Tag Archives: reflection

Kacper Niburski is a medical student in the Class of 2021 at McGill University. He is also the CMAJ student humanities blog editor.

 

 


The heart is open and I wonder if my feet smell. Much of the room seems too busy to notice. The surgeon is making a joke about the shaky season of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The attendants laugh in unison. The perfusionists look to their dials, turn one, turn off another, and gaze my way with a nod. Do they smell it too?

Two hours earlier held no scent. The morning swam with sun. I arrived early to the Hospital to shadow the lead cardiac surgeon. I was told via email to dress light. To arrive early. To be ready.

I was. The night before saw me donned in recycled papers of anatomy, reviewing structure after structure, medication after medication. Any heart sound I’d be prepared to listen to knowingly. Any condition studied could be recited as though from a pleasant dream too pleasurable to forget.

I try to share that pleasure now. I smile back, failing to remember that my face is blocked with a mask. My clothes too have been changed. I am adorned in green, a naïve look against the shadow of yesterday. Only my socks stick out of their wrapping. They look like a left-over meal stuck in a fridge too long.

The surgeon makes another joke. Another chorus of chuckles follow. Blood is pooling out of the myocardium. “Suction please.” The whirl drowns out the sounds while the heart suffocates with air.

When I met the surgeon, I seemed to do the same. I whispered my name while shaking his hand. Then I sat quiet while the cardiologists spoke. The case was difficult. The 42-day old child had a type b coarctation, aortic stenosis, and now, only presenting the day of the surgery, a hematoma. One as large as the left ventricle. One as large as a life.

What would you do, the surgeon asked a cardiologist in the room. I am not sure, she replied. In thirty-one years, I haven’t seen anything like this. That shit is scary. The black mark on the screen seemed to absorb the light and the conversation. They all stared at it in silence.

The OR bursts in another bustle of laughter as the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation begins to tumble. The heart now pauses to a near standstill. Each beat appears forced, slow. I take twelve breathes before each one. I take another ten sniffs. The smell is getting stronger. I take nine the next cycle. Stronger yet. Eight the one after.

Meanwhile, the hands heave life. The surgeon is busy cutting and stitching and suturing and joking and cutting again. Bits of flesh fly into the vacuum. One hour passes. And the smell only worsens.

What could it be? I changed my socks. Washed my feet. My boots were new too. But in the morning, one of the cardiologists told me I could not wear them. Salt ate away at their integrity.

They were not allowed in the OR. You’d have to go in your socks, he said. He was wearing unblemished leather shoes.

With them, we walked to see some of his morning patients. Each case was riddled with complexity. Dr. K, is the heart rate stable? Dr. K, what was the correct dosage applied? Dr. K. Dr. K. Dr. K. His name was called everywhere while I stood beside him like a lost dog. My name was not asked once. Only until after my feet hurt and I was lost in a stew of medication names was I called. Kacper, I was told, this is the room. This is the patient who will have the surgery.

The room was thick with a deep, hugging black. The parents were huddled over a small incubator. From the doorway, they looked like stars.

The light of the OR is aggressive now. It weeps it. I think of them and that idea – the family as stars, celestial bodies watching the world. At first, I was comforted by it. I was brought back to period faraway from this standing where I was sitting in a canoe, trees whispering around, unshoed like I am now, and looking at a universe that could not look back. I could recognize the beauty. I could become it too.

But now, standing on my toes, trying to get a better view of each slice, watching as the screen is tipped forward and then away in a window of opportunity no larger than bundle of grapes about to ripen, I am reminded that stars are long since dead. They are no more. Only their light is forced to stay. The heart hasn’t beat in a while.

What will happen? I try to think, but I am nervous. I shift heel to heel. The wrong facts come back from the bridge to yesterday’s nowhere, to when I studied under the silence of a life. Move around, excite the sympathetic nervous system, get more blood from the heart, heat the body, sweat more. I spell out the conclusion once more in my head.

I try to stop moving in a dry attempt at survival, but these simple watered-down facts make me more anxious. Maybe the smell is me, I begin to think. Maybe I have reached a threshold of no return. Maybe I cannot stop sweating now and I will become a pool of water. First at my feet. Then my knees. I will get shorter and shorter, soon seeping into these white floors, climbing up the exhaustion of a lifetime, extinguishing these expensive machines, filling up the closed room in a smell that cannot be avoided now, that was all that was, all that is, all that will –

I am tapped on the shoulder. Dr. K asks how I am doing. I tell him okay. Pretty interesting, eh? Absolutely, I answer in what I imagine sinking sounds like.

 


Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is purely coincidental, similar to how a flower described here would not smell as good as the real.

 is a medical student in the Class of 2021 at McMaster University

 

“Doctors are jerks.” It was a statement that I had always steadfastly believed to be true; a matter-of-fact statement, just like saying the sky is blue. Though I had no shortage of concrete personal examples to justify my belief, the irony was not lost on me as I stared out from behind the glass of the nursing station, ready to begin my first clinical experience as a new medical student.

I was in the child and adolescent psychiatric ward. From the nursing station, I could see the ward’s common area: the bolted-down tables and chairs, the colourful pictures adorning the walls, the patients scattered about the room—some in groups, some alone. It was a scene that was familiar, yet different. This was far from my first time in a psych ward, but it was my first time being on this side of the glass. ...continue reading

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 is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at Western University

 

It was my first week on service for internal medicine as a third-year clerk. I had finally begun to figure out the labyrinth of charts, forms, and computer apps that went into my interactions with patients. I still had four of the eight pens I’d started with and had managed to misplace my sacred “pocket guide” only twice — so, all in all, I was off to a good start.

I was told by my senior to go see a patient who was in ICU step-down and had recently been transferred to our care. I hurriedly went to the computers and started reading up on the patient’s history.

Mr. C had a long and complicated history. He had initially presented to the hospital with signs of cholecystitis but later developed multiple complications landing him in the ICU. After a flurry of resuscitative measures and close monitoring, Mr. C was finally deemed stable enough to be transferred to the ward. ...continue reading

Shaun Mehta is an Emergency Medicine Resident (R4) at the University of Toronto

 

In elementary school, I always dreaded bringing my report card home. My grades were good, but the teachers’ comments that followed could go either way — and were unfortunately of much more interest to my parents. I was often described as “disruptive,” and it seemed that relinquishing this quality was the key to making something of myself.

Two decades later, I’m finding out that being disruptive is one of my most valuable assets.

To clarify, we probably shouldn’t praise students for being disruptive in the classroom. But outside of the classroom... now, that’s an entirely different story. The health care industry is ripe for disruption; strapped for cash and bursting at the seams, we need better ways to manage today’s volume and complexity of patients. Forward-looking individuals and organizations have heeded the call and are making huge strides in health care innovation, yet patients continue to suffer as a result of systems-level issues.

By shifting our paradigm of innovation, creating an environment to foster disruption, and educating future leaders to drive change, we stand a chance at driving maleficent creatures (like hallway medicine and eternal wait times) to extinction. ...continue reading

Serena Arora is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at McMaster University

 

I love puzzles.

I love looking at the picture on the box, seeing what the completed version will look like and then pouring out all the little pieces — knowing that, somehow, they all come together to create something.

In some ways, practicing medicine is like doing a puzzle. It’s complex, intersecting, and incredibly rewarding when done right. At the same time, medicine is fractured into a thousand different components.  As physicians, we look at our patients and we piece them apart into organs and body systems and tissues. We rip the details we think are important from the fabric of their narrative to focus on specific complaints. We take their words and distill them into our jargon, often so much so that their original story would be unrecognizable. Medicine is often an act of reductionism.

If medicine is a puzzle, then palliative care is like the picture on the box. ...continue reading

Matthew Lee is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at Dalhousie University

 

I was totally unsure. Meeting a patient who knows they are going to die... wouldn’t it be intrusive, at the end? A student coming into your life: asking questions, getting signatures, asking you to share your precious time. In the same position, I don’t know if I would say yes. That thought makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Checking in on the floor, with information hurriedly scribbled into the margins of a notebook. A brief run-in with her mother in the crowded room, then twenty minutes spent in the hallway — trying not to be obtrusive while staff hurry by. There are visitors every day, and I doubt I looked out of place.

In some ways, I chose to take on this project in order to become more comfortable with death. It’s something I have faced before, and it took years to move past my friend dying from lymphoma. He quickly stepped away to take a phone call at our convocation. It was a biopsy result. Nearly six months to the day and it was all over. It took nearly everything I had. ...continue reading

Beatrice Preti is an Internal Medicine Resident (R2) at Queen's University

 

 

 

The list is long, but I know your name
Each day before, its spot was the same
Second from the top, the second room on the right
The one with three windows and a broken bathroom light

But today something’s different; the list I have’s bare
I looked for your name, but it wasn’t there
Something has happened, and, in my heart, I know
That though I fought to keep you here, you found a way to go ...continue reading

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Rebecca Lauwers is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at McMaster University

 

Empathy as invited, first. Still it knocks. Waits. Empathy sees the fogged glass but drags no fingertip across it. There is a grey field; can you, too, see suffering like a red coat in the distance, walking? Do not go charging. What is imposed is not empathy. Set the kettle on the stove. Stoke the fire.

Empathy as unattached. As tracking a runaway bride, who knows what it’s like to be in one moment Ready and the next hijacked by fear. Empathy as the lover who will follow anywhere... yet as fluid as the crowd that will part to allow for what must happen. Empathy as the veil acknowledging the ground it grazes, feeling out the terrain as it follows.

Empathy as seeing it all, somehow, at once. Guided by someone whose vision will narrow and widen and narrow, and — somehow — letting each momentary glimpse be the only thing it sees while watching still over shoulders, overhead. ...continue reading

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Austin Lam is a medical student at the University of Toronto

 

 

We often hear and use the term “” without having a precise definition in mind. In order to elucidate the meaning of this term, it is important to analyze the concept lying at its centre: the patient. What does it mean to be a patient? What is the core, essential definition of patient?

Some have for patient to be replaced with a different term. As someone who has undergone surgeries myself, I have reflected on the meaning of this word and its associated implications. My hope is that this preliminary analysis can help provide directions for future questions, emphasizing an open exploration rather than closing off areas of discussion. ...continue reading

 is an Internal Medicine Resident (R1) at the University of Toronto. Check back the last Thursday of each month for a new featured piece as part of his series (Doc Talks: Reflections to Reality)!

 

Arnav Agarwal, CC3. I starkly recall etching those three words as I signed off on my first clinical note on a warm September morning. I wish this could be in pencil, I remember thinking. The idea of permanently associating my identity with a patient’s story and offering a proposed impression and plan felt outlandish — I barely had my own impression and plan figured out. How was I going to help patients and make a difference when I could hardly find my way to the right area of the hospital for my first day? And, a more weighted question: could I really practice medicine?

Indeed, the two years that followed were defined by gruelling academic intensity unparalleled by the prior two years of pre-clerkship. A rigorous clinical schedule was now paired with the expectation to prove theoretical capabilities every six to eight weeks. Uncountable sleepless overnight shifts on-call were matched by long days and weekend shifts. The unwavering anticipation of new learning experiences was paralleled by the uncomfortable sense of needing to constantly impress those around us and hold our own in a seemingly foreign environment. ...continue reading