Categories
COVID-19 Medicine Nonfiction

Stairwell as Sanctuary.

Old, concrete stairwell with brightly-lit windows in the background.
Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata. This stairwell looks similar to the one I frequently used for myriad reasons while I was in residency training.

I wrote the following op-ed in late July, though never submitted it for publication: While I share an opinion, I don’t offer any solutions (and none have come to mind since then). Since President Biden has announced that the pandemic is over, now is the time to share this essay.


There is a stairwell or bathroom in every health care setting that has served as a sanctuary for medical professionals. We hold our breath and stifle our sobs while we stride towards the sanctuary; we wish to get there before anyone sees us weep. The tears fall because we learn a vulnerable patient died. A cherished colleague is leaving. A faceless health insurance reviewer has denied treatment. We run out of options to help someone because of choices an institution made. We wish we knew more, could do more.

As health care professionals, we are familiar with disappointment and sadness. Both are a part of our training and professional experience. We, however, are now experiencing enormous, unprecedented loss. Like ripples on a lake, our reactions to this loss will radiate forth and touch everyone in our communities.

The loss of life from the Covid pandemic looms over us. Over one million people in the United States have died from SARS-CoV2; we provided care to them in clinics, homeless shelters, jails, crisis centers, emergency departments, and hospitals. The individuals did not only die from Covid; others died from social consequences of the pandemic. Under- and untreated medical problems took away quality and quantity of life. Drinking, smoking, and injecting in doses too large offered relief from pain that defied description. Suicide seemed like the best choice among miserable options. We said their names and saw their faces, even as ours were covered with masks and goggles. Out of respect for patient privacy, we do not share these stories. In silence, we think of those who have died. This silence grows because we cannot find words to describe the shape, size, and saturation of our growing grief.

Even if we are able to share our sorrow, we have fewer colleagues around to listen. Diminishing clinical guidance, financial resources, and infrastructure support for health care professionals caused nearly 20% of us to either flee or flame out. (We understand why they left. We think about leaving, too.) Some retired early, others left for jobs that require less contact with distress and disease. They took with them their experience and expertise, which helped not only patients, but also us. Still others, recognizing already limited support dwindling further, took advantage of market forces and took jobs that were circumscribed in time and substantial in compensation. Health care delivery largely occurs in teams. When team members turn over frequently, the lack of team trust and cohesion often erodes the quality of care patients receive.

Earlier in the pandemic, we viewed the CDC as a part of our health care teams, as they have what many of us who work in safety net settings don’t have: Authority, public health expertise, and resources, including time to read and think. Over time, the CDC let us down: Instead of providing reliable and proactive leadership, it dithered. The CDC’s inaction forced individual agencies and clinicians to craft guidance. Why was a psychiatrist left to lead a public health response for a homelessness services agency? We wanted concrete guidance to keep people healthy and out of hospitals; we received a meager menu that deferred to the whims of politics and skeptics. We wanted tests and data to decrease disease spread and deaths; the CDC delayed sending out both laboratory and rapid tests. Recall that wealthy individuals and companies remained at home and procured tests with ease. Meanwhile, people labeled essential workers were treated as inessential: They could not access tests to protect themselves or their families. The CDC betrayed those of us who provide health care; we thus betrayed those who entrusted us with their health.

Health care workers must leave the stairwell or bathroom when our crying stops. Our tears may end, but the needs of patients do not. Physicians experiencing distress may be more prone to making medical errors. Fewer health care workers and disruptions of teams increases the work burden on those who remain, which increases their exhaustion and heartbreak. Without reliable guidance and leadership from a health authority like the CDC, we are unable to deliver unified, coherent health care. This will adversely impact not only the experiences of people who are ill, but will also result in population outcomes no one wants: More disease, more suffering, and more death. It may be too late to reverse this vicious cycle. We wish that we knew more, could do more.

Categories
Consult-Liaison Medicine

Coping Skills.

Grayscale photo of 11 tall clocks all reading the same time within a grove of trees.
Photo by Pixabay

I recently had a dental procedure that involved local anesthesia. I watched the dentist do her work through the reflection on the examination light. Though I didn’t see the drill, my entire head vibrated from my mouth. The gel she swabbed on my teeth was dark purple; for a few moments, it looked like she had removed them. The tip of the light that bonded the composite material first glowed a neon yellow, then flashed into nightlight blue. I left the office with a facial deformity and a speech impediment, though, thankfully, both disappeared as the anesthetic wore off.

(Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are amazing.)

Dissociation is a useful coping skill at the dentist’s office. Though I was watching her work on the teeth in my mouth, the anesthetic left me feeling disjointed sensations: pressure and vibration, but no pain. Was this actually happening? My throat reflexively swallowed when the saliva began to pool; sometimes I tasted the metallic salinity of blood—my blood. But was this actually happening to me? My hands rested on my belly, like small boats of muscle, flesh, and bone floating on slow waves of abdominal breathing. A woman whose face I could not see was sanding down teeth. Were those actually my teeth?

When the dentist announced that she was done, I rejoined my body in space and time within one or two eyeblinks. Everything—except for the small, numb portion of my mouth—had reintegrated.

Problems arise when we only have one coping skill to deal with life’s myriad stressors. Imagine disconnecting from time during a job interview or separating from reality when a friend is in distress and needs your help. The interviewer may assume that you are inattentive or intoxicated. Your friend may come to believe that you are unreliable and unresponsive. Doors you wanted to walk through close.

Imagine that any time a challenge appears, the only way you can deal with it is by disconnecting in space, time, and identity. Gone are the abilities to ask for help, defend yourself, or protect people you care about. You just disappear.

Sometimes people end up relying on only one coping skill because it was the only skill that was useful—and lifesaving—in the past. Consider the child who grows up with a father who drinks large volumes of alcohol. When he starts roaring and the dishes shatter against walls near and far, hiding and dissociating are protective. And what if he drinks to this point of loathing and destruction most nights of the week? It seems safer to feel nothing at all rather than terror and tense muscles all the time.

The skills we use frequently—intentionally or not—are the skills we come to rely on.

Categories
Medicine Policy Public health psychiatry

Recent Readings.

(Note: There are two purposes to this post: One, to get back into a routine of writing and posting. Two, I moved my website to a different host (those of you viewing the actual website will see that the design is different). Because it will never be perfect (because what is?), I am posting as a public test to fix what needs to be fixed.)

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read recently, some of which are prompts for future posts here:

NPR: Stressed out about climate change? 4 ways to tackle both the feelings and the issues. I am largely unfamiliar with the literature on psychiatric conditions and climate change, though have read a paper or two (not recently) about the association of increased violence among people with increases in temperatures. I must also confess that that my current faith in psychiatry to address this in a practical way is brittle: Organized psychiatry (in the United States, at least) seemed unenthusiastic about supporting population mental health during the pandemic. Despite the urgent mental health consequences of Covid-19, organized psychiatry in the US seemed instead enamored with the topic in the next bullet point.

Wired: Is the Psychedelic Therapy Bubble About to Burst? A new paper argues that excitement has veered into misinformation—and scientists should be the ones to set things straight. I find myself feeling annoyed with the mushrooming ecstasy related to psilocybin and LSD (see what I did there?), among others. There are a number of reasons for this; I will be the first to state that some of my reasons are not valid. Much of my irritation stems from the limited evidence (at this time) to support psychedelics for more severe conditions, the limited number of people who can actually access this intervention (who can afford this? who has eight hours to spend with two therapists?), and why We as a Society do not instead invest in population-level interventions so fewer people will develop trauma-, depression-, and anxiety-related conditions (e.g., ensuring children aren’t hungry; supporting literacy and education so people have skills for employment; etc.).

The Hill: Suffering from burnout, doctors are working drunk or high on the job: report. A new report found the health care industry has been too slow to address its mental health crisis among doctors and nurses and often treats mental health as secondary to physical health. “Over the last three months, 1 in 7 physicians admitted to consuming alcohol or controlled substances at work.” This data came from interviews from a mental health company, so there’s potentially a lot of bias in the results. I am sorry to say, though, that I wasn’t surprised to learn this. Some health care workers were drinking or using controlled substances at work before the pandemic.

n+1: Lab-Leak Theory and the “Asiatic” Form. What is missing is a motive. I did not find this to be an easy read, though it engaged me enough that I was able to get through it. In short, the author, Andrew Liu, argues that the appeal of Covid-19 coming from a lab leak is a reflection of historical (and ongoing?) exoticization of the Orient, as well as fears of China’s economic power.

New York Times: Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police. and Truthout: I Stole to Feed My Family and Was Incarcerated. We Need Resources, Not Prisons. I am not an abolitionist, though there are days when I wish I could be successfully persuaded to become one. (This reflects what appears to be my declining idealism as I age.) To be clear, I do not think incarceration has been or is an effective solution for many (and maybe most?) behaviors and problems. This conclusion comes from my experience working in a jail and with people who are poor and marginalized. However, examples easily come to mind for how law enforcement and incarceration have had some value: Consider Jeffrey Epstein or Ted Bundy. I don’t know what the answer is, though I do not think either pole (e.g., police state or abolition) are useful or desired solutions. I am open to changing my mind. (Related: This Twitter thread on the role of child protective services.)

New Yorker: The Lottery. Shirley Jackson wrote this short story in 1948 and I only learned of it in 2022! If you’ve never heard of it before, please go read it: It has excellent structure, which helps drive the story to its haunting and disturbing conclusion.

Categories
COVID-19 Education Medicine Nonfiction Observations

Three Observations.

I. He was standing outside of the homeless shelter. The bouquet of bright tulips in his hand were splashes of color against the tired cement walls and grey skies.

A man staying in the shelter ambled towards him. “Hi,” he greeted, his eyes gazing at the buds of the young tulips. “Is today a good day or a bad day?”

The shelter manager laughed and warmly responded, “Why are you asking me that?”

“Because you got flowers….” the man said.

After a pause, the shelter manager reassured, “These are ‘congratulations’ flowers.”

“Oh, okay, good,” the man said. The wrinkles around his eyes revealed the smile that his mask obscured. “Congratulations.”


II. Earlier this year, I wrote:

We know from history that pandemics do not last forever. The 1918 flu pandemic lasted just over two years. The 2002 SARS outbreak was declared over in less than two years. The 2013 Ebola epidemic persisted for less than three years. All things change, all things end.

By the end of 2020, I had already read some literature about protecting mental health during epidemics. This information gave me confidence to share with others that, yes, pandemics do end in two to three years’ time.

Last month, I finally embraced “that the Covid pandemic will likely end for the majority of people in the US before it ends for those of us who work in and use safety net programs“. And only in the past week did I finally recognize that these past epidemics and pandemics of course did not end in two to three years. That just seems to be the duration of time that societies can tolerate abrupt social restrictions and consequences.

I interpreted the published timelines as start and end dates of biological phenomena.

I feel foolish for having done so. Time is an artificial construct, so of course the expiration dates of pandemics are artificial constructs, too.

Someone somewhere can explain why two to three years is the maximum amount of time that people and societies can tolerate drastic changes before reverting “back to normal”. Of course, there is no way any of us can ever go “back”, pandemic or not.


III. The author of this tweet has since deleted it for reasons that will be apparent (profile photo modified by yours truly):

The tweet is dehumanizing, but that’s not actually the chief reason why this struck me.

The author of this tweet is a Big Name in the field of psychiatry. He is the chair of a Fancy Pants psychiatry department at a Hoity-Toity institution. He’s published seminal papers in the field related to psychotic disorders.

Over ten years ago I completed a fellowship at this institution (this is not meant to be a humblebrag, I promise) and I have a distinct memory from when Dr. Big Name when he spoke at the graduation ceremony. He grasped both sides of the lectern, leaned forward in his dark suit, and glowered at the audience.

“As a graduate of This Place, you now have a responsibility to This Place. Whatever you say, whatever you do, is a reflection on us. Make sure you don’t ever do anything that will reflect poorly on This Place.”

It was strange and uncomfortable. His warning about reputation management during a rite of passage was, in of itself, something that didn’t reflect well on That Place. Which is exactly why this memory resurfaced when I saw his tweet.

May God spare all of us and may we all avoid these errors, in public and in private.

Categories
COVID-19 Homelessness Medicine Seattle

Surge.

When I was younger, my intention was to become an infectious disease doctor. Forces, seen and unseen, pulled me into psychiatry.

My undergraduate studies were in microbiology, virology, and immunology. Had someone told me twenty years ago that I would someday use that knowledge on a daily basis, I would have shrugged and said, “Well, that makes sense. That’s the plan, right?”

Had someone told me ten years ago that I would use knowledge from my undergraduate studies during a pandemic, I would have snorted: “But now I work as a psychiatrist. And a pandemic? What are you talking about?”

Had someone told me two years ago that I, as a psychiatrist, would be leading a public health response for a homelessness services agency during a global pandemic, I would have furrowed my brow: “What are you talking about?”

And here we are.

We’ve never had so many people—staff and patients—test positive for Covid at one time during the pandemic as we have in the past three days. Thankfully, most have had only mild symptoms and none, thus far, have needed hospital-level care.

The work we’re doing for Covid isn’t as intense or heartbreaking as the work my colleagues are doing in emergency departments and hospitals. Never before had I thought that a homelessness services agency could play a vital role in prevention and early intervention.

And here we are.

Throughout the pandemic, our team has framed our efforts as one way to keep people out of emergency departments and hospitals. These could be our humble contribution to our colleagues working in inpatient settings. We have been largely successful, though I worry that our luck is running out.

We continue to witness the indirect effects of the pandemic. Some have been lethal: Suicides and overdoses, whether intentional or not. Some are worrisome: More irritability and increasing intolerance for the challenges and annoyances of life, regardless of one’s station. I wince when I consider what might come next as we witness this surge of cases.

God have mercy on us all.