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Recap: 3rd Annual BCM Live

I’m grateful to BCM for many things. For accepting me into their medical school and internal medicine residency. For allowing me to meet my now-fiancee Shira Sachs at a residency mixer at OKRA charity bar. For teaching me how to be a doctor. But something that I’m particularly grateful for was the opportunity to start a unique internal medicine tradition – BCM Live.

BCM Live is a culture and arts show produced by and for internal medicine faculty and residents, and this year was our strongest yet. We had 10 unique acts, featuring music from Rachmaninoff to Radiohead, original spoken word poetry, and reflections on a life in medicine.  Here is my recap of the acts:

Elizabeth Godfrey and Ray Wang, two BCM medical students, kicked off the night with a jazzed out viola-piano cover of Sinatra’s “Fly With Me.” They both are part of an organization, AMP, that plays live music for patients during their hospital stays.

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Next was Dr. Wayne Shandera, an attending at Ben Taub General Hospital, who dazzled the crowd with romantic and neo-romantic piano masterpieces: Nocturne in C minor, by Frederic Chopin, and Prelude in B minor, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. There’s an intensity, a nobility even, in hearing a seasoned attending play piano at a high level. It was profoundly moving.

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Faiz Jiwani urged the crowd to, in the words of Anis Mojgani, “Shake the Dust.” It was a riveting performance: visceral, impassioned, yearning, and inspiring. My favorite quote from that piece:

“Do not let one moment go by that doesn’t remind you that your heart, it beats 900 times every single day / And that there are enough gallons of blood to make everyone of you oceans / Do not settle for letting these waves settle / And for the dust to collect in your veins.”

He followed it by an equally impressive original spoken word composition, On Tolerance. He mused on the common origins of words like Shalom and Salaam, and how compassion is a common value across cultures.

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Next was the legendary Dr. Daniel Musher, archon of BCM, brilliant physician, and humanitarian. In addition being a world renowned ID expert, he is a fantastic violin player. He, his son Dr. Ben Musher (also an incredible doctor), and Dr. Elaine Chang played the Andante from the Kegelstatt Trio by Mozart. It was followed by a surprise encore Mozart string quartet featuring Ben Musher’s kids Talia on violin and Avi on cello.

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They were followed by Alokananda Ghosh, Hayden Byrd, and Aaron Hocher, who did a sweet vocals / saxophone / violin cover of Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” It featured, among other things, Alokananda hitting the notorious descending major 7th from that song in tune, which was very impressive.

Dr. Michelle Schmidt, who attends at Ben Taub as well, delivered a powerful and deeply human oratory about the struggle against time in her original story “Slay the Dragon.” She detailed the grinding, unrelenting, and often hilarious struggle of practicing modern academic medicine. She described holding together a family, caring for loved ones, and realizing that you are progressing through life faster than you realize:

Don’t blink. You don’t get a mulligan. Really, I mean it, don’t blink. Don’t get worked up about stuff that doesn’t matter. 87 year old grandpa was 28 years old 10 minutes ago and life happened in the mean time.  Life is still happening. Listen.

Rani Bhatia told the powerful story of one of her patients, a 20 year old woman with congenital HIV, who she cared for in the MICU. The patient died exactly one year ago, from a disease that she was given by her mother at birth. After reading a personal reflection on the patient, she sang “Angel,” by Sarah McLachlin, as a tribute to her. It was one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever been a part of. We spend a lot of time as doctors discussing the medical aspects of a patients life and death in great detail. We spend almost no time on the psychological consequences that caregivers face when treating patients who suffer so unfairly. Rani reminded us that although her patient died too young, there was release and relief in her passing from a lifetime of unendurable pain. There wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium.

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Holland Kaplan, one of the organizers of the event, was next. She read a reflection about a patient who just won’t go along with medical advice despite the doctor’s pleading.

“Doc,” the patient said, “I’d rather have one good day than twenty bad days.”

He was nearing the end of his life, and was miserable. So despite strict orders for diuresis and limiting fluid intake, she recalls handing him a bottle of water and watching him smile broadly after finishing it.  In the end, she learned, sometimes the best treatment for heart failure really is a glass of water.

I went next. I wrote a song about the night float experience at Baylor College of Medicine, and how it changes you as a person:

Our closing act was epic – an entirely PGY-1 pop/rock cover band featuring Jefferson Triozzi, Michael Hughes, Dorothy Pei, Sam Hatfield, and Ben Moss. Honestly, what is better than a piano-trumpet-sax-drums-guitar-banjo jam band? Nothing. Nothing is better. They rocked out with hits by Madonna, Johnny Cash, and Men at Work. It was pure ‘tude, pure passion, and pure, bodacious first year swag.

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So that’s the recap! Thank you, BCM, for the support in making this event happen. I’ve had a blast organizing it these past three years. If last night was any indication, the future is bright. Jefferson Triozzi, my other co-conspirator in pulling this event off, said it best:

I have so many ideas for next year!

CDC Additional Word Ban Recommendations

The Center for Disease Control’s 2017 budget document has finally been released, and it has raised a few eyebrows. For one of the first times in American history, we have bans on words that the scientists and doctors who keep our nation healthy can use. They can’t use the words “diversity,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “science-based” and “evidence-based.”

Fear not! The Trump administration has kindly provided alternative phrases that can be used in lieu of “evidence-based.” Per the memo,

An analyst might say, “The CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” a source said.

But why stop at banning words like “evidence” and “science?” The CDC makes medical recommendations, after all, and doctors will still be allowed to use whatever heretical terms they like! I’ll be submitting a list shortly to the CDC’s budget office highlighting additional words that may be tainting our public medical discourse with reason or rationality. Here some of my suggestions:

 

Antibiotics

Reason to Ban: Literally translates to “against life.” What kind of pro-choice agenda are we covertly supporting by using these death-dealing agents?

Replacement Suggestions:

-God Juice

-Faith Water

-Happiness Potion

 

Mortality

Reason to Ban: Is death final? Who knows? According to “science,” probably. But not according to multiple holy scriptures. The word is biased against nearly every major religion which claims an afterlife.

Replacement Suggestions:

-Transcendence

-Rebirth

-Crossing Over

 

Sexually Transmitted Infection

Reason to Ban: Talk about a contradiction in terms. Young, unmarried people are at increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections, but unmarried people shouldn’t be having sex! The very phrase encourages our youth to adopt the libidinous sexual mores of a depraved society. Ban it!

Replacement Suggestions:

-“The itchies”

-Righteous Punishment

-[not actually a word, just a slow, solemn shaking of the head ‘no’]

 

Vaccine

Reason to Ban: Yes, the rates of illnesses prevented by vaccines have plummeted over the past 100 years. But you know what’s risen? Popular sentiment against vaccines. Democracy functions best when all voices are given equal weight, no matter how inane or conspiratorial they may be. It’s simply too hot-button of an issue right now to continue to be able to use this controversial word.

Replacement Suggestions:

-Autism generator

-Secret government sterilization and control program

-Poison

 

Mental Illness

Reason to Ban: I’m surprised we didn’t submit this one on the first ban list. There is no such thing as mental illness, only people who are unhappy. Your brain is the most complicated system ever created, but surely nothing can ever go wrong with the delicate balance of neurotransmitters and billions of neurons in your head. People raving on the street aren’t schizophrenic, they’re just hungry.

Replacement Suggestions:

-Demonic possession

-Debbie Downer

-Moody

 

Hospital

Reason to Ban: In academia, there’s the ivory tower. It’s removed from society, and full of liberals and communists. Well, hospitals are like healthcare’s ivory towers. Have you seen how many MDs they can cram into those buildings? There’s no telling what crazy schemes to save lives and improve community health is occurring at these nefarious buildings. We need a new name that reflects the misery of getting sick, stripped of left-wing pomp and frill.

Replacement Suggestions:

-Ailment Abode

-Suffering Citadel

-Hemorrhage Hermitage

 

Ban

Reason to Ban: Let’s face it – banning has a very negative connotation. Dictators and authoritarians throughout history have banned words, ideas, religions, you name it. We don’t want that kind of negative PR. We need something softer, something that will appeal to the kids.

Replacement Suggestions:

-Words with no chill

-Negative dabs phrases

-Government censorhip

What the Beep?

If you’re thinking about a career in medicine, there’s a piece of technology you’ll come to know intimately. It’s small and sleek, with excellent battery life and remarkable durability. It’s not an iPhone, it’s not a Pixel. It’s a Beeper. You will come to know, and to respect, this tiny black rectangular prism. It will govern your life. You will be at it’s mercy, yes, but it also offers you a chance at salvation. Come with me on a journey of exploration as we deconstruct the pager, and find out what makes it beep.

 

Physical Appearance

You’ve seen it before, and don’t tell me you’re not impressed. Maybe on a TV show, maybe you’ve actually had the misfortune of being in a hospital yourself. Some young gun, blond hair flowing, sprints down a medical corridor. His scrubs hug the curves of his body, outlining a strong set of pectoral muscles. His stethoscope dangles from his neck. Affixed to his waist, you see not one, and not even two, but three beepers. Three god damn beepers. “Who is this guy?” you wonder. “And why is he so powerful?” Three beepers. The presence of such a multitude of beepers indicates gravitas, importance. This man is needed. People depend on him. Maybe he has them with him at all times, answering them at any time of day, during a date even, or a party. Maybe he has a fourth that is temporarily in the shop. You just don’t know! But you do know that this guy isn’t fucking around. He’s a guy with expertise. He’s a guy with answers.

 

Technological Aspects

The graphical interface of a beeper is deeply unintuitive. There are usually two to three buttons along with a basic LCD display. The functionality of the buttons is not fixed but arbitrary, changing with the display screen. You’ll have to master these three buttons. They must be pressed in precise sequence, or you’ll end up in an endless loop of button pressing leading nowhere. Even the most simple ‘read my page’ operation takes a precise combination of presses so arcane it would challenge the most ambitious Dance Dance Revolution expert. Additionally, there is a row of symbols on the bottom of the LCD screen that comprise the ‘menu’ section of the phone. These symbols – a wavy set of lines, a microphone, a small child, a house, a large X, a sheet of paper – are so unknown, so wildly obtuse of meaning, that there are teams of NIH scientists and language experts who have the sole task of decoding these strange characters. You should never interact with these symbols, but be aware that the device you carry contains knowledge you could never possibly understand.

 

Tone

There are sounds in this world that bring people joy. The jingle of sleigh bells. The crackle of a roaring fire. The pitter patter of rain. Then there are the sounds that beepers make. It is an unholy aural torment, emanating from an infernal maw. The sound begins without warning. There is no gradual crescendo or buildup. It just appears in consciousness at a full 10/10. It is droning, incessant, deathly. It is the sound secret prison camps might play to break people. The sound of a robot screaming in anguish. It is a sound scientifically designed to cut to the core of your being, eradicating all pleasure and happiness. Your current train of thought is decimated by the 8 bit screech. It replaces whatever you were thinking of with a single, unending thought: make it stop. The sound is shrill, dense, and unyielding. The AI uprising prophesized Elon Musk could begin with these devices, if properly integrated with one another. A continuous, unending chorus of shrill beeps would probably be enough to annihilate most organic life on earth. But it may even be too powerful for AI. If every beeper in the world went off simultaneously, our sun would explode.

 

Audio-Limbic Neural Response

The chain of feelings, thoughts, and physical actions brought on by the tone of a pager is complex, and requires deep analysis. Here is my best attempt to map this response in a coherent flowchart.

  1. Beeper goes off.
  2. Instant panic. What is producing that sound?
  3. Sadness. The beeper is producing that sound.
  4. Despair. Why am I getting paged? Whatever they want, this means more work for me.
  5. Desperation. Where the hell is the beeper? You rifle through your white coat, check your three beepers individually, stand up suddenly, check under your seat, grab your neghbor’s beeper, hand it back to them because why are you grabbing their beeper??, double check your beepers, check your pockets again. Finally, silence as your neighbor turns their beeper off.
  6. Ecstasy. It was your neighbor’s beeper! Your instincts were right!
  7. Relief. Thank the sweet, merciful lord it’s not my beeper.
  8. Freedom. My time is my own. I can do absolutely whatever I want – I don’t have to return a page! I’m the master of my destiny!
  9. Equanimity. OK, OK. I still do have a beeper. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go off again. Even if it does, I’ll be ready. It’s fine. I’m getting paid to do this job, and this is one aspect. Returning pages. No problem. I can –
  10. Beeper goes off. Return to step 2.

 

Philosophical Implications

The underlying philosophy of a beeper is deeply logically flawed. Someone wants to get in touch with you. So what do they do? They send you their number, and then you have to call them. This makes absolutely no sense. The onus of communication should be on the person who wants to communicate. When your house is on fire, you don’t text the firefighter your number and hope they call you back. If you have to get in touch with someone, there should be a way in 2017 to have a one-time initiation of conversation without the bizarre back and forth. Paging is the equivalent of calling someone, then as soon as they pick up, shouting “call me back!” and hanging up. It’s the equivalent of tapping someone on the shoulder, then turning around as if you didn’t do it, and then acting all surprised when they look at you like you need your head examined.

 

Spiritual Significance

The medical beeper is a sort of modern oracle. On admitting days, the beeper is the central hub of activity in the team room. If a few hours pass without a page, this usually prompts a team member to make some seemingly benign statement like “been a few hours since we’ve been paged — things are looking good!” This is uniformly met with widespread condemnation from the more senior members of the team. You don’t tempt the fates like that. You just don’t. The will of the pager is inscrutable, mysterious, unknowable. You don’t make comments about how few pages you’ve gotten until after a shift is over, your destiny for that day decided. It’s not superstition; there is an underlying ethic regarding your relationship with the pager. The pager goes off because, on some deep level, you wanted to be paged. Only by deeply accepting this fact can you understand why senior members of the team never make such proclamations. Falsely declaring that they can know or understand the patterns of when the pager goes off is heretical and mocking of a larger, unknowable force. The pager is the conduit, the messenger. The pager will go off when it desires, and we will bend and sway our lives to the tune of these ancient devices until we transcend these mortal bodies. Or, at the very least, until our shift has ended.

Hospitals, Hurricanes, and Heroes

My latest piece for the Houston Chronicle, about the unbelievable acts of heroism that I saw while on call during Hurricane Harvey. Can’t thank St. Luke’s Hospital enough for keeping things organized and running despite biblical flooding.

Also, the coverage from the Chronicle throughout all of Hurricane Harvey has been fantastic, and I highly suggest checking out the rest of the Gray Matters blog about local stories of bravery and courage in the face of disaster.

Hospital Sushi and the Five Stages of Grief

 

Prologue

It’s 1:30 PM on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. You’re on call, and hungry, and having not had the forethought to make food ahead of time, you decide you’ll take your chances and see what the hospital cafeteria has to offer. You bustle your way past screaming children, harried caregivers, and distracted hospital staff with their heads buried in smartphones, following signs for the fork and knife.

Finally, you arrive. After considering the stack of soaking wet trays to your left, you decide to forego this piece of gastronomical technology. You’ll rough it.

The room before you does little to whet your appetite. A smell of fatty decay and sweet sepsis wafts through the cafeteria. It is a hospital, after all. Although ostensibly well lit, the room is actually somewhat dark. The fluorescent lights tasked with illuminating the room emit weak, yellowish, lazy blobs of haze that seem to quit about a foot away from the bulb. But you’re hungry, and light or no light, you’ll have to find something to nourish you.

Suddenly, you see it. A large wall-based refrigerated display case. In it are various “healthy” pre-wrapped foods bathed in crisp white lights. This is the land of salads and yogurts. Of apples and ham sandwiches. Of — could it be? — yes — sushi. Hospital sushi.

I. Denial

“No, no. This can’t be right. There can’t be sushi here,” you think. “This is a hospital. It is a building filled with people that die from horrible bacterial infections. Bacteria like Salmonella and E coli. Resistant super-bacteria like methacillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin-resistent Enterococcus, and multi-drug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Why would anyone in their right minds put raw fish in a place like this?”

You instinctively walk away from the refrigerated display case. “No, no” you keep muttering to yourself. “It can’t be.” Your legs carry you away faster than you expect. You wind up in front of the American Classics section of the lunch line. “Finally,” you think, “some sanity and order. I’m getting pizza.”

II. Anger

You inspect the pizza more closely as it rotates in a glass display case that was last cleaned by an industrial revolution era British chimney sweep. The cheese drips off in uneven glops. The crust comprises fully half of the surface area of the pizza. You see a solitary piece of pepperoni dangling from the edge of one of the slices, wishing it’s life away as it stares into the abyss. You feel solidarity with the pepperoni. Your heart sinks.

Your gaze turns down the aisle, to see what other American Classics might entice you. It’s slim pickings. There are several unattended serving stations with steel serving trays of water simmering gently. A pile of chicken wings catches your eye, but so does the ocean of oil that it is currently buoyed in. How difficult would it be to get actual food in this place, you wonder, half-aloud.

Your phone vibrates. You pick it up. It’s a facebook notification. Your friend Taylor just posted a picture of a bowl of ramen, two tall glasses of beer, and an inviting, sun-lit outdoor restaurant. “I love saturdays!” she exclaims virtually. Your blood pressure begins to rise, and you hear the faint rumble of a train engine. You never considered how wise Emperor Palpatine was when he mentored Anakin in the Star Wars Prequels. You feel the hate flowing through you.

III. Bargaining

You turn back to the sushi. Sushi, a delicate culinary art. A masterpiece of local cuisine. The pride of a nation. The height of sophisticated, savory splendor. “It’s trapped,” you think to yourself. You begin to feel sympathy for the sushi. After all, it didn’t decide to reside in this grotesque carnival of inedible calories. It was brought, against its will, to this horrible place.

“Maybe,” you think, “if I purchase it, I will send a message to the establishment. I’ll make a statement that, while I agree in principle with what this food stands for, it makes absolutely no sense to serve raw fish in a hospital full of bacteria. I support the concept of this type of food. If I buy it, I’m laying the groundwork for change.”

You pick up the tray of sushi. Salmon avocado. It’s $8.99. The pizza was $2.99, but you just can’t bring yourself to go back. Some things can never be unseen. You desperately hope that the pepperoni is still hanging in there, still fighting, but you can’t bring yourself to look. You can’t imagine what that little pepperoni has been through.

IV. Depression

You walk to the check out counter. “Just the sushi?” the clerk asks. “Yes,” you say, “I would like to have this raw fish, please.” Behind you stands a man with an IV pole. His foot is heavily bandaged. The smell emanating from the bandages would have been fairly effective as a nerve gas in the first World War. Your mood sinks.

You walk to an empty table, and open the sushi tray. You remove the Green Plastic Plant-Like Divider™ that separates the sushi from the soy sauce. You open the soy sauce, but in doing so squirt some on to your (formerly) white coat. Another casualty. You unsheath your chop sticks. You breathe deeply, but are instantly reminded by your olfactory bulb that you are in a building where people consistently die.

V. Acceptance

Chopsticks quivering, you reach down to pick up the first piece. You can see it fully in the light now, and you note that there is actually more salmon there than you first thought. You muse briefly on how you’ve been to sushi places before that were more stingy with their fish rationing.

The first bite. You chew apprehensively. You swallow. Slowly, very slowly, you realize that you are enjoying it. The salt interacts with the raw fish beautifully, unlocking its flavor. You are dumbfounded when you realize you’ve had worse sushi than this before. You go in for the second piece, then the third. A helpful pile of ginger allows you to reset your palate, making the fourth piece seem like the first all over again.

You finish your sushi. The ginger and wasabi work wonders in blocking your nose’s receptive capabilities. Suddenly, a thought begins to blossom in you. Bigger and bigger it grows. It enters your conscience with force and you stand suddenly, asking yourself —  Am I full? 

You walk back to the display case. There sits another one. Salmon Avocado. You pick it up. It’s still $8.99. You turn it back and forth, examining its contents through the clear plastic. You decide you’re mostly full, and put it down. You walk away from the cafeteria, the salmon flavor still dancing over your taste buds. I am content, you think. I am full.

Exciting Developments

Hello everyone!

I’m very excited to announce that my writing will now be featured regularly in the Houston Chronicle! I’ll be writing a column called On Call in the local section for Gray Matters, an ‘Intellectual Life in Houston’ blog. My first article just went live today, about a son coming to terms with the impending loss of his father:

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/Mr-H-was-dying-His-son-couldn-t-stand-it-11230874.php

Since my writing for the Chronicle will mostly focus on patient stories, I will try to to use the blog more for humorous pieces. I could also explore writing outside of purely medicine. If you have any suggestions about what topics you’d want to see, please comment or get in touch with me!

Thanks everyone!

-Ben

Memories of Grace

I think it’s fair to say a small part of all of us died along with Grace McDermott. Grace was a beautiful, talented PhD student studying in Ireland who tragically passed away in a house fire this past week. She was many things – musician, blogger, extrovert, women’s rights activist – but she was also my first girlfriend. I’m still in shock.

It’s hard to comprehend something like this. The mind shudders and reels, seeking to find meaning but failing. Something went wrong in the universe. I first heard on Tuesday when a member of the youth orchestra we both played in, The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York, messaged us the horrifying news. I spent that day in a daze, breaking down that evening, crying for hours.

Grace and I met on a MYO summer musical tour of China. She was a singer, I was a horn player. She confidently walked up to me after the first rehearsal, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said “Hey! I’m Grace. I like your sandals.” As an incredibly awkward high school junior with the romancing skills of a calculator, this felt something like winning the lottery. Not quite believing my luck, I somehow managed a reply, and in a few weeks we were dating.

We dated for about a year, breaking up as I went off to college. We didn’t stay close, but though I hadn’t spoken to her in almost 10 years, I enjoyed every time she popped up on my facebook feed. She’d like a post of mine, I’d like one of hers. We’d comment on each others blog. She was thriving, the world slowly but surely becoming enchanted with her passion and wit.

The memories I have of Grace are fleeting, but vivid. Around and around they swirl now, unattached to any living person. Half of a memory. I remember the way she would run and jump into my arms when she saw me. The way she would cock her head slightly when she was about to sing the first note of her aria. The way you could tell whether or not she was really laughing by an infectious, cackling glee that seemed to fully infuse itself in her body. The way she would designate something as enjoyable: “It’s – ,” followed by a dramatic pause, then, “sooooo goood.”

Grace taught me true, unbridled love. She had a clear vision of what she wanted, and she pursued it. This became immediately apparent on the plane ride from Detroit to Beijing. I had known Grace for about a week at this point, and I again couldn’t believe my luck when I realized that Grace was sitting directly next to me on the flight. We watched movies, listened to each others music, and talked about whatever it is that 16 and 17 year olds talk about. She eventually fell asleep on my shoulder. I remember looking around the airplane, surrounded by snoring American and Chinese travelers at 4:00 AM, thinking I don’t think it gets much better than this. I later found out that Grace had engaged in a shadow campaign to figure out what seat I was on and switch seats so she could be next to me without me knowing. You can’t not fall in love with someone like that. You just can’t.

When tragedy strikes, it removes a filter I live with on a day to day basis. Gone is the delusional haze of banality that normally fogs my thinking. Oh yeahI remember. Life is fucking arbitrary and unfair. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, and I just can’t handle the two-faced nature of reality: potently meaningful, crushingly insignificant. But even with the filter gone, I still couldn’t understand what had happened. The only thing that made sense was a mantra from my clinic attending which I kept repeating over and over in my head: young people shouldn’t die.

The international outpouring of grief, shock, affection, and love for Grace wasn’t by accident. She had qualities that people recognized instantly as genuine. She was honest and engaging. She was funny and intelligent. She did what she felt was right. She lived with intensity.

In whatever feeble capacity I have to fight against the injustice and randomness of it all, I want to honor what Grace stood for by trying to be more like her. She taught me how to love someone. She focused on the things that mattered. She was that rare being that inspired those around her, and made things better.

Goodbye Grace, and thank you for changing my life.

The Biker

A lone figure stood at the entrance to Bed 14, Intensive Care Unit 2, Floor 15 North. Though it was 2:30 AM, he stood at rapt attention. He looked out over the hallway, eyes scanning. He looked not unlike a gargoyle brooding over his castle, protecting it.

He looked unlike anyone I’d ever seen in an ICU. He was a slightly pudgy yet wholly muscular 5′ 10” or so, with a few days worth of stubble, a handlebar moustache, and a tight buzz cut. He looked to be in his early forties. He wore a thick black leather jacket emblazoned with a large “ORIENT: HIGH PERFORMANCE” patch on the back in bright yellow. From his jacket elbows dangled two large elbow guards. In one arm, he held a large white motorcycle helmet with a black visor. Around him, various family members streamed in and out of the room.

The man lying in Bed 14 had arrived to the unit several hours earlier in respiratory distress. We started him on BiPAP, an oxygen mask that pushes air into your lungs during inspiration and keeps them open during expiration. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s effective. After only a few minutes he was breathing more easily. He couldn’t talk that well after we started BiPAP, so I had to ask his sister for the story. The man with the motorcycle helmet stood outside of the room, listening.

The story was devastating. I knew before I asked. Families that have battled it out with chronic diseases over long periods of time have a hardened, steely look to them. Not this family. Their eyes were too wide, too disbelieving. Not good.

His sister told me that he had noticed a worsening cough over the past three months. Some fatigue, some shortness of breath. Most damningly, he’d lost 30 pounds since he noticed the cough. Then he started coughing up blood, and came to the ER. That was five days ago. The CT scan of his chest and abdomen was almost a formality. He had widespread, incurable cancer. It had exploded across his lungs, liver, spleen, bones, and brain in a few short months. The only treatment options available started with the word “palliative.”

The patient and his family knew this already. But now they were in the ICU, where sick patients die. I explained that intubation was the next step after BiPAP if he failed to improve. I explained that multiple organ systems were failing simultaneously due to the high tumor burden: his kidneys were turning off, his blood was clotting, his heart and liver were showing signs of injury. After talking with the family some more, I left the room.

An hour or so passed before I made my way back to bed 14. But before I could enter the room, the man with the motorcycle helmet stopped me in the hallway. He looked into my eyes with an intensity best measured in horsepower.

“Do you have a brother?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied. “He’s my best friend.”

He nodded, then turned to look at his brother, weakened and dying. He seemed to be saying: so you know what I’m going through. A lump started forming in my throat. I wasn’t ready for how direct he was being with me. I have a brother. What if something happened to him?

“The fucker in that room saved my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were never that close. He was always ‘go, go, go,’ I was the opposite. He got good grades, pushed himself, started his own real estate business. I was a fuckup. Eventually I got my EMT-B, joined the army as a medic. I was deployed for 9 months in Afghanistan. Fucked me up. Thought about suicide a bunch of times. I don’t know why, but I called him. He talked me out of it. Told me to get help. I’m on meds now, see a shrink.”

He paused, and started inspecting his helmet. I could see our distorted faces in the reflective curvature of the visor. He turned to look at his brother, then looked at me again. “It’s hard for me to see him like this,” he said. I nodded in agreement.

I continued into the room. The man with the motorcycle helmet kept watch from the hallway.

My shift ended at 7 AM, and I went home. But the interaction stayed with me. I kept thinking I have a brother, I have a brother. I wondered what had happened between these two brothers to cause such distance. What was that phone call like? I have a brother. How would I react to a family member’s imminent death?

We ask a lot of questions as physicians, and we answer a lot of questions. But not usually about ourselves and our feelings. The man with the motorcycle helmet exposed something in me: I don’t know what watching a loved one die is like. He asked me to try to imagine his scenario, and I did, however briefly and incompletely. I felt fear, helplessness, despair.

But I also felt something else. I’d gained an understanding of the man in bed 14. He was the hero of a story I’d never read. In the end, he had accomplished something no doctor was able to do for him. He’d saved a life.

Running My First Code

“CODE BLUE, 7 SOUTH. CODE BLUE, 7 SOUTH.” I’m up and out of my call room bed before fully regaining consciousness from my light sleep. It’s 4 AM. I should feel ready: I’ve trained with simulations labs, mock codes, and test questions. I passed my CPR and ACLS courses. I’ve done chest compressions as an intern. But this is different. I’m the resident on call, and if I get there first, I’ll be running the Code. I’ve never run one before. I’m terrified. I’m not ready.

Code Blue is essentially a euphemism for being dead. While it technically means “medical emergency,” it has come to mean that someone in the hospital has a heart that has stopped beating. The outcome statistics are grim. Even with perfect CPR, in hospital cardiac arrests have a roughly 85% mortality. Those that somehow survive are often left with irreversible brain damage and lie in comas. Few ever leave the hospital. Death is greedy.

Still, we have to try. I run down the corridor towards the patient’s bed. My sneakers make little squeaks against the linoleum floor, echoing off the walls of the mostly quiet hospital. My mind is a zoo. The flooring makes this place sound like a gymnasium. How many minutes in between epinephrine injections again? I should run more, I’m already out of breath.  Think of causes, causes. The 5 H’s, the 4 T’s. What was the room number?

I burst into the room, out of breath. It is pure, primordial chaos. I’m hit with the sound first. Bed alarms, blood pressure alarms, and heart rate alarms blare insistently, a Greek Chorus to the unfolding drama. An unanswered, continuous string of questions hangs in the air like a heavy fog. “Can someone page anesthesia?” “Where’s the cards fellow?” “Do we need femoral access?” “Where’s the EKG?” “Chest X ray stat!” “Who spoke to the family?” “Is this guy DNR?” “Who has a hemoglobin?” “Is he on blood thinners?” “What’s his history?” I can hardly hear myself think. This must be what being in the cockpit of a nosediving plane is like. 

I take stock of the room. One nurse is on the bed, performing chest compressions. A second is trying to steady the man’s arm to place an IV, but is having a hard time. A third is struggling to hold an oxygen mask to the man’s face while squeezing an amboo bag. Pharmacists are rifling through a large red chest of medications. Someone is desperately clicking at a frozen computer in the corner of the room. A gaggle of nurses, aids, and respiratory therapists stand at the door.

The patient is staring straight at me. His eyes are glazed and unfocused. He’s an older white man with a shaggy beard and sunken temples. His skin is a uniform, mottled blue-grey. His head flops every second or so from the force of the compressions, and currently he’s turned to face the door, looking at whoever crosses the threshold.

I take a deep breath. “Is anyone running this code?”

There is only silence. Beautiful, terrifying silence. No one is standing at the foot of the bed, which is where the code leader would normally stand. I’m going to have to run it. It’s only a second or two, but the moment stretches and stretches. And seconds matter.

The brain is the most adaptable and responsive piece of biological engineering we know of. It responds in real time to the binary input of billions of neurons to create sight, sound, and sensation. It can accommodate elevation changes, pH changes, temperature changes, volume changes, infectious states, starvation, and fight-or-flight responses. But it has an insatiable demand for oxygen. There is no safe-mode, no low power state. Four minutes without oxygen destroys seventy-six years of life. Here we go.

“I’m Dr. Gold, I’m leading this code. You, keep time. You, continue compressions. Let’s hook up the pads. Draw up one milligram of epinephrine…”

The training kicks in hard.  Good hard chest compressions, with epinephrine every 2-5 minutes. Pulse checks every 2 minutes. Shock the heart if it’s ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation – a call that will be made by me. I hear a faint crinkling sound with every compression. Ribs breaking. Then a voice: “2 minutes, doctor.”

“Pulse check!” The compression stop. Hands immediately reach for the femoral and carotid arteries, straining to feel the reassuring rhythmic pulse of life. All eyes turn to the cardiac monitor. It’s hard to interpret while compressions are going, but now it’s clear. The heart’s electrical system normally conducts each beat with fanatical precision:

Now it is in disarray, starved from a lack of oxygen:

 

It’s V-Fib. Disorganized, random electrical discharge that is unable to produce heartbeats. “It’s V-fib.” I say it quietly, almost to myself. No one moves. “V-fib,” I say again louder. Still nothing. Why aren’t they moving? Oh, right. They’re waiting for me to say something. “Continue compressions. Charge the defibrillator. We’re going to shock.”

We shock. The patient’s body tenses suddenly and violently. It’s strange to see him move so much. Strange that our muscles run on electricity. Strange that to save someone you hook them up to an outlet. We’re more machine than we realize. To reset pacemaker: turn it off, turn it on, see if that helps.

We continue CPR. Anesthesiology comes and inserts a tube into his throat so we can breath for him. But it doesn’t matter. We never get another shockable rhythm after the first shock, just a flat line. Asystole.

More compressions. More epinephrine. Other meds, too: amiodarone, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate. We draw quick-resulting labs. We call cardiology for a bedside echocardiogram to look at the heart. It’s not moving at all. After 30 minutes, I ask if anyone has any objections to stopping the code. No one does.

We pronounce him dead.

And just like that, the mayhem ends. The compressions stop. The plastic IV tubes are disconnected and thrown out. The hastily placed endotracheal tube is removed. The alarms are silenced. The defibrillator pads are removed. Pharmacy takes their cart of medications and leaves. The crowd begins to thin.

The patient’s nurse begins making the final arrangements before the family arrives. His jaw, which was slightly gaping, is gently closed. His head is laid straight back, eyes looking up. Bloody linens are replaced with fresh ones. The patient is draped in a new gown.

Despite his recent ordeal, the patient now radiates a sense of calm. The man’s stillness is serene, otherworldly. Impossible for a living being to achieve. The few remaining people in the room use hushed voices. The room feels sacred, somehow. I look at the man again. I think of Homer’s line from the Odyssey: “Upon his eyes gathered the mist of death.”

I perform the death exam. I check his eyelids and see no corneal reflex. Feel no pulse. Hear no breath sounds. It’s done. I exit the room.

A few feet from the door, a young black woman in cheery pink scrubs is curled up in a ball on a rolling chair near a desk. Her head is in her hands. Her shoulders jerk intermittently. In printed block letters, her ID badge reads MEDICAL VOLUNTEER.

I ask if she’s OK, and she looks up at me. Her eye shadow is starting to streak down around the corners of her eyes.”I was watching him. I – I called for help. He wasn’t breathing. I’ve never seen… that… before.”

I nod. Words don’t come. I stand beside her for a while. After a few minutes, I turn and head back to my call room. Somehow, I feel comforted by her crying. This seems the most appropriate reaction to the last thirty minutes of anyone.

I’ve run a few more codes since this one. It feels, if not routine, certainly easier than the first one. More algorithmic. But I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t become too comfortable doing this. I want to always remember that volunteer. She didn’t know this patient personally, it wasn’t family. But she wept all the same. To me, her tears acknowledged the frailty of it all, the randomness. The callousness of death, the gift that is life. It was inspiring. The day I can’t feel the way she does about my patients is the day I need to find a new profession.

Medical Codes, Explained

Hospitals have lots of codes. The most famous one is Code Blue (medical emergency), but it turns out there are lots of color-based codes. This can be confusing, as the connection between the code colors and the situations they represent are usually tenuous at best. Today we explore all of the types of codes, and shed some light these arcane medical euphemisms.

 

CODE BLUE

What it sounds like it means: Aggressively-scented cologne from Armani.

What it actually means: Adult Medical emergency, CPR response team required

Medical Perspective: Someone is (technically) dead, and we are going to try to make them not dead.

 

CODE RED

What it sounds like it means: Xtreme Mountain Dew energy drink

What it actually means: The building is on fire

Medical Perspective: I’m completely at a loss on this one. Why not just call it a fire? Who are we protecting by changing the name? Code Red, Code Red, everyone evacuate the building so your body doesn’t catch on code red. Hey, when this is all over, let’s all go back to my place and roast marshmellows over a nice cozy code red!

 

CODE GREEN

What it sounds like it means: San Francisco based education startup that teaches children C++ and Java while instilling in them the values of environmental stewardship and conservation. The kids help write software to run large wind turbines, which in turn power the computers they learn on.

What it actually means: Behavioral emergency

Medical Perspective: These can get weird. I once had a patient threaten to summon a meteor ‘the size of Texas’ to smite me.

 

CODE ORANGE

What it sounds like it means: What the leaders of every other government in the world secretly whispered into their headsets on November 7th, 2016.

What it actually means: Hazardous material spill

Medical perspective: “Isolate and evacuate,” which is the official tagline of hazardous spills, is also how most Americans felt on November 7th, 2016. Also, much like a hazardous material spill, our president-elect will likely ruin everything he touches.

 

Code Pink

What it sounds like it means: This one is really sad.

What it actually means: Infant abduction

Medical perspective: Ugh. I can’t think of anything witty. Infant abductors deserve life sentences.

 

Code Grey

What it sounds like it means: When Anderson Cooper brings the thunder. He is Zeus, and probing, hard-hitting questions are his lightning bolts.

What it actually means: Loss of essential services / infrastructure failure

Medical Perspective: Again, seems like we are unnecessarily steeping ourselves in mystery here:

“Code Grey!”

“What?”

“Code Grey!!”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Loss of essential services and/or infrastructure failure!”

“What?”

“The basement’s flooded and the computers are down.”

“Why didn’t you just say that instead?”

“No time!!”

“Why?”

“GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE SAND!”

 

Code Black

What it sounds like it means: If Michael Bay ever got creative control over the James Bond franchise, there’s an 85% chance this is the name of the first movie.

What it actually means: Bomb threat

Medical perspective: If a doctor ever describes themselves to you as being “the bomb” at their procedure, go with a different doctor.

 

Code Purple

What it sounds like it means: Project Runway-style fashion show on Bravo where a team of style experts are dispatched to people’s houses 30 minutes before a major social event to spiff up their look.

What it actually means: Hostage situation

Medical perspective: [Code Purple team, to disgruntled patient]: “Trust me, I’d be desperate too if I had to wear that hospital gown a second longer than I had to.”