October 31, 2010

Sid Meier's Hospital

So I'm on Plastic Surgery this month. Excuse me, Plastic & RECONSTRUCTIVE Surgery. Though I think it's fair to say the department here earns that title as they do a fair bit of reconstruction amongst the stripperplasties and wrinkles-be-gonesies. It's strange being back on an academic surgical service after a break of over 3 months, but refreshing at the same time as the duties of the medical student on said services of academia (list updating, prerounding, hastily presenting, obscure pimping) are warm and familiar to me. Like a well worn sweatshirt or something. But the hours still suck.

We had a really interesting person on the census the past while - the whole package, interesting medical case and interesting personality. The guy was tackled by a buddy of his and broke a rib. Being the regular dust-on-the-boots American that he is, he didn't come to the ED but rather was just going to deal with the pain. Problem was, he was a nice guy, and since bad things only happen to nice guys, the rib pierced his pleura and soon enough he was in the hospital whether he liked it or not with a rip roaring empyema. One lobectomy, a lat flap, and a couple chest tubes later, he found himself parked on the floor slowly biding his time until he was given the blessings of the great doctors to go home. The healing was slow and he was nearing 2 months on service when I rotated on.

Of course he felt well enough, and rather than bore himself with watching his chest tube output, every day when we rolled through the room in the clusterfuck that is surgery rounds, he would be clicking away on his laptop, engrossed in a computer game. Now despite my rugged and masculine exterior, I am quite the computer nerd. Growing up in the glory days of DOS, I spent many an hour of my youth tinkering away at the computer keyboard with classics such as X-Wing, Doom, and Mechwarrior. Like like many things of youth, these hobbies have slowly been eroded away by the responsibilities of growing up. So on rounds we were much more focused on said chest tubes than what was on the computer screen.

Finally, after a few days on service, the chief resident glances up from the patient's incision and asks "Are you playing Civilization???"

The junior looks up from the chart to add "Hey, I love Civilization."

Intern: "What version? I haven't played 5 yet."

From my n=1 experience, I can now say that all medical students and residents have played Civilization. I'm not sure what that says about our demographic, but the computer nerd in me grinned internally.

Sure enough, this past weekend we were rounding with the attending on call, and our fearless world leader slash conquerer was getting ready to be discharged home. We roll into the room and there he is, clicking away at his laptop like always. He's excited to go home. We make small talk. Finally, the attending was bent over glancing at the site of the last chest tube, when she comments "Is that Civilization? I love that game!"

Somewhere, Sid Meier is smiling.

October 18, 2010

These Healing Hands

It's a reality in medicine that sometimes your patients die, and patients generally do not take exception to this fact if they happen to be cared for by a medical student. Some deaths can be more difficult than others as a student, depending on how well you got to know the patient beforehand or the circumstances of their death. Throughout my third year of medical school, I had several patients who I was caring for pass away while I was on service. Generally, these deaths were of one of two varieties:
(1) A healthy individual crashes and burns, a code is called, and we try our damndest for hours to fight the inevitable tide of death. Eventually the code is called, the team collapses in exhaustion, but there is a certain amount of solace to be taken in knowing that we tried everything.

(2) An individual with end stage x disease, who has been playing ding-dong-ditch at Death's front door for far to long, finally catches Death as he/she is walking by the front door in a bath robe and passes quietly in the night. News of these deaths comes during the AM handoffs and is generally met with a general sense of "Damn." but part of your psyche had already begun stacking the sandbags, knowing full well that your dying patient was, well, dying.

I had another, unique experience with death while on my neurology rotation. We had been consulted on an elderly woman admitted with altered mental status, in the classic CYA consult "rule/out stroke" that elderly patients with AMS tend to collect as they pass through the ED. I originally went to examine her with my attending in the AM, to find a frail looking woman, eyes open staring directly at the ceiling, unresponsive to anything in the room around her. She was altered (frankly, encephalopathic), but we did a full exam anyways and determined that she most likely did not have a stroke. Her breathing was shallow, raspy, and moist, a death gurgle of sorts as she was having difficulty handling her secretions. Labs would show a CO2 of >150... the likely culprit of her current stuporous state.

We weighed in our opinion and were off to clinic for the day. When the late afternoon rolled around, I decided to check back up on her, anticipating that after the requisite therapy for her COPD exacerbation, she would be doing much better. Luckily, I decided to glance at the chart before entering the room, and found a note from the medicine team "Discussed situation and prognosis with family. Family wishes DNR/DNI, palliative care consult."

I enter to find her much as she was that morning. Eyes open, staring blankly at the ceiling, still unresponsive. The late afternoon tends to be quiet in this wing of the hospital, and it was just her and I and the setting sun through the hospital window. Her raspy breathing penetrated harshly through the serenity of the moment. Like a good medical student, I set to task repeating the neurological exam, looking for any differences from the morning. Dolls eye test. Corneal reflex. Tap on the tendons. Check tone. It is just as I remove her sock to perform a babinski exam that I notice a subtle change in the room. It takes me a moment to realize that the throaty death rattle, my patient's weakened attempts at oxygen exchange... had stopped.

The first thought to race across my mind was "Oh shit!" I don't know how, but I remembered at that moment her do-not-resuscitate status, which fortunately prevented me from running into the hallways like an idiot yelling "Call a code!!!!" I watched as the color rapidly drained from her face, and stepped out of the room to talk to the nurse. "Ms. R just passed away. I don't know the protocol for the hospital, do you need to page the attending? I'm just a medical student." She replies that it is ok, as the patient was on comfort care. "Just go listen to the heart and lungs to confirm."

As a medical student, you are not trusted to do a whole lot. In today's chaotic environment of CYA-medicine and medical malpractice, we mainly pretend we can do things while someone holds our hand, until intern year rolls around. And a task as simple as listening to a patient's heart & lungs and feeling for a pulse should be elementary for a fourth year medical student, who has felt hundreds of pulses and listened to hundreds if not thousands of hearts. Regardless, there was a certain amount of anxiety involved in confirming a patient's death. Placing a finality on a life, even a life known to be near it's end, felt like a heavy responsibility. "I'm just a medical student."

"Time of death 18:21."

There would be no code, no crowd of people in the room, no blood staining the gown from STAT blood draws. Just myself, and my patient - a patient I had never even talked to. This was a different death than what I was used to. Some would say a good death. But the intimacy of the moment, especially considering it happened while I was performing the physical exam, struck me.

I page my neuro attending to tell him the news. He breaks the mood with some levity: "Well don't go see of the other patients now... I thought they were supposed to be healing hands!"

I looked down at those healing hands.

October 4, 2010

Onwards and Upwards

Jeesh, I've been really slacking on this blogging thing. Probably because my life has been incredibly uninteresting the past month slaving away in honor to the boards gods. So I successfully (I think) navigated the travails of Step 2 and its assorted clinical vignettes and fake patients. The second romp with the Step exam was not nearly as stressful or interesting as the first go. More a matter of knowing what you have to do, then going and doing it. And yes, Step 2 CS is as big of a joke as everyone makes it out to be.

This month is neurology, which has turned out to be a quite the neurocation. Which means I've replaced qbank and first aid with monday night football and hulu. I'm already starting to feel that 4th year senioritis sink in.

First residency interview invite finally trickled in today. The residents warned me that in ENT things happen late, so while my classmates have been racking in the interviews I've been obsessively checking MyERAS to see "Available, but not yet retrieved" over and over again. After a month of hearing only crickets, it's nice to finally start getting some movement. So it's back to twiddling my thumbs and hitting refresh on my cell phone email every 30 minutes.

Btw, blog crossed 50,000 visitors this week. Pretty freaking surreal if you ask me. Thanks to all who follow this site and pretend to enjoy the content. Never thought when I started this thing it would generate such attention. Y'all are great!