Can it be that it is almost April? Can it be that almost a month has passed since I last posted here, since I last stepped back and thought a thought? Who am I again?
Here’s the thing about being a mother, or an intern, and especially a mother who is also an intern: Every moment you spend doing something is a moment that is stolen from something else. My time with my family is time stolen from my job and by extension from my patients. Time for myself is time stolen from my family. Time for friends is time stolen from doing taxes which is time stolen from cleaning something which is time stolen from catching up on sleep which is time stolen from writing which is time stolen from spending time with my family which is time stolen from the practice of medicine and around and around we go. I’m tired of stealing and tired of having to steal. Right now I’m fifteen discharge summaries in the hole, E is sick for the fourth day in a row, I did not sleep more than 30 minutes at a stretch last night, and the list of topics I need to read about is about a year long. But I’m sitting down to write because it reminds me of myself and these days I really need the reminder.
This year I spent Passover at the home of a new friend of mine. I was with E, who lost interest after about 10 minutes, so I spent the rest of Seder chasing her up and down the hall. All she wanted was to lunge down the stairs headfirst and I had to stop her again and again. We had to leave right as the meal was being served because it was an hour past bedtime. But for some reason I was really paying attention this year. There’s a part in the seder — two actually — where you wash your hands as part of the ritual. My friend suggested that we name something we would like to wash ourselves of in the coming year. When it was my turn, I felt unexpectedly that I was about to cry. “I’ve been so, so negative at work,” I heard myself saying. “Just seeing the darkness in everything all the time. I want to be free of this constant negativity.” I looked up and I couldn’t tell if what I was saying was resonating at all with the other people at the table. Eliana shrieked and I was off running down the hall again.
Jews are commanded each year to see ourselves as having been slaves, as having personally come out of the land of Egypt. I’m not sure if this injunction was intended to inspire contemplation of one’s own figurative enslavement or liberation, but I’ll admit, I am feeling like a slave. I know that I am not a slave. I am a person being paid a wage to work a job that I chose. I have a home, a family, and means to provide for them. Hell, I just spent $60 on music classes for my fifteen-month-old. #firstworldproblems. But I do not feel free. Every day as I leave my family to go to work for 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 hours, every time I put Eliana to bed knowing that I will not see her for 48 hours, I feel powerless. Every time I am castigated for something outside of my control at work or make an error that affects a patient out of fatigue, competing stressors, or just lack of knowledge, I feel powerless. Every time I make a commitment to someone I love and have to cancel, every time I answer an email with the line “Sorry for the long delay” (aka every time I answer an email), I feel powerless. Over time this feeling of powerlessness is adding up to a phenomenon that I hesistate to invoke because it carries so much cultural baggage, but at the same time needs to be spoken out loud more often by people in medical training: depression.
Here are the facts: Depending on the study you read, 25–30% of interns experience depression during internship. In one study, up to 12% reported having suicidal ideation at least once during residency. Articles cite many potential contributing factors including long hours, skewed effort-to-reward ratio, stressful experiences of patient suffering and death, lack of control, inadequate time for self-care, sleep deprivation, medical errors, stresses on marital and parental relationships, lack of feedback on performance, and many others. All of these are true. I will add to these a term that I have come up with over my years in medicine: hierarchical stress, the stress of negotiating all the nuanced politics of the medical hierarchy. As an intern, you have to consult anywhere from 1-5 people before making most decisions and any or all of these people might be rude or humiliating or dismissive or condescending or have a bad plan that you are forced to execute. Multiply that by hundreds of decisions per day and that’s a lot of hierarchical stress.
It is comfortable to hide behind statistics and large cohorts. Here are some different kinds of facts: Almost daily on the way to work I fantasize about being in some kind of accident that will render me partially disabled. On worse days, I have suicidal ideation — not the kind where you buy a gun or practice your slip knot, but the kind where you irrationally imagine that some relief might come of it but are not in any real danger of committing the act. I cry either on the way to or on the way home from work at least 2-3 days per week, and sometimes at work. When I get home, I have to remind myself that E brings me joy. I have to consciously remind myself of the possibility of joy and then kind of pretend until I rediscover the emotion. Most of the time, I feel either irritable or drained of all emotion entirely, flat and resigned and without soul. And I am not alone. Multiple of my fellow interns have reported the same experiences, down to the uncanny details. It is for them that I am writing this, because the taboo against discussing it is so strong. It is time for someone to ask the question: Is this the right way to train doctors? Should the people tasked with hearing our stories and healing us have as the foundation of their professional training an experience of profound and prolonged dehumanization? Negative experiences with doctors are a common tale and this does not surprise me. Working 80-90 hours a week may improve your clinical judgment but it does not lead to a greater capacity for empathy or greater compassion at the suffering of others. If anything, survival demands that you become more self-focused, not less.
During the first months of medical school, a lecturer asked us to go around the room and say why we went into medicine. I was the first or second person to go and I answered honestly: I went into medicine because I wanted to gain a better understanding of what it is to live a human life and also to work to alleviate suffering. When I think back on that earlier version of myself I am both proud and a little embarassed at my own naivete. Oh, the things I did not know. Since that time, what has come into clearer focus is that medicine is a business as much as it is anything else. I have taken on a crushing amount of debt that I will be paying off until I die. As a result, money has entered my career calculus to a degree I never expected. Money is also part of my awareness at work to a degree I never expected. We see more patients in less time than ever before. Hospitalizations are shorter and turnover is higher than ever before. Different options are available to public insurees vs private insurees vs out-of-pocket international patients. Someone is getting rich of all this (read this article if you care about health care in America), but it isn’t me, nor would I want it to be me. After all, sick people are not in a position to bargain and thus our ethical position with respect to charges is a tenuous one. The ever presence of money is part of my disillusionment with medicine, but what did I expect?
Everyone says it gets better and I have to trust them. I will survive this year and residency. After that, I hope I can rediscover the wonder and mystery of the human being’s journey through time in a body, and the sense of privelege in being able to serve as a guide and witness to that journey. I hope I can find a way to practice medicine that is both evidence-based and spirit-based, that is efficient and safe but also reaches beyond these towards higher goals. I hope I can heal myself and be the kind of partner and parent I want to be — present, engaged, and at least at times unfrazzled. I hope I can honor my commitment to medicine while also continuing to nurture the dreamer and the poet in me because there are things of importance that cannot be subjected to the scientific method. I hope I can stop being a thief of time and start being a contented inhabitant of it. If in twenty years I am a country doctor (are there country neonatologists?) living off the grid and growing my own rutabaga you will know why: because what is a career if there is not also a life?
Passover and Easter coincide this year, so both freedom and resurrection are on the menu. I think of my grandmother who spent several years in a concentration camp and my grandfather, who liberated her from a cattle car. They helped smuggle Jews through Europe on their way to Israel. Freedom was not a metaphor for them, but a reality lost and found again. In the face of that history, there is a limit to how much a gay Jewish woman living out and in the open can complain (see above re: #firstworldproblems). That said: I hope to be free from debt one day. In other words, I hope my profession feels like a choice again one day. As far as resurrection goes, all doubt and depression and critique aside, I’ve seen it with my own eyes: the limp, blue baby who takes its first breath after a few minutes of positive pressure ventilation. The child who almost died from overwhelming infection who is sitting in your primary care office telling you about their report card. The former substance using teenager who has become an amazing mother and provider. It’s enough to keep me going day after day after day, which feels like its own form of resurrection.
For me, the concept of freedom is embodied by Nina Simone singing the following song. I am including both the recorded version and a blow-your-mind live version that cuts right to the bone.