Let it be said that we tried to do what is right

Physicians are on the front line of this pandemic crisis.  I am in a unique role as an orthopaedic surgeon. One of my friends said last week, “if anyone thinks that orthopaedic surgeons are going to be caring for patients with Corona virus, they are sadly mistaken.”  As correct as he is, our duty to lead from where we stand is immense.  

The CDC and the Surgeon General have recommended that we postpone elective surgery.  We do not want to expose our patients to Covid 19.  We do not want to use materials that are in short supply, like masks and protective gowns.  We must understand that the children of doctors and nurses and physician assistants and medical assistants and x-ray technicians and orthopaedic technicians are home and in need of care.  Our resources are short.  We must be ready to use these resources for the waves of sick patients who are likely to come.  Our elective surgeries are cancelled for now. Like joint replacements, and ACL reconstructions, and shoulder arthroscopy and carpel tunnel releases.

What about elective care?  Last week we made the decision to review all charts of patients waiting to see us in my orthopaedic clinic to convert to virtual visits whenever safe and possible.  Social distancing is meant to flatten the curve of spread.  We must avoid patients and healthcare professionals coming into mass contact to address issues that are neither urgent or emergent.  Most patients have received this information with grace and gratitude.  People want to stay safe and to keep those on the front lines safe.  

Some true colors are shining through in the past days.  Support.  Working after hours and on the weekend to do the right thing.  Keeping public health and the greater good in mind, many are rising up, leaning in, and supporting one another.  

And some are not.  This has not landed for some of us.  I had a patient’s mother yell at me last week for the 2 day wait to see her child with a non emergent problem.  I received this without the compassion and empathy that I usually conjure.  I am sure this woman was scared and frustrated, perhaps short on toilet paper, and daunted by the lines around the block at the grocery stores.  She was likely overwhelmed with the mixed messaging coming from the press and our government.  She was absolutely trying to advocate for her child.  And she was certainly not able to see that we are far from business as usual in the orthopaedic clinic.  I cannot blame her.  But I did not have the ability to offer her what she needed, patience and understanding.  

Last night my 13 year old had a sleepover planned with a new friend.  I do not know the friend’s parents.  I should have cancelled.  But I felt bad for the girls, and wanted to let them have one last hurrah before lockdown.  In the middle of the night my 10 year old daughter woke up with a fever.  I did not call the friend’s mother.  I made the call to keep my sick daughter in our room away from the friend.  This was not the right call.  The friend’s family was correctly upset.  All I could do was apologize, and this was received with much appreciated forgiveness.  

Today I went to my favorite Sunday yoga class, usually filled to the brim.  There were 5 students.  And a teacher dealing out everything I needed.  Hard work, deep breath, sweat, and focus.  I am sure even this outlet will shut down within the week.  

We are all so raw.  As parents.  As doctors.  As people.  Our leaders cannot get it right when there is no precedent in contemporary times.  A partner texted me, “our leaders are waiting for word from other leaders, and it all feels like trying to do a U turn in a big rig on a cul-de-sac.”  I have shifted to asking for forgiveness instead of permission.  I must do what seems right.  This is not the time for rule following, as there are no rules.  I am going back to my Hippocratic Oath.  Just trying to do no harm.  

To all of my tribe in medicine, let’s be patient with ourselves.  Let’s support one another.  And let’s remember that we have exited a world of patient led care and “customer” service in medicine.  As we do what we believe is right, we may not have consensus.  The moral and ethical barometer that comes with the art and practice of medicine cannot be dictated or scripted in these times.  Let it be said that we tried to do what was right with courage and even ferocity.  

Ramona Quimby, FDR and My Daughter

Drive or fly?  Although there never seems to be a right answer when planning a trip from southern to northern California, the answer after the trip is always quite clear.  The answer is fly.  We drove. 

Thanksgiving is the best holiday ever in our family.  And this year it got even better.  Two words:  NAPA and chef.  A chance to spend time with my siblings,  their children, and my mother might be one of my biggest pleasures in life.  The planning began early.  And in an effort to save money on plane tickets and hassle of flying, the following ridiculous plan was birthed:  A drive (in the Honda Odyssey minivan with cloth seats) from Los Angeles to Napa, with a stop to pick up my overworked  and less than fully organized husband from his Sacramento office, seemed reasonable in September, and even in October.  But November came around, and I began to recognize the error of my ways.  In an effort to mitigate this mistake, I announced to my mother (she is sane and voluntarily took part in this plan under no duress) and children that we would listen to audiobooks on the trip.  I pushed so hard for Harry Potter.  Amidst pushback from all 3 children, I persevered and downloaded the first of the Harry Potter series.  But somehow I was convinced by Lila to add the Ramona and Beezus collection to the audio library, as a backup plan.  

We started off strong.  Healthy snacks.  No one was carsick.  We even encountered some snowflakes when we stopped for gas just past the grapepevine.  Harry Potter was well loved by my mother, Lila, Ryan and me.  But Colette became obnoxious.  And it became clear that she was scared.  She was scared of the bad guys and the good guys.  And the dead unicorn sent her over the edge.  So we had to revert the backup plan of Ramona and Beezus.  

The superficial similarities between my daughters and Beverly Cleary’s characters from the book written in 1955 are astounding.  This of course speaks to the brilliance of an author who painted a timeless picture of humor in these endearing sisters.  And the narration by Stockard Channing for the audiobook should not go unpraised.

I will start with the basics of the ages.  When we meet Beezus, she is 9 years old, as is my Lila.  Beezus (Beatrice) is reliable, smart, and kind.  She is a pleaser, and she is an ambassador to the world with regard to her ludicrous 4 year old sister, Ramona.  My Colette is 5.   

It deserves mention that there is no counterpart to my 4 year old Ryan in Beverly Cleary’s fictional family.  Ryan has not commented on this omission to date.  

Ramona is far less subtle than my Colette.  As the first chapter unfolded, as we sat in traffic on the 5, I had a great view of Colette in my rearview mirror.  Colette is currently obsessed with her study of the character of Annie/Frannie (amalgamated into 1 character for the purposes of the production of Mary Poppins as put on by the Youth Academy of the Dramatic Arts, at the pre-primary level for ages 5-6.)  Colette has been seen practicing crying with real tears in her bathroom mirror, for instance.  Her solo for this show is “Anything Can Happen.”  This is on the heels of her showstopping performance in the summercamp version of “Fiddler on the Roof”, in which Colette was cast as Schprintze, the 2nd to youngest sister.  As she sang a few lines alone in “Matchmaker” her mother became a tearful mess.  “Matchmaker, matchmaker you know that I’m still very young, please take your time.  Up to this minute I misunderstood that I could get stuck for good.”  Her other solo singing line in “Anatevya” went as follows, “Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new land, looking for an old familiar face.”  How was there a dry eye in the house as my babooshka wearing little girl belted these words out?  But I digress…

As I watched Colette listening to the initial description of Ramona (written from the perspective of her older sister, Beezus), I saw her eyeing Lila.  As Beezus described the exasperation of Ramona crashing her community art class, Colette smirked, as if she were Ramona’s accomplice reaching into the pages of a 60 year old fictional book across lines of space and time.  As Beverly Cleary masterfully unfolds her description of an impromptu rainy day party orchestrated by Ramona without the knowledge of her mother and sister, Colette’s eyes sparkled.  The unbelievable thing is that the personalities and humor are so big in this story, that in the year 2015, my kids did not stop to ask about the historical details.  These children were allowed to walk (and bike) around town by themselves.  Dresses were sewn by hand from patterns.  Halloween costumes were also sewn, but masks were purchased.  No face paint.  No glitter.  No fairy princess sparkling 5 piece packages from Party City or Target (or Amazon).  And shopping was done by driving to an actual store in person by the mother in the story.  There is no nanny.  Shows were watched on a television.  

Sometime in book 2 Ramona’s mother went from staying at home full time to accepting a job part time in a pediatrician’s office.  The affects of  this transition on Ramona and Beezus were met with nods by my girls.  I could almost hear Lila and Colette giving words of advice to Ramona and Beezus on the pros and cons of growing up with a working mother.  And here’s where I was caught off guard.  I listened to Stockard Channing’s portrayal of Mrs. Quimby (I do not think Ramona and Beezus’ mother’s first name is divulged) and in the calm, cool portrayal of this voice I found mothering advice.  This mother from 1955 seemed to have taken in the parenting books from 2015.  This mother enjoyed her daughters.  When Ramona ripped up her nemesis’ owl before “Back to School Night,” Mrs. Quimby did not punish or react in a kneejerk way to this bad behavior.  She stopped, and mindfully gathered the information from Ramona, carefully asking “why.”  She did not squelch the spirit and creativity of this hilarious soul.  She also did not allow her older daughter, more of a straight and narrow, mild mannered girl, to be overshadowed in their home.  Not only was Lila identifying with Beezus, and Colette with Ramona, I now found myself aligning (wishful thinking, perhaps) with the great Mrs. Quimby.  

Later that week, Colette and I worked to fill out her November reading list.  Ryan was wearing his reversible superhero mask, debating whether to have the blue or red portion showing.  And Colette was dressed in her devil costume.  I struggled as to whether it was kosher to include audio books.  I succumbed.  To be fair, we had read over 20 books aloud that month.  Page 2 included a sheet to describe Colette’s favorite book of the month.  Without hesitation, she chose Ramona and Beezus.  There is a line to describe why.  Colette of course wrote “I really like Ramona.  She is messy and mean like me.  I am mean to Lila sometimes and I make big messes.  Part of the assignment was a picture, and she drew a picture of a little girl, which she said could be either Ramona or Colette.  

My husband is concerned about this identification of a hero in Ramona.  He has suggested that we ban the series, and has shared his threat with Colette.  She seems undaunted.  Mid drama queen incident at dinner a few nights ago, Jay threatened to cancel her plans to try out for an upcoming production of “Annie.”  Colette held his gaze.  She has begun to listen to Ramona the Brave, and she will remain in character, inspired by her hero.  

Addendum:  Colette and FDR

Have I mentioned Coco’s bright red curly hair?  This, in combination with her theatrics, makes Annie a perfect fit for her.  Her first solo dance this year is to “Tomorrow”.  Her faces and enthusiasm are captivating and over the top.  When the opportunity arose to participate in the play, “Annie”, she had high hopes of landing the lead.  She did not.  Instead she was awarded 2 roles.  1 is the police officer that returns Annie to Mrs. Hannagan after an attempted escape from the orphanage.  The other is FDR.  She was actually quite happy with her roles, and was rehearsing with gusto.  She was pleased about the little girl who plays her wife, Eleanor.  She was practicing her line about the New Deal and singing from the heart about NYC.  3 weeks into rehearsal she came home with a shocking report…  FDR is NOT a girl.  

I took this shock as a compliment.  It did not occur to my 6 year old daughter that a president of the United States would be a boy, then, now, or in the future.  Her love for Barack O’Bama aside (her twin cousins actually had a Barack O’Bama birthday theme the year they turned 9), Coco has begun her conscious years believing in gender and sex equality.  So my husband and I are high 5ing at this juncture. 

Physician or Surgeon, but Not “Provider”

with commentary from Past President of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery, Dr. David Teuscher

We are so much more than providers, and physicians are taking back language.

I have the good fortune to call Dr. David Teuscher, past president of the AAOS, my mentor, and my friend. In a recent call, I shared with him my passion to steer our AAOS culture away from the word “provider.” I shared my views and some pieces that I have written on the subject. We agreed to work together to share our thoughts with our AAOS membership and community.

The term provider has been used for generations to refer to the role adults play in our families and community, as we provide shelter, food, education, and love to those that depend upon us. In recent years, administrators in the field of healthcare have used the term “provider” to lump physicians and surgeons together with other clinicians. This can be disrespectful to doctors, other clinicians, and patients, as the confusing language obscures the roles of different clinicians play on the team that takes care of patients. (The term was also used in Nazi Germany to strip Jewish physicians, starting with female pediatricians, of the title “arzt,” or doctor, and instead refer to them as “behandler,” which loosely translates to provider.)  Language matters.

Teuscher shares his thoughts below:

“We are not ‘providers’ for our patients; they expect and deserve something much more. We as physicians and surgeons are professional first and last in all that we say, will and do. When we answer the call from a statue of repose after midnight or afternoon, whether downrange, the ER, or the office; we are not providers.

We are providers for our families, our communities, our nation, our earth, and our own personal families of faith and worship. Every day we are asked to provide and we are leaders of providers in those realms, but there is our other true higher calling.

We have earned titles of higher responsibility: physician and surgeon. People respect us because they seek us on one of the worst days of their lives. Full of fear, injury, pain and/or dread of what we might reveal as their mortal truth, they seek hope that a true physician and surgeon can heal, treat, connect, communicate, and deliver.

Earn it. The only pathway to becoming a surgeon is a hazardous and steep climb through a narrow gate. Through the precipices of preparation, scholarship, leadership, certification, and proven professional practice is the only pathway to become one of us.

He who defines the word in the war of words is the one who wins the war. We are physicians and surgeons, not providers. Just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego emerged from the fire, we have all been there and are now doctors. As physicians and surgeons, may the administrators of healthcare, the government, other clinicians, and most importantly, the patients who we serve, no longer call us providers. We earned it.”



dr jennifer weiss speaking

When did “patient” become a dirty word?

As I spend more time interacting with the administrative leadership in healthcare in 2019, I find myself asking again and again, “Why can’t we call them patients?” I am hearing words like customer, client, patron, and member are used in place of the word “patient” more and more. Yesterday I heard a managing director of a healthcare consulting practice speak about disruption in the market place. There was nothing surprising to me in her well put together presentation about innovators like Marriott and Starbucks and customer service industries that healthcare can and should learn from. But what I kept waiting for from her was the aha moment… I was sure she would acknowledge the differentiator, that healthcare is different. That we are in the business of caring for our patients, not selling goods to a customer. So I took the opportunity to ask her to comment on her choice of the word “customer” instead of “patient.” I was disappointed in her answer. She told me that as a physician she would not recommend that I call my patients “customers”. I reassured her that this would not ever happen. But she did tell me to let the people who get them in the door call them “customers.”

The dichotomy suggested by this consultant gets to the heart of healthcare in the United States in 2019. Language matters. If healthcare administrators define themselves as people selling healthcare, and patients are customers, then physicians and clinicians are relegated to employees on the assembly line of production. I hold the doctor-patient relationship sacred. But in the era of 2019 it is frightening to witness the transition from doctor to provider and patient to customer.

When did my profession decide to fall into step with consumerism? I am as enamored with the innovations of 2019 as anyone. Starbucks and Amazon and Nordstroms and Uber have so much to teach us about evolution and meeting people where they are. These people are customers to these companies. But I cannot advocate a leap to allow people to be termed “customers” by organizations that care for the sick.

If one side of the house, the administration, calls the people seeking healthcare “customers,” the consumerism story bleeds into direct patient care. The paradigm that allows for mutual respect between doctor (or clinician) and patient, for shared decision-making, for compassionate care, cannot be confused with consumerism. Perhaps the differentiator that healthcare needs in 2019 to reignite our north star, the doctor patient relationship, lies in the language. The reinvention of language will not modernize the delivery of healthcare. Healthcare can learn from customer service industries. Healthcare can adapt and evolve, to improve convenience and access. But please, let us differentiate ourselves. Let us respect the delicacy, intimacy, and sacred nature of the bonds of medical professionals to those we care for.

Camp Counselor to Orthopaedic Surgeon: Amazing Preparation

From the Tennis Court to the Operating Room, how my experience as a camp counselor prepared me to be an Orthopaedic Surgeon

In 2019, women continue to make up less than 10% of practicing orthopaedic surgeons in the USA.  I made the decision to pursue a career in this male dominated profession at the age of 24.  I was young and fearless.  I am getting older, and I am trying to reach back to my 24 year old self to understand who I was and what made me think that it was a good idea to immerse myself in the challenge of surrounding myself with mostly men.  This summer I have had time to reflect, as I have returned to the place that I spent my summers during those influential years.

During college, I spent 2 summers as a counselor at a sports camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.  Camp Lenox was established in 1917 as a boys camp.  In the late 1980s, the camp opened to girls.  In 1991, there was a small girls camp embedded within the boys camp, making up about 10% of the campers and counselors.  This was my first summer as a tennis counselor.  Of the 15 tennis counselors, I was the only woman.  

I had to prove myself as an athlete every day.  But every evening I went back to my cabin full of young women.  And these female counselors and campers were pure fun.  Many were fierce athletes.  Some were not.  Some were artistic or brainy, and the crew was a motley one.  The thing we all had in common was fast friendship and loyalty…  We knew how to stick together.  

I made some unlikely friends that summer.  My co-counselor was a fast talking incredibly intelligent woman named Michelle Gomez (GoGo).  She had big Long Island hair.  I learned immediately that NOONE messed with GoGo.  She gave me a once over when I arrived, unimpressed with my Williams College Lacrosse T shirt, ripped up jeans, and Birkenstocks.  Her hair was perfectly curled and her scrunchy rocks matched her tank top.  She was fun and established.  ]It was clear that she was in charge, both socially and in her job description.   One of my best friends from high school joined me.  She had just finished her Sophomore year at Duke.  She was a great soccer player, and was unfazed by being the only woman among the male soccer staff.  We also met a soft-spoken midwesterner who worked on the waterfront named Jennifer Hanson.  She and I came from different parts of the country, from different kinds of families, but we had so much in common.  We were a bit of a calm in the storm.  We were quick to help, we worked hard, and we both fell in love with summer boyfriends.  We did not think to push on the male hierarchy entrenched in decades of history and tradition.  We did not know then who we would become.  

I returned to Camp Lenox in 2016.  My oldest daughter, Lila, was a camper.  One of my campers had married one of the counselors from my 1990s version of Camp Lenox, and their daughter and Lila became fast friends.  The director of the waterfront was the same old JJ, with the only real change in 25 years being loss of his blond wild mane of hair.  So many of my people were still there.  And I joined for a week as the camp doctor.  In 2017, the camp celebrated its 100th birthday.  Campers and counselors from far and wide returned, including Michelle Gomez and Jennifer Hanson.  Michelle put her articulate strength to use, and is now the Mayor of her town in Florida.  Jennifer is a tenured professor at Indiana University.  And the 3 of us agreed, our experience at this camp was a huge influence on our professional success.

It turns out that spending a summer in close quarters in a male dominated environment might have been the best preparation for orthopaedics.  There was no fear in competing with the men around me.  I learned to separate myself from the behavior that was not interesting to me.  I established boundaries.  Most importantly, I learned to believe that I could do things differently but just as well as the men surrounding me, and I learned not to be intimidated.  Probably the most important thing that these summers taught me was the meaning of a small tribe of women in a huge sea of boys and men steeped in tradition.  

In 2019, the camp is almost 50% girls and women.  The women counselors include top athletes, from basketball to softball to soccer.  The stands for girls’ sports is filled by boys cheering, just like the girls cheer for the boys.  The color war teams are led by a male and a female general each season.  The girls and women are no longer a small minority among a male led majority.  In 2019, I have spent 2 weeks watching my 2 daughters and 1 son inhabit a world that is teaching them gender equality in athletics and in life.  

I have an ongoing email chain with 5 women of orthopaedics, true giants in my field.  We exchange articles that motivate us and anger us, lift one another up, and remind one another to laugh.  Last week I wrote to them about the shift I have experienced in my camp microcosm.  As I received their supportive responses, I realized that these orthopaedists  are my 2019 version of a tribe to return to after proving myself all day long in our world of orthopaedics.

The women of Camp Lenox 1991 taken in 2017
Left to Right Jennifer Hanson Piatt, Michelle Gomez, Kim Broder, Dara Freeman Pasternak, Jennifer Weiss

Coming Home and Losing the Veneer

I spent the past 48 hours with the society that I have come to understand is my professional home and happy place.  The Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA).  These are surgeons that have dedicated their lives to fixing children.  Children who break their bones, children who are born with crooked bones and spines, vulnerable little beings who cannot advocate for themselves.  My pediatric orthopaedic family exists to support each other, to build each other up and pick each other up.  Dr. Steve Frick, the outgoing president of POSNA, said something today from the podium that resonated fully with me.  It went something like this, but I cannot do it justice…  My clumsy paraphrasing of his words are as follows:  This society is here to take care of its members so that the surgeons can take care of the children, their patients, in the best way possible.  

2 years ago POSNA committed to embracing the work of wellness for pediatric orthopaedists.  I had the honor of working with 2 of my heroes, Dr. Hank Chambers and Dr. Michael Goldberg, to spearhead this work.  In the spirit of my own wellness, as I was overextended at that time, I asked for someone else to lead the WTF, as our Wellness Task Force was unfortunately named.  That someone else has since joined the ranks of my heroes. Dr. Vish Talwalkar has a quick smile, humility, brilliance, and the kind of sense of humor required for this work.  We started with a short seminar last year.  We wrote a call to action, published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics.  And yesterday Dr. Brian Scannell chaired a half day course on wellness that overwhelmed me with gratitude.  My POSNA family showed up, learned, contributed, and sat in the hard work of the questions of our own vulnerability.  

I had an “aha” moment as I planned the talks I would give during this session.  In my quest for physician advocacy in the interest of wellness, and in my fierce battle calling attention to the moral injury that some call burnout in physicians, I have traveled to speak, written articles at night and on weekends, and I have had countless conversations with struggling physicians.  I have always advised my mentees, my friends, my family, and my children to say yes to the things that bring joy and stir passion.  So saying yes to all things related to this work has rolled over me like a Mack truck.  My aha moment came from the podium.  I began my talk with a disclosure that I have shifted to an edgy place.  I’m not talking the wellness of yoga mats and organic vegan food.  I spoke about the abyss that is growing between doctors and patients.  About the loss of peer interaction.  About the loss of respect for physicians, as evidenced by the #doctorsareassholes and #stayinyourlane viral movements.  About the systemic challenges of the electronic medical record, sleep deprivation, loss of autonomy, and inability to have the support to function at the scope that we have trained so hard to achieve.  And as I moved through my talk, I shifted from edgy to angry.  Angry about what has happened to my beloved profession.  

My kids go through their days at school and sports and friends and dance keeping it together, mostly as model citizens.  Frequently they get home to me and lose it, with an ensuing hot mess of tears or rage.  The sense of family, of warmth, of support, brings up the feelings they have bottled up all day long.  This is what I felt as I came home to my POSNA family yesterday.  I felt the support around me that enabled me to lose my veneer and show the crack in my armor.  

I have left the beginner and intermediate slopes of this physician advocacy work I have assigned to myself.  I feel like I am at the top of a steep and icy mogul field.  There is no alternate route for me.  I have committed, and I am pointing my skis down this mountain.  I’m not sure if I will wipe out and fail or whether I will book down the mountain with good form and confidence.  So stay tuned.  

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