Tag Archives: compassion

Kacper Niburski is a medical student in the Class of 2021 at McGill University. He is also the CMAJ student humanities blog editor.

 

 


The heart is open and I wonder if my feet smell. Much of the room seems too busy to notice. The surgeon is making a joke about the shaky season of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The attendants laugh in unison. The perfusionists look to their dials, turn one, turn off another, and gaze my way with a nod. Do they smell it too?

Two hours earlier held no scent. The morning swam with sun. I arrived early to the Hospital to shadow the lead cardiac surgeon. I was told via email to dress light. To arrive early. To be ready.

I was. The night before saw me donned in recycled papers of anatomy, reviewing structure after structure, medication after medication. Any heart sound I’d be prepared to listen to knowingly. Any condition studied could be recited as though from a pleasant dream too pleasurable to forget.

I try to share that pleasure now. I smile back, failing to remember that my face is blocked with a mask. My clothes too have been changed. I am adorned in green, a naïve look against the shadow of yesterday. Only my socks stick out of their wrapping. They look like a left-over meal stuck in a fridge too long.

The surgeon makes another joke. Another chorus of chuckles follow. Blood is pooling out of the myocardium. “Suction please.” The whirl drowns out the sounds while the heart suffocates with air.

When I met the surgeon, I seemed to do the same. I whispered my name while shaking his hand. Then I sat quiet while the cardiologists spoke. The case was difficult. The 42-day old child had a type b coarctation, aortic stenosis, and now, only presenting the day of the surgery, a hematoma. One as large as the left ventricle. One as large as a life.

What would you do, the surgeon asked a cardiologist in the room. I am not sure, she replied. In thirty-one years, I haven’t seen anything like this. That shit is scary. The black mark on the screen seemed to absorb the light and the conversation. They all stared at it in silence.

The OR bursts in another bustle of laughter as the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation begins to tumble. The heart now pauses to a near standstill. Each beat appears forced, slow. I take twelve breathes before each one. I take another ten sniffs. The smell is getting stronger. I take nine the next cycle. Stronger yet. Eight the one after.

Meanwhile, the hands heave life. The surgeon is busy cutting and stitching and suturing and joking and cutting again. Bits of flesh fly into the vacuum. One hour passes. And the smell only worsens.

What could it be? I changed my socks. Washed my feet. My boots were new too. But in the morning, one of the cardiologists told me I could not wear them. Salt ate away at their integrity.

They were not allowed in the OR. You’d have to go in your socks, he said. He was wearing unblemished leather shoes.

With them, we walked to see some of his morning patients. Each case was riddled with complexity. Dr. K, is the heart rate stable? Dr. K, what was the correct dosage applied? Dr. K. Dr. K. Dr. K. His name was called everywhere while I stood beside him like a lost dog. My name was not asked once. Only until after my feet hurt and I was lost in a stew of medication names was I called. Kacper, I was told, this is the room. This is the patient who will have the surgery.

The room was thick with a deep, hugging black. The parents were huddled over a small incubator. From the doorway, they looked like stars.

The light of the OR is aggressive now. It weeps it. I think of them and that idea – the family as stars, celestial bodies watching the world. At first, I was comforted by it. I was brought back to period faraway from this standing where I was sitting in a canoe, trees whispering around, unshoed like I am now, and looking at a universe that could not look back. I could recognize the beauty. I could become it too.

But now, standing on my toes, trying to get a better view of each slice, watching as the screen is tipped forward and then away in a window of opportunity no larger than bundle of grapes about to ripen, I am reminded that stars are long since dead. They are no more. Only their light is forced to stay. The heart hasn’t beat in a while.

What will happen? I try to think, but I am nervous. I shift heel to heel. The wrong facts come back from the bridge to yesterday’s nowhere, to when I studied under the silence of a life. Move around, excite the sympathetic nervous system, get more blood from the heart, heat the body, sweat more. I spell out the conclusion once more in my head.

I try to stop moving in a dry attempt at survival, but these simple watered-down facts make me more anxious. Maybe the smell is me, I begin to think. Maybe I have reached a threshold of no return. Maybe I cannot stop sweating now and I will become a pool of water. First at my feet. Then my knees. I will get shorter and shorter, soon seeping into these white floors, climbing up the exhaustion of a lifetime, extinguishing these expensive machines, filling up the closed room in a smell that cannot be avoided now, that was all that was, all that is, all that will –

I am tapped on the shoulder. Dr. K asks how I am doing. I tell him okay. Pretty interesting, eh? Absolutely, I answer in what I imagine sinking sounds like.

 


Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is purely coincidental, similar to how a flower described here would not smell as good as the real.

Arnav Agarwal is an Internal Medicine Resident (R1) at the University of Toronto. Check back the last Thursday of each month for a new featured piece as part of his series (Doc Talks: Reflections to Reality)!

 

Pieces of a puzzle inherit meaning not by their individual qualities, but by being pieced together into context. Good medicine — and good healthcare — are similar: they rely on understanding patients as people, and clinical presentations as brush-strokes forming part of a bigger picture. ...continue reading

Welcome to this week's edition of Dear Dr. Horton. Send the anonymous questions that keep you up at night to a real former Dean of Medical Student Affairs, Dr. Jillian Horton, and get the perspective you need with no fear of judgment. Submit your questions anonymously through this form, and if your question is appropriate for the column, expect an answer within a few weeks!

Dear Dr. Horton,

Over the past month, much of what is occurring in our political and social climate has been serving as a constant reminder of inappropriate behaviours/sexual harassment I've experienced as both a patient and a medical learner.

Do you have any advice in navigating these feelings?

Signed,

Demoralized

...continue reading

Giuliana Guarna is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at McMaster University

 

Knock, knock.

I pulled back the large door and stepped into the room. It was early in the morning — just after 6 am. She was lying in bed, awake, with a smile on her face despite the fact that she was post-op. The evidence of surviving rounds of chemo were borne out in front of me. Her hair was peach fuzz, peeking through a silk turban wrapped around her head. Her cheeks were like little Timbits, but her frame was swallowed by her hospital gown.

“Oh, hi. Come in. Let me turn on the light.”

I walk to the foot of the bed. The sun had not yet peeked out from under the shades. The room was illuminated by a yellowish-white hospital glow as she pressed the switch.

“How are you today?” ...continue reading

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Welcome to this week's edition of Dear Dr. Horton! Send the anonymous questions that keep you up at night to a real former Dean of Medical Student Affairs, Dr. Jillian Horton, and get the perspective you need with no fear of judgment. Submit your questions anonymously through this form, and if your question is appropriate for the column, expect an answer within a few weeks!

Dear Dr. Horton,

Looking back, I know there were many reasons I wanted to enter this field — but with the overwhelming and increasingly hectic nature of medical training and residency, it’s sometimes easy to forget what those were.

I don’t want to become jaded so early in the game, but can feel some of my initial idealism ebbing away and cynicism setting in. What are some ways to remind ourselves of our passion for medicine?

Signed,

Burning Out

...continue reading

1 Comment

Welcome to this week's edition of Dear Dr. Horton! Send the anonymous questions that keep you up at night to a real former Dean of Medical Student Affairs, Dr. Jillian Horton, and get the perspective you need with no fear of judgment. Submit your questions anonymously through this form, and if your question is appropriate for the column, expect an answer within a few weeks!

Dear Dr. Horton,

It seems everyone is always talking about the importance of having a strong support system around you. While I’ve managed to make casual acquaintances among the pool of colleagues and co-learners I see from time to time, these relationships feel fairly superficial. Yet no one seems to have the time to forge deeper connections...

How do you build your "tribe" in medicine, given how busy everyone is?

Signed,

Lone Wolf

...continue reading

Maggie Hulbert is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at Queen's University

 

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371
(Penn State University Press, 2017)

The HIV/AIDS Care Unit (Unit 371) at Chicago’s Illinois Masonic Medical Centre was founded on a heartbreakingly simple observation. “We are all just people taking turns being sick,” stated Dr. David Blatt, one of the founders of Unit 371, in MK Czerwiec’s newest graphic novel — the aptly named Taking Turns: Stories from the HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Czerwiec was a brand-new nursing graduate on 371 during the height of the HIV epidemic, and Taking Turns is in many ways her tribute to the unit’s extraordinary spirit. The intention of the unit was made clear from day one: this would be a place where the most stigmatized and ostracized patients could be cared for with empathy, understanding, and love. ...continue reading

1 Comment

Imaan Javeed is a medical student at the University of Toronto

 

On Monday, April 23, while driving on Yonge Street near Finch Avenue in Toronto, it's alleged that Alek Minassian whipped the steering wheel of his rented white Ryder van sideways and killed ten innocent, unsuspecting people; physically injured sixteen more; and emotionally scarred hundreds of others. At the time of my writing, a clear motive for these actions has yet to be publicized. Minassian is alive and certainly under investigation, as much as he may have desired otherwise, but there still isn't much we know about the lead-up to the event.

Indeed, much to the dismay of some members of the media, the 'default' assumption quickly turned out to be untrue — there was not a single known link to "jihadist" terrorist groups or foreign radicalization to be found. ...continue reading

Robbie Sparrow is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at Western University

 

For individuals facing deep personal struggles, the path to recovery is often daunting and overwhelming. Support from others who have overcome similar challenges can be extremely beneficial. For example, the best people to help heroin addicts are those who have fought to stay sober for two years, and women facing domestic abuse are best aided by women who have escaped it. Doctors who care for patients living through crises are often disadvantaged when trying to empathize with them because they themselves haven’t faced the same struggle. Difficult experiences throughout a physicians’ life can help them approach this ideal of empathy and improve the care they offer patients. ...continue reading

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Sarah Tulk is an Ontario physician who recently finished her residency training in family medicine at McMaster University

 

“If only he had chosen a higher floor, we wouldn’t have had to come here!”

These were the words that came out of my preceptor’s mouth. I was a wide-eyed medical student, shadowing in orthopedic surgery. The patient was an older man who had sustained multiple fractures after attempting to end his life by jumping from an apartment building balcony. The trauma ward was full, so he was, inconveniently, located on a distant ward which meant his poor choice of departure level was now encroaching on our operating room time. In medical school, I learned that mental illness was shameful before I learned how to use a stethoscope. ...continue reading