Tag Archives: Medicine

An open invitation for guest blog posts on illness narratives

When I first started this blog, I was excited to seize the domain illnessnarratives.com. Now several years later, however, I’ve realized that the focus of my writing here has evolved, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about how many of my posts have been about me and my writing rather than on illness narratives in general. This blog has been alive throughout a good chunk of my journey towards a career in medicine, from my undergraduate to my medical school education. It’s been challenging to find my direction, to balance sharing my own personal writing accomplishments and experiences with my thoughts on illness narratives that I encounter

To that end, I’d like to try something new. I’ve always felt it strange that I was the only voice in a blog that aspired to comprehensively survey the landscape of illness narratives.

This is an open invitation to anyone interested in writing a guest blog post. Here are some examples of what I’m hoping for, but I would welcome a post about anything that interests you related to illness narratives:

  • Review of an illness narrative, be it literature, film, music, or any other media
  • An illness narrative of your own
  • Thoughts about illness narratives as a genre
  • Ideas about the ethics of writing about illness
  • Any other interest you would like to explore!

Your blog post could be as short or as long as you like. It could be anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages; whatever works for you. All you have to do is email it to tkpaul@umich.edu, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. It’s that simple. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions at all; this will be a learning process for me.

I’m hoping that this might change things up a bit, and that I’ll be able to breathe some life back into this website. Because it’s summer, the world is anew, and it’s time.

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[Cancer Knowledge Network] Pediatric Palliative Care: A Multidisciplinary Approach

This article is also available at the Cancer Knowledge Network.

I have to admit—one of the first reasons that palliative care first piqued my interest was because I wanted to learn more about death. But as I’ve delved deeper into palliative care, I’ve come to realize just how much more comprehensive it is. While increasing access to hospice care is a component of what palliative care provides, palliative care does so much more for patients and families.

When I first started volunteering with patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, pediatric oncology jolted me to see how cancer can affect all humans, even kids. But the realization that terminally ill children face the unknown prospect of death every day was most jarring to me. Death was no longer an abstract fate for the elderly but rather a real concern for the babies I held, the kids I spent time with on Friday evenings.

As a teenager myself, it was especially hard to see other teens having to go through the experiences of being diagnosed and treated for a life-threatening disease like cancer. I became interested in how people of all ages, and especially children, understand and cope with death. I found that palliative care does not shy away from these end-of-life topics but rather starts many of these difficult conversations. Similarly, palliative care provides additional support by devoting attention to the pain that patients may be experiencing as well as the discomfort from symptoms and side effects.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that ideally, palliative care should begin (or at least be offered) when a child is first diagnosed with a life-threatening disease[1]. Pediatric palliative care aims to support young patients and their families throughout the entire experience of illness, from diagnosis to treatment, remission to relapse, and even end-of-life when applicable.

For kids undergoing treatment for cancer, imprisonment by IV pole and pain by poke may be what they know. Many have no choice but to curl into the humbling fetal position for spinal taps. These children hold on to the simple pleasures in their lives by putting a port on a teddy bear or playing with a Barbie doll that has no hair. Each child finds a different way to cope, and I have grown to admire these children. Pediatric Palliative Care, along with other health disciplines such as Child Life, provide additional support to help children cope with a cancer diagnosis and the difficult treatments that it entails.

We’ve come a long way in treating pediatric cancer over the past several decades, but it’s not enough to stop the uncontrollable growth of cancer cells without recognizing the psychological scars left behind by its presence. Cancer treatments can have life-long health consequences, and the support of pediatric palliative care involvement throughout the course of treatment has the potential to have a lasting impact on patients.

This, to me, is what pediatric palliative care is about. Pediatric palliative care is about ensuring that young patients have the best of quality of life that they can while experiencing life-threatening illness and its corresponding medical interventions. It is about devoting special attention to more than a child’s physical health but also their mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. As a multidisciplinary team generally composed of physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and chaplains, pediatric palliative care is able to support children as well as their siblings and parents more holistically.

Palliative care, especially in the pediatric world, encompasses end-of-life and much more. As the AAP states, “Reserving palliative care for children who have exhausted every curative treatment and are dying would mean that many other children would miss out on the benefits that palliative care can offer.” It has been encouraging to see how much pediatric palliative care has become established and valued over the past several years, and I look forward to getting involved in the field in the future.

 

[1] http://www2.aap.org/sections/palliative/whatispalliativecare.html

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[Cancer Knowledge Network] Discovering a Passion for Pediatric Palliative Care

This article is also available at the Cancer Knowledge Network.

As someone who loves spending time with kids, I was thrilled when I was placed to volunteer on the 7th floor pediatric oncology inpatient playroom at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Although I was just in high school, I had an early interest in becoming a pediatrician, and Mott seemed like the perfect place for me to learn more.

From talking to teens at their bedside to playing video games or doing arts and crafts with kids, I enjoyed every minute I spent with patients and their families. These activities meant so much more to me as I began to see how integral they were to sustaining children through cancer. These children endure levels of pain that seem unthinkable at such a young age, and I helped them find distractions in board games and plastic food.

With the backdrop of illness, these normal activities were never quite the same. One minute, I was racing trains with a 2 year old. The next, I was gripping his tiny arms and legs to help his nurse draw blood. He put his entire body into his scream, thrashing wildly. But as I held him afterwards, his peaceful demeanor made me realize that I made a difference.

As I spent time with siblings and parents, I witnessed the many ways that cancer permeates the lives of loved ones. As a volunteer, I supported them in any way that I could. I came to believe that talking with kids and families, letting them engage in conversation, to get their mind off things if they so choose or voice their concerns, unleashes the therapeutic nature of the spoken word. From the weather to a child’s prognosis, these conversations illuminated different perspectives of how cancer affects lives. My experiences with these young patients and their families largely contributed to my own desires to devote myself to medicine.

When I started medical school a little over a year ago, I would tell people that I was interested in becoming a pediatric oncologist. Even then, I knew that my interests may change throughout the course of my medical training, but I also knew that this is where my heart was and where it still is, at least for now. Within just a few months, I found myself slowly gravitating towards another discipline that also works closely with children with cancer: the field of palliative care.

Palliative Care aims to improve the quality of life for patients and families, often by alleviating symptom burden, providing pain management, helping with decision-making, and furthering communication about goals of care.[1] Palliative care aligns with many of the aspects of volunteering that were most rewarding for me, as well as my own philosophies about how I hope to practice medicine. From striving to alleviate pain and relieve the suffering that patients experience throughout the course of treatment to engaging in important and intimate conversations with patients and family members about experiences with illness, palliative care prioritizes aspects of medicine that most move me.

Often, these quality of life measures are goals of medicine in general, but to have an entire medical specialty devoted to these important issues has the potential to greatly impact patients, especially those in need. The baby who won’t stop crying from the pain, the teenager who may have wishes that deviate from those of caregivers, the parents who are deciding whether a clinical trial is right for their child—there is no question that cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery can present a series of uncertainties, challenging decisions, unimaginable pain, and life-long symptoms and side effects.

I hope that palliative care training will help me to develop my skills and make a difference in the quality of life experienced by children with cancer. By specializing in both pediatric hematology/oncology as well as in pediatric palliative care, I believe that I will be able to develop a more comprehensive knowledge base and gain experiences to ensure that both perspectives will always inform my care. Palliative care embodies the kind of care that I hope to be able to provide for my own patients and their families some day.

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[ACP IMpact] Medical Student Perspective: 10 Tips for Making the Most of Medical School

Since starting medical school a year ago, this website has become relatively silent. I’ve struggled with finding enough time to write for myself and for this blog. I’ve intentionally avoided reflecting on what it’s like to be a medical student here, because there’s just so much to say and so much that I’m still trying to figure out for myself. The American College of Physicians’ Internal Medicine Newsletter for Medical Students (ACP’s IMpact) asked current medical students “What’s Your Top Ten?,” which prompted me to take a step back and distill all that I’ve learned into a list with words of advice for incoming medical students. Although I’ll admit I wrote this list largely for myself, I hoped that it may also be of use to others going through this journey into medicine.

Here it is! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

After my last examination as a first-year medical student, I couldn’t resist this opportunity to write about all that I’ve learned beyond the science and clinical practice of medicine. Medical school is a learning experience unlike any other—and I know that I’m just beginning to scrape the surface—but the first year really is an adjustment for everyone. I’ve thought a lot throughout the past 10 months about how much I have changed as a person, for better and for worse. Although this list is specifically for first-year medical students, I believe many of these tips will sustain me throughout the rest of medical school. My hope is that they may do the same for you.

1. Learn from those around you. 
In medical school, you find yourself surrounded by people you can learn from: your classmates, who have all done extraordinary things and pursued unique passions to be here by your side; your professors, who have a wealth of information that they want to share with you and not enough time to do so; and your mentors, who are eager to impart their wisdom and support you personally and professionally in your journey into medicine.

2. Practice what you preach. 
This isn’t easy, not in medical school nor in a lifelong practice of medicine. Physicians have alarmingly high rates of depression and one of the highest rates of suicide (1). Only 50% exercise weekly, and many physicians struggle with being overweight (2). If we expect it of our patients, it is only fair that we make an effort to embrace the healthy lifestyles that we encourage.

3. Minimize multitasking. 
This may seem counterintuitive to the fast-paced world in which we live, but I believe it’s more efficient to focus entirely on one thing at a time. Try turning off your phone while studying or closing your laptop in class. Make an effort to be mindful and to stay focused on the task at hand despite all the other thoughts that may be running through your mind. Experiment with studying in silence.

4. Be fully present. 
Our patients will come to us to share personal and intimate details about their bodies and their lives—the very least that we can do for them is to be fully present in each moment of our time with them. The art of immersing oneself in a moment comes from being attentive and listening with both your mind and your body; it’s something we should strive to practice as a physician, a student, and a human being.

5. Understand that time is of the essence. 
I’ve found that in medical school, I’ve become acutely aware of time like never before. You learn what it really means to make the most of every minute of the day: flipping through flashcards in the few minutes before class, squeezing in a workout just before the gym closes, or talking on the telephone with friends on your walk home. When you are flooded by information in medical school you may feel pressure to rush through all aspects of your life. Instead of caving to this pressure to rush through everything; try to identify ways to work more efficiently and use your newly found time to slow down and recharge your batteries.

6. Feel.
Whether it be journaling, meditating, or talking to a close friend about the whirlwind of emotions that you feel throughout medical school, take time to reflect on your experiences. One study found that 53% of medical students had burnout (3); just as a career in medicine can be emotionally draining, so, too, can its training. Reflection in some form will help you put these experiences in perspective and come to terms with the sometimes-exhausting nature of medicine.

7. Hold on to what you know.  
Everyone comes to medical school with some idea of who they are and the kind of person they want to be in their career, whether or not you know what kind of physician that may be. Take the time to hold on to what you know, pursue what you are already passionate about, and do the things that you enjoy. Maintain and even strengthen the support system that you already have of family, friends, and loved ones.

8. Explore what you don’t. 
Nevertheless, medical school will no doubt change you. Make the most of this inevitable transformation—embrace it. While holding on to what you know, make space for trying new activities, for learning about what you may never have heard about. Be open to new relationships with the people around you, who are all facing somewhat similar experiences. Let yourself be malleable.

9. Have faith in the system. 
There’s no doubt that medical school is stressful. There is an infinite amount of knowledge to acquire, and medicine is an ever-growing field that never ceases to challenge our thinking minds. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming. It can be a daunting task to think about the sheer amount of knowledge that there is to remember. But, in the end, rest assured that this is all part of the journey.

10. Remember, practicing medicine is a privilege. 
Amidst all that happens in medical school, it can sometimes be easy to forget just what a privilege it is to be a physician. The opportunity to gain this wealth of knowledge about the human body and to study medicine, to devote a lifetime to its practice, is an honor. Being there for people at their most vulnerable is a humbling experience; medicine is gratifying to those who strive to make it so.

The first year of medical school is a time to grow not only in your knowledge but also in your own identity. I know that I’ve taken only the first steps into the field and that there is so much more for me to learn, but, for now, these realizations are enough. I look forward to carrying them forward with me throughout the rest of my journey.

References 
1. Hays LR, Cheever T, Patel P. Medical student suicide, 1989-1994. Am J Psychiatry. 1996;153:553-5. [PMID: 8599405]
2. Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report 2012. Medscape. 2012. Accessed at http://www.medscape.com/features/slideshow/lifestyle/2012/public on July 17, 2015
3. Dyrbye LN, Massie FS Jr, Eacker A, Harper W, Power D, Durning SJ, et al.Relationship between burnout and professional conduct and attitudes among US medical students. JAMA. 2010;304:1173-80. [PMID: 20841530] doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1318

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Bowties, Butterflies, and Band-Aids: a journey through childhood cancers and back to life

Bowties, Butterflies, and Band-Aids. That’s what childhood cancer looks like, according to Lyndsey VanDyke.

bow-ties-butterflies-band-aids-journey-through-childhood-paperback-cover-artThis memoir shares VanDyke’s “journey through childhood cancers and back to life.” From her first diagnosis with Wilm’s tumor at 11 to her relapse at 13 to her secondary thyroid cancer at 21, VanDyke’s coming-of-age has been especially scarred by cancer. With the voices of her family, friends, and care team alongside her own, VanDyke contextualizes her experiences within the views of others. She provides a more holistic perspective through this multiple lenses.

She organizes her reflections as The Cancer, Aftermath, and Reconstruction. In doing so, she illuminates her post-cancer experience, such as the paranoia from her numerous encounters, her experiences living in  fear. Even after pursuing a career in journalism, VanDyke realizes that her heart lies in medicine. She sets out on the path to medical school, eventually finding her place in Osteopathic Medicine.

“It occurred to me that medical school really wasn’t all that different from a cancer experience. It would be exhausting. It would strain my relationships. It would be insanely expensive” (307). And now, she’s Dr. VanDyke.

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a haiku

I’m not much of a poet, but I wrote a haiku!

Check it out in Pulse–voices from the heart of medicine.
Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 5.29.41 PM

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The Art of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility through Art

IF.

Short for infertility, a disease resulting in the abnormal functioning of the male or female reproductive system. There are many causes, some known and many unknown. It is often merely a matter of chance, a condition that arises with little explanation.

I have to confess that I had not thought all that much about infertility as an illness until I encountered ART of Infertility, a “an infertility artwork, oral history and portraiture project.” This art exhibit is a compilation of infertility stories expressed through various artistic media, by a diverse range of women who have experienced or are experiencing infertility.

I’ve been struggling to write about this exhibit for months now, but nothing I say seems to do it justice. I guess I just want to say that this exhibit moved me in inexplicable ways. The stories that these women share, the art that they use to express their own inexplicable emotions were incredibly powerful. Their words, their symbols, the hues and textures and things were all used to convey the spectrum of ways that infertility touched each of their lives and their selves.

The ART of Infertility prompted me to realize just how many potential triggers exist in our society for those who are infertile. As a society, we make so many assumptions about how those who are married will have children (or, side note, even those who are not married, for family planning comes up in many professional development discussions with women in medicine it seems). It reminded me of how intimately femininity is often intertwined with the ability to bear children. While this is not always the case, it’s one thing to make the decision not to have children; it’s another thing all together to not have the ability to make that choice.

For those with infertility, the constant reminders of one’s infertility may seem ever-present. Menstruation may be a monthly reminder, a taunt about the body’s reproductive shortcomings. Those struggling with infertility may be surrounded by constant reminders as their peers procreate without problem. There are so many challenges to one’s self that can be inflicted by infertility, challenges that are best told by those who experience it themselves.

I guess infertility is another illness that urges me to wonder how we as a society, as strangers, friends, and family to those invisibly suffering, can cultivate a more sensitive environment. Can we open our minds to the variety of ways that people choose to live their lives and the many aspects that may lie outside of their control? Is it possible for us to cultivate a culture of sensitivity that reconciles the course of majorities with the various paths taken by everyone else? How do we escape the limitations of assumptions and make space for human diversity?

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