Grief: Day 731

On the second anniversary of my father’s death I am ten weeks pregnant. Last night I dreamt that the baby was born, not in the hospital we have planned but rather a bougie one two hours north by the sea, with a window looking out at the water and a chic gray and midnight-blue color scheme. I labored quickly and easily, feeling soreness but barely any pain. I didn’t need any stitches, and our baby latched right away. She was beautiful with clear bright eyes and she met my gaze without hesitation.

Three months ago, on the other hand, I sat at the edge of the water outside the hospital on a cold sunny day thinking of my father together with a new baby in the wings of the stage of life. I cried a lot of tears then, thinking that this comfort – this idea that my father would meet our child after all – was grasped for desperately; but also asking that he not to wait too long in sending us our child. I cried harder knowing that we’d have to wait, feeling strongly that the universe could do all sorts of things to you, and that making us wait for this child was exactly the kind of thing it would. It felt inevitable.

Since two years ago, it’s felt so sure to me that the universe – having been so unbalanced – would only have tragedy in store for us now. Because my father, a man of great magnitude and importance, was gone, the cosmos was essentially and irreparably misshaped, its axis tilted suddenly.

Three months ago, I wept for a long time on a bench at the water and imagined my father’s amorphous soul-person leaning down to whisper wisdom into the ear of our child’s inchoate soul-person. I thought of the time that had passed since I’d seen my father, and the time that would pass still until I’d meet our child, and the former was growing ever longer into the past and while the latter felt like it must be an eternity into the future – years, probably. Maybe never. I was feeling pretty pessimistic, and convinced.

When I texted my mother about my thoughts she agreed this meeting of soul-people must be happening in some part of the cosmos – “Of course he’d be there. He loves babies.” I asked her what she thought Dad must be saying to our baby, and we agreed: “That it’s all about love. And donuts.”

It is all about love. It’s something that I think was important to my dad as his life went on, that he learned in a multitude of ways and tried to teach us.

And it all being about love is the whole essence of grief. Love of my father belies the swollen bitterness that took me over for so long, that darkened my gaze and convinced me I’d be barren and shielded my eyes from joy and optimism for all this time. It’s also behind the feelings that are coming after.

Because today, I am pregnant with a child that I imagine will enter this world with my father’s words in its ears, conceived only weeks after that sunny day crying on the bench. I woke up today with the image of a beautiful baby gazing up at me, and feeling strongly that this was a message sent from my father, that he wanted to say we’d be alright, that she was a gift from him and so he’ll see that things go smoothly.

These things, of course, require quite a bit of cosmic imagination, and imagination is maybe the label we should apply. Ultimately what they reflect, though, is a shift in perspective in myself. A burgeoning belief that maybe things aren’t determined to be so bad – that, perhaps, the universe is righting itself.

me and my father, c.1992

me and my father, c.1992

Once upon a time


In a stark room full of fluorescent light and a single rubber couch a butterfly sat and worried her wings. They were very big and very beautiful and she told me about all the things and people that had hurt her while her iridescent wing lost strips ripped off in her worrying fingers. When she sobbed great big tears formed and made her heavy and she said, “I never do this, I swear – I don’t usually cry.” She wanted to fly south for the rest of forever but she loved her family so she built them something grand to help them forget her by. What she had built for her family was beautiful and delicate, constructed so carefully by a soft person for the people she loved, and what I built for her wasn’t like that at all. It was haphazard and rough, because I had spent the time we were talking just barricading that room full of fluorescent light, trying quickly to make a place for her to stay for a while where she could be safe, even if it meant she couldn’t fly there.

In a stark room full of fluorescent light a teenage bear raged and raged at a universe that had sent him careening thirty feet off a cliff and left him with three broken limbs and great big paws that were swollen and fractured. He still wasn’t sure how he had slipped off that cliff or whether he had ever stood there at all and sometimes he could forget, but when he couldn't he knew that that fall was maybe the worst thing he had ever done to himself in a long list of bad things. At those times he reeled from the shame of it and it filled him up until it overflowed into great big screams and paws pounding at pecs and sharp claws slicing. That's when I would stand up and lift my arms above my head and stretch myself as big as possible in that stark room so I could push against the edges, so I could crash my body against the walls to make the space big enough for him and his raging, and everyone outside of the room peered in but let me push the walls bigger, until the rage passed and the bear’s paws throbbed with new pain and his old wounds had opened and we sat together and stitched them back up, memories of his claws scraping desperately against a rocky bluff fading again into the background.

In a stark room full to the brim of fluorescent light there was an insect. He sat calmly on the gurney until I entered the room and he trained his hundred eyes on me. They glimmered and glistened with something unfamiliar to me as his mother sat beside him begging him to turn away. The insect didn’t listen though and his hundred eyes bulged with that glistening glimmering sickness that started over time to coat everyone that was near him in slime. His mother, soaking the seat of a chair with it in another room, begged me to take her son somewhere else for a while, where maybe that sickness could drip away onto something besides her family.

When I went back into that room the insect turned his dripping hundred eyes on me again. I sat down on the seat across from him to tell him he’d be going to the hospital. I knew he’d be upset but wanted to tell him eye to eyes. I chose my words carefully and handed them over gently, but suddenly wings six feet wide that I didn’t see before unfurled behind him and he launched into the air above me, landing fast to grasp my hands harder than I could stand, harder than I could comprehend for a moment until I wrenched myself free and tried not to pinch the glowing of his wing in the door as I closed it on that stark room full of fluorescent light, sopping wet with his sickness. My heart beat hard outside the room.

In a stark room there was a lioness sitting on a rubber couch under the fluorescent light. She growled angrily every time we walked past, and stood back on her hind legs when she saw us and said, “Oh hey look, it’s the shrink squad.” She was sick, though, and wouldn’t let us take her vitals, and one time I sat down in front of her and looked deep into her deep brown feline eyes and asked her please to let us take her temperature because I was worried about her health. “No!” she said. “You don’t care about my health, you just care about covering your ass. If you really cared about my health, you’d hold my hand, you’d look in my eyes.” I sat down in front of her then and I took her big paw in mine where the claws sat conspicuously in their sheaths and I held it and I looked in her eyes and I said, “Please let us take your temperature. I’m truly truly worried about your health.” Her eyes were surprised and she let me nudge the cold thin rod of a thermometer under her tongue alongside her big teeth. The next day she said if we truly cared we’d bring her flowers, we’d bring her cake. We didn’t do those things but she did stop calling us the shrink squad.


HIPAA Disclaimer: All of my stories are fictionalized and I never share PHI. Details are always changed, added, obscured or omitted. Most stories aren't about a single patient but rather are mished and mashed and sorted for narrative sense.

Photos are taken by myself from the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors exhibit at SAM.

The Light Comes Back

I was lucky enough to request yesterday off months ago so that with Lumberjack, my best friend, and her partner, I could drive down to the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon right near the center of totality zone on our momentous eclipse day here in the States.

Because we're the four of us busy people, we maybe didn't do quite enough to prepare (i.e., find a place to stay the night in totality zone before they were all booked). I'll tell you the four things that I think were vital to our success this adventure:

  1. We bought certified eclipse glasses
  2. I read Annie Dillard's essay on her experience of the eclipse in 1979 (available to read here at the Atlantic only for a short while longer)
  3. We made a playlist
  4. We set out very early



Totality was spectacular. First the light turned greyer. The shadows began to fall wrong across the landscape and our bodies. I watched my husband smile nervously in a new shade of blue, the shadow of his face falling short and sharp across his shoulders — beautiful and otherworldly. I felt nervous myself, a base anticipation pervasive. We toasted then to our resilience in darkness. It descended heavily and suddenly but light could be found at all the edges, sunrise on every horizon. In totality the dance between sun and moon was spectacular and clarifying. We laughed and exclaimed. People ran in circles. Crickets chirped. Suddenly my heart ached knowing this tango between two epic celestial bodies would soon end. And then with a brilliant glitter emblazoned at once across both of them, triumphant, the sun came back. We toasted to the return of light.


As we packed everything up, peed in the trees, and got back in the car, the sun was clawing again for purchase in the sky. I cried, then. I've been thinking all year about hope and how to hold onto it when you're plunged into a world of darkness. It turns out the light always comes back.

Then we drove eight hours home and we all sang loudly to Total Eclipse of the Heart, which is an excellent song. (I won't wax on the cheap and obvious metaphor for any longer, I promise.)

Hope Lost And Found

I am long overdue for some sort of reflection on intern year after having officially worked my last day as an intern a few months ago. Here's a small piece of what it was like for me:

At the beginning of this year I bought a ukulele. I started intern year at a sprint, like anyone does, arms full of hope which was quickly extinguished, lost in an atmosphere so devoid of hope that all of it flew out of my arms to settle into places so far in between it might as well have been floating in the vacuum of space.

I was alone in a new city and alone in a new role I didn’t know how to wear for a lot of reasons. The cloak of physicianship burdens upon you suddenly not just the obvious – the responsibility for human lives – but also darker, sinister things that are similarly heavy – a power over people nobody shows you how to soften, the shame of a tradition of institutional oppression that’s now officially dirtied your own hands by vocation, the towering knowledge that much of the time medicine is hurting people. Adjusting to the new responsibility of being a doctor felt really impossible.

There’s something special about going to work in a hospital – where there is no luxury of the mundane to fill in the gaps between flashes of drama. Most people working in a hospital recalibrate in some way, but my own response to intensity has always been intensity. And this first year of doctoring was one winning an intensity contest. My father had just died, my husband was living 2000 miles away in the city that felt like home, and going to work every day was a new jack-in-the-box of horrors, each one a stab at the raw place in me that bleeds for people but progressively softened my cringe reflex into something that was like having the chills almost all of the time, hair on perpetual end.

So for a while, I got home every day and played the ukulele. I sucked at it and had learned my first song, poorly, drinking bourbon in the rented house prior to my best friend’s wedding so I could play them a love song, just a few weeks before. I knew that song* – Can’t Help Falling In Love With You – and maybe four more.

But playing those songs would pull out the tears from my eyes that I had suppressed all day and massage that raw place a little and put a little dressing on my wounds. Playing the ukulele every night meant the hard places in me from medicine didn’t become as hard. It was a balm that helped replace bitterness, which is so tempting to tack on to yourself when you’re in medicine. Bitterness is all around, because of tragedy, because of overworked healthcare providers, because of disparity, because it’s hard to help sometimes – it’s a sticky plethoric tar that protects you if you paint yourself with it but hardens in layers until before you know it the only touch that can mark you is a scratch.

Intern year loped along and by the end of it I was thin and ragged, gasping for air and just hoping I’d make it to the finish line. Hope felt long gone. I was well aware it was a perspective problem – the patients that did well left the hospital, and so I didn’t get to hear from them, and the ones that did poorly bloomed in my awareness, taking over my thoughts and ideas about how medicine works and what’s likely to happen to people. Pessimism was joined by sacrifice – in my last month I’d become uncomfortably accustomed to losing the things I wanted to be as a doctor:

me, tired, part of the way through a 30 hour shift

me, tired, part of the way through a 30 hour shift

  • Spending an extra minute with a patient that has more questions
  • Standing up for a patient in pain that’s been labeled as drug-seeking
  • Swallowing snarky comments in favor of well-crafted criticisms
  • Trying to teach med students to think better

For the sake of:

  • Getting to the next admit they give me on the rotation with no cap
  • Eating my first meal of the day
  • Working my 85th hour in a week
  • Writing more billable notes at the insistence of hospital administrators

It sucks when these are the sacrifices. It sucks when you’re used to that sting. It sucks when getting a win – maybe by doing something on the first list – is the only thing that’s gonna inject some hope into the situation, but you can’t. It sucks when hope is so thin on the ground.

I didn’t enter medicine because I thought it was easy but I did go into it thinking I could do it proudly. At the end of intern year, I was very seriously doubting that. I was very seriously wondering two things: 1) Would I ever be able to find a way to do this so that I’m proud of myself, and think I’m doing more good than harm? 2) Is there a way to tolerate all the tragedy without becoming a monster?

I still don’t know the answers to those questions. (They’re really hard ones to answer in the field I’ve chosen. Spoiler: not being an intern anymore helps.) Sometimes I would get home from work and I’d get my ukulele out and I’d claw for hope by playing sad songs fast and fiercely, feeling something besides sorrow, reminding myself of all the people in the world that have made it through hard times and the practices and traditions that help to share the burden of hardship and the balm of joy (music). I’d do this at 1am when my alarm was set for five the next morning. I’d do this after really hard days when patient courses were long and arduous. I’d do this when I was thinking of my dad. It was a balm when hope was thin.

And then – on my very last day of intern year, and I still can’t believe it went down like this, I taught one of my patients how to play the ukulele.

I had entered this patient’s room in order to clarify a few things and give a few updates before I sat down for the afternoon to pound out my notes so I could – I hoped – leave a little early on my last day (I had a plane to catch). But instead I saw that little plastic four-stringed piece of magic labeled “OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY, 7TH FLOOR” (we were on the 5th; this is how it always goes in hospitals – nothing and no one is where they belong). I saw my patient struggling to finger a G chord (I had struggled too, at first). I saw a person clawing hard at hope in a hard situation. I saw my humanity rushing back at me during all those late nights playing sad songs fast and fiercely, thinking of patients that did poorly and situations that were fucked up and all the ways bodies and minds and medicine failed us. So I sat down on that hospital bed and spent several hours teaching chords and sharing my favorite tab sites and practicing sing alongs. One of the songs we played goes like this:

Don’t let us get sick
Don’t let us get old
Don’t let us get stupid, alright
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight

It’s the song** I’d been playing and singing to myself all year, the one I chanted like a prayer hoping to ward off black clouds and bad omens, hoping to make the hospital feel more like a team room than a battleground. I sang this, finally, with this patient, who was sick but getting better, who was brave.

Ultimately, this tool I had been cultivating for my own sanity over the course of the year was one I got to share with a patient as I crossed the threshold from intern to resident. We almost missed our flight but didn’t.


So here’s my intern year survival tip: go to the place where hope seems thinnest.

I don’t know why. It’s something I felt compelled to do.

Go to the place where the darkness is thickest, go with all your hope gathered in your arms and into the vacuum it will disperse until you’re gasping, breathless, from the thinness of it, from the scarcity of hope in the sparse and lonely atmosphere, reaching in the darkness with hands wet with its thickness, its beefy angry sopping heaviness, drowning in the horror, hope lacking.

There, find it again. Reach and reach. Dig and dig. Fight harder for hope than you ever thought was possible, than you ever imagined, than you ever thought you would. Pile it back into your arms and get ready to plunge again.


*This is, of course, Can't Help Falling In Love With You by Elvis Presley: link here.
**The song is Don't Let Us Get Sick by Warren Zevon: link here.
***Please note my posts are always HIPAA compliant -- I always change details and I never include PHI.

How Testing Can Kill

Doctors are sometimes terrible at statistics, and our biases -- including the hugely prevalent interventionalist bias in American medicine -- inform the way we look at numbers and probabilities in really dramatic ways. Here's an article ("Bias in the ER" from Nautilus) I read recently that talks about where doctors fall short, and how they can improve, in interpreting the numbers.

One really egregious example of this is in the way we often look at screening tests. I've had a lot of med students in my time as a tutor in medical school and my time as an educator in residency ask questions that shed light on how rudimentary are understanding often is when it comes to the risks of running a test. And we need our patients to understand this too! I wrote an illustrative example -- let's pretend there exists a disease called blarg cancer.

Drawing (1).jpeg

Let’s do a math exercise with made-up diseases and numbers. Let’s say we had an organ called the blarg and sometimes people get blarg cancer. Blarg cancer is bad and results in significant morbidity and mortality so we want to screen for it. We find a molecule that shows up in the blood of almost every single person with blarg cancer – what a great screen! We are so pumped. But we soon start to realize that sometimes it shows up in the blood of people that DON’T have blarg cancer. So some people we’re screening are showing up as positives even though they don’t have blarg cancer. But no biggie, right? It’s worth it because we’re catching people with blarg cancer we wouldn’t otherwise catch.

Let’s pause the story to take a terminology break: sensitivity is a quality measure of a test that tells us how often the test turns POSITIVE when someone has the disease you’re looking for. If a test is highly sensitive, this means that if you have the disease, the test is going to turn positive almost every single time. This means you’re catching basically everyone with the disease. So the screen for blarg cancer I described above is highly sensitive, because I said the molecule “shows up in the blood of almost every single person blarg cancer.” Another way of thinking about it is that a test with very high sensitivity has a very low false negative rate. People who get a negative test result can rest assured they almost certainly do not have the disease.

Another quality measure of a test is the specificity, which measures how many people WITHOUT the disease will have a NEGATIVE test. We call it specificity because the question we’re asking is: is this test specific to the disease we’re looking at? Will it turn negative every time someone doesn’t have the disease, or are there some cases in which it turns positive for a reason other than the disease in question? A highly specific test means if you get a positive test, you can be pretty sure that this person has the disease. In other words, a test with very high specificity has a very low false positive rate. The screen for blarg cancer I described above doesn’t have great specificity, because I said, “sometimes it shows up in the blood of people that DON’T have blarg cancer.”

Sensitivity and specificity are measures that we calculate for EVERY TEST we do in medicine! We often think of our tests as arbiters of truth-in-diagnosis, but that is a really dangerous myth. Unfortunately we just don’t have magic diagnosis-revealer wands we can wave over patients to determine if they have diseases we’re looking for, and we need to be really careful not to think of the diagnostic tests we do as diagnosis-revealer wands, because it can cause a lot of problems, some of which I’m going to outline now.

Alright, back to our blarg cancer screening test. Let’s say that our test has a sensitivity of 95%. Wow! A+! Such a good sensitivity. That means that if 100 people have blarg cancer, 95 of them will test positive. You’re catching almost everyone.

Let’s say the test has a specificity of 80%. That’s not so bad, right? Still a B? But definitely not as good as the sensitivity. It means that of 100 people that don’t have blarg cancer, 80 of them will have a negative test. In other words, 20 people out of 100 without blarg cancer will test positive.

Let’s figure out what all these numbers mean. Blarg cancer has a prevalence of around 1%. This means that if you picked 100 people from a crowd, 1 of them would have blarg cancer. If your hospital has a patient population of 100,000 then 1000 have blarg cancer. The sensitivity of your test means that if you start screening you will catch 1000*0.95 = 950 of the people with blarg cancer. The specificity of your test means that of the 99,000 people that don’t have blarg cancer, 99,000*0.8 = 79,200 of them will have a negative test. But – uh oh – that means 99,000-79,200 = 19,800 will have a positive test even though they don’t have blarg cancer.

Now most people see that number and say to themselves, “Well, it’s not that big of a deal. There’s a psychological discomfort but at least we’re catching the people that do have cancer!” But it’s not so simple. What do you do after you have a positive screen for blarg cancer? You have to do something about it! So you remove their blargs. All the positive screens, or 19,800 + 950 = 20,750 people have surgery to get their blargs removed.

Surgery complication rates for blargectomy are about 20%. That’s any complication, including anything from a minor infection of the site to something more serious. Perioperative mortality rates are much lower, 2%. That’s not too many people (good job, surgeons!), so it makes you not worry too much. It includes people that died in surgery, died shortly after surgery, or died for a reason directly related to their surgery (e.g. sepsis from surgical infection). So let’s do the math. If 19,800 people got surgery that didn’t really need it (false positives), then 0.02*19,800 = 396 people are going to die from complications of a surgery that they didn’t need.

Well, you think, that really sucks. But we did surgery on 950 people that really needed it! But wait a second – surgery isn’t always effective. Cancer really sucks, and even when we do surgery for blarg cancer, it’s only effective in the long run 30% of the time. Surgery saves the lives of 30% of people with blarg cancer, so you saved 950*0.3 = 285 people.

So think about that. You saved 285 people, but you killed 396. Still want to do that test?

And that’s not taking into account a whole host of other factors, like lead-time bias, complications of surgery that aren’t fatal but are life-altering, and the mental health implications.

“But Monica,” you’re probably thinking, “Blarg cancer and all those numbers are made up and this is a totally hypothetical scenario.” Yes, I made this example up, but it’s a teaching example that reflects REAL LIFE EXAMPLES. We have learned this lesson time and time again. Read up on PSA screeningCA-125 screening, and dementia screening. This lesson is the reason we only screen smokers for lung cancer. This lesson is the reason mammography for breast cancer screening is undergoing so many changes in recommendations.

“Okay, Monica, I’m convinced. So should we stop screening then?” NO!! That’s not what I’m saying at all! There are plenty of screening tests that have held up under scrutiny and proven themselves to be effective and worth potential adverse effects. The medical community currently holds up the pap smear as an example of a good screening test (when it's administered appropriately and at appropriate intervals), with high sensitivity and high specificity, with a high enough prevalence of disease to make it worth it, with the potential to save lives if caught earlier, and with a lower rate of adverse effects.

Cancer sucks. It takes so many lives from us and results in so much suffering and tragedy. Please don’t think that I’m not taking cancer seriously, or trivializing it. But we can do harm too. And we do. We HAVE to be careful in what we do as a medical community. We have to take that seriously.

So what’s the message then? The message is that as physicians it's our job to understand that everything we do incurs risk and that we need to work with patients to use the information we have to determine when that risk is worth it and when it isn’t.

Basically, use your brain. Do the math. Be a critical thinker. IT’S OUR JOB. Our patients need us!

Dear New Intern: Remember That You're Brave

It took me until the end of my intern year to fully understand and internalize this message, so I’m going to say it loud and clear here:


I spent most of the first part of my first year as a physician climbing the giant mountain of fear and anxiety and paperwork that is intern year, and it’s hard to scrape together perspective when you’re doing that. Especially when you have very little time for reflection. And especially when everything is terrifying all the time, so you feel like a scared mouse.

Being a doctor is terrifying, and so what you’re doing is brave.

Not many people go to work and prescribe treatments that could help or hurt people.

Not many people talk to a million different strangers all the time.

Not many people sign up to answer the plan of care questions from nurses that have been working in the hospital longer than you’ve been alive.

Not many people take on the risk of using your own damn judgment when it comes to what to do for a patient.

Not many people have ever run to a code blue. Not many people have to try to think of what to do when a person is really sick.

Not many people wake up in the morning to take over responsibility for people’s lives.

Most people aren’t brave enough to be a doctor.  You are.

Give yourself some credit for that.

You're a doctor! Yep, you! (Intern Survival Tips)

A year ago I couldn’t believe people were talking to me when they said doctor. Now I can’t believe I only have 3 days left until I’ve officially made it through my intern year. (Thank goodness.)

This year has been a really big challenge – and I’ve learned so much. I know I have a long ways to go, but looking back on the person I was a year ago makes me really proud of how much I’ve grown. But there are a multitude of things I wish someone had told me (and I'm sure I would have had to learn the hard way anyway).

Here's me on my first day of orientation. I think I wore this white coat less than a dozen times this year.

Here's me on my first day of orientation. I think I wore this white coat less than a dozen times this year.

This post is about one specific thing – how to keep your head when you get a page or a call you don’t know what to do with. It was the first thing I freaked out about on my first day, because getting a page is the first freaky thing that happens, since that's the life of an intern -- answering pages.

I’m a pretty anxious person. These tips might not be relevant to you if you’re not like me, so feel free to ignore them. At the beginning of this year I couldn’t believe that I was the one expected to answer pages, that when something happened a nurse had to tell a doctor about, I was the first person that would find out. It was unbelievably nerve-wracking until I hammered home the lessons below and realized I was up for it.

Here are three things to remember when you get a page you don’t know what to do with.

  1. You have time. You always have time to think, I promise, so take a deep breath. The only instance in which you don’t have time is if the patient is coding, and if that’s the case nurses know exactly how to start a code without you and your senior will be running it. in every other case, you have a second to take a deep breath and gather your thoughts. If you take this step, everyone will be better off because you’ll have your wits about you.
  2. You went to medical school. You learned some things, and they’re still in your brain. After you take a deep breath, take a second to come up with one relevant or semi-relevant piece of medical information you know. Remind yourself you know things. And that’ll get the ball rolling and soon you’ll be listing out your differential.
  3. You’re not alone. One thing about feeling like the dumbest person in the hospital is that it means you can’t throw a Foley kit without hitting three people you can ask for help. ASK! Know your senior’s phone number. Call consults liberally. Ask the nurse paging you, “What have other doctors done in this scenario?”

No offense, but you’re an intern. Everyone in the hospital knows you’re inexperienced – that’s kind of the point. This is your very first year as a training doctor and you’re here to learn. The most important thing isn’t that you remember everything and know exactly what to do in every possible scenario, it’s that you keep your head and enlist the people you need to learn from and get the job done. That’s how safe patient care works, how learning works, and how you succeed as an intern!

Big Dreamers

Last week I switched to a medicine wards month. Sometime in my first few days I dreamt I woke up in a hospital bed on a ward that was outside, a cool blue feeling permeating the corridor like a heavy morning dew. My team was rounding. It was my team in both senses – I was a patient on their team, and also I was one of the team’s interns. They rounded on me in the manner of the latter. I gathered I had been out of it for a while – I didn’t know the day or what was going on – but soon pieced together that I had ovarian cancer, and my status had been grave at first. They told me my hemoglobin was 2.0 on admission.

The team talked shop for a while about how I was doing and what the next steps were. The attending concluded by saying to the crowd, “I knew we should have imaged you when I felt that mass on exam a few months ago! I told the oncologist but he wasn’t impressed. And look at that – fucking ovarian cancer! I told him!” He hadn’t told me he’d felt a mass at my last visit.

Like many of my dreams, this one will be a fun one to talk about in psychoanalysis when I finally have time for 3 hours of training-focused therapy a week. I think even with the most simple modalities of reflection this dream says a lot about some of the worst places of turmoil we go as residents.

How does someone be a doctor and a person at the same time? How do you navigate your role as intern on a team without losing the perspective of the patient? What if you’re sick too?

I spend a lot of time on teams feeling like the one closest to patients, feeling like it’s my job to play arbiter in the ways I can, to try to pick through the politics of maintaining safe and congenial team dynamics without feeling like I’ve thrown patient respect out the window. It’s hard to remind doctors to take a minute to remember the person without tromping all over the ways they’ve developed to cope, and without layering on too much acerbic vibes between you and your co-workers. It’s especially hard when you’re having trouble remembering yourself.

And, of course, there’s the Resident as Patient theme. I was a patient and my own doctor in this scene. I think it indicates I see myself as sick in some ways. This isn’t new to me. Residency makes you sick. You work more hours than you ever have with more responsibility on your shoulders you could have imagined – you get worse before you get better. You become less human before you become more human. But how do you treat yourself? It’s the obvious question, especially given that as doctors I think many of us are reflexively trying to come up with the treatment plan.

The finale is the gaslit resident who goes to work every day absorbing the message that all of the hardship we witness and work through in hospitals is somehow okay. In this dream my attending sends me the message, “You were sick, very sick, for three months. I didn’t tell you. Now I’m talking about it as if it’s not a big deal.” Gaslighting in residency – the underlying message sent when we avoid talking about the subject that what we witness isn’t a big deal – is something I’ve been running up against a lot the last few months.

Doctors cope with the nature of medicine in a lot of different ways, and it’s hard to be too judgmental about how we make it through. I understand that talking about how messed up everything is all the time isn’t sustainable, and that some form of repression/suppression is necessary to make it to tomorrow. But medicine is hard. I know that’s never gonna change. I’m not asking for it to – then it wouldn’t be medicine, and it wouldn’t be the career for me. But I think the way to achieve wellness in residents necessarily involves having better ways to talk about the hard things, to share the ways we get through them, and to have mentors that help us see how to become doctors that are better at appreciating humanity and more human themselves. I know that nobody’s really figured that out. But we need to be brainstorming more. My examples shouldn’t just be ones of repression and jaded hardening. They should be ones of stoic triumph in the face of huge challenges. We should at least be talking about how to get there.

Here's What Happened To Me This Year

In February something very bad happened in the world, which is that my father died.
It broke my rib, the sudden force of my sadness shattering and then settling into that sharp pain which lasted for weeks. I was numb to everything else in that period. I barely breathed, the pain stretching long fingers to my throat and chest wall and tethering them still. Even my anxiety went away, washed out by that heat at my side. My carefully cultivated optimism cracked with that rib and in seeped the idea that there was no being okay after all, that there were things that you don’t recover from in the end. My father was a great, great man, one of true magnitude. You don’t get over that.

Eventually my rib started to heal itself. By April I could move again without wincing. Instead I became bathed in fear like an electric current. By the time anxiety returned it had sensitized all my nerve endings so that anytime anyone I loved got in a car I felt the sting of panic.

When the world around you feels as if it’s made up of knives, the stuff of the atmosphere itself sharp and cutting like razors, then a person tends to contract. That’s what happened to me. Sadness was a big, growing, sopping mess at my center and it was heavier every day.

When I started my intern year in July I knew I would have to find some way to survive. Sadness was that mess at my center and fear was an electric rash that was opening up new raw places every minute. It’s so hard to walk around like that. I put my head down and braced myself for the year ahead with the wounds I had. I worried I was getting smaller.

New people I met saw me as permeated by rage, I think they characterized me by it – frothed up into flaming rants at the least provocation. But even then I felt broken, like a skipping record, like a wrung-out rag trying not to mildew. Rage was a reflex that spewed forth from something more difficult to characterize but that surely saw its origins in that deep well of mourning in me. October turned over. I sunk deep below the surface of hard times.

Bitterness is a hardening and a contraction. The dense, buzzing cloud comprising my father’s death, medicine, the pressures of being a new doctor, my own hard unforgiving nature, all the darkness I have to face, my isolation – I realized this month that it’s getting to me. I am not cloudstuff tossing out my limbs for human contact but the bitter pit of a bruised peach with its flesh torn away – hard, the only touch that can mark it a scratch.

Halfway through December, on the plane back to Seattle from a visit home to Chicago I think that bitter pit broke open and I found myself left drenched in the evidence of my own desperation. It took me a while to get to sleep with sob-swollen eyelids. I resolved to face the world with better optimism, but the next morning I was met with the greatest hits of medicine's litany of horrors as we rushed an otherwise well patient to emergency surgery, and optimism flitted away.

Here’s what happened to me this year: Bitterness was all around me, gushing, and so I painted my sore skin with it. Layers and layers of that tar. I’m trying now to peel it back to walk around abraded. I’ll have to find some other balm. But sometimes you show the universe your cracked-open self and someone fails to catch the debris and you have another opportunity to get worse again. Tacking that rising tide of bitterness on raw skin is a reflex that’s hard to suppress.

Starting intern year in the same year someone important to you dies is hard. You are faced with the world's most awe-inspiring tragedies while you're grappling with the idea that the universe sometimes takes vital things away and then goes on barreling forward anyway. And I’m a stubborn, heartbroken dreamer that assigns greater cosmic significance to myself and everything – which I see as a prerequisite to my vocation and one of my greatest strengths, but which is also hurting me. I’m a narcissistic mystic who can’t cope with a universe that goes on okay in my father’s absence and so this one must not be.

I need to let go of my broken thought processes, but I don’t want to – it’s too compromising, it’s odious to me. Truly moving forward feels like a latch blowing open on sadness, allowing it to disperse all through me. Isn’t it poison? But I see that I have to try now. My stubbornness is turning me into a worse person, a worse doctor. I can’t shield myself with bitterness anymore, and so I’ll have to find some other balm. (The balm is joy. Joy and hope.)

But the world hasn’t seemed such a hopeful place anymore. I’ve wanted to find a way back. And then I haven’t, because sometimes mourning feels like having the truth scraped across your eyes. It’s hard to remember that that is an act of obfuscation, not revelation. The biggest strength is in finding hope despite hardship.

At a NYE party I regretted committing to I found joy and laughter in an imperfect place with imperfect people in a formulation of the universe I would never design. I thought hard on the fact that you have to take people as they are and try to inspire the best in each other. Nothing is gonna be what you would have chosen. But you have to be able to feel the joy with the sadness. See that they exist because of each other. Grief comes from love and there is no love without the glinting threat of grief on the horizon.

I invited people to bring their baggage, their grief, their dashed hopes and wild losses of 2016 to the party. We got the fireplace running and each of us threw the lot of it in to burn as the night went on, so it all could meet some form of cosmic reconstitution.

So in our little gas fire I burned bitterness. I wrote it down on an index card with a hand made furious by desperation and champagne, and I tossed it in the fire. And then again. And again, with fear. And I burned them all again the next day, and the next, and the next, and today. And I think I’ll have to continue, every day for the rest of my life. Burning them away.