Foreboding Symptoms

1380 Relax and Succeed - Nothing in life is to be feared

Every adult knows that any life can be loosely divided up into experiences that are ‘good,’ or ‘positive,’ and those that are ‘bad,’ or ‘negative.’ Joy is pretty easy –we can all do that. But our suffering is where we generally require either guidance, or lengthy, meaningful and dedicated meditation.

Whether it is spiritual, psychological, or a mix of the two, any guidance we receive will only come from people who have done their own very practical psychological or spiritual ‘work.’ If there was a way to ‘learn’ our way around suffering, everyone who took psychology classes or who attended places of worship would have miraculous, pain-free lives –and yet we know this does not happen.

In the end, it is only experience that truly teaches us. This is why one of my favourite testimonials for my work comes from a very talented and successful cinematographer who wrote, in part, “The training gets you in the Moment. It’s experiential. Unlike reading about living in the present, this actually lets you do it. It’s the difference between reading about swimming and taking swimming lessons.”

That last sentence is smarter than anything I could have written about what I do. It’s a brilliant metaphor and it is the reason I will undertake this series of posts about how I psychologically managed what would commonly be seen as a very bad situation.

Using my recent eye operation as the example, it would be easy to describe my complex situation and intense pain as being a ‘bad’ experience. But can it really be called ‘bad’ if I live in a place with first class care, and that I was able to help some young medical residents learn to be better doctors, or if I can use the experience to help others through this writing or through my work helping others?

My own story began with good news –I was at a dinner with beloved friends. Due to my heavy workload and the care I provide for my aging parents, this was an extremely rare night out. I remain grateful that such a happy and warm event was my springboard into the most serious medical issue I have ever faced since the childhood accident that ultimately lead me to write so passionately about life in this blog.

Being seated where I was, it was late in the dinner before I noticed the blacked-out semi-circle of darkness that had taken the lower left portion of the vision in my right eye. Thanks to a story told by a friend, I was lead to torque my vision hard enough to the right that it lead me to realize that the spot was there, and something likely worthy of quick medical attention.

Being a scientific sort of person with a penchant for experimenting, rather than immediately follow a course of fearful thinking, I chose instead to focus on testing the eye for both pain and capability.

I diligently used those tests to gather information I felt would be useful to any diagnosing doctor. This included the shape and density of the darkness, as well as its specific location, and whether or not it moved as my eye moved. I was also grateful that it did not hurt. I also thought about the preceding days in case I could find an injury or impact that might explain it (a minor impact from playing hockey was my best candidate).

Thanks to a lifetime of learning about all manner of weird things, I rightly guessed that what I was experiencing was likely a detached retina. My first question was to ask myself how useful or helpful any fear might be.

This represents the moment in which we can all choose to use our thoughts as tools, rather than having them blindly, habitually and emotionally control us. It was like the situation had shown me fear on a menu. My job was to decide whether or not I wanted to request more of those thoughts to actually ‘consume’ with my consciousness.

Since I could find no rational reason that fear could serve a purpose beyond motivating me to get care, I chose not to pursue that line of thinking. The fear had already done its job so I gratefully accepted it as a signal, and after that I largely dismissed it from my consciousness.

Because I have grown up in Canada where hockey is a common sport, I knew that detached retinas were something experienced by athletes who experience impacts to the head. With no recollection of ever hearing about a player’s career ending because of one, my working assumption was that there was likely a fix that would allow some form of ‘normal’ life. That helped to keep me calm.

Following my personal and quite logical test of my vision, my internal thought process would have sounded much like this:

Clearly there is a black spot in the right eye that likely has physical causes. It is fortunate that something that serious is only in one eye. I’ve collected as much useful data for a diagnosing doctor that I can think of. This does not appear to impede my ability to drive, so I should probably leave the dinner as soon as possible and do some immediate reading of some scientific papers and relevant medical websites.

I bid my fond farewells, headed home, and immediately began doing some preliminary research on good old Wikipedia, where I ensured I understood any important relevant terminology. I then visited sites for HarvardThe Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, (among others), as well as reading some relevant scientific papers. This further reinforced my belief that I was experiencing a retinal detachment, which every bit of reading suggested required immediate care.

Since I wasn’t sure if driving was wise in case the condition was neurological and not something actually relating to my physical eye, I chose to have a short sleep and then called a good friend in the morning and he kindly offered to drive me into Emergency.

Once there, I found a very busy waiting room and yet I was rushed in ahead of almost everyone. Since triage is about sorting the most serious cases first, I knew that this indicated that my situation was time sensitive. I was grateful for the quick response.

1380 Relax and Succeed - Acceptance doesn't mean resignation

Since further fear served no useful purpose to me, I quieted my mind and surrendered to the process and did my best to focus on, and be cheerful about, anything I could. This left me free to actually help some other waiting room patients cope better with their own fears.

In the end a broken piece of diagnosis equipment meant that they could not get a pressure reading on my eye, but the emergency ophthalmologist arranged for me to get the very first appointment at the hospital’s eye care centre the next morning. That had me feeling lucky.

Following my diagnosis, the doctor asked if a resident could also put me through a quite uncomfortable diagnosis process because it would be good for the young doctor to see what a rare case looked like. Despite the real discomfort, I focused on the fact that I was in a rare position to assist in that doctor’s education. I was grateful to be able to help.

The attending surgical resident then arranged for an appointment as soon as possible at the Alberta Retinal Consultants offices. A visiting Australian doctor explained that the centre is a world-renowned, state-of-the-art facility that was the very reason he had travelled so far for his education. That had me feeling lucky to live where I do.

I will leave what followed for a following post about my potentially frightening diagnosis. But to conclude this portion of the experience I would like to note that, so far, I was simply aware that my situation was very serious, but otherwise I had felt fortunate to get such quick and quality care all the way through the process.

I had reacted quickly, had been given emergency priority, and I had a good friend who had offered to take me to what was the first appointment of the day at a world class facility. If a person isn’t choosing to follow a course of fearful thoughts, that really is a lot of good news.

It might seem strange to some of you that I felt fortunate at this stage. But, if we’re living in the moment, and we’re accepting about life and have no expectations that anyone would live their entire life without any serious medical issue, then the rest really was very positive news. That was the gratitude I focused on rather than investing my energy in worry.

My conscious choice to pursue that course of thinking is what allowed me to get a good night’s sleep before I went in to face what would be a somewhat daunting diagnosis.

No life is lived without some pain and suffering so I do not live with the expectation that I will be able to avoid experiences like this one. But I reminded myself that I come from a family where many had served in WWII and, no matter what my future held, I was still likely better off than many of my own relatives. That had me feeling fortunate again.

If maintaining this state of mind seems impossible to you, remember that I too learned to do this. Yes, I had the advantage of starting my lessons after my accident at only five years old, but whether we start high school at 10 years old or 40 years old, it’s still just high school. Everyone reading this can come to know what I know through practice.

By reading your way through my experience, it is my hope that you will glean something about the active process that allows me to see life in an overwhelmingly positive light.

You may need to find your own way through your own experiences but, in the end, the tool we use –our minds– and the way we use it, are universal principles shared by us all. That being the case, I sincerely hope you find comfort in the knowledge that you too are capable of this sort of beneficial perspective. Any thoughts you have to the contrary are merely limiting, self-imposed beliefs.

In the following post, as things grew more serious, I will attempt to convey my internal process so that you can even better understand how we can all use our minds and our thoughts to generate positive responses to every kind of life experience.

If any reader goes back to just focus on the italicized sections of what I wrote above, everyone will easily see that I was not lying to myself by being positive. I was merely focusing on the most positive, realistic thoughts I could. We can all do this, but first we must believe in our ability to do so. My hope is that this post will help you in that regard.

Until the next installment, value your vision. It’s not guaranteed to last our lifetime, so don’t forget to meaningful behold the faces and places that you love the most.

peace. s

How to Avoid Going Blind

1378 Relax and Succeed - How to Avoid Going Blind

Please accept my apologies for being unable to notify you about my medical emergency and its impact on my posting. As the word ’emergency’ indicates, I got very little warning. As things were bad, they moved very quickly and I’m still under daily care.

Thanks to a dear friend, I am able to dictate this post to ensure you get it. My reason for posting while still undergoing care is because it’s not impossible that learning this could save you or a loved one your sight. I’m no ophthalmologist, so I can’t tell you all the ways you could go blind. But I can tell you about one.

Let me begin by saying that there is an extremely tiny chance that your situation would be anywhere near as serious as mine. Good doctors and modern medicine mean this isn’t something you have to be afraid of, just aware of. My case is rare, difficult, and extremely painful. Most people, if they react quickly, rather than facing blindness, have quick and relatively pain-free recoveries.

What I’m describing is a retinal detachment.

You can think of your retina as the pages of an open book, shaped into a curve and lining the inside surface of your eyeball. It serves many functions, and includes layers where your cones and rods are located (it’s all very fascinating).

Even in a normal case of a detached retina, it is important that you do not delay in going to an emergency ophthalmologist as soon as you notice your symptoms. Do not wait. Go now.

Potential symptoms include: sparkles in your vision; black flecks in your vision that block out the background completely (not to be mistaken for the floaters that all of us normally have); flashes of light in one or both eyes; blurred vision; gradually reduced peripheral (side) vision; a curtain or veil-like shadow over your visual field; a heavy feeling in your eye; straight lines that start to look curved; or, as I had, a disc or section of your vision completely blocked out. Pure black.

In a normal detached retina, a tiny hole will occur on the top page of the retina that receives light. The fluid of the eye will then get through this hole and create a blister. At this stage, this is where you are likely to experience your first symptoms. If you react quickly and head to emergency, ask to see an ophthalmologist. Trust me, they will get you in as quickly as they can.

If you’ve caught it quickly, the ophthalmologist will arrange for a painless laser operation to weld the hole closed. You may have blurry vision for a few months, but then you’ll be fine. Yay, modern medicine!

But if you wait, the fluid in the blister will slosh from side to side and turn that tiny hole into a tear—and you will also place several pages of your retina at risk. Obviously, spot welding a little hole in a single layer is much easier than welding an entire jagged canyon through many, or all, the layers.

1378 Relax and Succeed - Eyeball diagram

These are the things you need to know to protect yourself and your family. This can happen to anyone at any age, although people playing sports or who experience impacts to the head are at even greater risk. Let me reiterate: if you act quickly, this is not something to be afraid of. If anything, you’ll feel like you’re in an episode of Star Trek. But delay, and you risk your sight.

The one thing you don’t want to be in a doctor’s office is ‘interesting’. This means you’ll be beneficial to teaching residents about rare cases. But rarely are those rare cases easy. I have some great stories to share with you about my fantastic doctors, as well as fear, pain, and mood management, as soon as I’m well enough to get back to writing—which I hope is very soon.

In the meantime, if any of you have been thinking about booking time—particularly telephone time—now would be a great time to schedule it, as it will be somewhat problematic for me to meet people in person for a while.

I’m sorry I can’t tell you exactly when I’ll be restarting, but I can assure you that time away from you has even further invigorated my spirit about my work. Despite the fact that I was worse off than many of the other patients that I met, their choices led them to have much more challenging interior experiences than mine.

Thank you for your patience, understanding, and dedication to my work. I very much look forward to reconnecting with you all very soon.

peace. s

Bad Medicine: The Two Types of Doctors

1372 Relax and Succeed - Every type of doctor

Dear Doctor,

It is my hope that you will receive this with an appreciation for my intent. In no way am I interested in attacking you. To the contrary, I would like to offer my assistance. I have no doubt that you are a good person at heart. I do however feel that you (and many other doctors), would benefit by asking yourself how your patients would define a ‘good’ doctor vs ‘bad’ one.

In caring for my parents, and in tending to my own health for more years than you have been alive, I have witnessed the approaches of a very large number of doctors. In addition, people talk in labs and waiting rooms, and the general consensus about doctors is extremely clear.

Over the last several years there has been a notable shift (as one group retires and another comes on), and there is an increasing number of these weaker doctors. I suspect this is entirely innocent and unconscious, and it may in fact be that modern training leads with better science, but it may have done so at the price of developing a healers approach.

As patients in your waiting rooms and hospitals, we know your receptionists and the nurses you work with are generally the ones who are often left managing the confused, worried or angry patients you leave in your wake. I don’t not see this as an issue with you, which is why I plan to post this publicly, so that all doctors who have this common lack of awareness can also learn from our unfortunate experience.

My hope is that by offering you a compassionate explanation, maybe all of you can be better at what you do as a result. I prefer that, because it seems more likely to generate a win-win scenario for doctor and patient alike. On a broad basis, this increased awareness could have a considerable impact on the quality and cost of care in medical institutions everywhere.

I will begin by stating that I fully support the scientific method and have enjoyed studying all of science’s major disciplines. Many of the tools and methods that have doubled life spans over the last 100 years came from the evidence-based medicine for which I am grateful. It is an extremely solid basis for us to lean on both as a doctor and as a patient.

As important as that scientific knowledge is, it’s still only half the job. Because it’s not a bio-bag of chemistry sitting on the exam table, that’s a human being who is thinking about how good you are at your job the entire time you are with them, and long afterwards as well.

My general suggestion is that many of you would benefit from at least attempting to be aware that you are not singular. You are quietly being compared to every other doctor we have ever seen. In fact, if you are open to improving, the patients themselves can become fantastic resources in what is hopefully a lifelong education in what it is to be a good doctor.

Today, the weaker doctors act as though people like Dr. Patch Adams aren’t real people, and that medicine didn’t change as a result of him, and people like him, offering a bold example of what it is to be a better and more complete kind of doctor. The film, The Doctor (based on Dr. Edward Rosenbaum’s 1988 book, ‘A Taste Of My Own Medicine’) also expresses this same point, though in a much different way.

Many doctors are just people who want high grades or a good salary or status, and the world would be better off if they went into business rather than medicine. Others are equally problematic, but they are simply lacking in awareness, rather than being in the wrong profession.

Those good-doctors-in-potential are more like Patch Adam’s roommate in that film, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is extremely earnest in his desire to be the best doctor he can be, but I would hope that this missive might motivate you to do as his character did, and at least experiment with being this other kind of doctor. I feel confident in saying that it’s very likely to make practicing medicine much more rewarding for you as well as us.

Our problem came from not seeing my father when we came to you. You saw a chart, an old man, a concern about breathing, and a question as to whether his troubles breathing were due to pneumonia, or something relating to his heart. At his age, these things are profoundly meaningful and quite foreboding to those who love him.

In every case, the best doctors will stay aware of that reality, and they will respond to it by offering suitable comfort. This better connects the patient to the doctor and that increases the odds of open, honest communication, which can be incredibly useful to you.

1372 Relax and Succeed - The very best kinds of doctor

In most cases you enter the exam room and often keep your hand on the door handle, as though you’re just ducking in for a second but have to go. You speak extremely quickly, which is complicated by your thick accent. Our family is well-travelled and has always been fascinated by other places and cultures, so we’re fine with a foreign doctor and an accent. But whether it’s done with a thick accent or in perfect English, slowing down to ensure you are understood would profoundly help communication. You never even seem to note whether or not your words have sunk in.

This isn’t an issue with an accent; even if you were speaking English clearly, you go so fast, and seem so generally in a rush, that we honestly almost feel bad interrupting you for clarity about our concern. It does not help you as a doctor when we have a concern, but feel your scheduling needs are taking precedence over our health concerns.

In the case of my father, your response was to let go of the door handle, grab your stethoscope, and listen quickly to his lungs. The entire exam took under a three minutes and you didn’t ask a single question about changes in his diet, behaviour, or about any other useful information. And I wish that was more uncommon but in fact you are in a unfortunate majority today.

If a doctor’s going to use the Socratic Method to come to some sort of well-founded diagnosis, you need data. The better the data the better the analysis. Even from a science perspective bad communication is a loss of valuable data.

As an illustration of how it can be, and of who you’re being compared to and why patients universally prefer the other approach, I will use an example from my own life and my now-retired, but excellent and very popular doctor. I had been seeing him since I was 20.

Every visit started in his office, in comfortable chairs, in a non-medical environment. This helped patients relax. He would review my file carefully, and then he would always begin by asking about my life. How was I eating? How was work? Was I stressed about money or living in excess or using any substances? Data, data, data.

After that 5-10 minute conversation –wherein he relaxed patients so they would talk about scary or potentially embarrassing things– we would shift to the exam room where he would do his examination, ask more questions, and then tell you to come to his office once you were dressed. Once back in there, he was often in a book or on his computer, reading up on the latest relevant studies, or even boning up on some basic science.

The humility of slowing down and checking himself was worth a lot. He accepted that all humans are fallible, and that scientific knowledge doubles every seven months, and his humility bred a strong confidence in us as patients. Also, that kind of constant double checking was why he was concerned about, for instance, opioids, a decade before others even started talking about them. That is being an excellent doctor.

You may be wondering how all of this materially helps medicine, so allow me to provide an example.

I once went in with a very painful, bloated stomach that had become chronic over time. He greeted me warmly, then lead me into his office. He listened carefully, then took me into the exam room to check me over.

When I joined him he was reading, then he turned to me and sat quietly in his chair and stared at me, thoughtfully, with his fingers templed in front of his mouth and his brow furrowed in thought. He searched through mind’s data-banks of the previous conversations we had on previous visits, and here is what he said:

“You’re still dating the Italian girl?”

“Yup. She’s awesome.”

“Wasn’t her mother moving to Canada this summer?”

“Yeah, she got here a few months ago. She’s settling in pretty good.”

“Is she planning on working?”

“Yes, but she’s waiting for paperwork.”

“So, she’s home all day?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“So, is she doing any of the cooking?”

“Yeah it’s been great. She’s really good and she does almost every meal.”

“Your last name is Scottish. And your Mom is from Saskatchewan, isn’t she?”

“Yes and yes.”

“Grew up eating a lot of potatoes did you?”

“Tons. Love them.”

“Me too,” (involving himself helps maintain the connection between us). ”But now it’s mostly pasta?”

“Almost exclusively.”

“Since your symptoms line up with the diet change that’s our most likely candidate. Otherwise you’re extremely healthy. For a few people the issue can be gluten, so we can check for Celiac disease but, it runs in families, so if no one else has it that’s much lower odds.

“But when I just checked while you were getting dressed, a lot of gluten misdiagnoses are turning out to be allergies to other things in some kinds of wheat, like fructan. And I just checked, and they often use durum wheat for pasta. So let’s (note, he describes it as something ‘we’ are doing), try cutting out the pasta for two weeks. If nothing happens, we can do more testing, but if the stomach goes back to normal, then we’re probably dealing with an allergy. You can try introducing the pasta one meal a week until your body tells you to stop. The angry mother-in-law I can’t help you with.”

“You want me to go home and tell an Italian woman her cooking makes me sick?”

“This way I get paid for an extra visit after she tries to do you in with a poison meatball.”

Bingo. That worked. I was fine and could eat pasta once or twice a week and I survived the ‘mother-in-law,’ (although that was a close one). Even if it turned out I had Celiac Disease, or any other permanent root cause, he had explained how to avoid it as an issue because there is no effective cure for either Celiac disease or a fructan allergy.

He essentially told me to listen carefully to what my body told me. That’s brilliant advice that I have used since that day. It amazes me how much people will eat things that hurt them and then blame the food rather than change their habit, as he prompted me to do by helping me to appreciate my own role in the maintenance of my own health.

Note, in that example, our trip to the exam room was just to check to see if I had any symptoms I couldn’t sense, but other than that there were no tests required, no expense to the system, none of the common suggestions about drugs or antacids. Just wisdom gleaned from data and a request to follow-up if the food experiment didn’t work.

It saved me time, the system money, and it made me recommend him to all of my closest friends, who were all excellent patients who managed their health responsibly. Plus the doctor and I got to like each other –I considered him a valued friend within a few years. It’s fantastically better than the drive-thru effect that currently exists in yours –and it seems now most– doctor’s offices. You lose as much through that as we do.

1372 Relax and Succeed - There is a reason it is called health care

Doctor, I can appreciate that everything in life is now very expensive and that running an office, and having such an excellent receptionist and all of your other administrative responsibilities, all add up to a lot of responsibility. I do respect that. Just as I want you to see my dad not as symptoms and a question, but as a human with needs, I have done the same in thinking about you.

Please know I am not questioning either your good heart, your education, or the challenges of practicing medicine today. Most patients will come in prepared to respect you, but we will lose that respect if we feel it is not being genuinely reciprocated.

Fortunately, despite the challenges that all doctors face, the fact remains that many doctors do find a way to be this other kind of doctor, so clearly that is possible while maintaining some level of financial viability. I doubt any patient, nurse or medical receptionist has found that the difference between these doctors is about money.

Good medicine is about attention. It’s about, are we distracted or focused? It’s about actual compassion brought on by real consideration of the complete human before us. You’re the leader in the exam room. The patient is often scared, confused, embarrassed or in pain. They’re often in their worst state of mind, so it’s a lot easier for the patient to open up and be honest with you if you’re the one that initiates the building of that rapport, through your demeanor.

To be honest with you doctor, I’m not sure I’ve made anything clear with this. I can see kindness in your eyes despite the rush, so I do hope this slows you down. In my experience, we all get better at any job through realizations of deeper layers of the job we hadn’t previously considered.

I know I have been made better by wise criticism in my own work, so I do hope this has that effect for you as well. The criticisms can sting at the time, but I’ve always liked those moments in the end because they always leave me feeling bigger and more capable, and my aim in taking the time to write this is entirely to be beneficial to you.

My father has always been like a wise Buddha, teaching smart lessons about a good life. And even with dementia, he often has a notably positive impact on all of us around him. He brings out the best in us, and when we lose patience it’s like he’s the monk putting us through our spiritual training.

It’s through his innocence that he does this. Because he is guileless he assumes all others are too. He takes people as they are. That’s why, despite your harried care, he thinks you’re fine the way you are. But it is my hope that with the guidance of your experiences with him, that you too might consider him a temporary guide. Because in the best of worlds, I’d like to think this unfortunate experience will lead you to more fully appreciate your patients as people, not as only the issues they present.

If you’ve managed to keep reading until here, thank you. I do appreciate your consideration and wish you the very best in both your personal and professional life. I do hope hope this communication can help you gain more joy from your work days, because I can only assume it would be a much nicer day spending time with human beings than with just their diseases, injuries and illnesses.

Finally, please don’t forget to thank and value your nurses and receptionists. There are many times when it is they who protect you from angry or painful reactions I’m sure you would rather not experience. I am confident they are often keenly aware of many ways that the doctors they work with could be better.

Thank you.

peace. s