doc w/ pen

a journalist becomes a doctor before your eyes

Month: July, 2017

Four weeks of trauma surgery: lessons learned

Friday marked the last day of my four-week rotation on the trauma surgery service. As expected, it was an exhausting four weeks. But it was also incredibly exhilarating and educational. And it was filled with many profound moments that will stick with me forever.

This, in large part, was due to working with such a phenomenal team: An attending who taught me that if a trauma surgeon can take 10 minutes to sit down and talk with a patient, every physician should have time to do so; who inspired me to learn and ask questions; and who made me excited to go to work every day — even when that meant waking up at 3:30 a.m. A chief resident who carefully followed a patient’s blood tests after I got splashed in the face during a case, and personally kept me updated. A senior resident who was willing to put a nasogastric (NG) tube down my nose and throat because I wanted to know what our patients with small bowel obstructions were going through. (I’ll be writing more on that soon.) Interns who clearly wanted these four weeks to be an educational experience — and proved it by inviting us medical students to practice starting IVs on them. A fellow medical student, one I barely knew going into the rotation, who quickly became a confidant.

These are just a few examples of how my team helped make the oft-feared surgery rotation such a meaningful experience.

In medicine, you learn from your team. You also learn from your patients. Working on the trauma service for four weeks, I am now acutely aware of how a person’s life can be permanently changed — or even snuffed out — in the blink of an eye. I helped care for patients whose legs were now useless after a car crash, a gun shot wound, or even a freak fall from standing. “Pedestrian struck” was another too-common reason for admission to our service. Usually, the result was a laceration or some broken bones — things that were painful, but that would heal, with time. But sometimes the trauma of being hit by a car results in a brain bleed. Sometimes these resolve. But sometimes, they result in irreversible brain damage, or death. All because you were walking on the sidewalk, or crossing the street, at the wrong place and the wrong time. This hits especially close to home when the patient is close to my age, or reminds me of someone I know. This could happen to me. It could happen to any of the people I love. As could appendicitis, cholecystitis, or a small bowel obstruction — three other very common complaints I’ve seen on this service.

So as I interact with patients and their family members, I attempt to do two things. I first try to put myself in their shoes, as best as I can. This helps me understand (and if needed, forgive) any angry outbursts or other nastiness. It’s not personal. Second, I do my best to treat the patient, and the patient’s family, like they were my own family. I would want a doctor, nurse, or medical student to treat my parents, sisters, or friends that way. One of the trauma attendings modeled this behavior so well. When patients and their families thank him for his kindness, he tells them outright that his goal is to treat people like his own family. I’ve taken to doing the same.

These are not lessons I necessarily expected to learn on my surgery rotation. But they are important lessons that will remain with me, whatever I do in medicine.

Don’t get me wrong — I learned about surgery on my surgery rotation too — suturing, knot-tying, and so on. But I could learn those things from any surgery attendings or residents. My team helped teach me so much more.

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s/p surgery rotation, week #1

My 6-oz. water bottle, which fits in my white coat pocket, helps keep me hydrated throughout the day. Its small volume keeps me hydrated enough that I don’t get lightheaded, but not so hydrated that I have to go to the bathroom all the time. In surgery, hydration is a delicate balance.

Medical student with a past life history significant for journalism, art, and piano, s/p* starting her surgery rotation 1 week ago, presents with aching feet and legs. The symptoms are most consistent with walking all over the hospital and standing for hours in the OR with inadequate footwear. The student does note that these symptoms have not affected her enthusiasm for the surgery rotation, and that assisting in several surgeries last week has only enhanced her desire to improve her surgical skills. Recommend the student continue to read more about the field of surgery, practice suturing and knot-tying at home, and buy shoes that are more comfortable to stand in for extended periods.

Part of writing up a patient note is including your “Assessment and Plan.” It’s just what it sounds like — a very brief synopsis of the person’s presenting symptoms, what you think the cause is (and why), and what you plan to do about it. The paragraph above is my own Assessment and Plan after 1 week of my surgery clerkship. In other words, the main issue is that my tennis shoes simply aren’t cutting it. Aside from that (and being tired from waking up at 4 a.m. — which is just a given), I’m really enjoying the rotation so far.

Of course, I did learn some lessons from my ob/gyn clerkship that have helped. Those of you who follow my story may remember my near-fainting incident during a C-section earlier this spring (see “Getting back up” from The American, the online magazine I write for every month). After that experience, which I attributed to hunger and dehydration, I now keep quick snacks, as well as an adorable 6-oz. water bottle, in my white coat pockets. They come in handy.

I’ve found several flavors of KIND bars (high protein, lower sugar) that keep me fed when there isn’t time for a real meal. String cheese is great too.

On Friday, for example, we had a lot of cases booked, and in two different rooms — eliminating the room cleaning break in between surgeries that gives you time to get something to eat or drink, and use the bathroom. It was around 4 p.m., and I hadn’t had time for lunch. I was staying late that evening too, and didn’t anticipate time to eat dinner either. At the completion of one case, as everyone readied to go to the next, I approached one of the residents.

“Do I have for a 2-minute snack?” I asked.

She looked intently at me as she quickly thought about my question, knowing we were on a tight schedule.

“Two minutes,” she replied.

Thank heavens for that packet of string cheese in my white coat, which was hanging in the hallway just outside the suite of operating rooms. I ate it in three quick bites, and was indeed back in about two minutes.

The clerkship orientation I mentioned in my last blog post has also come in handy. During a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal), I got to “drive” the camera for part of the procedure. I also did my best to suture closed one of the port sites used to insert the instruments. Getting that needle just where you want it is harder than it looks though, so the resident had to rescue my effort. But I’m resolved to improve.

Those were things I’d practiced (a little), and expected to try. I didn’t expect to get to help with an ulcer debridement. Debridement is the process of removing dead or damaged tissue from a wound, and in this case it was done to try to help the wound heal. After watching the resident and intern, I was allowed to snip away bits of the yellow, gooey fibrinous exudate that we wanted to eradicate. But even after we cut away as much as we could, there were little bits still stuck down, too small to remove with scissors. So we (that includes me!) used another tool.

Before we started with it, the resident picked up the handheld device, and asked me what I thought it was.

“Well, it looks like a water gun,” I told her.

She told me that’s essentially what it was — a combination water gun and suction device. It sprays a high-powered stream of water into the wound, loosening the remaining gunk, and simultaneously sucks it up.

The resident then pointed to a shield surrounding the nozzle.

“This is to keep us from getting sprayed,” she said. “Don’t spray us.”

Then after a brief demonstration, it was my turn. I considered my time with the fancy water pistol a full success: I helped clean up the dead tissue, and I avoided spraying my resident and intern in the face. Even with our eye protection, that would have been … less than ideal, to say the least.

The ulcer debridement was a procedure I had really wanted to scrub in for. Having talked so much with my mom, a hospice and palliative care nurse, about wound care, I wanted to see it in action.

Along those same lines, it was interesting for me to see bedside wound care too. Several times last week, I went along with an intern to change a dressing. The intern did most of the medical work. My main role was to distract the patient from the pain, inevitable in spite of pre-medication. So I put my palliative care hat on, glad to help ease a patient through this temporary, painful event.

More than once, an intern has apologized to me that there isn’t anything “interesting” going on for us to see. The intern was referring to the fact that some days, there are few, if any surgeries going on while us medical students are there. On the other hand, there are also days when we’re booked back-to-back, plus emergency add-on procedures. You simply never know. My response is always that (of course!) while I’m excited to scrub in for surgeries, I’m also just glad to be part of the team, helping with the little things like gathering supplies for a bedside dressing change or procedure.

It’s all part of the learning process. And that’s why I’m here.

 

*s/p, which stands for “status/post,” essentials means “after.” It’s often used in reference to procedures, such as surgeries. For example, a patient who had their gall bladder taken out 5 days ago would be referenced to as “s/p cholecystectomy 5 days ago.”

Surgery, day #1: attitude adjustment

We weren’t wearing the appropriate maroon scrubs when we went to the OR to practice how to scrub in for surgeries. So we had to don the infamous blue “bunny suit.” These disposable, zip-up onesies are only stocked in XL, so most of us looked completely ludicrous. I felt it was important to capture the ridiculosity of the moment. My friend, who had kept her iPhone handy, was kind enough to oblige.

Around the country, the medical school surgery rotation has a reputation for being one of the toughest and most grueling. The hours are long, the breaks are few, and the expectations are high.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I approached the first day of my surgery clerkship yesterday. But after yesterday, I find myself with a changed attitude. The hours won’t be any shorter, but our day of orientation got me excited about what I’ll be seeing and learning over the next 8 weeks.

Our orientation included the obligatory lecture sessions about clerkship logistics, leadership, grading, safety, all that. But after those things were out of the way, we got to do stuff. Fun stuff.

Our orientation was held in Weill Cornell’s Skills Acquisition and Innovation Laboratory (SAIL for short). It’s a suite of rooms in the hospital designed to help surgeons, surgical residents, and medical students practice their surgical skills. And while as medical students, we obviously won’t be performing the operations, we will be assisting in some ways. Depending on the trust earned with our residents and attendings, we may be asked to do things such as insert the foley catheter (for urine), retract, hold the camera during laparoscopy, suture, and tie knots. Retracting is pretty self-explanatory, but everything else requires some knowledge.

So yesterday, we practiced. We used actual foley catheter kits (the same kind that we will see in the operating room) on both male and female mannequins. Urine passage is obviously pretty different depending on the gender, and getting a tube up there is also a little different. While inserting the foley, we worked to maintain sterile technique to reduce the risk of infection. There were also workshops on knot tying (so many knots to learn!) and suturing (so many ways to suture!). The most high-tech workshop was for laparoscopy, also known as minimally invasive surgery. That’s where they make tiny incisions and insert a camera and other instruments rather than open up the abdomen (or other part of the body) with a long incision. There were several stations to practice our hand-eye coordination. It was a lot like playing a video game. At each station, you looked up at a screen (same as you’d do during a laparoscopic procedure) while holding the camera and/or instruments with your hands. Then you had to manipulate objects with your instruments, passing tiny blocks from one hand to the other, dropping beans into a tiny hole, or untangling rope (to simulate loops of bowel), for example. These stations actually replicate an exam that surgical residents have to pass in order to graduate. After doing a few stations, I have a new respect for this kind of surgery. I did notice improvement after a few go-rounds though, so I see how these practice stations are a huge help to surgeons.

Late afternoon, we headed to the OR for a brief tutorial on scrubbing, gowning, and gloving. Since I completed my ob/gyn rotation, I’d already learned these skills, though it was a good refresher.

At the end of the day, I’d recalibrated my attitude. And I’d formulated my goals for the clerkship. I want to perform well, of course — that goes without saying. That overarching goal encompasses lots of little goals, including studying for the shelf exam, reading up on patients, being a helpful student, working hard on my patient presentations, and so on. But I also want to leave surgery with a better grasp on some of these surgical skills, particularly suturing and knot tying. We were told yesterday that it takes (literally) thousands of hours to really learn how to suture and tie knots. I don’t have thousands of hours to practice. But I also don’t need to perfect my skills to the level of a surgeon. I do, however, want to feel more comfortable doing those things, because they’re useful across the practice of medicine. So I talked at length with the doctor who runs SAIL, which is open 24/7 for us to come in and practice. I’ve now got some sutures, gloves, and other paraphernalia at home to practice with. And he told me to come back in a week or so to show him my progress. He’ll help me if I’m struggling with anything or if I’m doing something incorrectly — both of which are very likely. I know that this kind of hands-on tutoring is invaluable when learning a new skill. I’m so grateful for the help.

Along with being a writer and medical student, I’m also an artist and former pianist. I love using my hands, and know the importance of building muscle memory. So I see this as a fun (and practical) challenge.

I love a good challenge. I’m in medical school, after all.

The theme of my summer break: exploring the integration of art and nature

Today marks the beginning of a new clerkship, surgery. I’m sure I will have plenty to say about that in the coming 8 weeks. But right now, I want to write about the marvelous summer break that just came to a close. Without intending this, my vacation decidedly had a theme: art, nature, and their integration. I explored this three-part theme both in New York City with a dear friend who came to visit, as well as during a brief trip to Chicago to see my family.

Taking a break to hug a tree at the Morton Arboretum.

It all started while I was in Chicago, with a visit to the Morton Arboretum. The weather was perfect for seeing this outdoor plant sanctuary, a favorite of my mom’s, and I had never been there. When my mom and I arrived, we discovered there was an origami exhibit underway. The beautiful arboretum grounds were sprinkled with immense metal sculptures, precise replications of miniature folded paper creations. We oohed and aahed as we walked around, both at the plants and the intricate folds of the sculptures, and took lots of fun photos. At the end of our visit, we stopped by the gift shop. I came across a craft kit on how to make origami flowers. It had everything you needed: instruction booklet, paper, and a DVD showing how to make the folds.

“This would be fun,” I told my mom.

Ever the supportive homeschooler, she replied, “I’ll buy it!”

An orchid bouquet that my mom and I crafted together.

So she did. We learned how to make orchids, plumerias, and leaves. I bought floral tape and wire, and we made bouquets. We found YouTube videos detailing how to make cards. We did all this not from the paper included in the kit, though — that paper was plain and boring, so we used it for practice only. But I’d left dozens of sheets of fancy paper at my mom’s apartment, the remnants of my decoupage days. They were still in her basement. I lugged them up the stairs, thankful that most art supplies find use in multiple projects.

I had so much fun that I mailed all my paper (in poster tubes) back to me in New York, and on my plane ride home checked an extra suitcase full of other art paraphernalia. Now I’ve got another way to express my creativity — one that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen.

I told my dad one morning a day or two later about the Morton Arboretum and our origami adventures. Along the lines of Japanese culture … he asked whether I’d ever visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford. I hadn’t. The afternoon forecast called for rain, so we hurriedly got ready and hopped into his Corvette for the drive to Rockford. Our walk among the Japanese maples and other carefully cultivated plants was sublime.

Enjoying the falling water and beautiful foliage at Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, Ill.

Posing with one of the Chihuly sculptures at the New York Botanical Garden.

Back home in New York,  a good friend of mine came for a brief visit. We headed to The Met, of course, at her request. At my suggestion, we also visited the New York Botanical Garden to see the Chihuly exhibition. I’d seen a similar show at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory several years prior, and had been blown away. His immense blown glass sculptures, which have an unmistakable signature, dotted the garden’s landscape. Some stood alone; others were mixed into the actual plant beds or flowing fountains. For those of you in New York City, I highly recommend going to the botanical garden before this show ends on Oct. 29. Pay the extra few bucks to see not only the outdoor sculptures, but the indoor ones too. It’s totally worth it.

Below are additional photos of my art and nature adventures. Click on any of the photo galleries to see a slide show version with larger images.

Morton Arboretum:

My origami:

Anderson Japanese Gardens:

Beautiful blooming dogwood tree on the grounds of the Japanese garden

New York Botanical Garden / Chihuly: