Month: April 2015

Coming full circle, 15 years later

     This week, I had the pleasure of participating in an information session for my medical school Alma Mater, St. George’s University. The entire experience was a bit surreal when I realized that almost 15 years ago I was one of those faces sitting in the audience, taking notes and wondering what lies in my future.
      Like many of the students that were sitting in front of me, I had doubts. I had doubts about my prospects getting into a US medical school. I also had doubts about whether going to a foreign country for my medical education would be the right decision. Standing there in front of them, I was genuinely happy to report that it was absolutely the right decision.
      It was the right decision for many reasons. First, I came away with some incredible friends, one of whom is actually getting married in a few weeks in what will be an incredibly fun reunion in Hawaii. More importantly, despite all my initial doubts, I came away with a great education and an opportunity to pursue a truly gratifying career. My other really good friend from medical school used to quote the movie Spiderman and tell me,  “When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts.” My belief in myself and the support of St. George’s eliminated those doubts and allowed me to excel in my professional life.
     I told my audience at the information session that at times when I was medical student, I wondered if I was as knowledgeable as my counterparts from other schools. As a resident, I also wondered if i was up to par with residents from other schools. 15 years later, I realize the answer was and always will be a resounding yes. Not only that, in my current career path as an academic internist, I’m responsible for teaching those same students and residents that I compared myself to many years ago.
     Ultimately, doubting yourself or comparing yourself to others at any point in your career is a futile and worthless effort. The fact is, we all somehow end up in the same place, which is in front of a patient in need. Everyday I am grateful for that opportunity. And as the number of those patients in need continue to rapidly grow in our country, it’s great that St. George’s is continuing to produce a steady stream of excellent doctors that are looking to make a difference just as I did 15 years ago.
   

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Back to the Future

    Recently, I reconnected with an old friend. We were childhood friends through college and then slowly drifted apart. Around 2001 he got married to his wife while I got engaged to medical school. Several years later, he contacted me and it’s been great reminiscing about our past lives. He has a younger brother who’s currently in medical school and remarked how he sees the same passion in his brother as he saw in me when we were younger. I chuckled thinking about what a stubborn and immature person I was in my early doctor wannabe years. Despite my ability to memorize textbook facts ( perhaps the most overrated skill for the modern doctor) my friend has a much better memory of those years. He backs his assertion that I’ve always had passion for my career by recalling a website I built in college.
    I believe I was a junior in college (circa 1998) and my efforts towards medical school were in full effect. MCATs, biochemistry and molecular biology courses, volunteer work, work-study research job and a gradually receding hairline were all happening simultaneously. In between all of this activity I became enamored with the Internet. My free college email address changed my views of human communication and connectivity. Web browsers like Webcrawler, Alta Vista and Netscape opened doors to the entire universe. With WebMD in its infancy, I began exploring health related information on the web. It was scattered and disorganized.  I saw an opportunity to build my own healthcare website that would combine my love for the internet, my desire to serve people while augmenting my medical school credentials.  I wanted a site that would provide quality information on a health topic that also appealed to the young adult crowd. So naturally, I chose sexually transmitted diseases!
   I called it “Scary Things to Discuss.” In retrospect,  it sounds cheesy but back then I thought incorporating the letters STD into the title was clever. I gathered information from both old school (library) and new school ways (online) on some common diseases such as HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia. I also included pictures, which wasn’t easy without services like Google Images. I copied some from other websites and scanned some from textbooks to create an easy to follow and colorful page. I wasn’t a computer programming major but I did learn some basic HTML code on my own. But thanks to Netscape Navigator, they packaged website building tools in their browser for non-computer folks like me. It was a labor of love that took me several months. Once it launched, it was one of my proudest moments. I continued to swell with pride as the website gradually gained momentum with a steady stream of positive comments from all corners of the globe. I actively maintained the site for about 18 months during which time it had logged over one hundred thousand hits.
     Sadly, the website met a quiet demise. After college and working full-time I didn’t have the energy to maintain it. I regret not archiving it for posterity. I don’t even remember what company hosted the site but I do remember they went from being a free hosting service to a paid one; a deal breaker for me at that time. The website’s success was always a great conversation starter for me personally, but I actually never got to talk about it with the most important people at that time ; US medical schools. I didn’t receive any interview offers.
   Since then I still became a physician but the world has changed. I’ve become a digital health enthusiast and advocate. I see the Web 2.0 (as opposed to 1.0 back in 1998) as a critical component of modern healthcare. And I’m no longer an outlier, shouting random things about syphilis and HIV into the internet void. Rather, I’m proud to be part of an incredible movement that hopes to improve and change medicine by bringing it back to the future.

The Ironic Illness of Izzy

     When I first met Izzy (name changed) he was a portly elderly gentlemen with an effervescent and jolly personality that lit up the clinic every time he visited. His most recognizable feature was his voice. His lifelong hobby was singing opera, as a tenor. The first time I discovered this, he belted out a few lines that echoed through our entire clinic. It was marvelous and since that moment, I always made sure my medical students and residents not just saw him, but heard him as well. He was a spectacular patient and person.
    A few years from our initial encounter, I found myself wandering the halls of the hospital with 2 medical students. They were 2nd year students looking for patients to practice taking histories and doing physical exams. Earlier that day, I received word that Izzy was admitted. Though this was unfortunate for Izzy, it was fortuitous for my fledgling doctors that such a great patient was available to talk to. And not surprisingly, despite feeling unwell, Izzy with his wife by his side, welcomed my students openly.
     I stood off to the side of the room, while my students peppered him with questions for over an hour as they tried to piece together his medical history without much experience and medical expertise to fallback on. They learned about his vocal talents and though he wasn’t well enough to sing on that day, Izzy was quick to point out how his voice swept his wife off her feet when they were in college. I thought I knew everything about Izzy from our several appointments together, but these medical students were able to illicit a entirely new story from him that even I was unaware of.
    My intrepid students were taking a travel history when they discovered his wife was originally from  South America. He reminisced about the last time they went to visit her family which was about 4 to 5 years prior. He fondly recalled staying near a seaside town, enjoying the fresh ocean air and wonderful local cuisine. The only thing he didn’t enjoy about this trip was going further inland to visit in-laws living in more mountainous areas. He recalled getting sick during that part of the trip, blaming it on some bad food and lack of sleep. His wife reminded him that he almost passed out a few times that week from feeling so unwell.
     After almost 90 minutes of questioning, doing a physical exam and sharing lots of laughs, my students and I left Izzy to go debrief on everything we had talked about. There was just an incredible amount of things to learn from Izzy. We were able to weave together his history, his physical exam, basic pulmonary physiology, and pathology to explain what had happened. I described to the students that Izzy was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and explained some of general facets of this illness including impaired gas (oxygen) exchange and just the progressive reduction in his lungs’ abilities to perform . We reviewed oxygen disassociation curves and the effects of altitude and oxygen saturation. In light of his diagnosis, it became clear why with his reduced lung function and thinner mountain air, Izzy felt so ill on his vacation. This was probably one of the first signs of his illness until later when it became sadly obvious his opera singing days were coming to an end.
     With every patient, there’s always something to learn and Izzy’s story was no exception. For me, when I look back at his story, I began to appreciate medicine as something more than doctors treating individuals with specific diseases affecting affecting well defined anatomy through different but predictable mechanisms. Medicine, as a science has surprisingly very abstract human qualities. At times, it can be funny, or sad, thrilling, uplifting, unpredictable and often dramatic. When an opera singer that relied on powerful lungs got a relatively uncommon condition affecting those same lungs, medicine got my attention that it also has a knack for irony.

   

OMG, you’re alive!

     As a  physician, it’s great to revisit the medical miracles you’ve played a hand in. In the monotony of the common every day events, a visit from that one patient who you brought back from the brink, can really lift the spirit. These moments are rare, especially if they happen while you’re a medical student or resident that is destined for a short stay in the community, never to see that one incredible patient again. Even if you stay in one place for a few years, many patients get lost to follow up (for a variety of reasons) and the curiosities for whatever happened to Mr. or Mrs. X  can fade over time.
     As a 3rd year surgical med student, I remember attending trauma clinic and following around a weary 5th year senior resident (Dr. HC) as he lurched from room to room in his scrubs and clogs doing post op checks and removing stitches with little enthusiasm but great urgency. Clinic was a chore, an obstruction from the operating room or his call room bed. One day he picked up a chart of a gentlemen Mr. D (name changed) who presented with stitches that were surfacing from his abdomen from a trauma surgery a few years prior. He knocked on the door while reading the chart, entered the room head down while still reading and introduced himself… while still reading. When he finally looked up, he stopped suddenly, grabbed his mouth and mumbled “Oh my God!”
     3 to 4 years prior, when Dr. HC was a lowly surgical intern on trauma call, he assisted on a lengthy operation on a young Rastafarian gentlemen that suffered multiple knife wounds to his abdomen. I don’t recall the details of the surgery but Dr. HC made it clear to me, that he didn’t expect this patient to survive once he was patched up and shifted to the intensive care unit. The patient had a lengthy stay in the hospital and despite the visceral experience of doing surgery on him, Dr. HC’s gypsy, sleep deprived surgical life turned Mr. D into simply another case to log and a patient unwillingly forgotten.
    After a few more seconds of disbelief, Dr. HC was finally able to drop his hands from his mouth and give Mr. D a  handshake. Mr. D’s chief complaint  were put on hold while I was told about the circumstances of how they 1st met. Mr. D actually didn’t even know who his doctors were on that terrible day but was pleasantly surprised to hear that this random resident sent to remove some stitches today, helped save his life. But Mr. D’s enthusiasm was tempered, probably due to the discomfort he was feeling that day,the difficult post op course, rehabilitation and numerous nutritional issues he’d been battling ever since his abdominal trauma. But nothing could temper Dr. HC’s smile as he grinned from ear to ear, repeating several times ” Man, I can’t believe it’s you. “
    Dr. HC was a battle weary 5th year surgical resident, in a bleak inner city hospital. During my 12 weeks as a surgical med student, he was generally pleasant but had always had a morose aura. His chance encounter with Mr. D was the first time, he looked genuinely happy. In one of those very important “teachable moments” that med students crave, Dr. HC emphasized that it’s cases like Mr. D that keep you going. It was a valuable lesson and although I didn’t become surgeon, I did become a much better doctor that day.