Looking at your better future

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Dr. Kowalski walked into the hospital cafeteria and found me at our usual table, saying, “I hate it when I go to hug someone really sexy and my face smashes right into the mirror.” It wasn’t his joke but he always had something like this to toss at us other onlookers at the caf on our lunches.

He made me laugh and I felt like there weren’t enough of his type of friendship in my town. He was a peer in my community. He was a professional, a parent, a spouse. I enjoyed working with him and I respected so much about him.

Most of the time, with Dr. Kowalski, we talked about random stuff; hospital politics, his parents in England, God in his life, his kids’ latest antics, and the conversation rolled with content and interest. This day, after his short stent with humor, he skipped the food line, and just sat down to talk, starting in with a doozie.

My son is smoking a lot of marijuana.

Dr. Kowalski described the skeletal points of Frank’s, his son’s, journey with anxiety and then with marijuana. Now nineteen, Frank had anxiety his entire life. Paralyzing anxiety at times, and completely preoccupying at others with worries and inner tension.

Once when Frank was seven, “such a beautiful boy,” Dr. Kowalski told me, how Frank reacted when he was twenty minutes late picking Frank up from school. Most of the kids were gone already and Frank had to wait for Dr. Kowalski in the administration lobby next to the “mean secretary,” quietly in a big chair by himself, until Dr. Kowalski arrived. For three months after this, with his fluffy cheeks and round blue-blue eyes tilted up, Frank asked his dad over and over again, if he was going to pick him up from school that day. Would he pick him up and,

“Would he be on time?”

It was super hard for Dr. Kowalski to witness. Sometimes he would get impatient and snapped at Frank in response. Maybe raised his voice, or just ignored Frank’s questions. Dr. Kowalski felt a lot of guilt about this. He blamed himself in part for the persistence in Frank’s anxiety. If he had been more patient with him, if he hadn’t scared him with his voice, if he had gotten him into treatment… If he had been a better father, would Frank still have anxiety? Would Frank now be using three bowls of marijuana three days a week? Dr. Kowalski states that he would do anything to help Frank get better, and often does. Just about anything he can.

Whether Dr. Kowalski did or did not, Frank believed that anxiety led him to using marijuana.

Dr. Kowalski was the director of the adolescent psychiatry unit at our hospital. He knew that, although marijuana use often decreases the perception of anxiety at the moment, over all, in the way it affected gene expression, it exacerbated their anxiety. The disease exacerbated. So the user felt better at the moment, perhaps, but then the underlying anxiety process became worse and worse. Frank told me,

Using marijuana for anxiety is like a diabetic who takes insulin so he can eat a big cake.

But what could a father do for his son in this scenario? Being right, being correct about something, having knowledge apparently isn’t always how things, like convincing one’s son to stop using, are won. Dr. Kowalski did not know what to do.

Perhaps the guilt, perhaps the love, or for other reasons, Dr. Kowalski had spent the last several years of Frank’s marijuana-using and anxiety ridden life, trying to help Frank get into treatment. Treatment for anxiety.

When treating any biological psychiatric condition, something medical, we have to first look at anything we are doing to harm ourselves. Is there anything that is pushing us in the opposite direction of our efforts? Maybe we are drinking caffeine. That triggers anxiety. Or maybe we are using another substance that triggers, and/or worsens an underlying mental illness. With this in mind, Dr. Kowalski spent much of their discussions trying to engage Frank into preventative measures as part of his treatment recommendations. But what could a father do? Dr. Kowalski was not Frank’s treating psychiatrist. He was Frank’s dad.

Dr. Kowalski told me, with lines seemingly appearing out of no where on his usually bright and happy face, about his frustrations.

The amount of energy I am putting into helping him without results bothers me. And a lot of money to help him get better. I feel it is wasted until he puts in the effort to help himself.

I want to invest in my child! I do! But to help him get better. Not to just spin our wheels. He isn’t working to stop doing the things that actively work against this goal.

Feeling violated to a degree, used, Dr. Kowalski didn’t get it. He was giving his energy, his finances, his time, his emotion. He was giving every time Frank came to him or called in an anxiety crisis. Dr. Kowalski no longer wanted to do the “energy wastage.”

“It’ll be sad if Frank doesn’t get this idea,” Dr. Kowalski said. Frank may never choose to further work on his wellbeing, but the difference is that Dr. Kowalski decided he wouldn’t continue, with Frank, through talking therapies, and talking emotional rescue efforts, pretending they were working on something.

Dr. Kowalski wanted to tell his son,

I’m being taken advantage whether you realize you are taking advantage of me or not.

However, Dr. Kowalski was scared of stopping. He was scared of not staying on the phone for the long long conversations with Frank in crisis. He was scared of not continuing to pay for the talk therapy. He was scared of not continuing to give Frank his monthly living allowance while Frank was in college.

I asked Dr. Kowalski what the difference was between where Dr. Kowalski was now and wherever he thought it would be for him when he wasn’t being “taken advantage of?” If Frank wasn’t going to put in whatever effort Dr. Kowalski thought Frank should be doing to get better, where would that put them? Dr. Kowalski feared that this bond, yes maybe a bond somewhat founded on illness but still a bond between him and his son, would fail.

Their relationship, true, has strengthened, like an Indian trail that is treaded down daily on the forest floor from their repeatedly hashing out the anxiety. If that changed, Dr. Kowalski feared that maybe Frank would not see much reason to call Dr. Kowalski. Maybe what Frank valued in his dad was just that.

Dr. Kowalski told me that he believed there was, in reality, a sustainable bond between them. But Frank? He didn’t know what Frank would believe.

Dr. Kowalski and I rolled this story around in the air between us. After a stretch of disclosing his sincere grief, real fears, and underbelly of sorts, Dr. Kowalski decided, rather than starting with what he would stop giving and doing for Frank, he’d like to ask Frank,

What do you think your life would look like if you didn’t have this anxiety? Who would you be? Who would we be?

Dr. Kowalski said, “I’d love to find out.”

Self-care tip: Start with open-ended questions with yourself and look ahead.

Question: What is keeping you where you are and where would you be if it weren’t?

The Sins of the Fathers, and Mental Health

 

“We know the Bible speaks of sins of the fathers passing to the 3rd and 4th generations while God imbues his kindness and mercy far beyond that to those who love him and keep his commandments.”

Rosa had no experience in the world of mental health, or so she thought. She had spent her formative years studying the world through the perspective of her church and interpretations of the Bible. As you know, there is a lot in both with a lot to say about emotions and behaviors. However Rosa was taught and modelled that these were moral issues and not biological. An either or, verses, part of the same thing. Could we call it sequent variants, maybe something like genetic alleles? Or maybe something better to describe this is out there, rather than an either or.

Rosa Leticia Montoya, at this point in her development, with her own overwhelming emotions and her husband’s plummet into dark moods, felt forced into considering mental health. She did not want to go there, but here in the space of losing control, not trusting herself or Carl any more, and before she was willing to say she didn’t trust God, she was doing what was a last resort. Considering that she was going crazy was the only thing this chaos could mean.

Before she completely surrendered to the idea that biology was behind this sinister change, she had to ask, “Is this because of our parents?” She had spent her life trying to untwist the bad choices her parents had made and the consequences those choices had on her life. Drugs, alcohol, and cheating were what she had grown up with. Quietly. Hiding it in the church. Rosa there, praying a lot to live well and be forgiven. Praying that bad thoughts would go away. Praying to depend on God and not on herself, as seen through her perseverating worries ever since she was a child. Worried and worried. Not speaking of the wrong Bible-breaking life her parents wore like underwear beneath nice tailored clothes. Would she ever be forgiven? Would she ever stop sinning?

So she asked me, “What do you think?”

That’s a lot to work with as a psychiatrist. So I did what most of us do. Ran to the shelter of medicine. Whew! But there is the added benefit that God created medicine, psychiatry, and all that there is in my tool bag worth working with.

Even so, there was only so long that I could avoid the topic of God and His punishments, per her perspective. It came up every visit.

If you believe in God, at some point within your discovery of mental health, this question will come up. Rosa is not alone. Are the emotions and behaviors gone amok, such as seen in anxiety disorders and depression, secondary to moral weakness? Living with “too little” dependence on God’s power? Is it this? Or is it an “either or”, with our biology? …a matter of cellular grey matter composed of DNA-expressing pathology? And is this something evil woven into my DNA because of what parents did? Well, I’ve spent 30-some years in school and now 15+ years in practice in this space and am still trying to understand.

I’m wondering if you would help me articulate this. It’s fundamental for us in self-care. It’s not possible to be very friendly to ourselves with the dissonance.

So in our self-care question today, please answer us. What is the relationship between “the sins of the fathers” and biology? Please speak!

Self-care Tip: Pursue kindness in your belief systems toward yourself.

Thank you for speaking with us! Keep on!

“The devil is talking to me.”Briefly on God and Psychiatry

“The devil is talking to me.”

Her lips shaped words but her voice was like a robot. 

My gorgeous tall black thin framed model-bodied patient looked at me with a face that barely moved. Almost flat. Her eyes rarely blinked, with orbs that seemed to jump out at me when she spoke. 

This is Talia, a 3.8 GPA college grad last year who just started her first job in marketing. She has been a Jehovas Witness for about ten years and is passionate about her God and religion. She has been attending church related meetings lately about 6-7 days a week and loves to read her Bible for hours. However, over the past six months when she reads the devil and his minions cuss loudly in a cacoffany of foul persecutory language. She is afraid all the time and has high inner tension. 

Talia cannot sleep any longer for more than a few hours at a time. She has been losing weight. She has lost her job, and is panicking, terrified to read her Bible or go to church. 

Her family says she is talking to herself, and has “crazy eyes”.  They do not know what to think. Maybe she is possessed as well as crazy. Maybe both. 

Is Talia possessed by the devil? Is Talia crazy?

I was in Los Angeles this summer with my kids, walking on Hollywood Blvd. We passed several people who were responding to internal stimuli. One extremely saddening lady was slumped against a shadowed corner sitting in her own piss leaking down the street, her shirt half open, as she spoke to various targets. My kids were afraid. We were all, frankly, sad. My kids did wonder, too, were these people possessed by the devil?

Have you ever wondered if the devil was talking to you? Or working on you? 

The question is, if you want to ask this, rather ask, “What does this say about the character of God?” Included in all the biology explanations and psychosocial intersections, we bring the magical and spiritual. If you ask about the devil, ask rather about God. What does this say about God?

Talia had been adhering to her treatments and now celebrates that she is able to read her Bible again, go to her religions meetings, and has even driven around a parking lot once with a family member in the seat beside her. She is sleeping through the night, able to enjoy life, the simple and large things like the touch of shower water or taking a walk. 

When Talia hears voices, she no longer believes the voices come from the devil but rather demonstrate that she has missed something bad inside of herself that she hasn’t yet surrendered. I asked her, “What does that tell you about God? The character of God.”

We are so quick to assign nonbiological causality to emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It turns out that when the brain gets sick, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors generally go the direction of bad, rather than “good.” Naturally we ascribe moral value to what we are culturally primed to believe has moral value – emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. The question becomes, “What does it say about who God is when we do this?”

I like to think about the character of God. It is a picker upper. When I get enmeshed in some line of thought that demonstrates a poor reflection on Gods character, I figure at some point that I’m not seeing things clearly. It’s always a relief. I don’t know it all. If it says horrible things about God’s character, than I must have some misinformation or misinterpretation. 

Others may say rather, I am misreading Gods character as good. That’s not a perspective that is friendly to me in the end. One of the reasons I reject it. 

Self care tip: Ask yourself, “What does this say about God’s character?”

Questions: Have you ever wondered if the devil was talking to you? Or working on you? 

Do you ascribe moral value to emotions, thoughts, and behaviors?

What does it say about who God is?

It’s not my fault

It’s not my fault

The new on-call resident – Jonathan, I think was his name? – was trying to present another admission to me. He was visibly annoyed.

“…so, the ER calls me and says, you have a patient with chest pain, and I say, what kind of chest pain, and they say, oh, we don’t know, but the patient needs to be admitted, and then I go down and try to talk to this guy, and he is just the worst historian in the world and just stares at me, and says I don’t understand him, and…”

I cut through the never-ending sentence. “Let’s just go down and see him together, hm?”

The light was on in the ER urgent room but I couldn’t really see the patient. The gurney had its rails pulled up, and I could make out a small lump breathing heavily under the blanket. We stepped closer and I called out,“Mr Jones? We came to see you, can you come out from under the blanket?”

The top of a knitted cap made an appearance, with two dark eyes peering out from under it. “Mr Jones?” I tried again. “I hear you were having some chest pain? Are you still having any now?”

The eyes got suspicious. “Ahah,” came a noncommittal reply.

“Well, can you tell me more about it?” I persisted.

“I waited until the morning”, was a cryptic response.

“What do you mean, you waited until the morning?”

The resident interrupted. “He was actually here last night and was sent home, and he came back today morning saying he has chest pain.”

I looked at Mr Jones again. It is not uncommon for patients who have no place to be, to complain about chest pain as they know it is a sure way to get admitted. This guy really did look sick, however. After some grumbling, he sat up for an exam. Clearly, he was in decompensated heart failure, and had been for a while. I motioned to Jonathan to step outside the room. “Is there anything about heart failure in the chart?” I asked him. “Yes, he has had heart failure for a while now – methamphetamines,” he added quietly under his breath, “EF, ten percent, but noncompliant with treatment, still meth positive last month though he denies using”. EF stands for ejection fraction – the normal being 60 percent – the lower it is, the weaker the heart muscle. I glanced at the monitor – heart rate at hundred and ten, blood pressure 80 systolic – he really should have been admitted last night. The ER attending had completely missed the heart failure part. I suppose Mr Jones didn’t make it easy.

I tried to get a little more information. “Mr Jones, when you say you waited until the morning, where exactly were you waiting? Did you go home?” The patient was evasive. From the bits and pieces of his broken sentences, it became obvious that he had somehow hid himself on the hospital grounds all night and come back to the emergency room when he thought the shift had changed and he would get a chance with a new physician. I decided not to press him further until he had gotten a little better.

As the day progressed, more wrinkles appeared in Mr Jones’s case. It turned out he had been diagnosed with a lung mass two years earlier and biopsies and surgical follow-up appointments had been scheduled that Mr Jones had not kept. He had not seen a health care provider other than the emergency room for at least couple of years. His heart disease was thought to be related to his drug use – initially, he had admitted heavy methamphetamine and alcohol use that he now denied. Unsurprisingly, his urine drug screen still came back positive.

****

The next day, Jonathan and I went to see our patient again. He was breathing a little better but had an expressionless look that was speaking louder than any words. I decided to press for words.

“Mr Jones, what do you know about your cancer?”

Blank eyes turned toward the wall.

“Well, they said I had one but then that’s the last I heard about it, couple of years ago.”

“Why didn’t you keep your appointments then?”

The eyes blinked rapidly. “Well, I didn’t know I was supposed to keep them, did I? They didn’t tell me what I was supposed to do…” The tail-end of the sentence ebbed away as Mr Jones was feebly trying to come up with a justification. The defense was half-hearted, as if he knew there was really nothing to say, and nothing he said changed anything anyway.

Jonathan at my side was struggling to remain silent. As a young physician, he was taught to help people, and it was frustrating to him that the help had not been accepted. Mr Jones was a veteran – all the healthcare for his cancer would have been free. Now it was too late. For Jonathan, it seemed like a failure, and what young physician likes that?

****

In the end, we were able to stabilize Mr Jones’s heart failure but his cancer was already spread to most of his body and could not be treated. He was no longer able to take care of himself, and was packed off to the nursing home for the rest of his short days.

It had been a good learning case for the residents – not because Mr Jones had presented a medical challenge – but because he had taught the limitations in our communication skills. We had never been able to engage Mr Jones in any meaningful way, and he remained as absent on the day of discharge as he had been on admission.

As an attending physician, I struggled to make sense of it to myself, so I could explain it to my residents. Was it supposed to make sense? Had we failed somehow, or was the outcome already determined before we got involved?

I tried to put myself in Mr Jones’s shoes, knowing for years that he had cancer but putting it out of his mind. Was he sorry now? Or was the current indifferent attitude merely an acceptance of his fate, knowing deep down that he would rather have chosen those carefree years again, living alone in his trailer, drinking, smoking cigarettes and weed, and allowing himself a hit of meth whenever he could spare the money? He had missed countless procedures and surgeries, doctor visits, blood draws, and lectures by the likes of me about his drug habit. Now in the end of these years, the choice was no longer his.

Remembering the vacant stare, I suspect Mr Jones may not have known himself.

****

I told Jonathan that he had done well, and that he should not give up on people. I suspect there will be time for more cynical life lessons later.

 

Self-care tip: Good intentions do not always result in good outcomes. Recognize when your help is not accepted – it is not your fault.

Question: Have you felt helpless in a face of suffering or personal struggle, and found yourself unable to help? Tell us your story.

Introducing our new co-author at Friend to Yourself

Finally!

I’ve been hoping, asking, looking, waving awkwardly in the hospital hallways, trying to find someone who would join me in this great blogging experience with you on self-care. And, finally.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Helme Silvet! You will love getting to know her, and she will love, as I do, sharing space with you. Keep on.


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Helme Silvet, MD, MPH, FACC
Loma Linda University School of Medicine
Chief of Cardiology, Jerry L. Pettis VA Loma Linda Healthcare System

Hello!

 

My Blog Journey

Sana (or Dr Q) and I have known each other for two decades or so (and yes, we have lived that long). We have spent hours talking about what makes us excited to be physicians, what gets us up in the morning, and what makes us upset. Finally, we decided that it was time to share some of these thoughts together. Taking care of self is a principle that we both try to teach our patients, but also practice ourselves in order to be effective parts of our families, communities, and humanity. The goal of this blog is to attempt both from the, perhaps, somewhat unique perspective of biology, and medicine as the starting point to self-care.

My Professional Journey

My medical experience started in the “old country” behind the Iron Wall – I grew up in Estonia and graduated from medical school there. After the Soviet Union opened its borders, I made my way to the U.S. and finished an internal medicine residency at Loma Linda University and cardiology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Lown Cardiovascular Center. Starting in 2003, I have worked at the VA system as a cardiologist. Along the way, I also graduated with an MPH degree from Harvard School of Public Health. I am passionate about making people get better – this includes preventing, treating and managing heart disease as a cardiologist – but also helping my patients make sense of their life journey. One cannot treat and prevent disease without caring for the whole person.

My Life Journey

Between my two sisters and myself, we have lived in 5 different countries – this has made for interesting holidays! Seeing different parts of the world up close has given me plenty of experience, but has also come with a certain sense of displacement. It has been a continuous struggle in my life to figure out where I fit in the wide world in general, and in my little microcosm of a world in particular. In this context, it has been fascinating to learn different things from different cultures, and observe how people with different life experiences can effectively communicate with each other. And I noticed that somewhere along the way, my quest for truth and knowledge is giving way to a quest of understanding and compassion.

Disclaimer

The thoughts on this blog are my own and do not represent entities I belong to in a professional capacity. The stories that I tell are true in principle but the details may have been changed to protect people’s privacy. The blog is not meant to offer professional advice or treatment advice for specific medical conditions; the goal is to share ideas, general principles and stories of a personal journey.

 

Desperation – When to Speak

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I’m about to park in LA for the LAX protest against the immigration ban.

Last night my husband and I debated whether to come or not and were both disappointed to realize that we both wanted to be here. I mean, it’s Sunday and we don’t get a lot of down space. We have our kids who, thank goodness, still want more time with us. We have projects and exercise and self care that is on our agenda. We are moving away from a “zero percent progress” every day toward something better, right?

Apparently, I’m a moderate. I haven’t felt the pain. I don’t have the fire. But not very long ago was the Jim Crow era, where our parents came from.  When there’s something I’m passionate about, I have to get my feet moving or I’ll miss it.

But this immigration ban is bad. This is just xenophobia and racism.  It is personal. I think of my Lebanese cousins who have been in the war and immigrated to our country with their hairy arms and scars. I think of Mom. I think of my in-laws who arrived in New York from the Philippines with $5.00 in their pocket.

What have immigrants done for America? Well. Look around. What have you done? This is who we are.


In a protest, community is strong. Unity is strong. Today, there was some prodemocracy stuff, but there was also a lot of anti-Trump-eting and name calling.

The protest felt a little like people were peaceful. They were upset. There was a lot of Trump-fest going on. But it wasn’t just that. There was a little anger with a little despair. Those guys were suffering, but it could lead somewhere.

When we start protesting a person, it becomes a zero-sum. We lose the opportunity. We didn’t waste all of the opportunity today. It was mostly a foreboding of what could happen.

When Martin Luther King marched at the Lincoln Memorial, it was very organized. They had basically shut down the city bus transport by not using them and choosing instead to walk seven miles to work, or set up car-pools, an early Uber system. They were unified in their despair. MLK had been put in jail many times for his fire. He was not moderate. When he spoke, he spoke about justice and equality, and didn’t give stage to McCarthyism. He mentioned him, but that was it. If Trump were president at the time, he would have gotten the same mention in his speeches and letters.

MLK said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, that moderates are just as evil because they are not going against what’s wrong. And that’s what’s wrong with all these things is because we are moderate.

So one of the reasons we go to these things is so that we don’t allow things to passively happen.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

We have a general idea that this isn’t right. But we don’t have that despair. We are privileged. But we have a sense that this is wrong. So that’s why I move. To help me understand.

Maybe we, in this generation, have not suffered enough to stay focussed on the principles being violated here. We are America. We believe in humanity. We do not discriminate against another race. We do not believe our race is better than theirs.

The world is small. A refugee physically, manually by another human’s own hands, who is being pushed away back into the ocean from a Greek beach because the Greeks cannot feed their own countryman, affects all of us. Starvation changes one’s belief systems, I am told. These people are not moderate. They are being violated. I don’t want to be a part of who violates them. It doesn’t need to be said that I wouldn’t want to be them.

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Why do we march? To get our feet moving. We want to learn more. We march to help us understand.

 

Self Care Tip: Find your fire, take a stand.

Questions: What’s your story about immigration? How is this personal to you? Keep on

 

This is What America Can Give You

I told my patient today,

“You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re young, you’re healthy. This is what you have. Go and do it. Fight hard. You can only control yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to fight for you. This is what America can give you. The opportunity to fight hard for yourself.”

Keep on.