Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lows and lows

"Nothing is permanent in this wicked world - not even our troubles."
- Charles Chaplin

It was my last Friday on the wards for this go-round, the last day our current two teams would spend together before all the non-interns switched over. And from noon onward, it turned into an emotional roller coaster I struggled to navigate.

Code Blue, ICU. Code Blue, ICU.
My attending and I were on our way down to the ER to see a new admission when a code was called in the ICU. The ICU staff is the rapid response team, so typically the floor doctors don't descend en masse; a few people headed over there while we two continued our trek downstairs.

Our admission was a very elderly lady with late-stage Alzheimer's who had fallen victim to a vicious infection and recently stopped eating. Her family had made her 'comfort measures only,' and she was being admitted for gentle care until hospice services could be put in place for her to receive care at home.

Spindly fingers. Raspy breaths. Vacant eyes.
Her room was crowded with family and her caretakers. Her presentation, from so many angles (minus the infection), bore strong echoes to my grandfather's last days. My attending spoke to the children as I held her hand, thinking back to when I last saw him, similarly cachectic and lost to the world in all ways except for the air his lungs still pulled in, the blood his heart still labored to pump.

After talking to the family and the ER doctor, we made our way back upstairs. Just as I was settling into my seat to work on her admission orders, a second code was called in the ICU for the same patient. They needed more hands on deck for CPR, and several of us rushed over.

1--2--3--4--5--6--7--8--9--10-- x 2 minutes
The patient's room was the one right next to the room where my patient's harrowing code had occurred one month ago, when I was working in the ICU. Half of the staff was the same that had been present that day. When I was struggling in the aftermath of the code last month, one of my medical school mentors told me, "Events like that tend to stay entrenched in your memory for the rest of your life. You'll always remember the details." It's only been a month, too soon to extrapolate to a lifetime, but I had flashbacks that Friday in a way I never had before. But there was no time to indulge (there rarely is); time to be present.

After some time, the family asked us to stop, and the code was called. Those of us who had come to help trudged back to the wards with a heavy heart, back to the grind of work. My resident had finished the admission orders for me, and I began the admission note. Soon after, my pager went off -- please call radiology.

Peritoneal carcinomatosis. Subcapsular splenic lesions. Periaortic lymph nodes.
They had CT scan results back for another one of my patients, a sweet, feisty elderly lady who had come in with intractable vomiting and unintentional weight loss. The results were grim. She had widespread metastases, likely related to a past cancer for which she had undergone treatment years ago.

I called her primary care doctor to give him the update. He came by the wards within the next hour, and we went to deliver the somber news to our patient. She took it in with her usual stoicism, giving little hint as to how she was feeling, and little room for us to explore that with her.

What was left of the day went toward tying up loose ends and finishing paperwork. And was then followed by the final jarring event of the day -- a celebratory two-team dinner to feast to our time together, which had been scheduled since several days prior.

I wouldn't say I ran the full spectrum of emotions that day, because mostly I wallowed at one end of it, and had to play-act at the polar opposite end for the final few hours of an otherwise exhaustingly mournful day. There were too many echoes in speedy succession -- of my grandfather, of my ICU code, of my first medicine patient I had as a third-year medical student, who happened to be the first patient I had to break the news about cancer to, and the first patient I had transferred to the ICU, only to see him die a slow, sad death there.

Somehow that Chaplin quote seemed to belong with my memories of this particular Friday. When I was an MS-III with my first patient with newly diagnosed cancer, while simultaneously struggling to process my aunt's sudden and tragic death, my intern at the time would say, "This too shall pass." And more recently, as I struggled through that Friday, and some of the days leading up to it, another mentor/friend told me of her dance party with her adorable son to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."

How can we build in time to do that? I hadn't fully internalized what a wild, visceral ride I went on that day until over a week later. It was after I transitioned back to an 8a-5p schedule, had caught up on some sleep, and found myself with a two-day weekend to finally try and decompress.

There has to be a better structure for processing, even within the constraints placed upon us by training. How else will we stem that empathy degradation we keep hearing about?

Things to ponder. In the meantime, if you see me jamming to TSwift, all I will say is, don't knock it 'til you try it.