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.

Don’t Run Away. You Might Fall In Love With Your Flaws.

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Empower yourself by going towards what scares you.  Take it to the table and be with it.  Get to know it and openly share company with it.

Opal was throwing up.  She threw up more when she gained weight or felt fat.  Throwing up didn’t help her lose weight.  It was just a tool she had to deal with it all.  Opal was told often not to worry about her weight.  Told, she looked fine and not to weigh herself.  No one said openly, “Opal, you’ve gained weight and you’re going to get other illnesses because of it if it keeps going.”  They were afraid saying anything like that would make her throw up.  Hm.

What do you say?

We remember the three things that help maintain long-term weight loss.  Well one of the main reasons they work is because they help keep us present with “the problem” or “fear” or “shame” or however we name it.  Our natural instinct is to go away from fear but this is another example of when we don’t get help following our instincts.

What empowers Opal is to get tools to contend with her struggle with obesity.  It is probably a life-er for her and oh-well!  We can love our flaws better if we stop running from them and grow our skills in living with them in a friendly way.

Get empowered with whatever you are afraid of in yourself.  If you can’t do what you need to do to be in the place of that fear, it may be that you have a medical illness keeping you from coping better.  It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.  Staying with your journey, even to taking medication, even to naming brain illness in your life is so courageous.  You become one of the great ones.  Heroic.  It is so much easier to disconnect and lose our opportunity to love our flaws.

Have you ever heard someone call their life-er, “my old friend?”  Maybe it is arthritis?  Or recurring cancer?  Maybe it is brain disease.  Some day, we will also name our own, “my old friend.”  And we, with Opal, will mean it.

Self-Care Tip – Empower yourself by your presence.

Questions:  How do you do what is friendly to yourself when your instincts tell you not to?  What has that done for you?  Please tell us your story.

Grief Can Be Treasured At The Same Time That We Celebrate Life

Self-Care Tip #283 – Find the treasure in your grief while celebrating life.

Today is my daughter’s sixth birthday.  If ever there was a person who doubled the love she received, it is this chid.  She is all passion.  Yes, both ways, but that isn’t to judge.  Just, there is so little I can offer in words to describe her power of self.

They're asleep!

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Tonight, we pushed two twin beds together so she and I could sleep beside each other.  Her sister slept nearby on another twin bed.  Her brother set his bed up in the closet.  (I know.)

If I wasn’t so tired, old and broke, I might be made vulnerable by times like this to having more kids.  Since that’s not going to change, these chubs are what we will stick with.  Happily.

My mind is turned toward God by this girl.  I somehow arrive in the moment praying when with her, perhaps for strength and patience or for humility and gratitude.  I learn from her.

Mommy, when I’m scared I talk to Jesus.

Often in times like this, I think of my niece, dead now six years, and how her parents and we wanted what was, what was stripped.  Still grieving and still living the life with us and in us, our braided thoughts and emotions easily lose their flow.

But today I have this clarity.  My niece is gone now six years and ten days.  Today my daughter is six years old.  Today I am sleeping with my three children.  Today I know that this is precious but this is not all we want.  We want what comes after our living years.  We want to let loose to Love the grief and the life; to untangle.  Not more.  Not less.  But we want.  We want what we have, now, although still in the unknown dimension of our forever.

In psychiatry, we are alert to grief that warps the ability to engage in life.  Grief that mars the connections of survivors.  Grief that becomes pathology, brain disease and a medical condition.  This grief disables and, for example, in the case of my daughter’s birthday today, would dissolve my ability to feel pleasure.

It is difficult to gain access to treatment as many of these survivors have ill opinions about medical care.  Such as; fearing medications will mute their connection with the deceased; mute their grief, or in other words, tribute/offering to the deceased; take away the personal punishment for surviving…

Questions:

  • What do you say to these weeping lives?  How can we de-stigmatize medical care for them?
  • How have you been able to treasure your grief and the life with you and in you?

Patient on Patient Crime – Our Response to Our Own Illness

a "low profile" sole provides a grea...

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Self-Care Tip #238 – Think about your response to your own behaviors and emotions.

Bianca agreed with her husband.  She was too depressed.  She never wanted to go out and cried a lot. Perhaps she even deserved to be cheated on and abandoned because she was so unbearably dull.

Pause button.

We have discussed where behaviors and emotions come from – the brain.  We have identified the brain as human material, matter, biological and as susceptible as anywhere else on the body to illness.  In short, We could say at this point that Bianca is in a Major Depressive Disorder – a medical disease.   There are many medical diseases secondary to design, behaviors or lack of behaviors.  Or for other reasons.  However, I don’t know many medically ill that when the spouse walks out on her, we say,

Well of course!  She had cancer!

Or,

He lost his leg in a car accident, get someone else!

But throw in some aberrant emotions and behaviors for unacceptable time, and the escaping spouse is given running shoes as a gift from their concerned community.

How could he stand her!  Of course he left.  She wasn’t taking care of his needs.

You see the disparity and when written this way, it looks really ugly and I apologize.  I’m not trying to thumb people for biases and prejudice.  Both parties are hurt.  I’m also not trying to say that this happens only in marriage.  It happens in almost any setting.  Emotions and behaviors are just not considered to be symptoms of disease.

Have you ever heard the term, “Women on women crime?”  Well this is something like that.  I’m thinking much of this will improve when we treat ourselves with more insight and understanding consistent with our biopsychosocial model.  If we don’t do this first, who will.  We aren’t responsible for how others treat us, but we are responsible at least for ourselves.

This is one more wonderful way of claiming our right to say, self-care starts and ends with Me!

Questions:  How can we wrap our beliefs around this seemingly enigmous concept that when someone is crotchety, negative, irritable, inattentive or boring – it might not have been because they chose to be that way?  How do you own if in yourself?  Please tell me your story.

Self-Care Woven and Unravelled Simultaneously for Best Results

Change is good--Kente Cloth Loom

Self-Care Tip #222 – See the different parts of your self-care as independent yet dependent on each other.

One of my truest pleasures would be to teach well.  My temperament is, per Myers-Briggs, designed to be a teacher and I agree that I feel inner congruence when I’m doing just that.

…If you’re feeling your hands closing into a bracing grip, it is probably because you, like many, really don’t want to be schooled – which has happened in my less refined moments, so caution is understood.  This is not what I hope to do here.

After yesterday’s blog-post and comments received, it shows that I have not taught as well as I implied to myself.  Implied intimacy is a danger of any familiar relationship, including with ourselves.  The beauty of you guys, is you help me say things “out loud” decreasing misunderstandings.  You guys are teaching me and I thank you.  So whatever this is we are doing, learning, schooling, teaching or whatever it is that Mr. Rick C. does – what we are doing here together is mucho-much fun.

As we unravel the rug together, we see these threads,

  • emotions and behaviors appropriate to context – yesterday we spoke about guilt
  • emotions and behaviors inappropriate to context – yesterday we spoke about guilt as a symptom of medical illness
  • the magical miraculous beyond our current understanding – before we “see face-to-face– yesterday Carol Ann mentioned the changing power of God
  • freedom to do self-care and related choices
  • what choice yet remains when other choices are lost either by action or disease
  • (this last one I’m just putting in here to finish the pretty rainbow) – helps me get in the barn where I’m comfortable

The reason I think it’s important to see these together yet apart, as well as we can (through a glass dimly), is that too much of one or another of these, diminishes the results of our self-care intentions.  Don’t mistake this for preaching that one can get too much of God in their lives.  It just isn’t true and not in our best interest to get waylaid.

Questions:  How do you see yourself more effective in your self-care efforts and what has influenced those improvements?  In what way have certain bits of your self-care gotten “too much” attention?  Please tell me your story.

Never Let Go of Hope, Even When Depressed and Anxious

Linda, Lake of the Woods Run, 15 K

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Self-Care Tip #214 – Never let go of hope, even when depressed and anxious.

Some blog-posts ago, Be Aware of Your Feelings was written and “M” asked,

What is the difference between depression and anxiety?

Anxiety and depression are like brother and sister.  They often go together.  When we think of “paradigms,” we think of an arch that might intersect with another arch.  However, when I think of the affective (or mood) spectrum intersecting with the anxiety spectrum, I see them weaving, interlaced or chasing each other.  Not a line and nothing tidy.  So understanding the difference also includes understanding their relationship.

In training, I remember presenting a patient with anxiety and depression to my psychiatry attending physician.  I hadn’t clarified the timeline of onset of symptoms.

When presenting, every resident physician knows the moment when they are found out.  The other residents on the rounding team instinctively lean back, try to take a step away even, so the lightening doesn’t singe them when it strikes.  I’m sure I smelled like fear too.

The reason the time of onset of symptoms is important, is that it tells us the primary disease process.  Knowing that, influences the speculations on patient recovery, duration of illness and our choices for treatment.  Some medications for depression can really activate anxiety and the patient might not enjoy the free-fall into hell after starting the antidepressants.  Also, there are some treatments that work better for different disease processes and such.

It’s common for someone who has suffered from depression on and off for years, but never from anxiety, to have their first panic-attack out of the blue, without trigger.  Bummer!  Then they start to roll.  Bam!  Bamm!  BAm! BAAM! BBBAm!  The panic attacks may come in spurts and then go away for a time.  The opposite is also true, starting off with anxiety, and followed by depression.

I don’t think anyone, including “M,” is asking me to talk about the differences between anxiety and depression in that depression is a state of sadness, and anxiety is a state of autonomic nervous system activation.  Rather there is the wonder of why they follow each other in course, why the are so often in each other’s company, why so many medications that treat one will treat the other, why they run in family histories and/or why they are both “so common.”  We have some ideas we use to answer but we don’t have enough objective information to explain.

Some of the good news is that these diseases are treatable.  The sooner they are treated and when treated to full recovery, the better the hope for long-term brain health is.  I have seen people feel defined by these diseases and trapped.  My job isn’t to minimize that, but rather to highlight what might bring hope.  Selling hope turns out to be one of my biggest jobs.  The same attending physician I mentioned above told me that.  He never stopped talking about hope.  Even for me.

Questions:  How do you answer “M’s” question?  How have you seen depression and anxiety move together and how have you responded to it?  What has given you hope when they did?  Or, when you saw this in someone else.  Please tell me your story.

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There is Less Space Between Emotions And Science Than We Think

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Self-Care Tip #147 – Bridge the gap between emotions and science.  Be a friend to yourself.

She had been through a lot – Aimee.  Lost her baby brother to medical disease.  Was in a stressful marriage and didn’t like her work.  There was more but you get the drift.  She found herself thinking that things would be different if things had been different.

Would they?

Readers, I am referring specifically to her medical condition.  Not to the fact that the universe is different because her brother died.

Madeleine L’Engle talked about death affecting the whole universe.  She compared it to the death of a star.  In death, the star creates a hole in space dark and large, enough so that the absence of it has its own gravitational force, a “black hole.”  L’Engle says that when any part of creation dies, we are all touched.  Life knows and the absence of that bit of creation leaves the surviving universe changed forever.

Aimee wasn’t talking about that.  Aimee thought her emotional illness was largely secondary to her life stressors.  Because this influenced Aimee’s choices regarding her medical treatment, I had to tell her no.  Gently.  It was hard for her to hear.  “Aimee, your sadness you feel now, four years after your brother’s death, your isolation and amotivation, your low sex drive, your difficulty feeling pleasure in other things, your sleepiness during the day – these things are not because you have suffered your brother’s death, nor because your marriage is hard.”

There are times when directly saying things is the more gentle approach.  No one going through what Aimee is going through wants to hear about how I feel about it.  Yuck.  There’s not much that is slimier than going to someone for objective feedback and getting their emotions and personal opinions all over you.

Aimee left saying she understood and with a new medical treatment for the medical illness propagating emotional and behavioral symptoms in her.  We’ll see if she did some days from now.  But what about you?  Do you believe that her emotions and behaviors were secondary to medical illness?

Readers, life stress will continue to happen.  What may change is how we respond to it.  If our response does change and it isn’t serving us or others well we need to think that we might not be interpreting how we feel objectively.  We might be having changes to our biology that “taste like chicken.”  It helps to get a physician’s opinion – someone who sees behavior as more than the spirit, the abstract, the puppet of our volition.

Question:  How do you bridge the seemingly abysmal distance between emotions and science?  Please tell me your story.