Lessons Medicine Nonfiction Reflection

Centered and Ostensibly Serene.

The nights from that time run together in my memory: The cuffs of my scrub pants getting caught on the heels of my clogs because my pants were sagging; stuffing dry graham crackers I stole from the nursing stations into my mouth at 4am to stay awake while writing notes; what seemed like my pager buzzing against my hip every five minutes; feeling the enormous specter of unending work overtaking me and wondering if I had any remaining skills to gird myself; recognizing the sadness and anger churning within me as I witnessed and listened to tragedies, then shoving the emotions away because there just wasn’t any time I didn’t want to cry I just needed to get through a few more notes I just wanted to sleep of the mistaken belief that if I ignored how I felt, I would be okay.

“Hey, you! You coming to talk to me?” The Big Man shouted.

“No,” I replied. “I’m going to talk with your neighbor.”

“What? But then you’re gonna talk to me, right?”

“I have two other people to talk to first, but, yes, I will talk to you after I talk with them.”

“But you’re gonna talk to me, too, right?”


I had just finished introducing myself to The Patient and was asking his name when The Big Man, just three feet over and behind a reinforced steel door, started yelling at me: “You lying bitch! You said you’d talk to me!” The Big Man began pounding on the door with his big fist.

The banging reverberated throughout the entire unit. Another inmate on the other side of the unit began banging his door in protest.

I sighed and rolled my invisible eyes.

BANG BANG BANG “I’m sorry,” I said to The Patient. He nodded and came closer to his door. I did the same. “I will try to keep this short, but I do want to hear what you have to say.” BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG “It’s okay,” The Patient replied. BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG “Are you in any physical pain right now?” BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG He tilted his head, telling me without words that he couldn’t hear what I said. BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG “Are you in any physical pain?” I asked again, nearly shouting. BANG BANG BANG


BANG BANG BANG “My feet,” The Patient answered, raising his voice. “I have blisters.” BANG BANG BANG

He pointed down at his feet. The puffy blisters were evidence of ill-fitting shoes. The Patient reached down, grabbed a sandal, and threw it in the direction of The Big Man. BANG BANG BANG “Stop it, man.” BANG BANG BANG I watched it sail past me and bounce in front of The Big Man’s door.

BANG BANG BANG “Do you want me to get that for you?” I asked, recognizing that the pair of sandals were now separated. BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG The Patient chuckled. “No,” he answered, a small smile on his face. “I only had one, anyway.” BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG “Do you want another pair?” BANG BANG BANG


BANG BANG BANG “No, I’d rather have a pair of socks,” The Patient replied. BANG BANG BANG

BANG BANG BANG “I’ll get you a pair.” BANG BANG BANG

Despite the increasing rate and volume of The Big Man’s fist hitting the door, The Patient and I both ignored him. It was clear that we had both mastered this skill at some point earlier in our lives. The Patient made it look effortless; his face was calm and his voice was even. Even though he had thrown his shoe, his limbs did not become tense again.

The Patient told me about his health, asked me to call his counselor, and, when I ended our conversation only a few minutes later due to the noise, he thanked me.

BANG BANG BANG “No, thank you,” I said, smiling. “I appreciate your patience. I will try to talk with you again later. Maybe we will have better luck.” BANG BANG BANG

I didn’t look at The Big Man as I turned away. He stopped banging when I had walked a mere ten feet away from them. I then rolled my actual eyeballs. I knew that was when he would stop.

The stress of internship and residency most certainly contributed to my current abilities to stay centered and ostensibly serene in the midst of chaos. We all had to learn how to manage ourselves in the face of death, disease, and distress. Sometimes our efforts were successful; sometimes we felt embarrassed because we believed our efforts failed.

I learned how to show myself more kindness during residency. This wasn’t a conscious choice. Three things happened:

  1. In learning how to provide psychotherapy to others, I learned how to apply these skills to my own life.
  2. I couldn’t contain the sadness and anger that churned within me as I witnessed and listened to tragedies. Sometimes I cried in the bathroom. Most of the time I wept at home.
  3. People—and more often than not, patients—demonstrated grace and kindness during these moments of heartbreak. They often exhibited a capacity to accept their circumstances and show compassion, despite their physical or psychological pain.

I felt my chest fill with grief as I walked away from The Patient and The Big Man.

What happened to The Big Man? When and how did he learn the only way to get his needs met is to destroy silence?

What happened to The Patient? When and how did he learn to show grace and respect in the midst of hateful noise?

I didn’t cry because, this time, I didn’t shove the emotions away.

Lessons Nonfiction Reflection Systems

Phone Calls.

I don’t miss making the phone calls in the middle of the night.

“Hi, this is Dr. Yang calling from the Psychiatric Emergency Service. May I speak to Mr. or Mrs. Doe?”

“Yeah, this is Mr. Doe,” he’d reply, his voice thick and slow with sleep.

“I’m sorry to call so late. Your son is here at the hospital.” Take a breath and slow down for the next part. “He’s alive and doing okay at this moment”—I quickly learned that it is important to say these words at the start of the call—“but I hope to get some information from you about him.”

I have marveled at the grace people have extended to me during these conversations. Sometimes family members have grown accustomed to these 2am calls and their voices sound not only physically sleepy, but also psychologically exhausted. Sometimes family members have never received this phone call, but their voices remain calm with only the occasional quaver while they talk.

These days, it’s “Dr. Yang calling from the jail”. Though I’m not making these phone calls in the middle of the night, it is questionable that these are better phone calls.

It is a blessing when family members are still involved, when there’s someone I can call. The person in question is usually a male in his 20s. He often has reached desirable milestones: Maybe he just graduated from high school or is in college. His primary health issue is the mental health condition—often bipolar disorder or schizophrenia—and he’s otherwise healthy. He is often able to tell me about a family member who loves him, even if what he tells me doesn’t make a lot of sense in the moment.

For so many others under my care, there’s no one to call:

  • “They died.”
  • “I don’t want anything to do with them.”
  • “I don’t know where they are.”

Sometimes the person in question is much older. In some ways, these phone calls are more tragic:

  • “I’m in my 70s now and I’m the process of moving my wife into a memory care facility….”
  • “My husband has already died and I worry who will take care of my son when I go. He still needs a lot of help.
  • “Thank you for calling, Doctor, but it doesn’t seem like anything will change. I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years now.”

I marvel at the grace people have extended to me during these conversations, too. For some of these family members, they’ve had dozens of these conversations with many other doctors, nurses, counselors, and social workers. They know what questions I will ask; their answers are succinct because others have interrupted them in the past; they have lists of information already prepared to send.

Almost without fail, after I thank these family members for their help and then comment on the difficulty of the situation, they cry. Sometimes the sobs that escape their throats surprise them.

“I’m sorry,” they mumble. I can hear them wipe the tears from their faces with haste.

I’m sorry that we can’t do better for your son. I’m sorry that the science hasn’t advanced enough that we can prevent this from ever happening to your son ever again. I’m sorry that your son is in jail when he should be in a hospital. I’m sorry that your hopes and dreams for your son haven’t come true. I’m sorry that few people know the depth of the worry you have for your son. I’m sorry that these systems fail you and your son. I’m sorry that your love for your son isn’t enough to save him from these systems.

“Please, don’t apologize,” I say instead.

I wonder why.

Homelessness Lessons Medicine NYC Observations Reflection Seattle

The Kind of Energy We Send Out to the World.

I have been writing; I just haven’t posted anything here. These days, it seems that we cannot escape increasing types of noise and their loud volumes. It’s not all noise, but the signals are overwhelming.

It was a busy teaching week for me: I had the privilege to speak at two community clinics and a public hospital. In all three presentations I commented on the tension between “the system” and our efforts as individuals. When we’re trying to provide care and services to individuals, sometimes the constraints of “the system” interfere with our efforts: Sometimes fiscal concerns reign supreme; sometimes the bureaucracy is inflexible; sometimes the system does not have noble intentions. We grumble, we get angry, we feel helpless.

When we’re trying to design “the system” to provide care and services, sometimes the constraints of people interfere with our efforts: Sometimes there aren’t enough people; sometimes people make mistakes; sometimes people do not have noble intentions. We grumble, we get angry, we feel helpless.

The two, of course, are related: People design systems. People work within systems. People can change systems.

People also have values. Sometimes we find that our values clash with those of the systems we work and live in. That doesn’t mean that we must defer to the values of the system. It takes courage to resist. To show our values to the world without flinching is an act of bravery.

While speaking, I told a story about my first boss when I finally started working as an attending psychiatrist. Our jobs included working with people who were homeless in New York City.

“I want people who don’t have a place to live to get excellent care,” he said, perhaps talking more to himself than to me. “Good care shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to pay a psychiatrist who works out of a plush office on Park Avenue. People who don’t have money should have access to and get good care, too.”

“These are choices under our control,” I said to the audience yesterday, perhaps talking more to myself than to them. “Even though system pressures are very real, you can choose to give good care to the people who come here for help. You can treat people with dignity and respect, particularly if they are people of color with very low incomes. They might not get dignity or respect elsewhere.”

Perhaps my exhortations sound naive. Perhaps cynicism will triumph over virtue. However, I refuse to embrace cynicism. Cynicism makes for terrible company. Life is already full of challenges; we do not need negative soundtracks to accompany us as we travel through life. What we do affects others. What we say can inspire others.

We have responsibility for the kind of energy we send out to the world.