Graced

Poem: Graced

I touched base with the psychologist

not one I know

just one who was around

asked if I could talk
for 15 minutes

indeed, he said
a difficult situation

you know that the person won’t change

echo
won’t change won’t change

I believed this
for two days

then I remembered
why I am a doctor
my secret weapon
my healing talent

I always have faith in change

everyone
has choices

“I can’t stop smoking.”
says the man

“My father quit three years ago.
55 years of two packs a day,
unfiltered Camels.”

“Camels!” says the man
“Those are bad!”

“You can quit too.
It might take more than one try.”

Why would I go to work
to talk about hypertension
exercise, birth control
obesity, heart attacks

unless at my core

I believe each person has choices?

Sometimes the choices
are between miserable
and horrible

life and death

still
whether a person is 9 or 90

they are graced
by choice

The photograph is from May 2012, at the memorial for my sister. My father is on the left, sitting, wearing oxygen.

Adverse Childhood Experiences 12: welcome to the dark

Welcome to the dark, everyone.

When you think about it, all the children in the world are adding at least one Adverse Childhood Experience score and possibly more, because of Covid-19. Some will add more than one: domestic violence is up with stress, addiction is up, behavioral health problems are up, some parents get sick and die, and then some children are starving.

From the CDC Ace website:

“Overview:Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing
up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to
stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. However, ACEs can be prevented.”

Well, can they be prevented? Could Covid-19 be prevented? I question that one.

I have a slightly different viewpoint. I have an ACE Score of 5 and am not dead and don’t have heart disease. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about ACE scores and that it’s framed as kids’ brains are damaged.

I would argue that this is survival wiring. When I have a patient where I suspect a high ACE score, I bring it up, show them the CDC web site and say that I think of it as “crisis wiring” not “damaged”. I say, “You survived your childhood. Good job! The low ACE score people do not understand us and I may be able to help you let go of some of the automatic survival reactions and fit in with the people who had a nice childhood more easily.”

It doesn’t seem useful to me to say “We have to prevent ACE scores.” Um. Tsunamis, hurricanes, Covid-19, wars… it seems to me that the ACE score wiring is adaptive. If your country is at war and you are a kid and your family sets out to sea to escape, well, you need to survive. If that means you are guarded, untrusting, suspicious and wary of everyone, yeah, ok. You need to survive. One of my high ACE Score veterans said that the military loved him because he could go from zero to 60 in one minute. Yeah, me too. I’ve worked on my temper since I was a child. Now it appears that my initial ACE insult was my mother having tuberculosis, so in the womb. Attacked by antibodies, while the tuberculosis bacillus cannot cross the placenta, luckily for me. And luckily for me she coughed blood at 8 months pregnant and then thought she had lung cancer and was going to die at age 22. Hmmm, think of what those hormones did to my wiring.

So if we can’t prevent all ACE Scores, what do we do? We change the focus. We need to understand crisis wiring, support it and help people to let go of the hair trigger that got them through whatever horrid things they grew up with. 16% of Americans have a score of 4 or more BEFORE Covid-19. We now have a 20 or 25 year cohort that will have higher scores. Let’s not label them doomed or damaged. Let’s talk about it and help people to understand.

I read a definition of misery memoirs today. I don’t scorn them. I don’t like the fake ones. I don’t read them, though I did read Angela’s Ashes. What I thought was amazing about Angela’s Ashes is that for me he captures the child attitude of accepting what is happening: when his sibling is dying and they see a dog get killed and he associates the two. And when he writes about moving and how their father would not carry anything, because it was shameful for a man to do that. He takes it all for granted when he is little because that is what he knows. One book that I know of that makes a really difficult childhood quite amazing is Precious Bane, by Mary Webb. Here is a visible disability that marks her negatively and yet she thrives.

A friend met at a conference is working with traumatic brain injury folks. They were starting a study to measure ACE scores and watch them heal, because they were noticing the high ACE score people seem to recover faster. I can see that: I would just say, another miserable thing and how am I going to work through it. Meanwhile a friend tells me on the phone that it’s “not fair” that her son’s senior year of college is spoiled by Covid-19. I think to myself, uh, yes but he’s not in a war zone nor starving nor hit by a tsunami and everyone is affected by this and he’s been vaccinated. I think he is very lucky. What percentage of the world has gotten vaccinated? He isn’t on a ventilator. Right now, that falls under doing well and also lucky in my book. And maybe that is what the high ACE score people have to teach the low ACE score people: really, things could be a lot worse. No, I don’t trust easily and I am no longer feeling sorry about it. I have had a successful career in spite of my ACE score, I ran a clinic in the way that felt ethical to me, I have friends who stick with me even through PANDAS and my children are doing well. And I am not addicted to anything except I’d get a caffeine headache for a day if I had none.

For the people with the good childhood, the traumatic brain injury could be their first terrible experience. They go through the stages of grief. The high ACE score people do too, but we’ve done it before, we are familiar with it, it’s old territory, yeah ok jungle again, get the machete out and move on. As the world gets through Covid-19, with me still thinking that this winter looks pretty dark, maybe we can all learn about ACE scores and support each other and try to be kind, even to the scary looking veteran.

Take care.

light on water

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: security.

How can light on water be security? What is secure?

When I think of security, I think outdoors. The ocean will change and change and change, moment to moment and day to day. The light changes with each wave and the wind. But the ocean is still present. And water also represents the unconscious for me. All the things under the surface, all that depth, an infinite place of exploration: the water, the earth, the sky, the universe. For me, security is the internal exploration and the outdoors, which is so vast, there for me always. The poetry of nature.


the virtue of the disconnect

the virtue of the disconnect
learnt early
as a child

they say we are broken
wired wrong
enduring horror

he wakes at night
sleeps lightly

what was your childhood like?
how did you sleep?

it was not safe
we had to get up
leave in the night
gunshots

you survived your childhood

yes, I did

sleeping lightly saved you

yes, it did

you could rewire that
it takes a lot of time
to change the childhood wiring

or you could just
be ok

with sleeping lightly

all sounds become music

I am in RainShadow Chorale. My father was one of the people who started it in 1997.  I moved to Port Townsend in 2000, because my mother had cancer. She died in May of 2000. My father died in 2013. I had the joy of singing with him in this group for 13 years.

Our concert is weekend after next and I really love this one. We are doing a wild mix of pieces and moods with the theme from a Walt Whitman poem. In this time of so many people being afraid and angry and stirred up, going to chorus is healing. All of these people, unpaid, coming together to create these two concerts of beauty and unity and joy. A gift to each other and a gift to the community.

Ticket information on the website.

Why is she really here?

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: object. I strenuously and loudly object to medicine meaning pills.

During my three months temp job at a nearby Army Hospital in 2010, I wanted to work with residents, Family Practice doctors in training. I finished residency in 1996 and have worked in rural clinics and hospitals for 14 years. I want more rural family practice doctors and I agitated to work with the residents in training.

The Family Practice Department had actually hired me to do clinic. They are swamped and trying to hire temporary and permanent providers as quickly as they can. Six different temp companies called me about the same job, so the word is definitely out.

Initially the department head explained that I was there to do clinic, but she changed her mind. I was cheerful about the electronic medical records. Learning a new electronic medical record is awful, but I was happy to be there, excited about working with residents and in a hospital more than 16 times as big as my usual small town hospital. Most importantly, I was patient with the computer. I have finally realized that computers don’t actually speak English. They speak computer and they are dumb as rocks and they make no effort to understand what I am saying. They don’t care. So it is no use getting mad at the dumb thing when it crashes or when it doesn’t do what I want: I have to go find someone who knows the exact language that the stupid machine will understand.

Since I was cheerful, my department head let me do what I want. I was on the clinic schedule every day, but it was empty. I would arrive and see walk-in active duty people from 6:30 to 8:00. At the same time, I would email the department head and ask what I was doing that day. Half the time, a physician was sick or had a family crisis, so she would move people around and put me with the residents. If not, I would open clinic.

I enjoyed the “Attending Room” duty. Family Practice Residents have their MD but then go through three years of training. The first year residents must precept every clinic patient. That is, they see the person and then come discuss the case with the faculty. Second year residents were required to precept two patients per half day and third year residents had to do one; and all obstetric cases were precepted.

Back when I was in residency and the dinosaurs roamed the earth, no one ever read any of my notes. This has changed. Every note that is precepted must be read by the attending and co-signed. After three years hating the electronic medical record that my small hospital bought, it was very interesting to see a different system. In some ways it was better and in some worse.

We had one or two “Attendings” in the faculty room, no more than three residents per attending. One case stands out, more because of the resident than the patient. He was a first year.

He described an elderly woman in her 80s, there for headaches. Two weeks of headaches, getting a bit worse. History of present illness, past medical history, medicines, allergies, family history, social history and the physical exam. He said, “She’s tried tylonol and ibuprofen, but they aren’t helping that much.” He frowned. “She doesn’t seem to want another medicine.”

“No?” I said.

“No.” he said. “I started to talk about medicines. It doesn’t sound like migraines and she doesn’t have anything that’s really worrisome for a tumor……but she doesn’t seem to want a headache medicine.”

“Why is she really here?”

He looked more confused. “What do you mean?”

“Why is she really here?”

“I don’t know.”

“You already said why. Think about the history.” He frowned. I said, “Ok, you said that she was worried that she was going to have a stroke. Are these headaches likely to be a precursor of a stroke?”

“No.”

“Right. But that is why she’s here, because that is what she’s worried about. Look at her blood pressure, see what her last cholesterol was, talk to her about what symptoms ARE worrisome for strokes. Find out if a family member or friend has had a recent stroke. She doesn’t need a medicine. She is here for reassurance.”

“Oh.” he said. He left and came back.

“How did it go?”

“She was happy. She didn’t want a medicine. Her blood pressure is great, her cholesterol is great, we talked about strokes and she left.”

“That’s real medicine. Forget the diagnosis if the visit seems confusing. Ask yourself what is your patient worried about? What are they afraid of? Don’t focus on giving people medicine all the time. Ask yourself, why are they really here?”

And that is why I wanted to work with residents. It’s not all diagnosis and treatment. It is people and thinking about what they want and what they are worried about.

Why is she really here?

__________________________________

previously published on everything2.com
According to dictionary.com, precept is a noun. Medical school and residency have verbed it. Hey, get updated, dictionary.com!

off

every time I turn something off

I turn the television off in 2011
I turn Facebook off for a while
for days
I turn the computer off every morning
I turn the radio off
the stereo off
the lights off
the heat off

I sit

I listen to the wind
the birds
the sounds

I feel the wind
the rain
the ice
the sun

I touch
the earth

she is present
alert
awake
listening

she touches me back