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What A Southern Rescue Dog Taught Me About Empathy In Medicine

After caring for some hardy goldfish in medical school and deciding that I needed something more in my life, I adopted my first cat Mina who was unintentionally (I think) a sort of cat version of myself: brown and black, wide eyes, petite, a bit shy with some mischief bubbling under the surface.  It was instantly clear that I was a cat person.  I understood her need for both love and space, I could read the curve of her tail and the carriage of her body.  I was told that some days when I left for work during residency- those were long days- she would yowl for a time before settling.  When I returned home after a 30 hour shift she would come under the covers and sleep with me.  And mysteriously, when my girls were about a year old she began obsessively licking the fur off her belly.  We assumed it coincided with their increasing mobility which terrified her, but we didn’t see that it actually started around the time of my own illness.  The vet prescribed Prozac which she spit out no matter how we tried to hide it. It only became clear why she was so anxious once I felt a little better; she did too and the fur grew back. Mina and I, we had a relationship.

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Don’t even THINK about touching the luscious fur on my belly.

After Mina was gone- a loss I felt more deeply than I could have imagined- we acquired two more cats, Annie, a toothless, neurotic old lady from a hoarding home who sucked us in with her big green eyes and her clearance price of $39, and Cookie, who was a kitten and is now something like a perpetually surprised, lovable panther.  She can sense an upset person from across the house and has become a great arbitrator of disputes, somehow knowing who is right and making sure that she is on duty, purring at the affronted person’s side.

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Not pictured is the smackdown after the cat love became too intense.

But with all of these cats it became increasingly clear what Andy and the girls were missing: a dog.  The reason was mainly me.   Continue Reading

Blue

Sometimes as a hospitalist my Mondays actually fall on Saturdays. While my two children, husband, two cats- even the one who yowls for food first thing- and the dog are still asleep I get dressed in the dark. Of course I wear my black sneakers with the thick gold stripe down the side to make myself feel more weekend-y. I drive to work flanked by ominous shadows that will later reveal themselves as buildings, trees, mountains. By the time I arrive at the hospital the dark isn’t as deep but the sun isn’t quite ready to make an appearance either.

The thing about my work is that I have no idea what’s waiting for me when I walk through the door. On this Saturday it is a happy baby with a new tumor, shocking reminders of how poverty makes children sick, horrific unexplained injuries, and of course, room after room of infants with respiratory distress who are going to get better pretty quick once they aren’t so overwhelmed with… boogers. Another physician makes an error and leaves the hospital so I, the physician in charge of the unit for the weekend have to apologize to a family I don’t know. The patient’s veteran nurse melts with relief when I come in the room. “Thank you so much,” she says over and over, tearing up.

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Doctor-Patient, Patient-Doctor

I recently had my 6 year cancerversary. Yes, that’s the big thing about me, I had colon cancer. Nothing in my medical training prepared me to be on the receiving end of a diagnosis.  I wrote about that moment the word cancer changed my life, published here in The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine:

http://www.theintima.org/c189-malignant-neoplasm-of-colon-unspecified

And also a discussion about the parallel conversations had by doctors and patients:

http://www.theintima.org/blog/parallel-lines-by-rohini-harvey

Doctors, know that your words are powerful.

 

Refuge

It was a vicious day when I saw this sign on the board of a Unitarian Church:

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Snow turned to ice turned to cold rain on my parade, or at least the free hour Andy and I had together while the girls released their inner monkeys in gymnastics class.  My mood matched the weather, vicious, but from sleep-deprivation, stress, and the continuous loop of my holiday to-do-list. Dr. Schweitzer’s quote made me laugh out loud, much to the chagrin of my dark mood which prior to that moment seemed to have a life of its own.

We’ll leave the cats aside right now because they’ll never know they’re not the center of this piece.  But, since yesterday was Christmas it is a fitting time to consider music. Even my college flute teacher who as far as I knew was an atheist, used to say that no matter how spare, religious music was incomparably inspired.  Back in those days I performed in a flute choir to start my College’s Christmas Vespers service. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols followed, opening with a clear voice both lilting and strong: “Once in royal David’s city…” Even today hearing the purity of that first phrase causes a lump in my chest to grow so large that it squeezes tears from my eyes.

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Farewell To Thee, My Pager

This was a momentous week for me. After 14 years of carrying a hospital-grade old-school text pager to receive messages at work (yeah, that’s still a thing with doctors), I finally traded it in for a cell phone app. It should have been easy to get rid of my beeper, but instead I felt waves of nostalgia when I turned it off for the last time. Those 240 character pre-Twitter, low-resolution LCD messages follow the arc of my medical career and tell its story.

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Full Circle

It seems to be a fitting time to revive Ginger Mouse. Almost to the day seven years ago I wrote the post Counterpoints, and waxed romantically about the geologic record contained in our soon-to-be stone countertops and the scores of pie crusts and chapatis to be rolled on them.  Well, today is Thanksgiving and I made a few pies to celebrate.  Here is how it actually went:

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Ginger Mouse is Back

Ginger Mouse is back after a six and a half year hiatus, now with a new name, doctorgingermouse.com! That last post I wrote at the end of February in 2011 was filled with possibilities: twin babies, a new house. There were some unexpected impossibilities, too, life-altering events that seemed as if they came from someone else’s story. We’ll get to those impossibilities soon enough, but let’s get to know each other a little first, okay?

Along the way I’ve been learning a lot: how to be a physician and a mother, what I enjoy in life (cooking, being outside, family, writing) and work (definitely paperwork and other administrative tasks.  KIDDING!), and how to let go and just let life happen.

So, get cozy and get ready to join me on my new, improved journey!

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Wouldn’t you run up a very steep hill to see this?!

The End of the Beginning

It’s hard to believe, but we’re moving into the new house in three days.  Our first meeting with the builder, when Doug said “I can do that,” was on March 5th 2010.  We hemmed and hawed for a while, thinking about whether we really wanted a project of this magnitude.  But now, almost exactly one year later our project will become our new life. The house is by no means complete: the exterior is half primed, and not at all painted, we have no paved driveway, no grass, trees, or walkway yet.  On the inside, we’re still waiting for our famed local stone counters in the kitchen.

Still, it’s hard to believe.

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O Tannenbaum

The day after Christmas, on the eve of a winter storm, is as good a time as any to think about Christmas trees.  The New York Times recently published an article comparing the environmental merits of artificial Christmas trees to the real deal. It seems like one of those things that if you were so inclined, you could overthink to the point of driving yourself crazy.  The article concluded that though real trees may have a green edge over plastic ones, in the end, maybe the environmental benefits are insignificant compared to the things we do every day like driving a car.

But what about when you’re deciding to buy an existing house, or build a new one… on an old Christmas tree farm?  Not too many years ago our little cul-de-sac was in fact a Christmas tree farm.  The owner sold the land to our builder, Doug, who then had a sale to unload some trees.  And then over the next five years he built a few houses on the land.

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Balance Beam

Andy and I currently live in a one hundred year old school which was converted to apartments some time ago.  Our apartment is on the fourth floor, built out of the attic.  One of the best things about it is its ancient, partially-exposed skeleton.  Huge chestnut beams support the ceiling of our living space.  A beam enters our kitchen at an oblique angle and is bolted to the floor with correspondingly large hardware, rendering most of the open space in the room useless.  I tried to count the rings on the end of a beam in our bedroom once, but lost count around 50; I could only conclude that it came from a very old, established tree.  The beams are beautiful structures, and relics of an era.  If I could I would saw a piece of one to take with us when we move, but I don’t want to be responsible for the building collapsing…

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