Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Call of the Sirens (Part VIII)

Our scene: A darkened patient room in a large urban teaching hospital. Not particularly nice but not grim, either. Think tan vinyl flooring and grey laminate counters, but cleanish. The time? Between 5 and 6 am. There is a human-shaped lump on the bed under the beige hospital bed spread, breathing rhythmically in a narcotic-induced sleep. A lone figure in pea-green scrubs and short medical student white coat, pockets bulging with assorted paraphernalia, stethoscope draped 'round the neck, silently creeps in, making no sound, holding her breath. In one fluid movement, she pops one end of the stethoscope into her ears and snakes the other end under the covers and onto the patient's upper abdomen (the 'epigastrium', for those who enjoy such jargon). Holding it there for a brief 3 seconds, she then withdraws from whence she comes, out the doorway, to join the other identically attired members of her surgical team, 6 in all, 2 with short med student coats, 4 with long housestaff coats (2 interns, 1 junior resident, 1 chief resident). In terse whisper, the interloper imparts the following, "No complaints. Dressing intact. Breath sounds clear. Cardiac--regular rate and rhythm, no murmurs. Bowel sounds present." One of the members of the team quickly scribbles her words into the patient's chart. Another scribbles some orders and puts it with the rest of the team's charts on the rolling chart rack. On to the next room, where the performance is repeated with little-to-no variation.

Thus are pre-rounds on the surgical team.

Heaven on a scalpel.

  • Always round before the patient is awake and family members are present. Talking to patients and especially family, wastes time. The nurses can read your note and take care of all that touchy-feely bullshit.
  • Always have the lightest team member examine the patient, the better to creep in and out without waking anyone. (See above)
  • Placing the stethoscope in one place allows you to (theoretically) examine all 3 organ systems (lungs, heart, gut) without all that needless mucking about that internists are so fond of, placing their stethoscopes here and there around the torso.
  • All this stealth is vital for the team to have rounded on all the inpatients ahead of time in order to be in the operating room by 7 am sharp: gloved, gowned, scrubbed, surgical instruments in hand, attending pimping away. ("So. Dr Piffle. What is the order in which one encounters the vessels that supply the GI tract coming off the aorta, in descending order and is each anterior or posterior to their corresponding venous counterparts?" "Errrrrrrrrrrrrrr....")

Ah. The surgical rotation, where one learns the 4 cardinal universal rules of surgery:

  1. Trust no one.
  2. Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.
  3. The esophagus is not your friend.
  4. Don't fuck with the pancreas.

Contrast these with the 4 rules of internal medicine, as told to me by a rather cool attending:

  1. Medicine is not a science, it is an art based on science.
  2. There are at least 2 ways to do everything.
  3. Every patient is an n=1.
  4. If you're not having fun, something's wrong.

Taking #4 up there: see, the thing about surgery, is that it is fucking fun and really simple. Not the surgeries themselves, but the approach to medicine. You are congratulated for the shortness of your notes and your ability to turf (transfer the care of) any patient who is not in need of surgery right now, to a non-surgical service. You don't have to waste time on all this differential diagnosis stuff. Who the hell cares why Mrs Jones is demented, all you care about is if Mrs Jones is a surgical candidate. If not, turf her.

Turf her good.

(An aside-- that's one thing that reallyreally bugs me about all these medical shows. See, there are strongly delineated lines between medicine and surgery, especially in a teaching hospital. Surgeons operate and do the post-operative (including the surgical intensive care unit) care. They do not have anything to do with medical issues. They don't manage the insulin. They do manage the pain meds. The patient with some sort of unknown fever, unless there's an obvious surgical source, would never be admitted to a surgical service. The patient would be admitted to medicine, perhaps with a surgical consult as to whether or not surgery might be indicated, but NEVER to a surgical team. Also? There are distinct surgical sub-specialities. Don't mix general surgery with orthopedics, ob/gyn, ENT, urology. They do not generally cross specialities. A general surgeon won't be operating on a deviated nasal septum. Nor will that surgeon be fixing a heart or doing neurosurgery. And vice versa. Pediatric surgeons generally don't operate on adults and vice versa. Got it? Rigidly defined roles. There are exceptions but they don't practice in large teaching hospitals.)

I also adored the surgeries, themselves. All that glamorous, sterile attire. The appropriate etiquette. How to scrub--start by cleaning under the fingernails with the enclosed nail pick, then lather up with the sponge side, then scrub 10 times each part of each finger, then the backs of the hands then the palms, rinse with the hands up, letting the water drip down the arms and not off the fingers. How to move through a sterile field. How to change positions with a colleague at the table-- the one closest to the head turns out of place, rotating back-to-back, and turning around again to face the table. How to stand--arms crossed, hands under armpits or hands held in front of the chest. Never below the waist. Below the waist is not part of the sterile field. Neither is the back nor above the shoulders. How to gown and glove oneself (although the surgical circulating nurses will often do the honors of assisting with the donning of gown and gloves) while maintaining sterility. One does NOT break the sterile field or one will find oneself in small pieces in several parking lot dumpsters.

How not to pee for hours and hours on end. Drinking fluids is to be carefully timed. It's OK to have some coffee up until, say 6 am, but not later, unless it's a short case. Some cases go 12-14 hours.

How to stand so as to try to diminish the pain in your legs, your back, your arms. How to ignore the hunger. The fatigue. How not to look weak. How to bond with your team.

That last one was key, I've no illusions. I adored surgery because of my team. The Chief Resident was an amazing woman who actually enjoyed teaching and let her students do lots. The Jr resident was a middle aged guy who had been a cardiothoracic surgeon in his Eastern European country before he immigrated and had to do all his training all over, again. So he was very happy to have the students do procedures. As he was so qualified, our team would sometimes have 2 suites going at once, with the Chief, an intern and a student in one room and the Jr resident with the other intern and student in the second room, the attending wandering about between the two and the lounge. What's not to love?

And so, why the hell didn't you become a surgeon, m'dear?

Ah. First, because I knew my personality, and while I loved it, I knew I didn't have the soul of a surgeon. I don't like crises. You can't get away from the crashing, life-and-death, what-the-hell-are-you-going-to-do-right-this-minute-Doctor-this-person-is-dying stuff, but it's so much more common in surgery. The tools I have as an internist are the drugs, the endotracheal tube and ventilator, the cardioversion paddles, the labs and scans and the consultants. Not quite in the same league as what the surgeon faces with someone who's bleeding out.

Also, most surgeons are assholes. It's true. I've known lots of wonderful surgeons, but most are not. I'm not fond of assholes.

And finally, Charles would have divorced me, I'm sure. The residency is brutal, lasting 7-10 years for general surgery, depending on the program. Call is usually every other night. The off call days run 14-16 hours. It's the speciality that brought us the phrase "The problem with only being on call every other night is that you miss 1/2 the good cases." That in itself was enough to bring me to my senses and to make me an internist, with my drugs and scans and long, involved differential diagnoses. And to care why the hell Mrs. Jones was demented, because there are a few rare things that can cause reversible dementia and the surgeons sure as hell weren't going to look for them.

After my glorious weeks as part of the general surgical team, I headed off to my surgical elective, anesthesiology. Good god, what a shitty speciality. All fiddly deadly drugs and monitoring. The gas passers live a life, as the saying goes, of endless boredom punctuated by bits of sheer terror. As students, we were paired up with an anesthesia resident (no interns; anesthesia residents generally do a medical internship) with an attending overseeing. One attending in particular, the Chief of Anesthesia, enjoyed the reputation of being a remarkable jerk and was, for some inexplicable reason, heavily into professional wrestling. As students, we had to call the surgical patients we were to anesthetize the next day, the evening before, and go through all the questions they'd already been asked by the residents. The same EXACT questions. Which I thought was beyond bogus, especially, as we all know, I really don't like talking on the phone, especially cold calling strangers for no reason but to bother them on the night before their surgeries.

So I made it a rule not to call them.

Which, as luck would have it, came back to bite me in the ass the last day of the rotation, the biter being the dreaded professional-wrestling-besotted jerk attending. He asked me something that I would have known, had I called the patient (nothing vital to their care, don't worry, just something beside the issue). I said that I didn't know. He asked "Why not", bushy eyebrows descended to an alarming level. I said, "Because I didn't call." Seeming to swell to the size of a large grizzly bear, he thundered, "Why the hell not?" "Because I'm worthless and weak," I said matter-of-factly, looking him in the eye. I was exhausted and, I suspect, not averse to goading him into killing me and relieving me of my misery.

And then he laughed. And laughed and laughed and left for his standing date to watch Portland Wrestling. And he passed me with an acceptable grade.

Always tell the truth, dearest darlings, no matter what. You're likely to be caught in a lie at some point, and who knows, you might provide comic relief to someone. Plus, the truth is always simpler. Like surgery.

So that's how things ended with Diana and surgery, except I still get to wield the scalpel and suture from time to time in the office, with small things. And I still feel a bit whistful as I don the sterile gloves and ask my nurse to pass me the #11 blade.

But I make it a point to always say "please" and "thank you", just so no one thinks I'm a jerk.

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Blogger CarpeDM said...

Wait. So what you're telling me is that stuff that happens on Grey's Anatomy isn't actually truthful? I'm a little disappointed but was wondering why everyone seemed to be an expert on everything medicine related.

I find your tale of why you chose the field you did fascinating. And think yet again, in awe, that you are one of the coolest people I know.

4:16 PM  
Blogger JoeinVegas said...

Oh, Doctor, Doctor, gimme the news - thanks for the postings and please tell us some more stories.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous stepping over the junk said...

I love reading this and knowing you were raised as a CSer. Heh heh. (cackle)

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Reid Ferriss said...

You make it sound a lot like why I went into teaching. But I actually decided that the classroom was where the big money was. I was sorta right.

Again, this is really wonderful. I so enjoy your recanting of your life post dad.

The Ole RF-er

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father in law was a general surgeon... now I miss him.

-Teri (who is way to lazy to log in and leave a proper comment)

12:10 AM  
Blogger Rozanne said...

Riveting and highly entertaining. I love your med school memoirs.

I have one question. How can it be that the armpits (the stinky B.O.-permeated armpits) are considered part of the sterile field. That just seems wrong!

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Honey --
Once again I LUV your "call to Sirens" series and am amazed at the details you remember. (Or do you take poetic license and just make this shit up??).
xo, Lisa

1:23 AM  
Blogger Dumdad said...

Fascinating, as usual. A whole different world for me to gaze into.

And you prove one thing at the end: laughter is the best medicine.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

Everybody-- Thanks for all the comments. I've been having fun writing it.

Dana- No. Grey's Anatomy has large mouthfuls of inaccuracies. And, yes, I've watched the first 2 seasons. Don't know if I can stomach anymore. Having the surgical characters do medicine and ob/gyn is enough to make me tear large hunks of hair from my head.

Rozanne- You'd think so, but remember that you're covered neck to knees (or lower if you're under 6 foot by thick, sterile, cotton gown. The armpits are quite sterile and safe for hands

Lisa- (Hi honey!) You'd think I'd remember more of the fiddly stuff for the damn boards, wouldn't you. Nope. All true, as you well know, having gone through your own version.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

This is so VERY interesting! After reading the universal rules of surgery I can understand why they are assholes. Certainly sounds like they would be the type of people who would have difficulty forming relationships. And when I read the rules for internal medicine, I thought they fit you perfectly, especially #3. I'll bet Grey's does put a bee in your bonnet! I'm looking forward to this season anyhow just for the steamy romances.

12:53 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Oh good god. That was, quite possibly, the bleakest month and a half of my existence. Never mind that it was February in New York. I do believe surgery was to me what OB/GYN was to you, and vice versa.

Lay low, keep your mouth shut, and occasionally dazzle.

P.S. Can you tell I am actively NOT studying for the boards?

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some reason Don't fuck with the pancreas. cracked me up for a good 5 minutes.

Also. You'll understand if I saw the word anesthesia and quickly scrolled down further, yes?? :P

4:13 AM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

It must have been difficult to choose a specialty when so much is open to you but it sure sounds as if you chose wisely for your personality and lifestyle.
I had so many students, interns etc. ask me the same questions when I was in the hospital at age 13, after having been in a diabetic coma for about 5 days! They'd never believe me when I told them how much I was drinking!!! My B.S. was over 1000 and they couldn't even measure it!
After all my experience with hospitals and surgeries, I have to say that I have always had excellent treatment and have faith in the doctors and nurses. (Except for the initial lack of a correct diagnosis where no urine or blood tests were taken!!)

(Gearing up and sort of ready to face my angiogram next Thurs. Got a lot of peace on my trip to the cabins.)

10:47 PM  
Blogger moegirl said...

Excellent! Love these stories. I think you chose well. I do believe medicine to be an art based on science.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Jocelyn said...

I can't believe I never before thought about the intricacies of being a surgeon--the standing, the peeing, etc.

Damn, I'm glad it wasn't your calling. Tractor injuries, though? Now that's a mackdaddy job.

11:48 PM  
Blogger Janelle said...

oh you are so so totally impressive diana. you just ARE. i mean you know that doctors and dentists are Right Up There With All The Other People I Think Are The Most Incredible Humans On The Planet, hey? you're SO CLEVER and bloody funny man! keep goin!!!! XXX janelle

2:22 PM  
Blogger Janelle said...

oh god AND PILOTS! how could i forget?? x janelle

2:23 PM  
Blogger Ibrahim said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:10 AM  
Blogger Ibrahim said...

I have been hospitalised on a couple of occasions. Once I was battling with death. Your post brought vivid memories for me!!

This is Ibrahim from Israeli Uncensored News

1:13 AM  

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