Embedding Resilience in Medicine

      Half an inch from the first four thoracic vertebrae lie the central nervous system transistors (stellate ganglion) for your fight and flight nervous system. Needless to say, my upper back is constantly aching. I am metabolizing the unique stress of being a brand new doctor/medical student in hospital life. It’s a different kind of stress than the first two academic years: those were crushing content & exams, but they were ivory tower academia. This is the very real medicine that is literally birth, life and death stuff. More visceral than literal, I find myself often crying,  sometimes gagging, and occasionally elated.

The purpose of third year clerkship aka #MS3 is to get a sampling of each major specialty to help us decide on a residency. Its a generic med school formula consisting of: Pediatrics, Surgery, OB/GYN, Internal Medicine Inpatient & Outpatient, Family Medicine, Psychiatry, Community Health. Inpatient, we legally cannot write patient notes. While we can actively participate in patient care,  everything we do needs to be seconded by a licensed doc; therefore, we are mostly shadows, errand runners, and absorbent sponges.

Unfortunately, some throwbacks to fraternal physician hazing rituals are still in place even for third year medical students. For example, my Internal Medicine inpatient rotation, which is already a 6am – 6pm shift 5 days a week (with a 1 hr drive on each side) also requires 6 -24 hour shifts in the 6 weeks. I asked a friend who is a year ahead of me and attended a different hospital clerkship if her rotation was scheduled as such, and she said she had to follow hospitalist hours for that same rotation – roughly 730am – 330pm. If the point is to learn each of the specialty’s roles, it makes sense to follow the professional hours. If the goal is to teach us that Internal Medicine requires an exhausting slog of hospital life, and how to forsake all other aspects of our personal and academic life for our career, then this approach in third year makes sense. Slate Magazine said it best: Third Year Kills Humanity of Medicine.

I haven’t done the above inpatient IM rotation yet and yes, I’m actively worried about my health, my marriage, and my coping skills during that onslaught. I did one 86 hour “sneak peek” week with our Family Medicine inpatient service last Fall.  I did enjoy the steep learning curve and patient contact; however,  I often felt lost and useless as my resident dictated her many notes and ran around the hospital following up on pages and other details. I did get some good studying done and learned some basic inpatient skills but there were hours, especially after the first 8,  that I wished I had something more productive I could be doing in.

In reality, the residents are much more forgiving than the administration and often let us leave early (6am – 10/11pm) saying “there is nothing we could learn at 2am that cant be learned at 2pm.” I am eternally grateful for this ray of grace. And I do understand that night shifts and on-call hours are foundational for many physician careers and practicing them could be relevant.  But why, when 55% of Internal Medicine and Family Doctors report burnout, are we being subjected to these mind numbing hours as third years? How will medicine ever change if the hazing continues to be perpetrated generation after generation?

I accept that being a doctor requires selflessness & sacrifice. I accept that long hours are often required and I like to work – for an income, for a team, and for a good reason. I’m a second career medical student, I study and practice clinical skills because this is what I love! I accept that as a resident I will bear the brunt of hours spent watchdogging and admitting in part because we are the cheap labor force of institutionalized medicine. But, I have 1.5 years of med school left, and 3-6 years of residency/fellowship ahead. What is the purpose of having me work 86 hour weeks now,  and how is it going to benefit my relationship towards medicine?

To embed resilience in doctors, we as a profession and as an academic incubator need to provide time & space for rest, relaxation, and quietude. Only in parasympathetics can we metabolize the soul-rattling experience that comes from facing death and sickness and the burden of chronic disease in North America. Not only are we facing grief/loss/mortality, we are taking on the enormous responsibility of decision maker. A backlog of unprocessed emotion leads to substance abuse, chronic pain, sleep disorders, lack of compassion, and who knows what other organic & chemical dysregulation. We need regular daily time to cook good food, sleep with our loves, be intimate and vulnerable, Netflick and chill, get to the gym or get outside. Only in that space can we emotionally integrate this transformation.

Our clerkship Dean Dr. Taylor sent out this  reaffirming blogpost last month in which an experienced physician Dr. Youngson writes to his younger self. He says:

     “As a medical student or junior doctor, it’s easy to feel powerless especially in a hierarchical medical system that too often teaches by humiliation, punishes those who question the status quo, and grinds people down through overwork and inhuman working conditions…”

Change medical education so that we as medical students (and residents and attendings and all doctors actually) are seen as people who are more than life-saving, problem fixing, chart dictating, disease curing machines. A more gentle, humane practice of time & space for medicine while living life alongside the role of physician has to start at the beginning of the clerkship year when we integrate it’s practice with our academic foundations, or it wont be ingrained as part of the way we approach medicine.

Once I started thinking about time, resilience and integration as the cure of medical burnout, I began seeing evidence everywhere. I heard a NEJM Interview from 01/03/18 with Dr. Armstrong from Massachusettes General Hospital’s new Pathways program where residents are given time and a scientific team to investigate complex patient-based cases. The 12/26/17 issue of JAMA has an article by Jack Coulehan, MD MPH from the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics on Negative Capability and the Art of Medicine that speaks to “sustaining the physician through the ‘humdrum routine’ of professional life… [Using]… the power to recognize the ‘true poetry of life'” and of medicine. This is a reflective practice. He says:

In pursuing the steadiness and detachment required to master clinical practice, it is tempting to neglect the more difficult project of nourishing engagement and tenderness in our relationships with patients – and with ourselves.”

The future of medical education is not only about competencies met and clinical acumen. The true scholars of the next generations of physicians will be those who can achieve their best in patient care and scientific fulfillment, while also living a satisfying, integrated and joyful life.


The Pitfall of Alcohol

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for at least a week, probably two. Mostly because it has personal meaning to me as alcoholism runs in my family on both sides – My mothers father was one of the “Mad Men” of the 50’s, worked in advertising and died of liver failure due to alcoholism. I guess he got pretty ugly in the end. My paternal grandparents didnt drink at all (which leads me to wonder if their parents were alcoholic) but all of their children have a penchant for the sauce.

Before I was a medical student, I thought the damaging effects of alcohol could be traced directly by measuring liver enzymes – and as long as those harbingers of hepatic cell death stayed within a reasonable limit, one was “getting away” with whatever one was doing. Enter: neurology. Boy was I wrong. Oh and Ps. Dead liver cells cant release ALT or AST, so good liver enzymes in the face of chronic alcoholism is actually a pretty bad sign.

The blood brain barrier is an effective barrier to most things except: nonpolar and lipid soluble molecules. Enter: CO2, O2, and ETOH (alcohol.) This means that as soon as alcohol is in your blood, it is seeping into your brain. And brain cells/ neurons are permanent cells – they don’t have the ability to divide, so they don’t replicate. You get what you started with – some axons can be regenerated, but once the cell body dies, your numbers start to decrease.

gait-ataxiaThe cerebellum is one of the parts of the brain most affected by alcohol cell death; this is why people become unsteady and clumsy anterior-vermiswhen drunk – inhibition of cerebellar function! There are multiple and complex inputs to this lower brain region from almost every aspect of the nervous system, so it can compensate for loss of neurons (when sober) for a long time. Up to 80% of cell death can happen before symptoms become noticeable! Unfortunately, once this is happening in the sober state, the cells are dead and there is no ability to recover balance or coordination.

I didn’t know that memory loss is also a component of chronic alcoholism. There are two halves to the cognitive decline that will happen eventually called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and these are from alcohol related destruction to two more areas of the brain.

confusionThe first set of symptoms is reversible, and is related to a deficiency of vitamin B1 aka thiamine. The mammillary bodies are wee nubs on the underside of the brain that are part of the social and emotional brain. They take information from the hypothalamus and hippocampus, and run it to the anterior nucleus of the thalamus. nrhpth08





This is a critical loop in emotional and social behavior integration at a cognitive level. I guess this is partially where the numbing effect of alcohol on the emotions could occur? With a deficiency of B1, the mammillary bodies hemorrhage and cause Wernickes encephalopathy, characterized by confusion and your eyes not tracking properly, as well as the unsteadiness from the damaged cerebellum. This is why in hospital treatments, alcoholics are first given thiamine/ B1 to see if it can reverse the symptoms. From a prevention standpoint, taking a good quality capsule (not tablet) daily multivitamin seems like a good idea for anyone drinking on a regular basis.

This condition can progress to irreversible memory loss for the past, with an inability to make new memories, plus psychotic symptoms. This is called Korsakoff psychosis. As people lose their ability to remember, they start making things up to fill in the blanks called confabulation. This can be really depressing for friends and family members as it becomes clearly evident that the damage is permanent.

and THEN, there is the metabolic damage that is occurring below the neck. (This next section is biochemical mumbo jumbo, but since this is my review exercise, I’m going to include it for my medical interest:)

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-32-00-pmEthanol/ your drinks/ are 80% broken down by cells (cytosol) of the liver. 15% of alcohol is broken down by microsomes in the brain and liver, and this pathway is upregulated in chronic alcoholism. The remaining 5% are converted to fatty acids and phospholipids that are thought to play a role in tissue damage. Both primary pathways break down ethanol to acetaldehyde, which is metabolized  down to acetate…..Acetate, where have you heard that before? yes, NAIL POLISH REMOVER, flooding your liver and brain.

The major metabolic consequence is from the elevation of NADH that occurs in the cell and in the mitochondria in steps one and two with excessive and continual amounts of alcohol intake, because this NADH will inhibit the TCA cycle from running. No TCA = no glucose metabolism = no fuel for the cells. The brain will still need fuel, so the liver cleverly shifts the glucose from the alcohol (which can no longer be metabolized) to ketone production + free fatty acid synthesis (aka fat storage.) This explains, in painful detail, why alcohol makes you gain weight and affects blood sugar levels.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-36-56-pmFinally, I wanted to add this last slide for an important prevention note. This is the process of the 15% microsomal pathway that is upregulated with chronic high alcohol intake. Note the second step produces ROS – this is reactive oxygen species aka free radicals which are known to cause cell damage and cell death. Higher levels of ROS are bad in general and associated with greater inflammation and cellular damage across the board. This points to another potential place for prevention – with use of high dose antioxidants like CoQ10 200-300mg, resveratrol (500mg), alpha lipoic acid (200mg) and vitamins C (1000mg) and mixed tocopherol E (400IU).

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-4-29-14-pmWhen alcohol intake gets high enough to start causing brain damage, obviously the primary treatment goal is to reduce the intake. Our first case study had a 37 yo male drinking 12-16 beers PER DAY. How many drinks, realistically speaking, are you having per day? How many does that add up to per week? Does that seem reasonable to you?

I don’t know enough about addiction to know how to address real chronic alcoholism. I imagine it is incredibly hard to quit, and even to reduce daily intake without a pure and strong internal directive to do so – no one can be told to do it,  the drive Must Come from Within. Treating underlying depression, anxiety, or life stressors are surely part of the picture, but what if you just drink to have fun? Sometimes, the party needs to stop, or gets out of control. I guess we all need to grow up sometime and learn to tolerate whatever it is we harbor inside our minds (before they get destroyed.)

Alcohol is a depressant, so withdrawal symptoms are the opposite – agitation, irritation, worse case scenario people can have seizures. Benzodiazapines, some sleep drugs and alcohol all work on the GABA-A receptor in the brain. Chronic alcohol use downregulates the expression the neurotransmitter GABA, one of the “off switches.” Once high levels of alcohol start to lower, it takes time for the brain to start making enough GABA again, resulting in foul moods, irritability and general unpleasantness.

There are medications like naltrexone and acamprosate that can help reduce the cravings for alcohol, and medications to treat the side effects of withdrawal, mostly aimed at these same parts of the brain. These are definitely worth exploring with a psychiatrist or addiction specialist to figure out what approach will work best for you. Complete abstinence does not need to be the goal. GABA as a supplement is not absorbed well, but is readily available and might be worth a try for someone who is just cutting down on daily intake, and has addictive enough a personality that switching to benzos instead of alcohol could exacerbate rather than relieve the problems. However, it is unlikely GABA alone would be enough to support sobriety. Making the very personal and often terrifying choice to look at one’s habits and face trauma/addiction is the place to begin. A comprehensive medical assessment with an empathetic and respectful health professional who has experience in addiction is next step. (if you are in Maine, I highly recommend Dr. Merideth Norris!)