doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Category: That’s Life

Joining the Ranks of the Uninsured?

United States health insurance coverage statistics from  the Kaiser Family Foundation's Web site.

United States health insurance coverage statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Web site.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 16% of Americans – that’s 49 million people, folks – were uninsured in 2010. I am on the brink of joining their ranks.

When I was a student, I had health care coverage, a decent PPO at that, through my university. It wasn’t that expensive, either (a little over $100 a month). That coverage runs out at the end of August. Which is in … *gulp* … about six weeks. I was hoping that my part-time lab job might, just might, offer health benefits. But I just got the new-hire paperwork e-mailed to me today, and one of the stipulations for the position is that I don’t qualify for benefits. None.

So I am left in a quandary. There is absolutely no way I can afford comprehensive (i.e., decent) coverage out of pocket. And as I understand it, the Affordable Care Act health insurance “exchanges” that would make decent insurance more affordable for people like me don’t go into effect until 2014. By that time, I will hopefully be starting medical school, and will be again covered under a university policy.

The question remains: What do I do until then?

The uninsured rate for children has gone down between 2007 and 2010 (thank god!), but has risen for nonelderly adults from 19.1% to 22.0%, according to this data from the Kaiser Family Foundation's site.

The uninsured rate for children has gone down between 2007 and 2010 (thank god!), but has risen for nonelderly adults from 19.1% to 22.0%, according to this data from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s site.

When my sister was in a similar situation, she purchased very basic insurance. Emergency insurance, really, in case of a serious accident or illness. That’s my plan as well. Because knowing my luck, if I don’t purchase some type of coverage, something terrible will happen.

For kicks, I just now got an online insurance quote from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. Out of curiosity, more than anything; mainly I chose BCBS IL because they were my previous insurance carrier and I’m familiar with them. The coverage I was quoted (which is obviously not guaranteed) ranges from about $175 (for a $5,000 deductible plan with 80% coverage after that) to almost $700 (for a $0 deductible plan with 100% coverage). Even for the most basic plan, which would provide me with absolutely no benefits unless something catastrophic happened, I would be paying $60 more than I am paying for my student plan now, which offers excellent benefits. It’s a sad situation. For me, and for 49 million other Americans.

While I guess I won’t be completely uninsured, I will be practically uninsured, which is scary. If I get sick, I will have to pay to go see the doctor. And those bills can add up really quickly. Well, let’s hope they don’t, right?

A Kind Word Turns Away Wrath …

Words we've all heard: "What do you think you're doing?" "What is wrong with you?" "Don't you know any better?"

Words we’ve all heard:
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Don’t you know any better?”

We’ve all been there: borne the brunt of whatever the woman in the photo to the right is saying. Had fingers pointed at us. Been yelled at. Criticized for something that wasn’t our fault. That’s a given, in life. What differentiates people is not whether that happens, but how one responds.

I’m headed into a world – medical school, and eventually a career in medicine itself – where the people around me will not always be nice, no matter how nice I am to them. Another fact of life.

I was reminded of this fact recently as I talked with a friend who is currently in medical school, and doing her hospital rotations. She recently started in general surgery, and BOOM. Another med student, who wants to go into a surgical specialty, immediately showed himself to be a know-it-all, and a pretty nasty person all around in terms of making my friend feel incompetent and useless (even though this was her first week on the rotation). My friend, thankfully, maintained decorum and professionalism all the way through. (I’m so proud of you!) When this other med student was breathing down her neck about her not being able to figure out a charting issue, she told him that she understood that it was taking her longer than it might take him, but in a few days, she would have the system figured out. When he responded that he was just trying to help, she told him, basically, that she appreciated that fact, but that his standing right behind her and raising his voice was actually more distracting than helpful.

My friend could have easily gone off on this guy, yelled back, and from some people’s viewpoints, she would have been justified in doing so. But in the world of medicine, where there will be people like this, you have to learn to deal with them in an appropriate, healthy way (albeit not letting them walk all over you). Because if you let them get to you, it hurts only you, not them.

My mom, who is a hospice nurse, and I talked about this topic this morning. She reminded me of a biblical proverb:

A kind word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

While I’m not a religious person, I do believe in this sentiment. If you respond in kind to harsh words, things tend to escalate and get worse. That’s not to say you let yourself be a doormat – you can have a backbone but still be respectful and professional.

That’s how I want to handle such situations when I’m in medical school, and when I am a physician. And now is a great time to start doing just that.

Getting Paid (and paid to learn)

My Facebook post Thursday afternoon was as follows:

I’d almost forgotten the great satisfaction of successfully making a deadline, and knowing that I’ll actually get *paid* for the work I’ve just completed. Key word: PAID.

In the last two years, I have worked insanely hard in school. Exams, lab reports, homework assignments … a flurry of academic activity. It was very rewarding, to be sure, to be learning new and fascinating material (and to receive stellar marks for my efforts). But there is something about the work world, about completing a task and receiving monetary compensation for it. I’m not saying that it is more rewarding, just rewarding in a different sense. While in school, your efforts lead to greater understanding and knowledge (definitely a good thing); with paid work your efforts lead to financial independence and an ability to afford what you need (and sometimes what you want).

As I said, I am not touting one over the other, just that they are different. And I am enjoying feeling the sense of satisfaction that comes from earning money. Not that I believe that money is the key to happiness. However, right now I am in some debt – not terrible, but debt nonetheless – and doing some paid work will allow me to eventually pay back that debt, which will be a fantastic and freeing feeling.

It’s been more than three years, since March of 2009, that I have had a paid job. At that time, I was a textbook editor for McGraw-Hill in downtown Chicago. Monday, March 2, 2009, more than 40 editors, including myself, were laid off. We had only hours to clean out the cubicles that we had decorated and nested in to make our homes for eight hours out of every day of the work week. It was a traumatic and terrible experience.

I went on unemployment and began looking for a job (a fruitless search). However, prior to being laid off, I had been thinking about returning to school to do a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, and soon I decided that this would be the perfect time to do just that. So I did. And I never looked back.

Now that I have postponed my medical school application, though, I am back in the working world as a freelance writer and editor – back to my roots, so to speak. And honestly, I am enjoying it. Not that I want that as my lifetime career; I have already determined that. In fact, it is in part the content I am working with that has made this freelance work so interesting and engaging to me.

Serendipitously, I called a good friend a few weeks ago to chat. We hadn’t talked in a few weeks, and I wanted to know how she was doing. She works as a senior editor for Joint Commission Resources, which is the publishing arm of the Joint Commission. The Joint Commission is the organization that develops standards to regulate, and then accredits, hospitals and other health care facilities. Part way into our conversation, out of the blue, she asked whether I wanted to do some freelance work for Joint Commission Resources. I was just about broke at the time, scrambling to make ends meet and searching (fruitlessly again) for jobs. Of course I jumped at the chance.

Really, I did it for the money. I’ll be honest. But, serendipitously again, I have been learning a great deal through the revision work I am doing – in addition to gaining that feeling of satisfaction from doing work and getting paid for it. You can’t get much better than that, can you?

The Way Out Is Through

If you recognized the title of this post, CONGRATULATIONS! You and I have more in common than a love of science and medicine – we also have in common a thorough knowledge of the Nine Inch Nails music catalogue.

Seriously, though, the title of this blog post is a meaningful one for me now. With all that has been going on in my life – serious upheaval and loss and decision-making – the song I reference in this blog post title (which is from NIN’s double-album, “The Fragile”), and its lyrics (while simple) are quite poignant to me right now. I would like to share them:

"The Fragile" album cover.

“The Fragile” album cover.

“The Way Out Is Through”

all I’ve undergone
I will keep on
underneath it all
we feel so small
the heavens fall
but still we crawl
all I’ve undergone
I will keep on

I know, I know … Nine Inch Nails has a reputation for some serious negativity. That reputation is partly deserved (although only partly, if you know Trent Reznor’s later music). But that’s besides the point. The point is that when you are “underneath it all,” the way really is through – through the difficulties, the pain. That’s how you get past it. But even when “the heavens fall,” perhaps when we feel like we can’t stand up in the darkness, we can still crawl, and keep on. The opening and final lines, “all I’ve undergone / I will keep on” are so on-point as well – after going through so much, I don’t want to give up. I refuse to.

I will keep on. No matter what.

This I Believe: Nothing Is Wasted

As a former journalist, I would like to think that I know good journalism when I see it. Or hear it. And NPR (National Public Radio) is indeed that. Aside from the “hard” news, I also enjoy the feature stories and radio “essays” that NPR broadcasts. One of my favorite segments along these lines is called “This I Believe.” Based on a 1950s radio series hosted by Edward R. Murrow, “This I Believe” is not only a radio segment/podcast, but an international organization dedicated to providing people a venue for expressing their core beliefs and values. There is a Web site dedicated to the project, thisibelieve.org, which has archived 100,000 essays from people around the world. Discerning out what you believe, and articulating it, is no easy task. So having this collection of human values is indeed a treasure. Are you going to agree with every essay? Of course not. Many of the essays are on extremely controversial topics, such as immigration, abortion, and race (to name just a few). But the fact that these essays are there, collected, available for people to explore, is amazing to me.

I have never contributed an essay to this Web site. However, I realized this afternoon, as I was talking on the phone with a friend, what I would write about. I wouldn’t tackle a hot-button issue. The belief I would want to share is more general in nature. Possibly less contentious, but who knows. So here we go …

This I believe: Nothing is wasted.

I have believed this for some time, have shared this thought with family and friends. But now more than ever do I cling to this belief.

First, let me say that this belief statement is not in any way intended to have a religious connotation, and it is not the same as saying “everything happens for a reason.” I am not a religious person at all. And I think when you say that everything happens for a reason, that could be construed as either implying a higher power of some sort (which is not part of my belief system), or rejecting responsibility for your own actions (i.e., I did something bad, but since everything happens for a reason, it’s OK).

What I do mean by this belief statement is that if we so choose (and here I put an emphasis on an active “choosing”), we can learn from, and be changed by, by our experiences. Let me explain. It’s easy enough to learn from positive experiences. If you have a supportive teacher, you are more likely to learn a subject, for example. But those negative, nasty, painful experiences – we tend to want to forget about those. I’m not saying I am glad bad things have happened to me (and quite a few have transpired the last year and a half). What I am saying is that I truly believe that I am a better person for them. Or at the least, that I will be some day. I believe, for example, that having gone through a divorce will make me a more empathetic physician. During my divorce, I also learned that I had to compartmentalize things (i.e., my grief) – not forever, but until I had a break – in order to get done what needed to get done (i.e., my school work). Those are both valuable skills, when executed and exercised appropriately.

OK, so positive experiences, duh, those teach us positive things. Negative experiences, while negative, can make us stronger people. Character-building, if you will. But what about the experiences that seem more neutral? That perhaps have taken you in a different direction (neither positive nor negative) than the one in which you are now traveling? Those are not wasted either, in my opinion.

Let me give another example to illustrate my point. My undergraduate education, originally, is in journalism. If I had stayed in journalism, that education would clearly have been a positive influence in my life, and contributed greatly to my future career. But now I am going into medicine. Some people might look at that and think, “What a waste! I wish I had just done medicine when I was younger, instead of wasting my time with this unrelated and useless education and career.”

That, I believe, is completely the wrong way of looking at the situation. Am I going to be working as a journalist in the future? No (although I plan to continue writing). However, there are so, so many things I learned, skills I accumulated, during that time that will contribute to my becoming a better physician and researcher.

The writing skills set is obvious. As a scientist, you have to write scientific papers. I definitely know how to communicate my ideas in writing, and have shown that I can translate those written communication skills into the science arena. So there’s one benefit. Another is interviewing skills. As a journalist, you live and die by your interviewing skills. If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right (or sometimes any!) answers, and hence can’t write your story. I know how to develop and prepare questions, as well as shoot them off the cuff; how to develop rapport with people so that they feel comfortable answering even difficult and personal queries (which you obviously do quite frequently as a physician).

In addition, as a journalist I cultivated an intense curiosity about the world around me. I was a curious child, and as a journalist I was encouraged to hone that. To ask, not close-ended (“yes” / “no”) questions about the world, but open-ended questions, such as “why”?

red barnA perfect example: I was driving through the Wisconsin countryside during a camping trip this May, and my friend and I kept passing old barns. Old red barns. It dawned on me that nearly all the barns I’d ever seen – with few exceptions – had been red. I’d seen a few weathered, natural-wood ones, sure. But if a barn has a color, it’s always red. This prompted one of those “why” moments. It turns out, according to a Farmer’s Almanac blog post, that hundreds of years ago, farmers had to prepare their own sealants (this was before commercial varnishes or paints were available) to protect their barns from the natural elements. They apparently used linseed oil, which is an orange-colored oil. To this oil, the Farmer’s Almanac blog post reports, farmers often added other things such as milk and lime, as well as ferrous oxide (rust). The rust supposedly killed fungi and moss that would otherwise have grown on the barns. These days, there are obviously commercial paints available, but red prevailed as the traditional color.

The thing about asking questions, though, is that you need to know how to find the answer. These days, you can always Google your question. And you might – I say might – come up with a reliable answer. But you also need to know where else to look (I mean other than Wikipedia), as well as which types of sources are reliable ones (again, other than Wikipedia). Those are skills I also learned as a journalist.

So my journalism education, as preparation for eventually becoming a physician-scientist, was definitely not a waste. I can easily see that. Some of the more painful things that have happened recently, I am only beginning to understand their meaning to me. It will take time. Years, perhaps, to fully understand it. But I hold onto this belief, that nothing is wasted, because I have seen it borne out in my life, and in the lives of others. It is how I make sense of the constant chaos. And I believe that is what beliefs are meant to do.

One Word Turn-Offs

I realized today, as I flipped through profiles on the online dating site where I am a  member, that I cannot date someone who is unable to spell everyday words correctly. Here is why.

I completely believe in putting your best foot forward. For example, if you have a job (or medical school) interview, you wear an appropriate suit. Not flip-flops, not Bermuda shorts, not a T-shirt. In the online dating world, this means writing a good profile. And by “good” I don’t mean Pulitzer Prize-winning writing. I mean something honest, sincere, maybe with a little humor, if that fits your style. But it also means, in my book, spelling things right. If you don’t, that suggests one of three things to me:

  1. You are lazy
  2. You are unprofessional
  3. You are uneducated

Or at the worst, perhaps all three. And pardon me if I don’t want to be with a guy who is uneducated, unprofessional, and lazy. My standards are a little higher than that at this point in my life.

As I said, I’m not looking for amazing writing. This has nothing to do whatsoever with content (I won’t get into that). But sloppiness, when it comes to language, makes me cringe. Fine examples that I found today (and just today!) include:

  • One guy spelled “Chicago” wrong. No, I’m not kidding. I wish I were.
  • When he meant to talk about his “role” model, another guy used the word “roll.” I realize that homophones (words that have the same pronunciation, but different meanings) can be confusing. But “role model” is a pretty commonly used phrase.
  • One profile question asks what you are looking for in a partner. One guy mentioned that he wanted somone funny and “quick whited.” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about bleached blond hair here … or was he?

I know this doesn’t bother everyone, but words, as well as how people use (or abuse) them, matter to me. And I’m looking for someone who understands that, at least on a basic level.

Adventures in eDating

For a long time, I’ve been skeptical of online dating. Even though one of my cousins met her husband that way, it just seemed weird to me. If I am a relatively attractive, relatively sane, relatively intelligent person, shouldn’t I be able to meet someone like-minded the old-fashioned way? In person, that is? Well, that doesn’t seem to be working. Especially since I’m at school most of the time, surrounded by undergraduate students who could practically be my children. (Not quite, but you get the idea.) So I’ve decided to give the online dating thing a go. It’s been … well … interesting. Let me explain.

I’ve had two dates so far, both of which were with guys who seemed pretty normal during our messaging and phone conversations. But during the first date, it seemed as though we spent half the time talking about this guy’s two greyhound dogs, and the other half talking about Renaissance literature. Especially Shakespeare. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Shakespeare, probably more than the average person. Having been a high school literature textbook editor, I even worked on the lesson for Macbeth back when I was at McGraw-Hill. So I’m also probably more knowledgeable about Shakespeare than the average person. But that’s not what I want to talk about — for the majority of the time — on a first date! So that was a “no.”

While that first date was simply dull, the second was simply disastrous. Again, it appeared that this guy and I had quite a few things in common, and our online messages and texts had gone well. So we agreed to meet at a hip taco place for lunch last weekend. He arrived a few mintues before I did (I had trouble finding parking), so he texted me that he’d found us a table. When I got to the restaurant, I looked around for a single guy sitting at a table. I didn’t see any. So I texted him back, asking where he was sitting. Then I saw a guy stand up, and I recognized him from his photos. And I looked at where he is sitting. Seated next to him were a little boy and another guy! (His son and his best friend.) I froze for a second. I don’t know if my mouth literally dropped, but it just might well have. Now, answer me this: Who brings their elementary-school-age son, and their best guy friend, on a FIRST date? Bad form, and seriously bad parenting. Bringing your kid on a date like that is putting him through Internet dating, too, which can be traumatic. I’m not a parent, but if I were, I wouldn’t introduce my child to someone until I had established a stable relationship with him. And another bad sign: this guy was missing one of his canine teeth. I don’t consider myself a superficial person, but c’mon! Modern dentistry has come a loooong way in the last 100 years, so get it fixed, man! That’s simply not attractive, and does not exactly make a good first impression. So again, a “no.”

But I’m not losing hope. There are many fish in the Chicago sea (er, lake?), so anything could happen …

Finances and Fashion

As a full-time student, I have grown used to living on less, since I am living on loans. Soon, though, that loan money will run out. Which means I will need to re-enter the workforce. That’s not the problem – I have no aversion to working hard (if I did, I would certainly be going into the wrong field!). The problem is the economy. There are fewer jobs out there and more people applying for them. But I have a couple of strategies, which I hope will help me survive the next year and a half.

1. Apply Early, Often, and Broadly
I am looking to work in a research lab for the next year (my so-called “glide” year). School ends in early May, and I’m looking to start working in June (giving me some dedicated MCAT study time), but I’m starting to apply for jobs now. Given that I was laid off several years ago, I am pretty handy with the whole job search thing. So I believe that if a job gets posted online, I will find it. And thus far, I have found around 30 jobs to apply for in the Chicago area, all research lab positions, most at higher education institutions (one at a private hospital lab). I am applying so early because I know how long it can take these institutions to sift through resumes, give interviews, and make decisions. I want to give myself the best shot possible at landing a job before that loan money runs out. I am also applying to a broad range of positions. Sure, a genetics department position would be great, but I’ll take what I can get. As long as it’s a lab job and it pays the bills, I’m willing to do it.

One of the vintage pins I've recently sold from my new Etsy store, FashionRelics.

One of the vintage pins I’ve recently sold from my new Etsy store, FashionRelics.

2. Sell My Stuff
I’m not much of a salesperson, but Internet selling – that I can do. And I actually have quite a few things to sell. I was an avid collector of vintage hats, clothing, and jewelry for many years, and have built up quite a stash of items. None of them are super valuable, but all put together, they’re worth a pretty penny. So I have opened a new shop on Etsy.com called FashionRelics (fashionrelics.etsy.com). I have had fun sifting through my vintage goods, photographing them (thanks to my dear friend Lisa for the dressmaker’s mannequin!), and posting them on Etsy. I just started listing things this last week, and have already sold three items. It’s not much, but it’s a start. And since I’ll likely be moving at some point, no matter where I end up going to medical school, paring down my possessions isn’t such a bad idea, either.

3. Consider Alternative Living Situations
I love my one-bedroom apartment. I hope to be able to stay here during my glide year. But if I don’t get a job by June, I won’t be able to afford it. Thankfully, my wonderful and generous mother has offered to let me move in with her. Granted, it’s not my first choice – I like my space and privacy. Don’t get me wrong – I love my mom, and we get along fantastically. But I’m 30 years old, and moving back in with mom just isn’t the most appealing prospect. But it would save me tons of money, so if that’s the sacrifice I have to make, I’ll make it.

Following a dream as big as this one does require sacrifices – I knew that, and am constantly reminded of it. I am willing to part with some material things, move out of my apartment, and possibly take a job I’m less than thrilled about to make it happen. Because in the long run, it will all be worth it.

Single … Again

As the title of this post says, I’m single again – officially. As in, officially divorced, as of Tuesday morning around 9:45 a.m. It was crazy how quickly it all happened. It literally took 10 minutes in front of a judge to undo 10 years of a relationship. My attorney asked me a few “yes / no” questions, I answered them, the judge said his bit, and then he wished us (both Geoff and myself) luck. Geoff and I were back in the car by 9:55 a.m.; the whole thing had started shortly after 9:30 a.m. 

I got a little teary-eyed as we left the courtroom. Those 10 minutes went by in a blur, but it was an emotional blur, to be sure. I entered my former marriage thinking it would last forever. It didn’t. That is painful to contemplate.

So instead of looking back, I try to look forward. I look toward applying for my MD/PhD in June. I look toward hopefully working in a lab for the next year. I look toward a new chapter of my life, and someday, a new relationship. 

Until then, I’m single again. And I’m OK with that.

Building A Scientific Cathedral

cathedralA woman came across three men working at a construction site. She asked the first man what he was doing. He replied, “I’m making bricks.” She then asked the second man the same question. His reply was, “I’m making a wall.” When she came to the third man and repeated her question, he said, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Clearly, all three of these men were doing the same thing. But they had different attitudes, different visions, and a different sense of pride, about their work.

stone wallSo why am I telling this story? I think that there is a parallel to basic science work here (and I’m not talking about the chemical reactions involved in solidifying bricks and mortar). Like bricklaying, basic science involves a great deal of “manual” labor, which is sometimes repetitive and tedious. If that’s all you see about science, though, you’re not going to be very satisfied doing it – much like that first bricklayer. If you can make some connections, put the work in context, see it as the second bricklayer did – that you’re creating a wall – then it will be somewhat more fulfilling. But if you can continue to do your work while maintaining the sense that you are a part of something greater, that every discovery is built upon the work of so many other people, that you are constructing a “cathedral” of sorts along with other scientists, then the discipline becomes so much more.

I’m not going to lie. That repetitive work? I know that in my future as a physician-scientist, I may not always feel like doing it, or find it “fun.” But there will be a point to it, a greater goal, both within the context of my own particular research and within the larger context of science. And I find that thrilling.

Like the greatest cathedrals, our body of scientific knowledge has been built brick-by-brick. I look forward to laying a few of my own someday.