My First Day on the Job …

There has been a great deal of discussion about doctors’ in training work hours and work load. In June of 1976 I reported to the Jackson Memorial Hospital complex three days in advance of my start date for orientation. I was given a tour of the facility, filled out countless forms and waivers, received my ID badge and was ultimately sent to the Department of Medicine to receive my assignment.

Sitting in the conference room and looking at the patient assignment and ward team assignment list I found myself at the bottom of the list. “Elective Rotation – Steven Reznick MD Neurology.” While all my colleagues in the internal medicine training program left to meet their new residents and meet and learn their patients I was sent to the neurology department in the next building to perform neurology consultations. When I got to the Neurology Office the Chief Resident laughed at me. “Reznick you are on elective. There is no night call. You start in three days. Go home and enjoy your last three days of freedom. Be here at this office at 9 a.m. and we will see what if any consults we have to do.”

Three days later at 7 a.m., filled with anxiety, I arrived at the neurology office which was locked and closed. At 8 a.m. a secretary arrived, showed me where to sit and I waited. At 8:50 a.m. no one had arrived yet on the medical staff and she received a phone call. “Dr. Reznick that call was from your chief resident in Internal Medicine. He needs to see you now in his office.” I asked directions on how to get there and off I went.

The Chief Resident had just completed his three years in internal medicine and was now entering an administrative and research year. He greeted me with, “Reznick I am not sure how you managed to be so unlucky but I have to reassign you from elective to Ward Team III on South Wing 8. You have eighteen patients on your service and you do not have the luxury of three days to learn them. By the way, here is the team pager and you are on call today and tonight.” “How did I get so lucky? “ I asked. “We originally had an anesthesia resident rotating through medicine but he decided after orientation that he did not want to be a doctor so he just left.”

The Chief gave me directions to SW-8, which was at least air conditioned, and off I trudged. Upon arrival I went to the nursing station, introduced myself to the charge nurse and asked if my ward team was around. “They are not back from morning report yet but we need you in 828. The priest arrived fifteen minutes ago and they are waiting for you to terminate life supports.”

My first patient was 28 years old with widespread metastatic terminal breast cancer. After multiple seizures from brain metastases and an unsuccessful CPR attempt she was “brain dead” on a ventilator. Her family had chosen to terminate life supports and my role was to walk in, disconnect the ventilator and pronounce her dead when she stopped breathing. I walked in, introduced myself, shook hands all around and listened to the family talk about my new patient. When it was time the nurse and priest walked to the ventilator and disconnected it with me holding my hands so I did not feel like I was doing this alone. The nurse adjusted the morphine drip and the patient peacefully and calmly ceased breathing. I listened for a heartbeat, felt no pulse, saw no respirations and spoke to each family member and the priest as my pager screeched, “Call 4125 MICU for a transfer.” I found a phone and called. AC, an intern said, “Hi Steve. We are transferring a 23 year old with rhabdomyolysis and acute tubular necrosis (kidney failure) just off peritoneal dialysis with calcium of 16 out to the floor because we need a bed for a younger more salvageable patient. Can you come get him please?”

The charge nurse on SW-8 gave me directions to the MICU and it took me five minutes to walk there. Out in the hallway was a large stretcher with an even larger gentleman on it with two IV lines running almost wide open and three volumes of charts each larger than the Encyclopedia Britannica. There were no transporters or orderlies to move the patients at this large public hospital so I was left to push the bed along the course I had just walked to get back to SW-8. We walked through non air conditioned East Wing which was considerably more difficult pushing a stretcher than on the original trip.

On the way I introduced myself to Frank, my new patient and began to take a history. Poor Frank was a furniture mover who developed a fever and chills while moving a piano up some stairs and, when he got home and went to bed, had terrible muscle pain. He was too weak to get up so he called 911 and was brought to the hospital three months earlier. For some reason his muscles had decomposed due to the infection, heat and bad luck. The dissolving muscle enzymes were like molasses as they passed through the filtration of the kidneys clogging them up and sending him into acute and life threatening kidney failure. He had survived dialysis and infection and was now being bumped out of the unit for a “younger more salvageable patient.”

When I got back to SW-8 and placed him on his bed I sat down with his chart, overwhelmed and considered using the same option that the anesthesia resident had exercised. I was reading and crying when I felt a hand on my shoulder, looked up and my new resident introduced himself. “You have had a tough morning. Let’s go to the blackboard and talk about hypercalcemia and how to treat it. I bet you know far more than you think you do. I have you covered, don’t worry.”

We were almost through his chalk talk and were about to examine the patient when the beeper screeched again. “Please call 4225, the ER. We have a GI bleeder and he is your admission if he doesn’t arrest before you get here.” John, my resident, jumped up and screamed, “Follow me.” He was running full speed, down the stairs and towards the ER. It was a ½ mile run if not more. When we arrived, sweaty and panting for breath we noticed a jaundiced man surrounded by doctors and nurses with blood spurting upwards from his mouth like an oil well that had just been opened wide. John pushed them aside, felt for a pulse and said to me, “Start CPR.” I got up on the stretcher and started compressions with each compression producing a geyser of blood out of his mouth and on to my white coat and clothes. There were no goggles. There was no barrier protection. “Stop compressions, “he ordered. “There is no pulse or blood pressure, let’s call it.” “Time of death 9:55 a.m.” John directed me to the chart where I wrote a brief note, called the next of kin and informed them and then changed into clean scrubs. “We have about an hour or two now before another admission so let’s go back to the floor, finish up with your surviving patient and get to learn the others.”

At 7 p.m., having rounded with me on all my new patients, John asked me if I had eaten all day and did I live alone. I told him I had not eaten anything since coffee in the neurology office and I was married. He suggested I call home and tell my wife that I wasn’t coming home that night. “Let’s get you to the cafeteria, get you some nourishment and let me introduce you to the resident covering you and Dr Homer tonight.” Since I was not assigned to patient care at orientation, I had not been issued meal tickets. I had about five dollars in my wallet so John gave me some of his meal tickets for a meal. John was a saint. My covering resident was his equal. “Pat” called me a “thoroughbred stallion who needed to be brought along slowly.” She gave me her pager number and told me to call her if I got an admission or if I had a patient care issue. The two other interns on our team were excellent. They made me a summary of their patients and wandered home at about 8 p.m.

The time from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. was a vast blur. There was an admission of an elderly gentleman with pneumonia. It required drawing all his bloods, labeling the tubes and carrying them to the lab. I had to wheel him to x-ray for a chest x-ray (there were no CT Scans yet), obtain a sputum specimen and gram stain it for Tuberculosis. There were the three blood cultures to draw, starting the IV line and antibiotics and of course writing the admission note and orders and dictating them. There were countless calls from nurses about infiltrated IV lines to be restarted, headaches, fevers requiring me to show up and draw blood cultures, family members calling to discuss their loved ones status.

At 2:30 a.m. I wandered into the ER because I was up for the next admission. “Pat” looked at me and said, “Go into the lounge, lie down and take a nap. Give me your pager. If anything comes up I will wake you. You need a nap.” That simple act of kindness and consideration and a 30 minute nap was like a shot of Café Cubano and adrenaline and, when 7 a.m. work rounds began with my ward team back on site with my resident John, I was relatively fresh to face a new day. I passed the pager to Phil, the other intern, as he asked me, “How did it go?” Somehow I mustered up a “No sweat especially with resident coverage from John and Pat.  John is covering you tonight so I expect you will be fine!”

We got very little sleep during my internship (PGY1) and residency training. We worked 100 plus hours weekly. The patients we saw were mostly severely ill and complex. We did all the lab work ourselves in the ER house staff lab. We started all the IV’s, drew all the bloods, and transported the patients ourselves. The work was physical, demanding, cerebral, emotional and exhausting. Every new patient was seen by an ER physician and attending, an intern, a medical student, a covering resident.

They were reassessed at 7 a.m. on work rounds with your resident and ward team plus often the chief resident. At 9 a.m. you presented the new admissions to a faculty member and the entire residency class at morning report. At 10 a.m. you presented the case to your team attending physician on attending physician rounds. This faculty member reviewed the case, examined the patients and wrote a note documenting agreement with the care plan. At noon your resident presented the case to the Chief of Staff at Chief of Staff Rounds. By 1:00 p.m. the problems and decision making had been reviewed and discussed by six or seven physicians. Sleep was not an issue in decision making because we had so many immediate layers of patient decision making reviews.

Our overworked supervising residents for the most part were caring and helped us out if we were exhausted or in over our heads. Our chief residents were available around the clock if we needed extra help.

I do not want today’s doctors to have to work as hard and perform the menial tasks that I was required to do for any reason let alone because I went through it and survived. I do not believe that the layers of supervision and questioning of your decisions allows for sleep deprived errors and mistakes if everyone is doing their job appropriately. I do feel fortunate that I learned to stain specimens and look at them under the microscope and run electrolytes on flame photometers and learn how to set up cultures of blood and urine on culture plates then read them. It taught me the time involved and the limitations of the test plus the margins for error.

I do believe the high volume of severely ill individuals I cared for broke me down and made me a dehumanized efficient machine. I was fortunate that caring faculty built me up and reminded me why I went into this profession to begin with.

Last week a prospective new patient came by to meet me at my office and see if he wanted to join my practice. During the discussion he lifted his shirt and showed me some scars on his abdomen. “You don’t remember me? You gave me those scars inserting catheters to do peritoneal dialysis on me on SW-8 on your first month as a doctor. I remember how frightened you were that you would hurt me or kill me. I was suffering from kidney failure and high calcium after my muscles broke down from an infection. You treated me for six weeks after I left the ICU and transferred me to an acute rehabilitation hospital where I learned to walk again. I live in this area now and I found you on line and want to be your patient again.”

It’s incredible how life always seems to come around full circle!

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