Living in an Epidemic

When I was reading about the Ebola outbreak last night, I thought of my time in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic. So I went back to the diaries I kept during this time and found couple of interesting entries. I was there as a Fellow in one of the world famous plastic surgery units during 2003. A Fellow is a young doctor who travels to another hospital unit to train for a specified period as a ‘trainee’ doctor, usually to learn from a specific doctor or a particular procedure/technique.

I have left this entry unedited, as it is a true perspective of an Australian living in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic, both as a doctor and local resident.

25th Aug 2003

It’s been more than two months already since the first wave hit Taipei. I still remember the panic that hit the city during that first week; it was when they closed down Ho-Ping Hospital in central Taipei, with all its patients and staff isolated within the hospital. It was constantly being aired on the news and the hospital exterior was being videoed 24 hours a day, a bit like reality TV. There were scenes of flying badmington cocks over the railings of the balcony, and I remembered the presenter reporting that it was great to see that the occupants of the hospitals keeping up their spirits, and exercising to keep fit. The comments from my male colleagues in the TV room at the time were less than polite. I think something was mentioned about there are better things to do when you are couped up with a whole bunch of young nurses. *eye roll*

Then there were news of individuals who were to be isolated at their own homes because they’ve been in contact with SARS suffers. After which, news of non-compliant isolated individuals venturing out of their homes were reported with the police were called to herd them back home. They have now posted guards around quarantined buildings to stop residents from ‘escaping’. Cases were on the rise, another hospital got shut down, and the mortality is starting adding up.

I have missed my chance to go home. Four weeks ago our department director gathered all the overseas Fellows in his office to let us know that if we wanted to go home and leave the country, he would still be happy to write us a certificate for our fellowship and recommend us for jobs back home. There were 7 of us, two from Harvard in the US, 2 from Italy, 1 from UK and another from Ukraine. The Ukrainian and I stayed. It was really a blessing in disguise, because now, instead of elbowing other Fellows out of the way for an opportunity to do cases, we are both operating more than 12 hours a day. I joked to my concerned parents back home that I spend so much time in the operating theatre with its filtered and uni-direction airflow, I am probably at the lowest risk of getting any respiratory virus. They weren’t amused. Wherease my boyfriend just said that if I got SARS, he wasn’t coming to visit. I’d like to believe that’s anger and frustration talking. I can understand why he’s so pissed at me. I think I would be too if our positions were reversed.

The one thing I have discovered about living in this SARS epidemic is that there seem to be more pregnant women than usual at the moment. One nurse mentioned to me that since we have to take our temperatures every day as required for all hospital staff, she has finally managed to get pregnant during her last cycle as she knew her exact ovulation date. A fellow colleague also mentioned that you can pick the pregnant nurses during this epidemic, as they are usually the ones wearing an N95-grade mask. These are heavy duck-billed masks which have viral filters and are very hot and uncomfortable. Most staff members such as myself (who want to breathe and admittedly am a bit blasé about the whole thing) just wear the regular light ones.

Oh well. You’ve gotta learn to see the bright side of life when living in an Epidemic.

Administration has been harping on about wearing the right masks, but I seriously believe that if I wash my hands (which are raw from scrubbing all day), and keep away from sniffling, slobbering people, I’ll be fine. I have been avoiding public transport as much as possible. I have blistered on my feet because it takes me one hour each way, walking to and from work. After 8pm, I just sleep in one of the spare beds in the Burns Unit. I suppose I am like every other deluded doctor at the moment, we think we are being ‘adequately’ careful and probably invincible.

A thought just occurred to me. If I die in this epidemic, I won’t be able to hear ‘I told you so.’

Well, I guess if I am not back tomorrow, you know I am being ventilated in ICU with SARS.

 

 

The Expert Opinion of Medical Students

med student

Ok. I am an old and cranky surgeon. And this post is going to make me sound positively ancient. It starts off with

When I was a medical student……

Is it just me, or are the medical students these days getting more brazen, opinionated and full of self-importance?

I used to love clinical teaching. Our students used to turn up early on consultant ward rounds, some with prepared case studies of patients on the ward, and helped out our residents and interns with preparations of the round. In the operating room, they used to stand quietly at the head of the patient, peering over the anaesthetic drape and asked intelligent questions. Questions that showed they had checked what was on the list and read about it the night before. They stayed until the case was finished, whether it would be 6pm or 1am. They were eager to scrub in if they were offered the chance and absorbed information like sponges.

Nowadays, they turn up on the ward round at the same time as me, with no idea of the patients on the ward, nor their names and procedures, let alone their histories. The interns and residents struggle with charts, dressings and memorising lab results for each patient, whilst the students look on with vacant smiles, hands firmly tucked into their pockets.

When I was a medical student, I used to arrive an hour before my consultant, print out a patient list, and write out all lab results next to their names for the intern. I would then put all the charts onto a trolley, opened to the latest page, and stamp in the date, ready for the round. While the round is happening, I would carry a box of gloves so that the senior doctors can open the dressings, and be the official scribe in the notes while decisions are made and patient discussed. I would hand the latest lab results to my intern and make sure he/she was aware of any abnormalities. I never spoke unless spoken to. My role was to be helpful to the junior staff and be a thirsty sponge to absorb all the information bantered around my head.

Over the last few years, something changed in our medical students. I don’t know why these young minds are being poisoned, but I sure would like to correct whatever delusions some idealistic non-clinical academic lecturer are feeding them. Whatever fibs they are being told – may work great in theory and on campus, but disastrous if they really want to gain the most out of their clinical attachments. The attitude these beliefs breed in our medical students, alienates them from the real doctors in the ‘real’ world.

1. You are an important member of the clinical team.

Then they get fed this bullshit story about how once there was a patient nobody knew why he was dying and some medical student came alone, discovered the diagnosis and saved the patient. It is an Urban Legend, people. Don’t come onto my team thinking you are going to discover some astonishing fact, talk to us as if everything you have to say is of utmost importance, and please don’t look at us expectantly for a thank-you for your effort. Oh, I don’t dispute that sometimes the medical student finds something that no one else on the team knew, but it is often either of small significance, or most commonly something that would not have changed the big picture.

Nope. You kids are not important. You earn your importance. If you put in the work and help out with the team, then maybe, just maybe, you are useful. Students are actually economic burdens. Teaching takes time, time cuts into efficiency, and decreased efficiency means less thorough-put. Less thorough-put means I don’t meet my KPI (key performance indicators), and failure to meet my KPI means I don’t get my bonus. Oh, and did I mention that I don’t get any extra pay for being a teacher or having students on my team? So to cut a long story short – teaching you kids cost me my bonus. For those who put in the work, I consider it worthwhile, I’d be happy to give you my bonus just so you can stay on the team longer and learn more, because sometimes listening to my students talk intelligently makes me puff up with pride.

You are also not so important that you can call me ‘Tiff’. My intern, residents and registrars call me Dr Tiffany, and that’s forgivable because I have a unpronouncable surname (thanks to my Eastern European husband). So, at the very least, you could do me the same courtesy. Yelling down the corridor, ‘Hey, wait up Tiff’ is just not acceptable behaviour for a student on my team. Why the hell would I wait for you when you are late to the ward round anyway?!?!

2. As a medical student, you have ‘rights’

Hahahahahahaha. Sorry, I had to laugh at the absurdity of this concept. What ‘rights’ would you be referring to?

Last month, we were doing a six-hour operation which started at three pm. The student was scrubbed in to help with some retraction. As a ‘reward’ for his efforts, the senior registrar showed great patience and took her time teaching him how to stitch. When it turned six o’clock, the student wanted to be excused. The registrar made a comment that if he stayed, he could practice more suturing and close one of the wounds. His reply was, ‘I am not paid to be here. I am only here to learn. As a student, I have the right to leave when I have done my allocated hours.’

The registrar looked at me and said, ‘Great. Dr Tiffany, why don’t we all just leave the patient on the table and go home? I think I am  on the 40th hour over my allocated hours for this month. The anaesthetist here is on his 37th hour, How about you?’

Another example of the so-called ‘rights’ was demonstrated to me by a student who stood at the head of the table observing an operation last week. It was a difficult case – I was digging through scar tissue to access some very fine blood vessels without clobbering any of them and causing a blood bath. There was concentrated silence in the theatre for 2 hours. During which time, I was trying not to get too annoyed with his continuous fidgeting, coughing and sighing. When we finally negotiated through the difficult part of the operation, and I was able to relax (i.e. multi-task), I asked the student if he saw what we were trying to do. He shrugged and said that he didn’t really understand because I didn’t talk to him. I held onto my patience and pointed out all the blood vessels I have dissected out and asked him if he recognised them.

‘No, I have never seen them before. I wouldn’t know what they are. You are supposed to teach me today, but i haven’t learnt anything. I have just stood here for two hours. I don’t think we learn very much watching operations, when are you giving us a tutorial? We have a right to proper teaching.’

Time paused. I could see myself pointing to the door, and yelling ‘Get the F%$#& out of my theatre and don’t ever let me see your #$@% face ever again!’

Instead, I said, ‘If you go home and read about the anatomy of this area, you can give me a tutorial tomorrow on it, and I will tell you whether I could have done that dissection better.’

3. Your opinions are important

Trust me when I say, No, Your opinions are best kept to yourself. In regards to opinions, I have two rules I live by: One, your opinions are only worth mentioning if you are either as old as the person you are giving the opinion to, or you have at least half the experience of the subject as the person you are talking to. Two, some opinions are best left unsaid even if it is a good one.

So if you have had no experience in surgery, you need to shut up, watch and learn. I asked a medical student on her first day once, about what she think Plastic Surgery was about. She said that she knew it was all about reconstruction after removal of cancer and injuries, but ‘in my opinion, it is not really essential, so I think they should cut it out of the public health budget.’

Hmm. Let’s imagine the scenario of Miss Smartass getting run over by a car, then carted into my theatre with crushed legs. There I was, standing over her, waving my amputation saw, as she is drifting off to sleep under anaesthetic,  ‘so who think plastic surgery is not essential now?! Mwahahahaha.’

My pet hate is the student who watches me do an operation and tries to tell me how they would do it and why. Ah huh, and sorry if I sound rude, but how many of these have you done? I had to laugh once when a student actually replied, ‘Oh, I haven’t done any, but I have seen quite a few.’ My dear boy, this is not a football game, everyone is an expert because they have watched the game for years. Trust me, if you put any one of those loud, opinionated, beer-drinking, fat bastards who are always yelling obscenities from the couch, onto the football field to play, do you think they can score?! You think they’d win the game? Why don’t you just finish off this operation while I go for my tea break.

4. Medicine can be mastered with ‘Problem Based Learning’ (PBL)

I don’t think I have ever hated a mnemonic more than PBL. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the basis behind PBL, but I think PBL should be taught at the level of training registrars and residents. Teaching PBL to medical students, is like teaching a 17-year-old how to drive without him/her having passed the traffic rule-book written test. You cannot solve the problem, without rote-learning the basics. Yep. Rote-learning, reading, studying and memorising. No shortcuts or ‘I will be able to work it out.’ If you don’t have the knowledge, you won’t be able to ‘wing-it’. And trust me, when someone is bleeding to death on the operating table, they wouldn’t want you to ‘wing-it’ either. Medical school is all about garnering the basic knowledge required to make decisions, and clinical experience during internship and residency is about using that knowledge to perfect the art of clinical judgement. I am still doing problem based learning every single day I am at work. It is something I believe I will continue to do until the day I retire.

Back in the days when I was a medical student (here she goes again *eye-rolls*), we had structured learning of all sciences. It was boring, it was tough, and the amount we had to know seemed irrelevant and insurmountable. But man, was it all so useful when I started surgical training. I am a firm believer that my role as a clinical teacher is to demonstrate to my students the importance and relevance of the basic sciences. I am not trying to teach them how to do an operation, diagnose a disease or to predict prognosis. That is something I teach my surgical trainees. For the medical students, all I am trying to do, is to show them that if they know their sciences well, there will be a whole new world for them to explore with the knowledge they have.

5. There is no such thing as a Stupid Question

WRONG. There is such a thing as a stupid question. Like, ‘What sort of surgery do you do?’ Ok, let me get this right. You have been assigned to my team for 6 weeks and you have no idea what specialty we are in?

If you are thinking of asking a stupid questions, it is better that you say nothing at all. There is nothing more annoying than silly questions from medical students which reflect their complete lack of preparation. Not to mention the polite but pathetic inane questions that accentuate their complete disinterest, absence of comprehension and desire to be somewhere else. Just give me the goddamn attendance form, I will sign it so that you can get your irritating bored ass out of my theatre.

I do like questions when I operate. I like intelligent questions from my students. When a student asks me a question which showed that they have actually done some background reading, I am in seventh heaven. I would take them on a tour of every detail, every aspect and every possible outcome of the surgery we are doing. It is almost orgasmic when my diatribe generates more intelligent questions, showing that they understood what I have been trying to show them, and their interest in what I do. To me, that is like the ultimate ego-stroke.

Sometimes the students are very quiet in my theatre. I suspect it is because they don’t want me to know that they have NFI (No F%$#&ing Idea).

6. Participate in ‘Active Learning’ – speak up and question your clinical teacher

This is like a fast train wreck combining both number 3 and 5.  This is an example of ‘active learning’ from a 3rd year medical student I had last year.

Expert Medical Student: Why are you removing the rib like that?

Me: Because it is a safe way of doing it and it is how I normally do it.

EMS: I don’t think you are doing it right.

Me: Why do you say that?

EMS: I have seen Dr X and Dr Y do this operation last week and that’s not how they did it.

Me: There is usually more than one way of doing an operation, we all have our own preferences.

EMS: But I think their way is better.

Me: Because?

EMS: They are older and much more experienced, so I think you should do it like them.

I wondered if I would get reported if I picked up my sharps dish and bitch-slapped his face with it.

Me: Why don’t you just watch the way I do it and see if it achieves the same result.

EMS: I wasn’t trying to be rude or anything, it’s just that we are told to question everything so that we can learn why you do what you do.

Me: Ask me why then.

EMS: Why what?

Deep breath.

Me: Forget it.

I love my students. Really. I do. I am just very selective whom I show my love to. I love them by teaching them, and I only teach the ones that put in the effort, show respect for their teachers, don’t take our time for granted and don’t make unnecessary noises. I am too old to waste my time and effort on the others.

I sound like an old, arrogant and cranky surgeon. In actual fact, I am afraid to say that my rant reminds me of the Professor of Surgery I had when I was a medical student. Oh God, I really am ancient. I will know I am archaic when I find my portrait next to his in the hallway of the department of surgery.

 

Teaching by humiliation

This is not a blog about bullying. Just about teaching.

Last week, I witnessed a scene in an operating theatre.

Two doctors were operating on a patient. One was the senior consultant and the other, the junior resident. The tension in the room was palpable, and even the humming of the ventilator sounded like a jumbo jet. The operation was not going well. There was constant welling of blood in the body cavity they were concentrating on, and the sucker tubing gurgled continuously with bright red fluid. Stress was evident as expletives started to escape from behind the older doctor’s mask., directed at the younger man.  The junior resident was trying his best to help, but he was obviously straining under the other man’s diatribe, apparent in his worsening tremor and the inability to stop the blood from flooding the operating field.

Then, miraculously, the senior surgeon managed to control the situation, and it was as if everyone in the room released their long-held breath in unison. The older surgeon gave an arrogant laugh, ‘It would really ruin my numbers if that one got out of control.’ He daftly tied the loops around the bleeding arterial branch. The operation continued, but as it progressed, it was clear that the resident was starting to annoying the older surgeon with his scrutinised clumsiness. At times when the younger man got in the way, his hands were swatted away like a bothersome fly, accompanied by over-dramatic exasperated sighs from the senior surgeon.  When the resident missed a suture with his scissor, it was snatched out of his hand with an expletive, as the older man made a deliberate show of cutting his own sutures, to demontrate the younger doctor’s incompetence.

The tremor in the young man’s hands deterioated. By the time it came for him to close the wound, one could almost hear the instruments vibrating against the patient’s skin. Criticisms started with a few grunts, escalating into abrupt barks of ‘Don’t’ and ‘Stop’. Finally, the needleholder was grabbed from his hand roughly by the senior surgeon. The older man started to close the wound himself in angry jerky movements, at the same time, a barrage of insults descended on the young doctor.

‘Pathetic aplitude for surgery….’

‘You will never make a surgeon…..’

‘What were you thinking taking on this job…..’

‘I don’t know how you could have made it this far as a doctor…….’

‘you are useless…. It wouldn’t have taken me this long if it wasn’t for you……’

‘Why is it that I always get the most pitiable incompetent junior doctors….. ‘

It was as if the avalanche was unstoppable, hammering down at the young man whose head was bowed over his scissors, staring at the wound in concentration as if it was his lifeline. As the last stitch was cut, the older man threw down his instruments on the table and tore his mask off.

‘Put the dressing on and get out of my operating room, before you sabotage anymore of my operations, you worthless excuse.’ He marched out angrily.

The room was quiet. No one said a thing in the last two hours. Including myself. Why? You may ask. Because we were all too afraid, that if the attention was drawn away from the junior doctor, the torrent of abuse would only continue, just at a different target. We knew this from experience. Dr M* was well-known for his vicious disposition. Anger management classes and suspensions did not apply to him, as everyone knew that he was about to become the next Director of Surgical Services. Over the last few years, complaints about him mysteriously got lost, and disgruntled staff members seemed subdued when questioned.

But, it wasn’t the unfairness, or the endless onslaught of malice that shocked me, but the silent tears that were now running into the mask of my younger colleague as he carefully applied the bandages on the wound.

In front of me, was a grown man, reduced to tears.

I knew Peter* well. He was an eager young medical student when I was a first year training resident in surgery. It was an interesting time, with me trying to find my feet as a newbie in surgery while he took everything I did as gospel. Peter was like a curious sponge, everything I taught him, he investigated and researched until he fully understood all there was to know behind each surgical fact.

But that was more than 10 years ago. The man in front of us now was a final year trainee, about to step into the world as a fully qualified surgeon within 3 months. He was a husband to a fellow doctor and a father to 8 year-old twins. What would the children think, if they ever saw their father, standing with his shoulder slumped, his hands shaking, and tears pooling in his mask? It broke my heart. This was a grown man, broken, momentarily, by the maliciousness of another.

Awkardly, I walked over to him. I took the bandages from his limp hands, and I rested my hand on his back.

‘Three months, Peter. Three months. Just hang in there.’

He stared at the floor.

I gave him a gentle shove. ‘Go and write up your operation notes. Grab a coffee. You have another case to go.’

He seemed to gather himself. He took his mask off and swiped at his eyes. He nodded, then looked up. Like all surgical trainees – hard veterans of regular abuse – he reached deep inside himself, found his ultra-thick ‘surgical hide’, and threw it over himself in a protective shroud. Like a magical cape, the despair was suddently erased from Peter’s eyes as if the last 3 hours did not exist. Red rims and puffy eyelids were the only evidence that something may have been amiss. A lop-sided smile broke through. ‘I need something stronger than coffee.’ A self-depreciating laugh followed as he strolled out of the room, looking for all as if he had just accomplished a simple case without a hitch.

It is true that bullying is rife in the field of surgery. It may sound as if I am making excuses, but the stress and pressure can often result in unintended explosions of emotion – which majority of the time, is usually let lose at the most junior person in the room – and never in a positive way. The inferno is often directed at the person least powerful to fight back – which is our trainees or students. They are dependent on their senior surgeons for their assessments and recommendations. Not to mention references for future positions. Surgery is a small world, and a close one.  Reputations have a way of establishing itself as early as one’s training years.

It is such a cliché when I say that it was the way I was ‘brought up’ in the world of surgery, and I honestly believe, it made me tougher. A surgeon need to be able to withstand unforeseen stresses, make snap decisions in dire situations and be able to get on with the next operation even when the previous one has failed. I remember being completely accepting of the fact that when I signed up for surgical training, I was going to get abused, yelled at, bullied, hassled and most likely reduced to tears at the most inconvenient times. I remember the incredulous looks from my non-surgical colleagues when I said (tongue-in-cheek), ‘but there is no such thing as bullying in surgery. It is called teaching.’

I remembere being pulled aside by my mentor in my early years, who tried to warn me about a particular senior surgeon’s bad temper, and his love for torturing trainees with spiteful intimidation. I just shrugged, to her amazement, I was not concerned, ‘Well, the way I see it, is that he doesn’t have to teach me at all, but if he is willing to teach me, even if it’s by humiliation, I am willing to learn.’

Sure. I know I am tough. But I had to be. When I was training in surgery, I was one of the very few females in my specialty. I was determined not to give anyone an excuse to call me a girl – because I was a grown woman, and I was gong to be as good as any grown man around me. Some were harsher with me because they thought I belonged in the kitchen, some were easier on me because they were susceptible to a pretty smile, heels and pencil skirts. Constructive criticisms were given, some verging on bullying, whilst others just needed to be accepted with a stiff upper lip.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it is right to teach by abuse, but everyone knows how hard it is for an abused child not to repeat the same life-cycle as his/her parent. I cringe everytime I hear myself say, ‘back in my days…..’

Because back in my days, if a trainee has not looked up an operation the night before the operating list, he would have been sent to the library for the remainder of the list until he knew how to recite the all the procedures back to front. Then, maybe, he may be allowed to hold a scissors and cut the sutures for the senior surgeon.

Despite the long-history of the harsh realities in surgical training, generation change has definitely brought new approaches to teaching. A trainee is like a trade apprentice. Except teaching only knowledge and skill is not enough. The importance of cultivating empathy, integrity, responsbility and collegiality all need to be incorported into the rearing of a good surgeon. And if we start with abusing them, none of these quality will get an opportunity to flourish. Not if their everyday aim was to survive the day without being reduced to tears, or feeling as small as an ant that is just about to be crushed under a surgical boot.

I remember vividly the first advice ever given to me.

You will become a good surgeon if you are a good person, but you aren’t necessarily a good person just because you are a good surgeon. When surgery fails, your integrity is the only thing that will lead you to make the right decisions.

Peter is a good man. He will one day make a great surgeon.

*All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and protect personal identities.