A Surgeon’s Survivor’s Guilt

My blogging partner on Hot Heels, Cool Kicks, and a Scalpel posted this after a tough weekend on call. Resonates with heenaSTAT.

Hot Heels, Cool Kicks, & a Scalpel

My heart tells me I lost them.  My brain tells me I never had them to lose.

One of my mentors has said that all trauma surgeons have their own personal graveyard, filled with patients we couldn’t save, and families’ hearts left broken.  A truer statement has never been said, and this weekend, this trauma surgeon’s graveyard has increased yet again.

The feelings that accompany this increase are always varying and deep.

There is anger.  True wrath.  When the hell are we going to figure this out?  When are we going to stop shooting one another?!  When are we going to learn that drinking and driving can be deadly?!  When are we going to start respecting ourselves, our bodies, and one another?!  When are people going to stop paving a path of destruction for themselves and others that is wide and immeasurable?!

There is sadness.  Sadness over the pain and…

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Grief

I have been waiting for a moment of joy in the profession that did not involve death to write again. It turns out that those moments are few and far between and I feel compelled to write a few words today. Writing, sharing, letting out the feelings I must keep at bay when I am with my patients and their families is therapeutic. 

Bearing witness to physical pain and emotional suffering is part of the job. The opportunity to ameliorate the body’s failure and to transcend the soul’s response are part of the allure of the work of surgeons, in particular trauma surgeons like myself. A good day at work for me–a day when I get to flex my life saving muscle and bask in the glory of my critical care prowess–is a bad day for anyone on the receiving end of my clinical skills and empathy, no matter what the outcome.

No one wakes up expecting to be at the center of a human tragedy. Yet, as trauma surgeons we are thrust into a peripheral role in such tragedies daily. In my typical week on service (a few nights on call, 7 days of rounding, two clinics, and reams of accumulating paperwork) the balance of patients with minor injuries, good outcomes, or major life saves typically outweigh those with severe life-threatening injuries at risk of high morbidity and mortality.  But this has been an atypical week.

These last 6 days have been filled with inexplicable events and unimaginable losses for my patients and their families. Car crashes, suicide, house fires, occupational hazards, animal attacks, physical abuse, interpersonal violence. The causes have been varied. The effects have been a river of tears flowing through a mountain of grief. The landscape of sorrow created by these tragedies has exhausted me far more than the overnights and the ~110 hours logged in the effort to provide round the clock trauma care.

As surgeons, we hope not to grow too used to it, not to become cold and unfeeling in the face of human tragedy. But we need some way to move on. This week, I feel buoyed by gratitude of surviving family members and the supportive words from fellow providers. The warm embrace and patience of those who love me and care for me during those few hours away from work have also helped. But with one more day to go, I am simply wishing for a quiet last day on service devoid of human tragedy. No more bravado in the trauma bay. No more delivering bad news. No more grief for the people in my catchment area. We all need a break.

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.]

Mourning a Profession

A year ago today the world lost a superstar cardiac surgeon. I am sending my thoughts to all the friends and colleagues who knew and loved Michael J. Davidson and are no doubt still mourning, still trying to wrap their heads around the senseless act of violence that cut his life short. I was humbled by the strength and grace of his wife Terri who, with a newborn, 3 other children, a busy surgical career, and such an unimaginable loss, trained for and ran a marathon in his honor this past fall. Watching her cross the finish line showed me true resiliency.  

But a year ago, I could not have imagined this power of the human spirit. It took me days back then to come grips with my own grief as a surgeon who did not have the privilege of personally knowing Dr. Davidson. Here is what I wrote 360 days ago. 

Mourning a Profession

The Final Chapter

He had loved her with all his being for more than 6 decades. In the last 2 years of their 61 year marriage, he had watched helplessly as dementia wrapped its noose around her, slowly tightening its grip on her mind and pulling her away from him.

When I met him I knew the injury was irrecoverable. Her brain was consumed by hemorrhage that had filled the space (cerebral atrophy) left behind by progressive dementia and then some, deflecting the midline between the two hemispheres nearly 12mm.

I asked him what had happened. She had tripped and fallen. For all her mind’s frailty, her body was still strong and agile for her 83 years; how she stumbled in the small living room they had shared for more than 50 years remained a mystery.

She was still breathing on her own but her brainstem’s ability to preserve this vital function was succumbing quickly to the pressure building from above. She appeared to be peacefully sleeping. He had not yet grasped that she would not be waking up.

I asked him what life was like at home before today. She was no longer aware of who, what, when, where, and how. A nurse would came daily to help her bathe and dress. She would then spend most of her day in a trusty old recliner. He would cook and feed her, then put her to bed every evening. They had no children. They had outlived their siblings.

Theirs was a story of two lifelong friends and lovers. Every Sunday he would take her for a drive. He wanted her to see the sun and the trees and the world outside their home. This was romance in the denouement of life. And here I was, suddenly a supporting character in the final chapter of their love story.

He cried quietly as I explained the magnitude of the injury. Like too many of my octogenarian patients, she had no advanced directives. None of the providers who knew her far better than I had thought a discussion of code status was worthy it seems. So this was my role.

We talked for a long while. After reviewing what all the technology in my critical care armamentarium might do and not do for the love of his life he said to me, “I don’t know I what will do without her. I don’t know any other life. I don’t have anyone else.”

His heartache was palpable.

There was surprise and some expression of dismay at the administrative hassle I caused when I planned to send her home with hospice services directly from the ER that day. I am grateful for the ER physicians, nurses, and social workers who helped me execute that plan even though itt would have been far more convenient for us to simply admit her to the floor.

That she would die peacefully in her home of five decades with her partner of six by her side is the kind of medical outcome that looks poor on paper but feels good to the surgeon’s soul.

 

 

 

Hey Doc!

“Hey Doc!” I heard the patient say as I blazed by Bed A.

Bed A is the ‘door’ bed. My patient was in Bed B, the ‘window’ bed. I had just met him; it was a new inpatient consult. For all the rules and regulations surrounding patient confidentiality, the curtains between beds do little to protect privacy since inevitably there will be audible conversations about symptoms, diagnosis, and management between patients and the doctors, nurses, or family who visit them.

The residents had already seen the patient in Bed B and were reviewing his case in detail with me between OR cases. I looked at my watch, contemplated typical OR turnover time for a moment, and decided we had enough time to get the consult done.

When I got to Bed B, I introduced myself to the patient and sat at the edge of his bed. I explained that I had already reviewed his story, lab data, and imaging and confirmed these facts. I stood briefly to perform my physical exam before beginning to scrawl on an index card. I simplistically portrayed the complex anatomic relationships between the liver, the gallbladder, and the pancreas and the series of tubes (the biliary tree) that connect these organs. I described how stones form when the balance of three ingredients (bile salts, lecithin, and cholesterol) in the viscous fluid (bile) made by the liver, and stored in the gallbladder, gets off kilter and how those stones can then cause blockages at various points along that biliary tree. I showed the patient where his problem was and used hash marks to explain the operation and what would be removed.

Before getting my patient’s signature on the consent form, I made sure any questions were answered and asked if he wanted me to call a family member to summarize the details. He said no and signed.

Conversations like this take time. Whether it is the 4 patients per 15 minute block in clinic or the patient who I am rushing to see between OR cases, I invariably feel pressed for time when talking to patients. But I do what I have to do, often skipping meals or holding in bodily functions while incorporating a brisk walking speed to keep up with competing demands, none of which seem to incentivize having thoughtful and thorough conversations with patients and/or their families.

After telling the patient in Bed B that I would see him in the pre-op holding area the following day, I upped my walking pace so I could run back down to the OR to my next patient. I had already taken too long and was anticipating the reprimand of the OR board. And that’s when I heard the patient in Bed A.

“Hey Doc!”

“Ugh” I thought to myself, “I really don’t have the time to find this guy’s nurse for his pain meds or to figure out how to keep his IV from beeping…”

But how could I not stop? He was addressing me directly so I paused and turned to him from the threshold to the room.

“Hey Doc! It ain’t none of my business or anything but I just wanted to say that there would be a lot less fear in healthcare if all doctors explained things the way you do.”

I was humbled by this man’s feedback. I hoped my residents were listening, both to the man in Bed A and to what had just transpired before Bed B.

I find it very irritating when students or residents peel away or talk among themselves, as if they are sick of hearing what I have to say, while I am having conversations with our patients. To me, modeling doctor-patient communication is my greatest gift to them as a teacher and a mentor. I want them to listen, to observe, to understand that every encounter is a chance to learn.

As we hustled back to the OR, I turned to the residents and proudly said “For as much pride as we surgeons take in doing the perfect operation or nailing a difficult diagnosis, what happened back there might have been the highlight of my career.”

Ski Practice

To her it was like any other day. She had dropped him off, as was their usual routine, and gone into the city to see a friend.

He was an experienced member of the ski team. Practice was familiar. Take the lift up, ski down. Take the life up, slalom down. Take the life up…

It all happened quickly. He slipped through rail of the lift. The impact on the cold, hard packed snow was devastatingly complete. Perhaps it was his head, or maybe his spine, but vital functions were cut off immediately; he went into cardiac arrest. The ski patrol started CPR. Someone alerted dad. He arrived almost as quickly as the paramedics. They intubated him with efficiency and continues advanced cardiac life support.

He arrived as my patient immobilized with a long spine board and a cervical collar. He was intubated and CPR was ongoing. He had lost vitals signs at least 20 minutes ago. Dad was by his side as he rolled into the trauma bay. We kept coding him for the next 45 minutes. His pupils were blown. His skull base was boggy. We knew it was futile but he was someone’s child. It was hard to let go. But we did.

When I told dad, he was alone. He had not grasped the magnitude of on-going CPR and was utterly shocked when I told him his son was dead. My lip was quivering as I delivered the crushing news; my tears followed soon after he began to sob.

He asked me to call his wife. I told her it was serious and to arrive quickly but safely. Her grief is something that I will forever hold with me. I cried with her too. And, though it was not the first, nor would it be the last, time, that I would cry with a family experiencing sudden loss, my ability to be with these parents–REALLY BE WITH THEM–at the darkest moment of their lives reminded me, somewhat paradoxically, of the joys of my profession.