Sunrise on the psych unit. A tentative, yawning flicker, a wash of tired fluorescence, and the hallway shudders to life—or something approximating life anyway.
I spent the first week of my outpatient experience in internal medicine working with the nurses at Hospice of the Red River Valley in Fargo, ND. Besides being incredibly nervous to begin my third year of medical school, I was anxious about what I might encounter on my week at hospice.
“Be a duck,” became my mantra throughout medical school, so much so that my mother had it printed onto a canvas and has it hanging on a wall at home in my honor. As a medical student you might think I would be more interested in having the prowess of a lioness, the elegance of an eagle, the speed of a cheetah or the energy of a dolphin. A duck, as most envision it, does not have much appeal; except, however, when swimming. The quote that led me to emulate the duck is Michael Caine’s, “Be a duck, remain calm on the surface and paddle like the dickens underneath.”
Delirium is a bread-and-butter presentation. The differential writes itself — stroke, infection, intoxication, electrolyte imbalances, shock, organ failure. The intellectual exercise this invites was practically invented for medical students, even if the final diagnosis (dehydration secondary to gastroenteritis) and its treatment (fluids) were relatively mundane.
For the smaller challenges of medicine, like fitting an entire person’s pertinent medical status in the half-inch gap between names on the patient list.
There was an elderly man suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s dementia. There was a patient with schizophrenia experiencing a COPD exacerbation. Then, there was Mrs. G, who was admitted for immune thrombocytopenia. She was a retired teacher who spent her time volunteering at her church and caring for family members.
Nothing is quite as strange as the first day of your surgery clerkship. It isn’t just the shock of seeing a living human intentionally cut-open or the unforgettable smell of cautery for the first time — even just getting into the operating room can be an obstacle.
In my third year of medical school, I was taking care of an elderly patient who had been in and out of the hospital multiple times in one month. Upon his third admission, my exasperated attending threw up his hands and said, “Who am I, Sisyphus?” I understood how he felt. Like the mythological Greek king rolling his boulder up the hill — only to have it roll back down again, ad infinitum — no matter what we did to manage this patient, he always returned to the hospital sicker than before.
Despite its omnipresence, Time seemed to be in reliably short supply throughout the year. I keenly felt its absence: less time to cook and clean. Less time to exercise; less time to date. Less time to read and to write.
A Silver Bullet / The tiny guns held by my little action figures / still remind me of that god forsaken trigger.
As physicians, it is our responsibility to understand these serious implications and to help these patients live as fully as possible. A patient is not just his or her numbers — their vitals or their lab values. A patient is not just an MRI reading or a CT scan finding. Every individual has a mind, and we must take into account mental health when treating these patients because if left untreated, they can have dire consequences. More importantly as people — as humans of society — we must not stigmatize these illnesses.
Patients don’t always have to let us into their rooms. As medical students, I think we don’t give enough acknowledgement or praise to the vulnerable individuals that allow flocks of medical students to bumble around their bedside. But our perceived ineptness is the last thing on the patient’s mind; a friendly face that is willing to listen to their story is just as important.