Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cardiology Guy, The Heathers, & Me

     I don't think you can come away from residency without the crystal-clear image, permanently etched in your psyche, of at least one influential, iconic figure who crossed your path during those years. Usually, it is someone who served as a source of inspiration or as a mentor, someone who was a great teacher, someone whose technical or interpersonal skills you desperately wanted to emulate, or someone who just made you forget about it all for a little while. I had a muse, and his name was Cardiology Guy.
     My first encounter with him occurred down in the Blue Zone at Grady Hospital. I was bogged down as usual with surgical consults, and that day, the ER was running a special on old men with diabetic foot ulcers. I had patients lining up for bedside debridements, as well as a few who needed to be admitted for more extensive therapy. As soon as I saw one patient, another new consult came in. I just couldn't get ahead. It's important to point out that although the term "surgical intern" sounds exotic and thrilling, the reality of the situation is that you are pretty much a scut-monkey who is expected to work tirelessly without needing sleep or food. I'd spend hours in the mornings after rounds, changing dressings, replacing central lines, admitting patients as well as readying them for discharge, and dictating histories and physicals. Completing all these chores before lunchtime meant that I'd get to throw a few sutures in the operating room later on in the day. It was really kind of a thankless job; you worked diligently, but someone with more status always ended up receiving the credit. As an intern, your perception of hospitals and patients and people changes drastically, and you sometimes find yourself struggling to hang on to the last shred of idealism left within the recesses of your mind. You no longer recognize your own pasty face in the women's locker room mirror, and you wonder, "What the heck has happened to me?"
     For some reason or another, I needed to have one of my patients seen by Cardiology, probably for surgical clearance. I had consulted some other services as well, and while on hold with the operator, waiting for the fellows to return my calls, I walked into the medication room where it was quiet. My pager beeped incessantly the entire time. As I stood there, I remembered a story, which may have been an urban legend, about an ER resident who had become so overwhelmed with the constant barrage of trauma, the inefficiency with which the ER operated, and the pervasive noise and commotion, that he put his beeping pager into a cabinet in the Red Zone, walked out through the motion-activated double doors, and never looked back. Whether it was true or not, I really loved that story; it was so empowering. I was standing in that same medication room, contemplating how much my life sucked at that very moment, when he appeared.
     It was as if the clouds had parted, and a brilliant ray of sun had beamed down, forming itself first into a luminous smile, and then, into a visually stunning man, surrounded by an aura of light. He was wearing green scrubs and a gleaming white coat, and he had kind brown eyes. He asked if I was the person who needed the cardiology consult. When he introduced himself, I recognized that his last name was Greek, a very long name starting with a "B", which unfortunately, I've never been able to pronounce properly. That is how he ended up with the epithet Cardiology Guy. I couldn't believe that he was actually enthusiastic about helping me; he saw my patient, made his recommendations, and cheerfully discussed them with me afterwards. Then, he disappeared into the chaos. I felt strangely calm and peaceful, almost as if I'd had some sort of spiritual awakening or mystic vision, and in that moment, I felt a glimmer of hope rise up within me as I realized that it wasn't all hopeless, that beauty and goodness can and do exist amidst all the madness. Cardiology Guy didn't know it, but he had just become a cult figure, the object of my hero worship.
     Months went by before I had another Cardiology Guy sighting. It was springtime of 2002. I was on the general surgery service at Emory Hospital, still recovering from my dreadful experience on the Grady orthopedic service, the one which almost got me fired from residency. (See related post down below for that story). I was in the home stretch of surgical internship, and I had already made my decision to switch to anesthesiology the next year. With the exception of our attendings, all of us on the general surgery team that month were women: Big Heather, Little Heather, Glasses Heather and me.  We ruled the hallways, roaming together en masse to conquer consults and get the job done. It was a wonderful time. Big Heather, the chief resident, was from Louisiana, and was larger-than-life, both literally and figuratively. She probably weighed about 300 lbs, and she was tall, with curly blonde hair, big feet, a contagious laugh, and a booming voice you could hear two floors below. She had two tiny dogs that wore miniscule hats, and she carried tattered professional studio portraits of the three of them in her pocket. She was smart as a whip, and she didn't take crap off of anyone. You knew she had your back. Little Heather was slender, beautiful and although she was reserved, she was always laughing. She had a good, hearty laugh, and very white teeth. She and big Heather were in charge of our team, and they were fair in the way they divided up the work, for which Glasses Heather and I were grateful. Glasses Heather was a year ahead of me, and she was young, serious, and studious. One day, as we were making rounds together, I spotted Cardiology Guy, walking into a patient's room. I immediately issued a cute guy alert to the rest of the Girl Power Squad, and we hid in the break room where all the graham crackers are kept, waiting for him to emerge. From that day forward, whenever any of us had a Cardiology Guy sighting, we would page each other to that area of the hospital, and the rest of us would come running.
     I feel that I must qualify my "crush" on Cardiology Guy, because at that time, I was married with 11 year old twins, and I was determined to be a mother, a wife, and a surgeon/anesthesiologist. The crush wasn't sexual, it was esoteric, the likes of which only a pack of feisty female residents could understand. Cardiology Guy wasn't just easy on the eyes; he radiated a palpable gentility and authenticity, the likes of which we rarely witnessed in our day to day lives. He represented the millisecond flash of enlightenment you sometimes get where all seems right with the world, where you truly believe in the goodness of mankind, and where you are keenly aware of our universal interconnectedness.
    In recent years, I've seen Cardiology Guy around the hospital, and he's not exactly as cute as I remember. Even so, seeing him still conjures up memories of a time when I was struggling to find meaning in my everyday life as a new doctor, trying incredibly hard not to become cynical or jaded, and once again, it reminds me of the necessity of random acts of beauty.
The Day I Almost Got Fired During Residency

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