now. Forever. Thanks to you. And you fixed my hernia. You’re a miracle worker.”

It took me a while to figure it out since it’s been forever since someone referred to cigarettes as butts to me. The miracle was not that I fixed the hernia. It was that for the first time in 50 years he was motivated to quit smoking. His wife would stop too, she told me that day.

It was a tough day at work but this lovely couple thought I was a miracle worker deserving of a hug despite it all. No anger. No bitterness. Just genuine gratitude, a case that went textbook well, and some preventative medicine to boot. What more could a beleaguered surgeon ask for?

[Posted with patient’s permission.]

Allowing myself to just be deserves accolades, not guilt

Originally posted at heelskicksscalpel.com

I am always telling myself to not be one of those bloggers who gives a play by play of his or her day. I prefer to blog about fun things or things from which I derive meaning and I hardly think that anyone gives a rat’s ass about what I did and when so fair warning:

THIS IS A POST ABOUT WHAT I DID YESTERDAY.

I woke up even earlier that I do when I feigning to be morning exercise person to get my daughter to a 6:30am arrival for a field hockey tournament 70 miles away. 4am is brutal for mom, for the tween player who now routinely sleeps until 10 or 11am on weekends, and for the sad sap of an 8 year old brother who needs to tag along since dad is away on a much needed and well deserved guys’ weekend. Of course I am chronically fatigued and it’s nice now that the kids are older that I can use the weekends to catch up on sleep. So to have this privilege stolen from me for a sporting event deeply hurt me but parenting wins so there I was driving 1 hour and 20 minutes each way. The kids both slept in the car both ways. I jacked myself up with caffeine hoping not to become a statistic we trauma surgeons like to study on driving and fatigue.

When we got finally got home at midday I was exhausted. Despite the caffeine coursing through my veins I could not keep my eyes open so I stumbled into a sleep on our ever so cozy sectional. But it was a broken sleep. I refused to simply go up to the bedroom and just give in completely to the tiredness. Nope, I kept hoping that I would soon rise and have a productive day. You see, after several years of working on work-life integration, I am still having a hard time with simply relaxing. I am so trained to think of it as lazy and unproductive that when I do nothing in particular (or choose to sleep rather than doing) I feel an enormous sense of guilt and failure.

In between my fits and spurts of sleep I was thinking:

The house is a mess. (I should be tidying up!)

There are multiple loads of laundry to be done. (I should be washing and folding!)

The kids are somewhere in this house fighting boredom. (I should be playing with them!)

The work to-do list is out of control. (I should be tackling whatever I can remotely!)

There are thank you cards to write. (I should be putting pen to Crane’s paper!)

The Kindle is filled with newly downloaded e-books. (I should be reading!)

My ass is getting fatter as I lay here and the sun is shining. (I should go out for a run!)

I woke up at dusk. I felt like kicking myself for these myriad failed opportunities to get stuff done, to be a better wife (who helps around the house every so often), to be a more engaged mother, to utilize any one of the 7 habits of highly effective people, to take care of myself.

Argh! The self-loathing was quick and sharp.

Later on, once the kids had made sure I ate and stayed hydrated (their dad has trained them well) and had headed to bed (after showering and reading to themselves)* I took the dog for a nice long walk feeling the need to pad the mere 1k steps I had accumulated up to that point since my daily target is 10k. It was a serene and beautiful night. There were no cars zipping by. No sound of Lifeflight that is frequently overhead. No other dog walkers even. Most lights in the neighborhood were off on the eve of returning to school after winter break.

As I was retelling myself all the failures of my day and tryinng to forgive myself, the peace and calm of the night got to me. It occurred to me that I surely deserved some peace and calm with all that I do day in and day out, at home and at work (okay, fine mostly at work!). It turns out that a perfectly calm and peaceful night was a fitting ending to a day of rest that I unintentionally engineered for myself despite all of my intentions (including with this blog) to take better care of myself. I deserved accolades and not self-flagellation. And so I tacked on 4k steps dropping a little more guilt with each stride, congratulating myself on a job well done, not for being lazy but for successfully allowing myself to just be. 

Today, I can see that it helped recharge me for the household chores, unending work obligations, needy family, and self-care that are still there today waiting for type A, get-the-job-done, me.

[*NB: It gets better as they age, I promise. I miss the cooing and burps and smiles of my babies but I sure do appreciate their self-sufficiency on these lazy, ummmmm restful, days.]