Friday, December 30, 2016
Mostly, that is what was expected of him. His patients didn't come because of cancer or chronic illness. They came after tragedy. Unwillingly. Bodies sprawled on metal tables with insides amiss. And he put them back together. There was no time for a prolonged conversation of whether the parts should remain disjointed.
It was easier to look at his patients as parts and pieces. Easier to round in the ICU and figure out how the puzzle fit together again, or even how the motif in the far right corner connected to the shadow in the lower left. Complex systems no doubt. But admittedly there was a refusal, subconscious or not, to discern the forest from the trees.
Thus, the irony was not lost on William, when his oncologist shrugged and suggested hospice care. This was only after all options had been exhausted. His body could only withstand so much surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Upon hearing the words, William flopped onto the examining room table and thought of the many conversations he had excused himself from over the years.
His oncologist was not much better. After dropping the H word, he handed him a card with a name and phone number, and left the room. William held onto card for a few days stuck in the pre-contemplation stage. He then made the call.
Hospice was tolerable. William's body began to erode under the enormous burden of cancer. His eyes sunk, and the skin hung from his atrophied skeleton. The nurses and CNA's were pleasant and tended to his ever increasing physical needs. The morphine controlled his pain.
William had already made peace with leaving this world. There was only one problem. He had expected to die months ago. Yet, he was still here.
He prayed to a God that he only partially believed in. He begged and pleaded. Take me. Take me.
Yet he woke up every morning, opened his eyes, and loathed that he was still here.
He had long ago stopped living, and now was solely waiting to die. Death taunted him at times, holding the prize within reach. A storm of lethargy would be followed by a an ocean of dyspnea. With nightfall came peace and quiet. The next morning all would be tranquil once again.
Sometimes William dreamt that death was seeking revenge for all those lives he had snatched back from the abyss during his surgical career. All those souls whose path and destiny were interrupted by his mechanical hands.
He fantasized that after a horrible car accident he was rushed to the emergency room with his aorta transected and the pompous surgeon stood over his body, and licked his lips at the chance of letting the scalpel have free range. As William begged and pleaded, the surgeon removed his mask and revealed his true identity. And he recognized his own facade and knew that he would be taken to the operating room.
It was then that William came to terms with a reality that had escaped him his whole clinical career.
Like birth, death is just a natural life event.
A natural event, that somehow kept alluding him.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 12:52 PM
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
I figure I could set up four or five rooms in tandem. Each with a its own sink, syringe, and various plastic scooping tools. I would spend all day excavating. Sifting through the mud to expose tympanic membranes long buried. I would deliver every doctors dream-sudden, immediate, uncomplicated relief.
I would spurn insurance. Each patient would come in with ears full and leave with pockets empty. There would no longer be any electronic medical record or meaningful use. MACRA would be a thing of the past. Instead, I would spend my time doing that which I was most trained to do.
I would become an expert and be known far and wide. I would be listed as one of America's Top Doctors. I could be interviewed on the Today Show and Good Morning America about the sinister danger lurking in those funny protruding orifice (who knew orifice was the plural of orifice?)
And life would be good.
Sure, you might argue that I will miss the struggle and humanity of treating real human disease. The rush of delving into the bowels of human suffering and trying to lift my fellow man. I can't argue with you there.
But when you clean ears for a living, you don't get those angry calls. The family members who are convinced that you harmed their loved ones or the drug abuser who finally met a physician who won't just fill the meds.
You don't have to worry about malpractice. No one is going to bring a million dollar suit against you because you forgot an ear. Or left equipment in the canal. In fact, you most likely can stop paying those crazy twenty thousand dollar a year premiums.
When you clean ears for a living no one cares if you use an electronic medical record. There are no books for medicare to audit. No ICD 10 codes or CPTs when you take cash. There are no late nights combing over documentation to make sure that you remembered to mark off smoking status or that your PQRS data are crystal clear.
You can stop wearing your pager and turn off your cell phone at night. No more interruptions while your sitting on the toilet, or taking a shower, or god knows what other personal things you are doing when all of the sudden a nurse must immediately report a skin tear.
And when you clean ears for a living you can stop building those damn walls. You know, the ones you make in those dark times when something hurts really bad. The ones your fortify day after day, week after week, and year after year. Because before you got into the ear game, there was a lot of pain and suffering. There were late nights and honest questions of culpability. There were those patients you couldn't save. And those that you could save but somehow didn't. And those mistakes you made, or didn't make, or maybe are not sure about.
You wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Or jump every time your daughter texted you because you thought it was the hospital.
And maybe, just maybe, you would stop getting up every morning before the alarm went off.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 2:51 PM
Monday, December 26, 2016
Your father is dying. I'm sorry. I know this sucks. It is horrible, and unfair, and heartbreaking. I have been there with my own loved ones and counseled many patients through similar situations. Your brain will try to convince you that it isn't so. That cure is around the corner, or that if you just make the right decision everything will be OK.
Everything will not be OK. Your father has cancer laced through his bones and inner organs. He is bound to his bed and can no longer feed or bath himself. He has lost interest in eating. Although I wholeheartedly regret this, I must not mince my words here. My bluntness is not meant to be unkind or crude. It is crucial that you understand where we are in order to move forward.
Death is coming no matter how much you or I wish to deny.
So let's not.
Indecision is decisive.
There will be a strong inclination to pause. These are horrid decisions that no family member should have to make. Yet doing nothing creates its own set of consequences. Without actionable breakers, our medical systems can become a runaway train of horrors. CPR will break your fathers ribs but will not remove the invaders overtaking his internal organs. Feeding tubes and IVs will deliver nutrients, but those nutrients will more likely feed the raving beast, and less likely provide meaningful benefit to his ailing body.
Ventilators are magical and awe inspiring when they support the respiratory system of someone who will eventually recover, and conversely barbaric when they provide buoyancy to an otherwise porous ship.
You should sign your father's DNR form. Life support will not save him, it will prolong his death.
Dignity turns process into an event.
In my interactions with your father, he has seemed a dignified and kind man. My wish is to provide as much dignity in death as he has enjoyed in life. To do this, we must move away from futility. Futile medical treatment brings pain and discomfort. Pain and discomfort turn death into a process. A prolonged, agonizing, distressing process.
I would like, instead, to think of his life as the process and death as an event. By treating him with dignity, managing his symptoms, avoiding unnecessary medical treatments, and providing joy in whatever ever mode possible-we can truly help him feel like he is living until the unfortunate moment he dies.
Bring it home.
I want you to know that I not only worry about your father's wellbeing, but also your own. After his death, despite your best intentions, you will spend much time thinking about his last days. Let's create a safe and peaceful landing place for him.
I hope to leave you with the memory that at this most difficult and important time of your father's life, you provided him selfless dignity and comfort.
You gave him one last gift.
You will sleep better during those future restless nights knowing this.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 5:08 PM
Sunday, December 25, 2016
She peered up at me, her face alighted by the morning haze streaming through an adjacent window. A soft kind face, she had aged over the years. A pair of reading glasses sat perched on her nose ready to be squinted through as she turned her attention to the ever shrinking font on the glowing computer screen in front of her.
We had been colleagues once, lifetimes ago. My first job after residency. She, being a few years older than I, was less of an amateur back then. We stumbled and bumbled though those early days of hospitalism. I remember the practice of medicine felt so raw and new. I spent many hours traversing those winding hallways. And it became my home.
It's hard to explain what the concept of hospital means to a physician. It is the place where we start as novice, move to apprentice, and exist ever after striving towards mastery. Many of our significant moments have occurred under those sterile lights. We have seen lives saved and lost, tears shed in both joy and despair. It is the place where we have been broken down and if lucky, built back up.
So when you happen upon a colleague on Christmas morning after over a decade, it gives you a moment to contemplate. A funny thing happens over time. Doctors show all the telltale signs of aging. Our hair thins, our backs bend ever so gently forward, maybe the waistline expands a touch. We wear our battle scars unabashedly.
Yet the hospital, our home, our outer shell, no longer reflects these changes, Floors are remodeled, wings are expanded, computers are upgraded. Everything new and young. And the medical students and residents scurry through the newly updated units. It is their hospital now.
My colleague and I. Banished from our childhood home. Visitors in a foreign country. Strangers in a familiar land. We will be accepted again one day. Not as healers anymore, but as patients.
We may die in the place we once lived. But the signs of our existence will have been long washed away by progress and expansion.
There will be little left of us. Except the lives of the those we touched. And their families and children. And children's children.
On forgetful Sunday mornings and even on Christmas.
We were there.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 10:29 AM
Friday, December 23, 2016
My son is in sixth grade and goes to the same middle school that I went to as a child. On the few occasions I have visited, a wave of familiarity washes over me. Feelings submersed for decades return with smoothness and clarity. For a few moments, I remember what it feels like to be twelve years old again.
My son's interests are mainly confined to science and electronics. I, of course, try to talk to him about subjects like politics, art, and the opposite sex. Recently I asked him if boys are talking to girls? Dating? Holding hands?
While he immediately demurred and squirmed in discomfort, an uninvited apparition suddenly streamed out of my mental Netflix. And her name was Christina.
Christina was in my sixth grade homeroom class. Everyday we chatted, joked, and passed the time until the bell rang and we moved on to more serious academic endeavors. I liked her. She was kind, and pretty, and funny. By the middle of the year, boys were beginning to ask girls to form more formal relationships. They called it "going with". It was basically equivalent to a childish version of dating.
I finally built up the courage to write Christina a note, and passed it to her during homeroom. She opened it, read for a moment, and then put it down. I glanced backed at her inquisitively, hoping to glean some indication of her feelings. She folded it cleanly, and put it in her backpack. At the end of the period she took me aside. She explained that while she liked me, she wasn't ready to "go with" me, and that she preferred to remain friends. She smiled affably, she laughed, and that was it.
Nothing changed. She continued to chat with me before class. We joked. There was no awkwardness or unkindness. And she never told another soul about the whole incident.
I can't remember when Christina and I parted ways. Maybe it was the next year when we changed homerooms. Or after middle school. Who knows?
But I will always remember her kindness and maturity. She could have mocked me. She could have avoided me. She could have reacted in a thousand other possible hurtful ways which most likely would have marred my own self image as well as my future interactions with the opposite sex.
Instead she was gracious and sincere.
A sincerity that I cherish.
A sincerity that I now often contemplate as I continue the herculean effort of trying to form my daughter and son into compassionate, loving human beings.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 9:35 AM
Saturday, December 17, 2016
He was old.
He lived a good life.
It was his time.
He didn't suffer.
Words I have said aloud so many times that now I forget to halfheartedly mumble them at all. And of course, the last is a lie. We all suffer. Maybe not during death, but in life. Patients and doctors alike. Pain is neither a blessing nor a menace, it's more like a life long companion. A fellow traveler.
A traveler that I, overtime, have begun to ignore, to minimize along the way. I take care of old people. My patients die. All the time. Over and over again. I have learned to take the phone call, comfort the family, and say goodbye during interrupted dinners and in-between performances at my children's school.
It's a fallacy to think that these are just professional relationships. Medicine can only be transactional in it's most basic form. To really care for people, you have to give of yourself. You need to be present. Occasionally offering your own struggles, and always your hand, your shoulder, and even your heart.
Healing is destructive, and painful. It's taking on another's struggles to lessen their burden. It's removing your own armor and accepting the glancing blow that rips your own skin.
I'm tired of ignoring the wounds.
Eddie was old when I met him ten years ago. He was crass and chewed tobacco. He was rough and tough and often swore in Yiddish that I rarely understood. His hands were thick. They clapped me on the back every time we saw each other.
And he was so proud of me. Last week I went to see him, he smiled broadly and proclaimed to the nursing aid that was adjusting him in bed.
That's my doktor. Hey, where ya been?
I'm here Eddie. I'm still here.
Now get some rest.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 7:53 AM
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
After visiting a number of local art galleries, I came to two conclusions. I knew exactly what I liked, and art work was exceedingly expensive. Expensive enough to not only prohibit me from decorating my house, but also from buying a single piece for my bedroom.
The easy path would have been to obtain a bunch of prints, frame them, and call it a day.
Instead, I scoured the Internet and eBay. Within days, I was able to find similar paintings, by similar artists, for half the price. After making my first purchase, I took a few extra minutes to chat with the seller. Over the next few weeks I spent countless hours researching, calling, and interviewing any art dealer I could find. Some took my phone calls, others hung up. I even spoke to a few artists themselves.
I quickly learned that there was a secondary art market with a fairly low cost of entrance. By making a few friends, I could piggy back my purchases on those of much more wealthy buyers and obtain quite a discount. A discount, in fact, that was much better than the art galleries I had most recently frequented.
Fast forward a few years, and I was running a business buying and selling artwork. Originally my purchases were driven by passion for the artist, but eventually I learned to buy whatever I could sell at the best margin. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product came and went through my business any given year.
But that was the rub. No longer was the canvas an object of my fascination. It was now fancy paper that I could move along, and be paid in even fancier paper. Once I bought ten thousand dollars of artwork that I would have previously coveted. I inspected it, packed it back up, and sent it on it's way to a buyer who offered me double.
I felt nothing. Well not exactly nothing, but the thrill had dulled. A spark was still there, but it was deadened. Smoothed over by years of experience dealing with beauty that came to and slipped through my fingertips with relative ease.
When I began to run my own medical practice, the extra time for such frivolity evaporated. There was simply no way to take care of my patients, hire and fire, monitor the books, and tend to an extra business.
The memory of the precious paper never quite left me though.
Often people ask what it's like to be a doctor, to save a life, or watch a patient die. To know that your mistakes carry such weight.
Usually my mind goes blank, and instead, I think fondly of looking at those barren walls for the first time.
Then I sit them down. I clear my throat.
And I tell them stories about selling artwork.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 7:15 PM
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
The thirty-minute car ride gives me ample time to reflect. I often think of my father. A physician, he died well before I was old enough to understand who he was as a doctor, or a man for that matter. I often wonder about the parallels.
Did he arise early on the weekend so as to come back before his kids noticed he was gone? Did he have my bedside manner? Or I his? Was he the kind of husband and father that I am?
Bringing up my own children has made me ponder the equal parts that go into building a young personality. My father died when I was eight. Was that old enough to imprint on me this drive to become a physician? This will to work insane hours? To be relentless? Maybe it was all genetics and his behavior had very little effect.
These thoughts make me worry about my kids. I would give them everything they need to be happy successful adults if I just knew how. Or maybe in the giving, I am causing harm. Maybe I need to let them run free without direction and let will be the guide. The possibilities are dizzying and the options endless.
So I plot and plunder as best as I can. I sometimes dole advice and others hold my tongue. I try to be an example of honesty, and hard work, and integrity. I fail from time to time. Or maybe often.
I woke up this Sunday morning. Like every Sunday morning. Before everyone else. In order to be a good physician and father. Driving the same roads, I had the same thoughts. I returned home to find that my son had crawled out of bed an hour early, slipped his clothes on, and was shoveling the neighbors snow. Apparently he also had work to do.
And time passes, memories of dad fade, and my children grow forming their own pathways.
They connect the lines between father and child.
Child and father.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 4:48 PM
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Then something magical happened. Exasperated, my parents took me to a biofeedback specialist who taught self meditation. And my life was transformed.
I won't say that my headaches went away completely. They didn't. But practicing regular meditation instilled in me a confidence and a calm that revolutionized my life. At the age of ten, I learned to manage stress, physical discomfort, and visualize the place I wanted to inhabit in the world. It helped center me.
Although the habit of daily meditation has fallen off over the years, I still return from time to time. Whether physical illness or mental, there is a safe harbor in times of need. There are few practices that have been so impactful on my life.
Although the habit of daily meditation has fallen off over the years, I still return from time to time. Whether physical illness or mental, there is a safe harbor in times of need. There are few practices that have been so impactful on my life.
The last year, for many reasons, has been hard. I have found myself pulled in too many directions. And my centeredness has skewed. My balance faltered.
I have been thinking a lot about this balance. As a child, it was built on meditation and thoughtfulness. As an adult, I now realize what has been missing in the last year.
My daily routine of putting thoughts into words had recently become too overwhelming. My days were so disjointed that I had neither the emotional energy nor the physical time to place fingers to keyboard.
Because writing, as life, is excruciating. Filled with psychic pitfalls, it is awkward at best and messy often. The words come out disjointed and backwards, and rarely reflect the intangible emotion that circulates amongst the fussy neurons in my brain.
I am rarely satisfied with a piece, even after all the edits have been made. Imperfection pervades my writing, my soul.
Yet somehow this imperfection provides that thing. That thing which is missing most.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 10:47 AM
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Mathew preferred isolation. From humans that is. But he was far from alone. He spent his days in constant motion among the animals, and nights still, under the moonlight beside them. In this way he past many youthful decades. A quiet, tranquil life, but not one lacking turmoil.
For Mathew grew to love these animals. And in so doing, he was forced to master a much broader skill set than just moving to to fro. Sheep got sick, got stuck, or became prey. So he devoured books on parasitology, mastered the art of disentanglement, and learned to scan the horizon with the eyes of the hunter.
And death came. From time to time. Despite his best intentions. The fox was too wily or the dehydration too severe. Panic could also be an issue. Mathew knew profoundly that the axiom scared to death could take on a more literal meaning.
At first these deaths were of little concern. Natural. Mathew, however, found that as his love for the animals grew, the impact became more sobering. He worried incessantly about plausible dangers. He scanned the horizon for predators, he sniffed the air for hazard. His anxiety grew each time he passed the great cliffs at the Northern most border of the pasture lands.
The cliffs were steep, unforgiving, and unavoidable. There was no other way to advance through the Northern rim of the territory, and move such a large group of animals to the South. Mathew approached this part of the journey carefully. He talked to the sheep. Cooing quietly as if the steadiness of his voice could paralyze the musculature of thousands of legs.
He had seen it happen. Once. Twice. Ten times. A poor ram would take off in the wrong direction. If Mathew wasn't fast enough, he could lose a hundred head as they followed to their doom. He almost always lost one. If he was on his game, he could mitigate the death spiral by stopping the rest from their morbid march.
As the years passed, he felt these losses more profoundly. Mathew remembered the distinctive faces, the names. His fear would bubble to the surface days before reaching the horrid place. Although he couldn't identify it, what he dreaded most was the guilt.
Mathew had blood on his hands. If he had only been better. Faster. He might be able to prevent such catastrophe. He wandered many lonely evenings with feelings of regret dancing through his psyche and laying waste to his previously held joy.
It ended, one night, on the eve of his fiftieth birthday. Mathew dreamt that herd was running towards the cliffs. Since they were lambs. A straight, genetic, preordained path. He yelled and screamed but all he produced was bleating.
So he ran with them. Moving some out of the way. Stopping others in their tracks. Saving those that he could, and mourning those that were lost.
He woke up from his dream certain that he could no longer hold himself responsible for nature.
We are born and we die.
If we are lucky, we help others make the journey more smoothly. We turn them from the most imminent, and palliate the most severe.
This knowledge gave Mathew comfort.
He could once again love being the shepherd.
Posted by Jordan Grumet at 4:46 PM