Another day, and another senseless act of gun violence.
I sat down tonight to start writing about my experiences working as a locums primary care physician in the heartland of America and the Indian Health Services.
There’s a lot to write about, in terms of the myriad of chronic diseases facing this population and the stressed healthcare services that’s trying to care for them.
Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, tobacco abuse, alcohol abuse, obesity etc etc.
I forgot about one particular epidemic until I received a push notification on my phone about the shooting in Lafayette, Lousiana.
Another city, different from where I’m working but still uniquely American, trying to persevere through violence perpetrated by some who believe was just a person. Other’s who will attest he’s a person who culturually and perhaps legally was allowed to obtain an unneccssary appendage of violence.
In tragedy, the natural tendency is for people to come together.
When it comes to tragedy from gun violence, we seem to grow further apart as a nation, debating the merits of a vestigial amendment. This too, another uniquely American reality.
Another shooting and another night of mourning.
The recent events of Tamera Ahmed on a commercial airline and the alleged discrimination and Islamophobia she endured, got me thinking about my own experiences in the air. Fortunately, I have never experienced anything as blatant as the events described by Ms. Ahmed. But as a Muslim-American, I’ve become too keenly aware of the growing specter of Islamophobia across the world. Whether it’s at a TSA security checkpoint, sitting at a terminal or falling asleep inside the plane, I have to admit I sometimes wonder if someone is watching me, thinking I’m capable of committing harm. To those that continue to subscribe to beliefs that all Muslims on an airplane are a potential danger, I offer my own personal experiences that are the opposite.
I’ve had the privilege of twice responding to a request for medical assistance on an airplane at over 30,000 feet. The first time, I was a senior resident flying home with my wife from a well deserved vacation. The flight attendant requested anyone with medical training to assist a passenger who had collapsed near the forward bathrooms. Without hesitation, I looked at my wife and headed to the front of the plane in my jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap looking nothing like a physician or a stereotypical dangerous Muslim for that matter. I ended up converging at the front with a nurse and a radiologist on the flight. Without access to a CT scanner on the flight, the nurse and I quickly took charge of the situation :-). We came to the conclusion the the elderly lady had a vasovagal episode brought on by a lack of sleep, and the effects of alcohol at high altitude on a body altered by gastric bypass surgery. The flight attendants were understandably worried and repeatedly asked me whether the flight needed to be diverted for an emergency landing. I reassured them and gave my blessing to press forward towards our intended destination. After the flight I caught up with the lovely lady outside in the terminal while paramedics assessed her. She was extremely gracious in expressing her gratitude. In addition to her, several random passengers expressed their appreciation. One gentleman was particularly thankful that I didn’t divert the plane and take away vacation time with his girlfriend.
A second and similar episode occurred on another flight a few years later. This time, a passenger that was battling a stomach bug, vomited and subsequently also passed out. I once again marched to the front of the plane to assist the passenger. But this time, as I spoke to the passenger, his sister next to him started to feel ill and weak. She too almost passed out from a vasovagal episode triggered by watching her brother heave. Fortunately, both passengers were ok as I reassured them and the flight crew that everything would be fine. And once again there was an outpouring of gratitude from a variety of people.
As physicians, we are reminded early in our training and throughout our careers to treat all patients equally. I certainly did not ask who or what those passengers were on my flight. They were people in a vulnerable situation who needed some help. Perhaps they even harbored the same biases and fears that plague the bigoted passengers on Ms. Ahmed’s flight or the policy makers of the airline she flew. It wouldn’t have mattered. What matters is that the vast majority of proud Muslim-Americans like myself continue to advocate unity and peace while in service of everyone in our communities regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion or any other identifier. We are your teachers, lawyers, waiters, engineers, plumbers, mechanics, nurses, doctors and all others. And occasionally we are also your guardians in the sky.
Empathy is a big topic in medical education. How do we teach and nurture it in the next generation of doctors? Personally, I’ve noticed that students and residents with personal experiences as a patient often “get it.”
I’ve had a few personal experiences as a patient and I think it’s helped me gain perspective. Fortunately none of my experiences were life threatening, but one them did leave a big impression.
In the fall of 1991, I woke up on one morning with a strange sensation. I had difficulty speaking and drool was intermittently falling from my mouth. I wasn’t in any pain and I remember finding the experience unusual and funny. My father had already left for work and with the situation unclear, my mother sent me to school with an appointment for our family physician later that day. I was happy to go and didn’t want to miss school early in the year. I remember later that morning, despite how my mouth felt, I volunteered to read a section of my social studies text book. I always considered myself an adept reader, but that day I sounded incomprehensible. I even remember the quizzical look on my teacher’s face after my attempt. I quickly realized I would have to hold back my enthusiasm for education for 1 day until my doctor could fix my ailment.
My family practice doctor was a nice Indian gentleman with silvery grey hair. I remember vividly that his office was also his only examination room. Right next to his large, expensive wooden desk and leather chair, was an examination table, up against a wall lined by his innumerable degrees. It felt like I was being seeing in his home rather than in the sterile exam rooms I’ve grown accustomed to. I don’t recall the details of the visit, except that he had diagnosed me with Bell’s Palsy, given me “steroids,” and a consultation with Neurology. As a teenager, I found this amusing but my parents were extremely concerned. They were so concerned that any run of the mill neurologist wouldn’t do. We had to find someone affiliated with one of the major teaching institutions in New York City.
We were lucky to get an appointment the following day. After an hour long subway ride, we were in front of a neurologist who was affable, intelligent but also eccentric with hair that only had chance encounters with a comb.The details from this part of the story are foggy. All I really remember is the concern on my father’s face after the doctor advised that we immediately go to the emergency room. For reasons that I don’t recall, my neurologist was concerned about meningitis.
My inpatient story began like many others in the ER. The most vivid memory had to do with lumbar puncture (LP). My father consented for me, as a pleasant male ER resident explained the procedure and how pain would be minimal and to expect some post procedure headaches. I remember laying on my left side facing a wall 6 inches from my face with my arms clutching my knees close to my chest. With my bottom and back exposed, I felt the warm anesthetic burn its way through my back, while the rest of me shivered in the cold room. My father had to wait outside for what seemed like an eternity. The resident was talkative and friendly but I found it hard to focus on anything else besides my fatiguing arms and lower back. I recall several attempts at him guiding the needle to find the sweet spot. It didn’t hurt but the repeated pressure and prodding of the apparatus was unnerving. After several minutes, the physician proclaimed success and asked me what color did I think the fluid was. I guessed red. To my surprise it was serenely clear.
I woke up the next morning with a terrible headache and nausea. This was definitely much worse than the actual lumbar puncture. I couldn’t enjoy the view from my window overlooking the East River while the smell of the hospital food made me that much more ill. Despite that, I was happy to see my eccentric neurologist who walked in like the Pied Piper with several medical students in tow. They stood around me, in a semicircle with their shiny white coats, smiles, enthusiasm and words of encouragement. The neurologist demonstrated his cranial nerve exam to the students with my Bell’s palsy playing a central role. The student’s marveled and I felt really special. I wish I could say this was that sentinel moment in my desire to be a physician and medical educator. But honestly, at age 13 although I fancied being a doctor one day, my real priorities in life were baseball cards and video games.
The days that followed were less about my Bell’s Palsy and more about a nasty pathogen. Although the results of my lumbar puncture were negative, the Varicella Zoster virus (Shingles) reared its ugly DNA. First it was having a party under the covers of my ear canal which many years later and only in medical school did I learn to call it Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. Soon after, it had found itself on the tip of my tongue in what turned out to be an extremely painful aspect of my illness. I could barely eat for the next several days. To this day, I’m not exactly sure if the steroids that I initially took triggered the Shingles or whether it was the Shingles itself that precipitated the Bells Palsy. Either way, it was a terrible and frustrating combination of events.
My last distinct memory of this event was the day of my discharge. Like any patient, especially a restless teenager, I couldn’t wait to go home. The night prior, the IV line placed in my ante-cubital fossa gave out and a night float intern haphazardly (after several attempts) placed a new line in my wrist. Probably 6 to 8 hours after that, this too infiltrated and started to cause pain. My family and I rang for assistance. As minutes turned to what seemed like an hour, pain became agony as a huge bleb formed at the site, stretching my skin while likely causing pressure on the carpal tunnel underneath. I squeezed my mother’s hand as hard as I could and squinted my eyes trying to endure the pain. I’m not sure how long I waited, but I remember the catheter being pulled and the immediate relief that came right after. A large fluid filled blister was left behind on my wrist. I was allowed to go home with instructions not to manipulate the blister. Of course one day it did pop, leaving behind exposed underlying tissue that I took care of myself for several days. Luckily it never got infected, but it did leave behind a scar that I still possess today.
There are a few other tidbits to the conclusion of this story. I parleyed the illness into a new video game system from my parents. The scar on my wrist gave me a tiny bit of “street cred” with my teenage friends. I quickly lost that “street cred” when I regained my ability and confidence to read out loud in class (4-6 months later). I missed over a week of school and when I returned, I got a lot of hugs from girls who would otherwise ignore me. And I remember my class portraits that year. I had an ugly crooked smile to match my ugly multicolored shirt. Most importantly, it was a vivid experience that’s given me perspective and a story to share in my life as a physician and medical educator.
I really don’t enjoy going into a store with a planned purchase only to get hassled and cajoled into purchasing something different. The fact is, with so much information at our fingertips, I decide ahead of time what I want and the price I’m willing to pay.
Recently, I dropped my smart phone in the toilet bowl.
(Take 1 minute to laugh at me.)
This event forced me to run to my wireless store and purchase a new smart phone. Despite having done my research, my anticipated 10 minute purchase turned into a 45 minute battle of wills between an eager salesman and my practical sensibilities.
He couldn’t have been a nicer guy. In his mid twenties, he had energy and enthusiasm for his job that likely made him very successful. His great attitude won me over and I let him do his sales pitch despite fully knowing I only came in for 1 specific purpose that I wouldn’t veer from. He used numbers, diagrams, compliments, (even mild insults!), jokes, clever colloquial lines all to convince me I was making a huge mistake not heeding his advice. In the end, he relented, went to the back of the store and came back with my phone.
As he was ringing up my purchase on his tablet, he made one last ditch effort to win me over. In the process, he asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was a physician and suddenly, the entire tone of our conversation changed.
He paused, gave me a forced smile as I watched the wheels spin in his eyes. For the 1st time I sensed the smallest hesitation in his sales pitch and instead of talking about his product, he came back with this:
“How do you treat vertigo?”
I felt bad that I made him expend a lot of energy knowing he’d fail. I humored him and we switched roles. Standing in a quiet corner of the store, I began asking him all the questions I normally would. After a few minutes of trouble shooting, we changed the symptom description to “disequilibrium” instead of vertigo and I reassured him while encouraging further evaluation with his primary care doctor. He seemed grateful but I couldn’t help notice a morose coming over him.
He explained to me he always worries about something terrible happening to him just like his sister. I delved further to find out several years prior, his 16 year old sister died of a pulmonary embolism. His voice lost clarity as he fumbled around his tablet muttering how all the bad doctors ( pediatricians, ER etc) missed the diagnosis. He chuckled recalling how an x-ray went missing but was subsequently found and clearly had abnormal findings. Although I didn’t ask, I presumed the x-ray was later found as part of some litigation process.
I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to lose a sister when you are a child yourself. I could understand the frustration and anger under his breath that probably took years to soothe. An unexpected death of a loved one is always a tragedy especially when it seems the answers are so obvious and in the hands of the physicians entrusted to figure it out. I felt terrible for him, as he pulled out his own smart phone to show me an old picture of her,
As objective physicians we always contemplate alternatives. I didn’t know the physicians that treated his sister, but I empathized with them a little bit We are taught very early on in our education that pulmonary embolism is one of the trickiest diagnosis and easy to miss. We are taught about pre-test probabilities and chest pain in a teenager is statistically much less likely to be a life threatening condition. I imagined that could have easily been me, a well meaning physician doing their due diligence and something terrible like this still happening. As a physician, we never get comfortable dealing with the death of a patient. It’s even more difficult when there’s an unexpected death and you’re left wondering what else you could have done. These very personal emotions are occasionally twisted, tossed and turned through malpractice litigation ; a process after which physicians are left confused, numb and questioning their purpose. This is a burden many physicians carry to their own grave, quietly without any expectation of assistance or pity.
As he finalized my purchase, I completed my thoughts coming to the conclusion that no matter what the circumstances were, he went through a tragic experience and nothing can change that. I was happy to see he survived and had become a very good salesman with a good attitude and great smile. But on this day he didn’t get the sale he wanted. I regained my connection to the digital world with a new smart phone. I’m hoping he regained the tiniest bit of faith that doctors despite being fallible, listen and care.
Health insurance is an extremely high priority issue for most Americans. It is the sensible thing to attain, whether it is to ensure wellness or treat illness that might otherwise derail a lifetime of hard work. But my family member’s reward for obtaining health insurance wasn’t good health but rather a glut of potentially wasteful and dangerous medical care. As we continue to expand health insurance in an attempt to cover all Americans and provide them access to care, we have to continue efforts towards curtailing health care that is not evidence based, wasteful and only serves to fulfill the American dream of providers and drug companies while taking advantage of hard working naive citizens.