Monday, May 21, 2018

vintage scutmonkey: doctor id

This is a rare bird indeed, in that it is the one Scutmonkey comic that I never disseminated widely. I in fact never completed this strip. This string of panels originally ran with the tag line, "To Be Continued..." but I never followed it up, because...I don't know. I think it just never felt very funny to me. Don't get me wrong, for someone who has worked in the Peds ER, there is a decent dose of acerbic humor in there, but on the whole, when taken with the other comics I wrote, it felt...kind of darkly bitter. A little too much dark, and a little too much bitter.

In retrospect--and I don't think I needed that much distance from that time to realize this, I think I even realized it at the time--there was a point in my first year of Peds residency when I was likely borderline clinically depressed. It was circumstantial depression, certainly--I think many of us were at the time--but nonetheless it was a period of my life that both imprinted deeply and which I don't remember well. Day blended into night, one rotation blended into the next, there was very little time, very little spontaneity, very few genuine sparks of joy that I can recall. This had very little to do with my residency program per se (to this day I have nothing but good things to say about my Pediatrics residency, which turned out some of the finest doctors I know), but had everything to do with the nature of residency itself, which somehow, despite all best intentions, tends to bleed the humanity out of the young people training to take care of human beings at their most needy and vulnerable. It's quite a paradox, when you think about it.

So despite the fact that I cringe a bit reading this now, remember the place I was in when I wrote this, I'll republish this nubbin of a comic from the archives anyway. But I will also link these two things.

One is this older blog entry I wrote seven years ago, entitled, "It Gets Better."

The lowest point in my residency was in January of my intern year. I was a Pediatrics resident back then, doing a month-long rotation on "Team 2," which is what we called the general inpatient pediatric team, with a focus on the patients on our liver transplant service. 
It was a very long month.

I'd get to work at around 5:45 every morning to pre-round, and invariably leave after dark every night--not difficult, considering that, in January, it seemed like it started to get dark around 3:30pm every day. I was there much later than that, of course--most nights I'd leave around 7:00pm, unless I was on call, in which case I'd leave at around 10:00am the following morning. We'd have pre-rounds and then rounds, then attending rounds and work rounds, followed by teaching rounds and radiology rounds, with time at the end of the day for sign-out rounds. Twice a week we'd have Grand Rounds and Chief of Service Rounds. How we ever got anything done with all this rounding, I'll never know. How I ever got to spend time with any patients in between all these rounds is even more of a mystery. It just felt like a day of endless, endless scut. Losing the forest for the trees. It would be a day full of writing down numbers and pagers beeping and phone calls and faxes and entering computer orders, and not nearly enough time practicing medicine or spending time with patients. And then I'd go home and collapse and wake up at 4:15 the next morning to go in and do it all again... 
And let's get this straight. I liked residency. Really, I did. Yes, it was hard, and yes, I was tired basically all the time, but I expected that, and now that it's over, most of my memories are affectionate. Residency, like medical school, was full of stories, and many of them, in retrospect, are funny--not at the expense of patients, but at my own expense, because Lord, how serious and inexperienced and bumblingly well-intentioned I was! But that first January of my intern year, I was very close to being clinically depressed. It just all felt so grim and featureless and endless, and I felt more and more like I was just some kind of task-programmed automaton, not like the doctor that I thought I was supposed to be at this point.

I wanted to quit. Not just quit being a Pediatrics resident, but quit medicine altogether. I was unhappy. I didn't like my life. I wanted to be done. I know that this comic was intended to be a joke, but there were time, real times, when I passed by a Gap or a Starbucks or whatever, saw that they were hiring, and seriously considered stopping by to fill out an application. At least they don't make you take call at The Gap, folding chambray button-down shirts at 2:00am. 
Now I'm going to tell you a secret. Everyone who has been through a residency has felt this way at some point. Everyone
Maybe you're feeling this way right now. So here's another secret. There's more to life than this. Even though it feels like residency is your life, it's not. There's more to life. There's more to you. And it gets better.

It gets better.

The second thing I would like to say is this. I am not a great person, and I know this. The people who work in the Peds ER are...incredible. Phenomenal. Superhuman. It is one of the rotations during my residency--both residencies--where I learned the most, and one of the rotations from which I have retained the most indelible memories. There's a chapter from my book, and though this is one of the less sensational excerpts (you would have never centered an episode of ER around it, for example), it's still the one that sticks with me the most.

...[T]here are some subtle changes of the twenty-four hour cycle that, to the experienced eye, can give some clue as to what time of day it is, but otherwise, days and nights in the ER are all pretty much the same, a constant stream of low-grade urgencies punctuated by the occasional heart-stopping emergency. 
In fact, the only event that allows me to reliably tell time in the ER is the 3:00 a.m. sandwich drop, wherein a café across the street, just prior to receiving their bakery-fresh goods for the morning, drops off heaping mounds of day-olds for the patients and staff of the Peds ER to pick through. Walk through the Peds ER at three thirty in the morning and you will find leftover yogurt cups lined with soggy scrims of granola, see patient attacking chicken salad wraps, and watch ward clerks turn away from their work stations to deal with a mouthful of cheese danish. "Try the turkey sandwich," the attending urges a floridly tattooed teenager with the air of insider knowledge, "the bread is really good." 
At these times, the ER feels like it could be anyplace where unlikely company is trapped together for an interminable wait. The DMV, the passport office, an airport terminal after all outgoing flights have been canceled due to a storm.

Anyway. Dr. Id. We don't often immortalize the worst of ourselves in amber, but it's still important to remember that there was a time when that person was there. Is still there at times. And to remember the small moments of happiness and good humor, no matter how inconsequential. And to know that it gets better. To know that you get better too.

It gets better, and you get better too.


  1. Anonymous10:14 PM

    Long-time reader and fan here. Thanks for sharing your humour, insights, and experiences over the years!
    I identify so strongly with the description of how you felt in residency. I'm a couple of years into Anesthesia residency, but seriously thinking about switching out (maybe into Pathology). It's so hard to tell, though, whether the problem is Anesthesia itself, or just residency. Did your residency blues improve when you switched from Peds into Anesthesia? Have you ever regretted doing Anesthesia?

    1. I have never regretted going into Anesthesiology. What made things better was...well, there were a few things. One was getting through intern year. The second was getting a little older, and gaining some perspective. The third kind of goes along with the second, and though it sounds a little paradoxical, it was: having a kid. Yes, it ate up the rest of my little "free" time, but it was the ultimate zoom-out, whereas residency sometimes felt like the ultimate zoom-in. It forced me to have some balance, at least mentally.

  2. Anonymous11:39 PM

    Thanks. That makes sense. Glad you ended up finding the right path for yourself in the end.

  3. This is my favorite of your cartoons. I have just over a year of residency left and laughed so hard I cried. Thank you

  4. Yeah sorry, still funny. Maybe not to someone outside of residency but definitely to those of us in it now. So glad I started off with anesthesia. I don’t know if I could have survived a peds or im residency. So much rounding!!! I would have gone insane.

  5. Anonymous5:51 PM

    It's hilarious even to someone who never set foot in medical school!!

  6. Maybe its being an intern, but this just seems accurate not mean. Glad to hear it gets better, even though sometimes its hard to believe it