Blow

Sailboat in the Hudson Bay

“How much time are you spending on social media?” 

“Well, I stopped completely until about a week ago. I’m easing back into it.”

“Really? You stopped it all? Completely?” I tried to keep the suspicion out of my voice.

“Yeah. For about six months.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t like how it made me feel.” There was real, actual eye contact, no phone in sight. 

“Now that you are back at it, what do you think? Does it make you feel good?”

“No.”

“So what do you think you are going to do?”

“We’ll see.” She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll pull the plug again.”

That, folks, is a kid who is going to be all right…

Split 

Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC

Shadows watched from the corners of the room… ever present, ever vigilant. 

She waited.

Footsteps in the hallway. Raucous laughter. 

The door flung open and he stumbled in, drunk, clinging to the arm of a woman.

Who was it this time? 

It was hard to see clearly in the dim light. 

Her.

Their eyes met for a long moment. Silent words passing between them. Then she turned her attention back to him, allowing him to undress her. He fumbled. The process took much longer than it should have. 

Naked.

She glanced at the mirror again, seeing the other woman once more, the one who looked like her but was more charming, the one whose laughter came more easily. She was the one who was not ashamed of being naked, the one who demanded love and attention from everyone.

The drugs made her beautiful and charismatic. She knew the flame could not burn this high for very long. It would go out soon, extinguishing her in the process.

But it was worth it. 

Every day was worth the price to avoid the loneliness again.

Depressions

New York Public Library entrance

“I see from the medical assistant administered PHQ-2 that you have been feeling down lately. Tell me about that.”

“Uh, I am here for my knee. Why was she asking me about depression?”

“Well, we want to put a focus on mental health, you see…”

“What about my knee?”

“We’ll get to that at your next visit. Right now all we have time for is delving into this positive two question depression screen.”

“You guys never did this before.”

“I know. But here we are. Better late than never. So are you thinking about killing yourself?”

“NO!”

“Should we put you on medication?”

“I don’t like drugs.”

“Counseling then! Good choice. I’ve got a list of counselors in the area…”

“I am not paying for counseling and I haven’t got time for it in the first place. My knee is what is getting me down.”

“Yes, well. Come back in two week’s time and we can talk about the knee.”

*****************************************

That wasn’t real. But it could be….

The healthcare organization I work for is now measuring my quality based on my medical assistant asking patients questions about depression once a year right before they check the blood pressure. 

I have yet to have a patient say this was a good addition to their rooming procedure but that is beside the point. Why are we focusing on this in the first place?

To save lives.

Personally, I hate questionnaires. They are an attempt to oversimplify a very complex problem. Can we really put depression into a box? Should we?

If the PHQ-2 is positive it should be expanded into the PHQ-9. The PHQ-9 should be used to monitor response to treatment. 

I much prefer a conversation with a patient to reviewing a questionare. I can tell, usually, when a patient is having a hard time but even if I can’t I still ask once a year at the physical as part of my review of systems. And if they say they are having problems I pry, by golly. Are we talking about a chemical imbalance or did their mom just die? Is it affecting their ability to hold a job? To take care of their family? My medical assistant shouldn’t be the one asking the questions. It should be ME. That is my job. Which then brings me to documentation. Make it easy for me. Don’t hide it on a different screen. My review of systems documentation should be sufficient shouldn’t it?

It frees the physicians up to do other more important things.

What is more important than mental health? But then, I wonder, are we perhaps overemphasizing it on some level, too?

When we made pain into the “fifth vital sign” we created a whole population who became focused on feeling no pain, a pharmaceutical industry happy to create addictive drugs that prevented anyone from feeling pain, and physicians caught in the middle. Ultimately, the prescription narcotic addiction crisis was the unintended consequence.

So I worry that we will over diagnose depression. I am not sure that assigning labels like that is all that helpful for most people. I worry that those who are truly ill, who need the most help, will be pushed out of an already failing system that becomes glutted with everyone else. I am already seeing this trend. Making my very ill patients wait three to six months for an appointment with a reputable psychiatrist is unacceptable but it is par for the course nowadays.

The mental health system in the US sucks and that’s the truth. It especially sucks around here. There is a dirth of good psychiatrists in my area. Same with counselors and psychologists. What are we supposed to do? Should we as primary care just push drugs on everyone? Drugs that have side effects and risks and which are not appropriate for all patients? Who then will manage those drugs? Me? With very minimal training? And if we push drugs but cannot effectively pair it with counseling support, what have we accomplished? We are supposed to help, to make people better aren’t we?

I’d really like to know YOUR thoughts…

A Mistaken Identity 

Hudson Bay clouds

My heart sank into the floor.

“You did what?”

“I gave the wrong immunization! I didn’t look close enough at the orders.”

The baby ended up getting a double dose of one of the routine childhood vaccinations because my medical assistant gave the wrong combination vaccination and overlapped. It was not a terrible error, as far as medical errors go, and would not cause harm but try to convince a parent who has gone through multiple miscarriages and IVF to get this one beautiful baby boy. It was not a phone call I looked forward to making.

I could ignore that it happened, sweep it under the rug so to speak. Make it disappear. They would never know….

Still it had to be done. They had the right to know. So I did it. I called and explained and reassured. They seemed to take it very well at the time, or so it seemed.

I see FOUR generations of this family. 

Four.

Or rather, saw. 

They left my practice. 

To be honest, if it were my own kid I would have probably not been nearly so nice about it and I would have also taken my kids elsewhere. I am not upset at this family at all. It hurts but I totally get it. 

Trust is gone.

This was the first time an incorrect pediatric vaccination was given by a staff member to my knowledge in my practice. Fourteen years. That means nothing when it’s your kid. One mistake. Made by one of the best medical assistants we have, the absolute last person I would have expected to make an error. She will carry that one around for a very long time. 

So will I.

We can learn from every mistake, can’t we? 

If I told you I had never made a bad call or made a mistake myself I would be lying to you. There is no perfect doctor. Sometimes we lie to ourselves. Sometimes we lie to other people. That is how we keep going each day. We are not perfect. I know each and every mistake I have made over the years and they play in my mind over and over again, their faces pop out at me usually when I am already upset about something else that is unrelated. 

See? You suck, you suck, you suck! 

Why does our brain do that to us? Kick us when we are down?

Sometimes it is hard in the aftermath of a “mistake” to clear the mind and keep focused. There are other patients to see, my family to take care of. Still, I also need time to grieve and process. To forgive myself. To forgive others. I need people around me, my family, to let me do that without trying to “fix” me. Eventually my mind will settle down and move on.

Because life goes on.

It always does.

Ruined

Ruins of hospital on Ellis Island

He came with her to all of her doctor’s appointments, more than an observer he was involved, concerned, present. He came off as her protector. I thought we were on the same team.

The alcohol was getting worse, though. So was her liver failure.

“Who buys all of the beer she drinks?”

“I do,” she spoke up. “And he does.” 

I glanced over at him.

“Sometimes she makes me.”

“Makes you how exactly?”

“She can get really ugly.” He looked away sheepishly, unable to meet my eye.

“You mean to tell me that all of this time that she has been going to her liver specialist appointments, all of this time that we have been talking about how she needs a complete and immediate cessation of alcohol, all of this time that you have sat in that chair and nodded your head in agreement, you have actually been providing her with the substance that is killing her?”

I wanted to scream at him. What the hell are you doing? Sabotaging her? Murdering her? WTH?

But I don’t know what their life together has been like. Is he the equivalent to a battered woman in an abusive relationship? 

I just don’t know.

So I suggest counseling, giving them contact information for treatment centers, and usher them out the door wondering all the while if I have somehow failed them both.

The Tipping Point

Buildings in Philadelphia

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked.

“Nah. I’m just going to sit here until the weather passes,” the man said gruffly. He sat down in the corner out of her line of sight.

She shrugged and slid closed the clear glass window to the waiting room. He didn’t look threatening. Rain was pouring down outside. What did it matter if he sat for a few minutes?

He began talking into his phone loudly, clearly agitated about something. Patients looked at each other quizzically, shifting uncomfortably in their seats. They stole furtive glances at him, watching him mutter into the phone pressed against his face. It was impossible to hear exactly what he was saying between the growls.

When is the nurse going to call me back? Please let it be soon.

As he was talking the phone rang loudly. Clearly, he hadn’t been talking to anyone at all….

Then he stood, yelling into the ringing phone, threatening to kill anyone and everyone. As shaky fingers dialed 911, he bolted out of the door and ran across the parking lot never to be found again.

Perhaps I’m a silly dingbat but people behaving like that never would have bothered me in the past, at least not where I would have taken them seriously. 

Now though? We were all shaken up. I find myself wondering what is lying in wait around the corner of every person’s mind. I get nervous at airports and look over my shoulder at large events. Where is the next explosion going to come from? Who will fire the next bullet? Could I have stopped them?

Fear is sexy. Fear sells. Fear drives a wedge, keeping us from reaching out to help others. Fear protects us. Fear hurts us. Fear is necessary and yet it multiplies and it divides us. 

Part of me wants to just stay home, to never go anywhere anymore and then I remind myself that acts of courage are the only way to really combat fear. Anger only feeds fear. So does isolation. 

And so I get onto airplanes and take my kids to places that probably live as targets in someone else’s mind so that at least for me, fear will not win. 

A Down Sizing

Mission San Jose in San Antonio

I see and touch an awful lot of breasts. 

Just about every “uninhanced” woman on the face of this Earth has one breast that is slightly larger than the other. I certainly do. As I age it becomes more and more obvious… the left is fuller than the right. Every time I put on a bra or look in a mirror, I am acutely aware of it and I wonder if other women notice or care about their subtle discrepancies in size. Not that I would ever bring it up in the clinic, mind you. That would be akin to your beautician asking if you want her to wax your upper lip… creates a paranoia if there was not one there to start with. 

Thankfully, I have never had a man look at my chest and run away screaming.

Every once in a while I come across a patient with a more dramatic mismatching, like the woman with one breast a cup size A and the other one a size DD. It created a serious self esteem issue. She had never had a relationship as she was terrified of anyone see her naked. She stuffed her bra with whatever she could find until someone sewed her a pillow to tuck in there instead.

Hey! Sugery can FIX that for you…

You would think this would be a no-brainer, but no…. Invariably the response from insurance companies on the request for augmentation or reduction is, “Not medically necessary.”

I always wonder who the people are making these decisions. Men? Women? If a man, would a woman make a different decision? Or vice versa?

I know the angst I have had over the years over my slightly different sizes. I cannot imagine the psychological burden carried by these women with their really noticeable differences. So what determines medical necessity? We allow breast reconstruction in breast cancer. Is is “medically” necessary? Maybe not. But it is psychologically necessary. 

So then, what determines something being psychologically necessary? What size disparity is traumatic enough to warrant coverage? One size? Two? Four? How do you measure something so subjective?

And then what else causing cosmetic angst should be covered? I had a mole removed from my face while I was still in med school. Right next to my left nostril. It wasn’t huge in real life but in my brain it covered half my face. Best thing I ever did for myself, getting that sucker whacked off. 

So, what are your thoughts? How is your breast size? What do you think about insurance covering breast augmentation or reduction? 

The Gate Keeper

Door of a San Antonio mission

There was something weird going on. I could not quite put my finger on it. Things just did not add up. I told the attending what I thought.

“Was he really asleep?”

“No.”

“Why did you feel that way? What did you observe?”

He steepled his fingers, elbows on the desk, staring intently at me over the tips. He waited patiently, expectantly for my answer, like Mace Windu the Jedi master. 

Why is he asking me this? 

I thought back to the shackled man in the orange jump suit who had sat in front of me. He was not answering my questions. Then, his head lolled to the side and a soft snore escaped his lips.

“The way his eyes were moving underneath his eyelids, his breathing.”

Back to the Jedi master, I watched his face for a clue. 

Was I right?

“Good work.” He nodded slightly, a subtle tip of his nonexistent hat. “Why did you tell me that you felt he was faking it? You could have just said the interview was cut short because he fell asleep and left it at that. That would have been an easy way out.”

“Seemed important.”

“So then why didn’t you try to ‘wake’ him up? Why did you leave him then?”

“Because he was signaling the interview was over. I didn’t think my pressing him was going to get me any further than I already was.”

“Trust your gut.” He spoke clearly, each syllable measured and distinctly enunciated. I could see that he relished this role of the guru, the sensei. “So then, if he is faking sleep, is he also faking mental illness? Is he really hearing those voices telling him to hurt people?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” 

“It all paints a picture. Now you have to decide, do we keep him here or send him back to jail?”

Me? I have to decide? I’m the student for crying out loud! I don’t want to be the one to have to decide. But then…. this is what I signed up for. I won’t always get it right. I just have to do my best, right? The universe would sort everything out in the end.

“Well?”

“Send him back.”

He scribbled his signature on the paperwork and it was done.

I carried the weight of that with me for a few days. It was my first taste of what my decisions would mean for lives hanging in the balance.

Did I make the right call?

Later the attending told me that he had seen this fellow multiple times before and each time he presented with a different constellation of psychiatric complaints as an excuse for violent behavior. By then I had decided that forensic psychiatry was most definitely not for me…