Practicing Conflict

An essay from my church talks about the writer avoiding conflict, fearing conflict and disliking conflict. This interests me, because I do not avoid conflict, I don’t fear conflict and actually, I like it. Our emeritus minister once did a sermon in which he said that when you are thinking about two conflicting things at once, that is grace. I have thought about his words many times, especially when I am not in agreement about something.

Does this interest in conflict mean I fight all the time? Well, sort of, but not in the way you think. I don’t fight with other people much. I fight myself.

What? No, really. Most topics have multiple sides. Not one, not two, but many. Like a dodecahedron or a cut gem. Hold it up to the light, twelve sides, each different. I argue the different sides with myself.

I learned this from my parents. My parents would disagree about something, they would discuss or argue about it, and then they would bet. Sometimes they bet a penny, sometimes a quarter, sometimes one million dollars. Then one of them would get up and get the Oxford English Dictionary, or the World Atlas, or some other reference and look it up. This was pre-internet, ok? 1970s and 1980s.

Sometimes my parents would even pay each other. The penny or quarter. My father spoke terrible French and my mother had lived in Paris for a year after high school, so he could get her going by insisting that his French was correct. It wasn’t. Ever.

There were other arguments in the middle of the night that were not friendly and involved yelling, but the daytime disagreements were funny and they would both laugh.

Once my sister is visiting after my mother has died. My father is present. My father, sister and I get in a three way disagreement about physics. I’m a physician, my sister was a Landscape Architect and my father was a mathematician/engineer, so we are all three talking through our hats. However, we happily argue our positions. Afterwards, my gentleman friend says, “That was weird.” “What?” I ask. “That was competitive and you were all arguing.” “It was a discussion and we disagreed.” “I won’t compete.” “We let my dad win, because it makes him happy.” “That was weird.” “Ok, whatever.”

My gentleman friend is also shocked when my teen son challenges me at dinner. My son says, “I am researching marijuana and driving for school and there isn’t much evidence that it impairs driving.”  I reply, “Well, there is not as easy a test as an alcohol test and it was illegal, so it has not been studied.” We were off and having a discussion.

Afterwards my gentleman friend says, “I am amazed by your son bringing that up. We weren’t allowed to discuss anything like that at dinner.” I say, “We pretty much discuss anything at dinner and both my kids are allowed to try to change my mind. About going to a party or whatever.” He shakes his head. “That is really different.” “Ok,” I say.

This habit of challenging authority, including adults, did not go over well when my son was an exchange student to Thailand. It did not occur to me to talk to him about it. He figured it out pretty quickly.

Back to my internal arguments. If I take a position, I almost immediately challenge it. I think of it as the old cartoons, with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The devil will make fun of things and suggest revenges and generally behave really badly. The angel will rouse and say, “Hey, you aren’t being nice.” Then they fight. The internal battle very quickly becomes comic with the two of them trading insults and bringing up past fights and fighting unfairly. When it makes me laugh inside, I can also be over the driver who cut me off, or someone who spoke nastily, or whatever. My devil is very very creative about suggested revenges. When the angel says, “You are meaner than the person who cut you off!” I am over it.

When I was little and disagreeing with my family, my sister could tell. “You have your stone face on!” That meant I was attempting to hide a feeling, especially fear or anger or grief. Siblings and family are the most difficult because they can read us and see through us like glass. My physician training also teaches control of feelings. I have sometimes wanted to grab a patient and scream “Why are you doing this to yourself?” but that really is not part of the doctor persona. I am doing it inside, but I can put it aside until later. Then the devil goes to town! And the angel tries to calm the devil down.

Maybe we all need more of this skill. Pick a mildly controversial topic. Argue one side of it. Then switch positions and argue the other side. Go back and forth until it gets ridiculous. Let each side get unreasonable and inflammatory and annoying. This can play in your head and not on your face. Once you can do a mild topic, move on to something a bit more difficult. If you only know the arguments on your side, read. You can find the other side, the internet is huge. Start gently.

A friend says, “You always argue about things.” I say, “I prefer to think of it as a discussion.” “You always take the other side.” “Well, it interests me. And if there is no one to discuss something with, I discuss it with myself!” “Weirdo,” says the friend. I think he’s jealous, really I do. Don’t you?

how doctors think, a dual pathway

A friend calls today and says that another person is bleeding and yet they have been set up to be seen Monday. Why isn’t this an emergency?

Based on the limited information the friend tells me, I agree with the doctors. It is NOT an emergency and I explain why. It is uncomfortable for the person because it may be cancer. Why is that not an emergency?

Let’s use chest pain in the emergency room as an example. Doctors have two brain tracks that are triggered simultaneously by every patient. The first one is “What could kill this person in the next five minutes?” The second is “What is common?” Common things are common and more likely. In medical school the really rare things are nicknamed zebras. You know there are a lot of horses but you can’t miss the zebra. I suppose that in Africa the common things are zebras and the rare ones are orcas or something like that.

Anyhow, the killers for chest pain are heart attacks, sudden death. But there could also be a dissecting aortic aneurysm, where the largest artery in the body is tearing. That person can bleed to death really really fast and that is a surgical emergency. No doctor wants to miss it. There could be a pulmonary embolism, a clot blocking the lung. Chest pain could be from a cancer. A very rare chest pain is from the valve leaflets in the heart tearing so that the person goes in to flash pulmonary edema. And there is Takayasu’s Arteritis, “broken heart syndrome”, where the heart suddenly balloons in size and again, heart failure ensues. Heart failure is actually pump failure, so fluid backs up in the lungs or the legs or both. It is usually slow but rarely very fast and dramatic. A collapsed lung can also cause a lot of pain. And my list is still not complete, I haven’t mentioned pericarditis or myocarditis or a compression fracture.

The common things do include heart attacks, but also anxiety, musculoskeletal problems, inflamed cartilage of the chest wall, fibromyalgia flares, broken ribs, trauma and other things. I was very puzzled in clinic by a woman with pain on both sides of her lower chest wall. In front but cutting through her chest. I ruled out many things. I thought that it was her diaphragm. I sent her to a rehab doctor for help. The rehab doctor sent her to radiology. She had a compression fracture of her spine and the nerves were sending pain messages on both sides. That was not even on my “differential diagnosis” list, because she had no back pain at all. My list changed that day.

Physicians and nurse practitioners and physicians assistants and registered nurses and licensed practical nurses and medical assistants are all trained to think of this differential diagnosis. We are alerted by the history and have to think down both pathways. Last year working as a temporary doctor, the medical assistant came to me saying, “This patient’s blood pressure is 80/60.” “Is he conscious?” I asked, as I went straight for the room. “Yes, he’s talking.” He WAS talking, which means that he’s gotten to 80/60 slowly or is used to it. His heart rate was fast, up near 120. I immediately had him drink water and keep drinking, as soon as he denied chest pain. The problem was dehydration: he was developmentally delayed and had only had one cup of fluid that day and it was now midafternoon. I spent time explaining that he needed 8 cups each day. Not more than that, because if he had too much fluid, it would lower his sodium and make his muscles weak. Most days he drank 3-4 cups. His chart graphed the problem: some days he had normal blood pressure and a normal heart rate. Other days his blood pressure was below normal and his heart rate was fast, his heart trying to make up for the low level of fluid. Cars don’t do so well when there is almost no oil, do they? His kidneys were affected as well. I asked him to drink the 8 cups a day, discussed the size of the cup (not 8 gallons, please) and then recheck labs in 2 weeks. If his kidneys did not improve, he would need a kidney specialist. It turned out that he had nearly fainted that morning in the waiting room. His group home person admitted that no one had noticed that he really was not drinking fluid. I thought that the patient understood and would try to drink a better amount of fluid.

So back to the person I was called about. Infection has been ruled out. This is blood in the urine. A kidney stone has been ruled out, but there is something in the kidney. This is urgent, but if the person is not bleeding hard, it is not emergent. When there is blood in the urine it does not take very much to turn it red. If there is a lot of blood, that can be an emergency, but from the story I got third person, it’s not very much. The emergency things are ruled out but there is still not a clear diagnosis. Yes, cancer is one of the possibilities but it could also be benign. Now a specialist is needed to figure out the next step and the differential diagnosis, the list of things it could be. They will order tests in the same dual order: what could kill this person quickly and what do we need to rule out as common? People often can be very anxious during this period, which is normal. The person says, “I don’t care what it ISN’T, I want to know what it IS.” But sometimes it is a zebra and it takes a while to get to that specific test.

Another example is a woman that I sent to the eye doctor. The optometrist thought it was something rare and bad. He sent her to the opthamologist, who ruled out the first thing, but thought it was something else rare and bad. He sent her to a retinal specialist. The retinal specialist ruled out the second rare and bad thing and said, “No, you have something very rare that is benign.” My patient said, “I have three diagnoses. Who do I believe?” I replied, “No, you have one. The optometrist knew it was unusual and sent you to an eye doctor. The eye doctor know it was unusual and sent you to an even more specialized eye doctor (a “sub specialist”. We keep them in basements.) Now you have a diagnosis. It was a scary process, but I think you should focus on the third opinion because hey, she said it’s benign and it won’t hurt you! That is the best outcome!” She thought about it and agreed. The process was frightening but the conclusion could not have been better.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: disquieting.

Adverse Childhood Experiences 13: unsense

As a child in an alcoholic/addict household where you can not trust adults, who do you trust?

You either trust yourself or you buy in the alcohol story.

If you buy in, you have a high probability of either becoming an addict or marrying one, depending if you prefer the enabler or the enablee role.

If you trust yourself, you develop certain senses. You pay attention to people’s emotions. You pay attention to what people FEEL, what people DO and not what people SAY. You do not care what they say: what matters is what they do. My sister said she used to walk my parent’s house during high school and try to feel the mood. Did she need to hide?

The enabler role is trying to control the other person. There are amazing variations on this. I cared for a person whose sister would not take care of herself. Every time the sister is hospitalized, the person goes and cleans tons of garbage and rotted food from the apartment.

“Stop doing that,” I say, “You are enabling her. Call Adult Protective Services to go look at it instead.”

It can be very difficult to stop and can take years. People can change.

I have noticed that the enabler role is lethal. The enablers seem to die before the enablee. Certainly in my immediate family and with many patients too.

Enablee is the person controlled. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, anger, emotions. It is very very interesting to watch. I have read parts of my mother’s diaries. She was the enabler, with my father as the enablee. However, the diaries document them fighting in the middle of the night when he is drunk. And I remember high school, putting the pillow over my ears, because they were screaming at each other.

But wait. Why would she argue with her drunk husband? Why would anyone argue with a drunk person? You have to wait until they are sober.

And slowly I realize that my mother too was an alcoholic. I remember her drinking. Best cover for an alcoholic is a worse alcoholic, right? It’s fairly horrid. But it explains some stories and my food insecurity. They would not get up in the morning to feed me. My mother told stories of me trying to feed myself: cheerios and laundry soap. If my father was hung over, ok, but, why wouldn’t my mother get up? I think they were both hung over. That or else she really did not want a child. Especially a nine month old with opinions while she was trying to get over tuberculosis. She never got to hold me after birth until 9 months. And then I did not want her. I wanted her mother.

Trusting yourself, life can be a bit complicated. You sense the emotions others are hiding. Being a physician allows me to ask about the hidden things, very gently. Sometimes they come out right away. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes years and sometimes never. My sister and I discussed going to parties and thinking, oh, that person is the child of an addict/alcoholic. This person is in pain. This person is quite happy but hiding stuff.

I told a counselor I do not know how to turn it off. She replies, “Why do you think I am a counselor?”

I don’t see auras. I feel things: like a cloud. Like a tiger, like a bear, like a whale, singing.

I think I will go with the whale.

Covid-19: masks work, we figured that out YEARS ago

I was thinking about masks and the whole “masks don’t work” or “masks are unproven*” thing. That is complete and utter crap. We proved masks work YEARS ago.

If they don’t work, do you mind if your surgeon don’t wear one? What about your nurse with a cough when you are in the ICU? I think we have proved quite definitively in the operating room that masks work.

Also, your family doc and OBgyn ain’t gonna NOT wear a mask when delivering baby because it can be REALLY SPLASHY. And some patients who are delivering a baby have hepatitis B or HIV or hepatitis C or whatever. WE DO NOT WANT TO CATCH IT SO WE WEAR MASKS. MASKS WORK.

And take tuberculosis. Tuberculosis bacillus is tiny and can be air borne, if you have active tuberculosis and cough. We use reverse flow rooms in the hospital with an airlock: a door to a small entry room, that has to close before you enter the inner patient room. And the air is slightly lower pressure so that air comes in from the airlock but doesn’t flow out. All the air out of the room is filtered to catch and kill the tuberculosis bacillus. We go in the airlock and put on nearly full gear: gown, gloves, mask, hair covers, shoe covers. When we come out, we take it all off in the airlock. We also keep a stethoscope in the room so that we don’t carry infection from patient to patient.

So the whole anti mask thing seems categorically insane to me.

Like, didn’t we figure out masks work back before the civil war? Or thereabouts. No, maybe later than that. Without masks and gloves we had all the women with post baby fever, who died like flies and most people died of infection after surgery. Until that coke addict at Johns Hopkins made people wear clean clothes and wash their damn hands before each surgery and wear gloves. Suddenly people survived post surgery at a much higher rate. Everyone came to train with him to imitate him. By 1897 everyone was wearing gloves to prevent infection. And so a brilliant coke addict invented medical residency, which is why residents are not allowed to sleep. We’ve gotten over that a bit.

Anyhow: masks work. Think, people, think.

*Usually the unnews qualifies this as “masks are not PROVEN to work with Covid-19”. What, you want a ten year clinical trial first? Are you crazy? And the resounding answer is “YES! We are crazy!”

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: December. Because everyone should have figured out masks by now.

On covid-19

I am going to post a series of short essays I wrote on another site at the end of 2020. Because we have to work together and these are relevant. I will post one every day or two.

From Tuesday November 24, 2020:

I have just had a call asking for a Covid-19 test.

Not for symptoms.

Nope. Traveled from Washington to California with a buddy and “My sister thinks I should be tested.”

Me: “Oh, does your sister want you tested before you come to Thanksgiving?”

Patient: “Uh, I think so.”

Me: “First of all, the priority is for people who have symptoms or have been exposed. Secondly I am not ordering a test for someone who has no symptoms, chose to travel and then thinks it’s ok to go to a Thanksgiving dinner in another household if they get a negative. It’s not ok. You can test negative one day and be shedding virus the next. The quarantine after exposure is 14 days. The medical advice from the CDC, from the surgeon general and from me is STAY HOME.”

Others are asking for antibody tests. We don’t know if the antibodies mean you aren’t infectious. We don’t know how long they last. Typically with other covid viruses they don’t last long. In contrast, chicken pox virus gives lifelong immunity. We don’t know if a person can get Covid-19 again, though there have already been some cases. No, I won’t do an antibody test because the person “Just wants to know.”

STAY HOME STAY HOME STAY HOME.

The introverted thinker on the playground

My daughter is an introverted thinker. Sometimes this is extremely entertaining.

When she was in first grade she came home part way through the year and said, “I want to get my hair cut like a boy.” “Short?” I said. “Yes,” she said. I didn’t think about it too much but made an appointment. I thought it was because she has that fine tangly hair that is really difficult to comb.

On the way to the salon, my intuition kicked in and I realized that something was up. She was in that deep abstraction mode, thinking.
I said, “Why do you want to get your hair cut like a boy?”
Her reply, “The boys chase the girls on the playground.”
Hmmmm.
“Do they chase you?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“They are not sure if I am a boy or a girl.”
“You don’t want them to be sure?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“There is another class that gets to recess before us. They get the tire swing. They have a club that is all boys. They won’t let us use the tire swing.”
“You are going to fool them. Okay.” I sat back to see how she would proceed with whatever plan she had regarding the tire swing.

She had her hair cut very short. The next morning she chose hand-me-downs from her brother. A rugby shirt, a navy blue sweatshirt, flannel lined thick jeans and his old hiking boots. She had never worn any of them before and her usual preference was pink. I took her to school. She went into her class and just went to stand by some other children, not saying anything at all. They commented on her haircut.

I went to the principal and described my daughter’s plan, mostly because I thought it was quite brilliant. He said, “Oh, we have to do something about this.” I said, “I wasn’t trying to get anyone to interfere.” He said, “No, but we have a playground policy. They are allowed to have clubs, but they are not allowed to exclude anyone. In other words, no ‘boys only’ clubs. We will hold an assembly to remind them.”

So for a seven year old introverted thinker on the playground, a problem required careful thought and a plan, which she then carried out. I liked the approach of challenging gender. As far as I could tell it did not occur to her to ask for help. I do wonder at times what other plans she is implementing.

She did get to use the tire swing. Then she went back to wearing pink.