A Little Help From My Friends

The patient in front of me is trying to die. Elderly and frail, he is lying in the bed. His ribs outlined under skin that should be smooth. His temples are concave where they should be flat. Both are an outward display of internal damage from his lung cancer. More striking than his cachexia are the strained muscles in his neck and his pursed-lip breathing. He is working hard for each breath, drowning in the air around him. From his cancer or pneumonia or more likely both. It is my first night on call as a senior resident in the ICU.

It’s early in my second year of residency at the University of Chicago, where I am splitting my time between internal medicine and pediatrics. The ICU is outside my comfort zone, with its rapid pace, large volume of data to process, and the complexities of multiple failing organ systems to manage. I am both intimidated and inspired by those who seem to recognize patterns, synthesize information and anticipate problems with ease. I want to be like them. I want to face my fears head on. I have chosen to be here, to prove to myself that I can do this. I am capable of caring for the sickest of the sick. And now, in the middle of the night, without a supporting daytime cast of residents and attendings, I am anxious for my first test. And it happens to be the man in front of me struggling to breathe.

I want to be here. I want to be a critical care physician. I know what to do. Read more

Sunrise

What do you do when you know someone is going to die? I’m not talking about death when it comes at the end of a long protracted illness or a terminal diagnosis. Or the final act at the end of a “good” life, when the body and mind have ultimately given way. I’m talking about when you realize the twenty-five-year-old woman in front of you, who you met five minutes ago, has no idea she will not survive to see another sunrise.

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Walk with me…

Walk with me, why don’t you? It’s about time, don’t you think? We have been avoiding this for quite a while. But it is best to bring this out from the shadows and into the light. Let’s take a walk… Thru a part of my day. But be careful. You won’t like what you see. I don’t like this path very much. It’s why I have not looked lately. I just keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Can’t stop. Movement keeps things blurry. And blurry is less defined. And less defined is fuzzy. And who gets hurt by fuzzy? Fuzzy is soft and safe. Fuzzy can’t hurt. Fuzzy can’t reach into my heart and soul and hurt me from the inside out.

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Limits

My chest is heaving.  The air I  rapidly suck into my lungs does not seem to be adequate  as I immediately gasp for another breath.  My heart is pounding, trying to escape the confines of the sternum that lies over it.   The waves of nausea are somewhat overshadowed by a brewing headache.  Too put it bluntly, I feel like crap. My eyes gaze towards the clock on the wall and to my dismay its only 5:40 AM.  Twenty more minutes of hell stand between me and relief.  And I can’t help think for a moment why am I here again?

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