The Path(ology) Less Traveled

Mr. S.  is a 30-year-old gay male with a 9-year history of depression, a TBI in 2011 from a bike accident, and a recent 7-month history of graduate school presenting today with concerns about his future. He appears otherwise healthy, height-weight proportionate, though slightly tired looking. He reports a lack of energy and thoughts of self-doubt. He denies any suicidal ideation, panic attacks, and insomnia. Upon physical exam, relevant heart sounds show no signs of compassion fatigue but a positive hypertrophic empathy for his patients and peers. Lab results reveal frustration levels are stable and within normal range, but motivational biomarkers are low.

Have you ever written your own SOAP note? What if they looked like the one above, taking into account all the factors that affect our lives? SOAP, by the way, stands for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan. It is a tool we use in medicine to document clinical interactions with our patients. I need to remember to explain these abbreviations because prior to medicine, I spoke a different acronymic language that could drive people crazy to an obnoxious degree. But I digress…

Let me get to the main point of this article. PA/medical/dental/graduate students are not superhuman people. They are human people doing super things.

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Let’s talk about death

Medical school is intense, and I am not just talking about the science. People invite their doctors into their lives in very intimate ways, and illness makes us vulnerable in a way few other things can. I am in constant awe and gratitude to the patients I have met so far who have shared their stories with me in order to teach me how to be a better provider.

This past fall, I started taking an elective that explored patient and physician experiences with a life-threatening illness. As part of this class, I was paired with a patient-teacher who has advanced illness. We talked about POLST forms, both good and bad health care encounters, the importance of empathy in medicine and life and how impending death affects spouses, family, friends and the rest of a patient’s community.

Everyone dies in the end, but some of us have better deaths than others. You have terminal cancer? We can irradiate your brain metastases, give you chemotherapy which will slow the disease down and throw clinical trials at you. We might buy you an extra month of life, but you’ll feel like walking death for the next 3 months. Perhaps most importantly, instead of talking about pain control and giving you time to say goodbye to your friends and family, we fill your days with medical appointments and leave your family with mountains of medical bills. It is possible to hope for a miracle while preparing for the end, but physicians are not well trained to have those dual conversations. Death is not a topic for polite conversation in this culture. No one wants to confront their own mortality, and the death of a patient feels like failure. The more tragic failure is failing to help our patients and their families prepare emotionally for the end of life. Physicians have a better idea than most of how a particular person will die based on their illness, and so it is our responsibility to help guide and educate our patients. We all deserve the opportunity to say goodbye on our terms, and make whatever choices we can to ensure we die in a way we choose.

Whenever I hear instructors say that every student needs to know about osteoporosis, lumbar back pain, hip fractures and other highly prevalent complaints because it affects all specialties, I think that we need to have more conversations about caring for those with advanced illness in our curriculum. As the saying goes, the only certain things in life are death and taxes. I wish that every medical student had the opportunity to talk to a patient nearing the end of his/her life about death, and think critically about how we prepare to die and how physicians can help their patients in this process.

I said goodbye to my patient-teacher recently, and yes, there were tears. Some experiences change you forever, and this is definitely one.

Shaping My Nursing Career

StudentSpeak is pleased to offer this guest post from Randi Powell. Randi graduated from SOU with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and International Studies in 2011. Her passion for working with marginalized populations grew from spending several years living and traveling abroad in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Sierra Leone. She is a proud student in the OHSU Nursing Class of 2015 and member of Nursing Students Without Borders.

Volunteering to work with marginalized populations has shaped my view of health care into a more holistic approach. After working alongside underserved populations, I am more aware of the barriers to obtaining healthcare and the obstacles to living a healthy lifestyle. Conducting community outreach has illuminated the fact that a person’s health is closely tied with their employment status, level of education, access to shelter and transportation and availability of healthy food. Having shelter and a warm jacket are just as important to a person’s health as diet and exercise.

Nursing Students Without Borders (NSWB) is a student run organization that offers nursing students the chance to support underserved communities, both locally and globally. The organization provides students opportunities to alleviate health disparities in their own community while also expanding their global perspective of health care.

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It Takes a Village to Get Through Nursing School

I remember taking my entrance essay exam for nursing school and laughing at the question about the strength of my support system. Why is that important for getting into nursing school? It wasn’t like I was an addict who needed a support group. I was the one who was going to be doing the assignments and taking the tests. I am a strong and independent woman. People go off to college all of the time where they do not have any family and are successful. I answered the question vaguely saying I was married and had family living in the area and left it at that. I had no idea how relevant that question would be in my journey through nursing school.

“Life happens”… it struck me as odd that my instructors kept saying that. Unfortunately I did not understand what they meant until “life” happened to me.

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Understanding the symbolic power of my white coat, part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about deciding whether or not to wear my white coat at a protest about recent events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, examples of the more widespread problem of violence against communities of color in this country. As I’ve considered these events and their implications, I find I have a bit more to say.

On International Human Rights Day (December 10th), 20-30 OHSU students lay down in the atrium of the CLSB for four minutes, representing the four hours that the teenaged, unarmed Michael Brown lay on the pavement after being shot by a police officer. Unlike Michael Brown, we were not alone. Students from over 70 medical schools participated in this symbolic gesture and the hash tag #whitecoats4blacklives was trending on Facebook by the end of the day (you will not find OHSU’s name on the list of schools participating, as students were instructed to cover the logo on our white coats and not to affiliate ourselves with the university*). I participated in this gesture with tears in my eyes and hope in my heart. Just a week before, I wondered about the validity of wearing my white coat to a public protest – why was I OK with participating in a national movement that prominently featured this symbol?

I realized that I consider structural violence a public health issue. Put more simply, I think that when young black men unnecessarily are killed, this is a public health issue, just like preventable deaths from suicides and car accidents are public health issues. I also consider it a human rights issue.

I understand that there is often disagreement about what constitutes a public health or human rights issue.

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Why I’m Here

You get that phone call. You’re in! You’re excited. You’re beyond excited. You’re ecstatic! You call your mom. Then all your friends. Then you post on Facebook. Then you walk around for a few months whistling a happy tune, skipping along, so grateful, vowing this gratitude will carry you through the dreary winter months when your life is an endless lecture and you dream of words such as pemphigus vulgaris. Then you get here. It’s summer.

And you’re overjoyed! You promise yourself you’ll work hard. And you do. You do your best. Perhaps you struggle a bit at first, as I did, to find a place where you are comfortable. Ha! That’s a joke. You never get comfortable. In fact, you are uncomfortable pretty much all the time. Because, after all, everything is brand new and you are doing so many things for the very first time. But you are learning so much and are confident that the process will make you an excellent clinician. And you have so much support. Classmates. Faculty. And you are still excited. Still so grateful to be here. But the days get shorter and then fall comes. Then the winter. And you study, and study and study. And it gets tough. No more Walking Dead marathons. Less time with family and friends. Still time to cook, run, call everyone weekly, date night and a Friday night chill-out session, whatever that looks like for you.

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Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action National Summit

StudentSpeak is pleased to offer this guest post from Jake Creviston, a current Doctor of Nursing Practice Student at the OHSU School of Nursing. After a stint as a search and rescue boat captain in the Coast Guard, Jake became a nurse in 2008. Since then he has worked in critical care, administration, academia, primary care and now as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in an integrative clinic in Portland. He has a passion for leadership, patient-centered mental health promotion and quality improvement.


Phoenix, Arizona November 17-19, 2014

My time at the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action (CFA) National Summit, entitled Leadership and Legacy: The Future is Now, held in Phoenix, Arizona this last November was both rewarding and exhilarating. The CFA, a joint effort between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AARP is now in the fourth year. The campaign is dedicated to seeing the four key messages and eight recommendations of the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health (FON) report come to fruition. Each state, and Washington D.C., has an “Action Coalition” dedicated to doing the work on the ground. I was able to attend the summit as both a Breakthrough Leader in Nursing and as an Oregon Action Coalition steering committee member.

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Lessons learned

StudentSpeak is pleased to feature this excerpt from Caitlin Harrington Brown, MS2. Caitlin’s original post appeared on the web site for Women in Thoracic Surgery.

I am a second year medical student at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine. I started medical school with an interest in cardiothoracic (CT) surgery and that interest was quickly confirmed by early exposure to the field in the fall of my first year. For the purpose of this article, I have chosen the five most important “lessons” I have learned in my exploration of CT thus far. These lessons are the products of a careful analysis of the past year-and-a-half of my life, during which I have attended weekly surgeries, clinic, tumor board meetings, M&M conferences, fellowship teaching conferences, weekend rounds and simulation events with the perspective that medical school is the beginning of my training. This exposure has allowed me to learn technical and clinical skills and experience moments that will stay with me for the rest of my career. It has also helped me to recognize that for all that I have learned in the past eighteen months, my experience, knowledge base and technical skills have not yet begun to penetrate the surface of what I will need to excel in this field. Thus, it is in my best interest to be humble, work hard, listen, read, be grateful and squeeze every drop of wisdom I can out of the CT surgery team at my school. Read the full article on Women in Thoracic Surgery.

The question we all know is coming

I am halfway through my third year of medical school and so far, I absolutely love it. I feel one thousand times more like a doctor than I did six months ago, and I’ve learned more in these six months that I had in the six years prior. And I’m not just saying that – third year is high yield beyond belief.

By this point, we’ve all answered the golden question hundreds of times. Everybody asks it – family, friends, doctors, patients, strangers on the street – they ask in all types of ways, but it’s always the same underlying inquiry: “What are you thinking of doing after med school? What specialty are you going into? Have you thought about what kind of doctor you want to be? So, David, have you given any thought to what you might actually want to do with your life?”

As a first year student, I would answer this pressing question with whatever I felt like in the moment – cardiothoracic surgery one day and dermatology the next. If I had just read an article about ICU medicine, “pulm crit care” would roll right off the tongue. For most of my first two years, these words were sexy-sounding ideas that would light up people’s eyes and had no base in reality: “Wow, David, you’re going to be a plastic surgeon!?” Which was my cue to say, “Yep, absolutely, it’s a done deal.”

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Understanding the symbolic power of my white coat

Like many Americans, I have been confused, surprised, angered and saddened (often all at the same time) by recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York and too many other cities across our country. More specifically, I cried when I learned of the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

In response, for the first time ever, I decided to attend a rally and march in Portland protesting these events and the underlying challenges they present for our society. For me, this decision also required me to consider for the first time the role of my white coat in making a statement at the rally. Would I attend the rally as a future physician, a citizen or some combination of both? And what is the significance of my choice?

Our white coats, short though they still are, are symbols of our profession. Our profession is one held up by many in this country as one of educated, responsible, kind individuals, and we are conferred rights, privileges and responsibilities by virtue of our engagement in this profession (much like, some might comment, police officers). We were told so at our white coat ceremony, when we stood and took the Oath of Geneva for the first time. We are told so when we are held to the highest standards of professionalism, defined by our profession and our academic institution.

Can I, then, represent my profession, not just my person, at this protest? I protest what happened in Ferguson as an American, as a person of color, as a citizen, as a civilian and as a human being. Do I also protest it as a medical student?

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Ever wondered what life is like as a student at OHSU? What does it take to become a researcher? Just how gross is gross anatomy? Welcome to the blog that answers these – and many other – questions. It’s students writing first-hand about their commitment to careers in science and health care. It’s honest about the challenges as well as the joys. It’s not always pretty. But it is our story. Thank you for sharing it with us. And please, let us know what you think.

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