I am normal.
OK, aside from that llama thing.
I have good days and bad. Some days I am content, connected, focused, and motivated. On those days I enjoy my job, I enjoy the people I’m with, I am willing to be inconvenienced by interruptions.
On other days…not so much. I wake up grumpy and (despite multiple cups of coffee) continue it through the day. I keep score of all the ways in which life has conspired to make the day difficult. Too many red lights. Too windy. Clearly terrible things going on. I am not patient with people, and am distracted by little things.
Like I said: I am normal. I do my best to not let these things stand in the way of the care I give, and I try to hide my emotions from my patients. It’s a necessary part of the job. But there are still days I’m better at it than others.
Being a doctor involves hearing a person's narrative and working to direct it in the best direction possible. There are some people for whom I have become a significant part of their narrative, and others whose narrative I know better than anyone else. It's a bond that doesn't happen anywhere else.
We live in a world where patience is a diminishing commodity. We want each day to wrap up neatly like an episode of a TV show. We want to end all arguments by having the perfectly worded Facebook post. We want to figure out the solution to our problems, meet our soul-mate, elect the perfect candidate, and live the rest of our lives happy and contented. But every story has many pages, every timeline has many data points, and every life is made up of many days, many decisions.
My hope is that somehow we are able to return to care that is patient-centered. People want their narrative to be a good one, and doctors need to be able to enter that narrative and become a positive influence. Our goal needs to push people out of the medical realm and back to living the rest of their narratives with as little contact with the healthcare system as possible. That's what patient-centered care really is.
The drug test came back abnormal. There was THC present. I walked back to Mrs. Johnson and raised my eyebrows.
"What's wrong?" she asked, not used to whatever kind of look I was giving her.
"Uh, you forgot to mention to me that you smoke weed."
She blushed and then smirked. "Well, yes, I guess I forgot to put that down on the sheet. I don't do it real often, but sometimes it takes mind off of things. I just get real anxious about my kids, my husband...and my heart problems. I only smoke one or two a night"
She's not your usual picture of a pot-head. She's in her sixties, has coronary heart disease, irritable bowel, hypertension, is on Medicaid, and is the essential caricature of the the poor white folk who live in the deep south. And she smokes weed.
"I want to tell you my story now," a patient recently told me, a woman who suffers from many physical and emotional ailments. She had the diagnosis of PTSD on her problem list, along with hospitalizations for "stress," but I never asked beyond that.
"OK," I answered, not knowing what to expect. "Tell me your story."
She paused for about 30 seconds, but I knew not to interrupt the silence. "I killed my husband," she finally said.
It's been two years since I first started my new practice. I have successfully avoided driving my business into the ground because I am a dumb-ass doctor. Don't get me wrong: I am not a dumb-ass when it comes to being a doctor. I am pretty comfortable on that, but the future will hold many opportunities to change that verdict. No, I am talking about being a dumb-ass running the business because I am a doctor.
I think there is something in us that makes us want to make heroes. This is part of the attraction of sport and other entertainment. We want to see people doing things that are amazing, superhuman, and heroic. As a child, I imagined me hitting the home run in the bottom of the 9th inning, or hitting the basket with no time left on the clock. I imagined the adulation and praise of my skill from the adoring masses. I dreamed of being a hero.
I examined him, leading him to his bedroom so he could lay down and I could examine his abdomen. He required significant help even with the 20 steps it took to get to the bed. He let out a big sigh when he lay back on the bed. The diagnosis came quickly, as his liver was very large and had an irregular, lumpy feel.
I had little doubt: he had cancer in his liver, probably spread from his colon.
We went back to the den, where we initially had talked. "I am going to be square with you. I think you have a very, very serious problem. I think you have cancer in your liver. I'm sorry to have to say this the first time meeting you, but you seem to be the kind of person who would want the truth, even if it is hard."
As a clinician, I fantasize about being the heroic detective who notices those obscure facts that others would miss, coming up with the life saving diagnosis when all others had failed. This, unfortunately, is not how it usually works when dealing with real human patients, and my desire to find a single diagnosis to explain what is going on can actually distract me from finding the answers my patients need.