What is being an Emergency Physician really like?

by Bob Stuntz in , ,

As we gear up for a new group of fourth year medical students rotating through our ED's, hoping to eventually match in Emergency Medicine, we are all also starting to look forward to recruiting and interviews later this year.  One of the common things I know gets asked of our medical students between June and December of each year is this: "Why do you want to go into Emergency Medicine (EM)?"  We usually hear some standard stuff.  I love the variety, I like to see all complaints, the undifferentiated patient, etc.  Sometimes we hear less thoughtful answers.  I've heard everything from "Well, its a good lifestyle," to "I wanted to do procedures but surgery has too much call."  (On a side note, if you find yourself answering this question this way, strongly reconsider your decision to go into EM).  

I worked a shift recently that I think warrants some discussion, and sheds light into what it really means to be an Emergency Physician (EP).  No specific patient details will be provided, and this is not really about the medicine involved. The cases were interesting on their own, but this is about the bigger picture.  

I was working an 8 hour shift, and the first 5 hours or so had been relatively smooth.  We were double covered with attendings, and thus far everything had been relatively straightforward, with relatively bread and butter dispositions and treatment plans.  Of course there was a diversity of patient population, chief complaints, and workups involved.  And then, as often does, it hit the fan. A critically ill patient arrived, who required a significant resuscitation.  This involved an entire team: nurses, assistants, our unit clerks, the patient representatives, multiple consultants, respiratory therapy, and of course a resident and me.  As is usually the case, simple ACLS was not good enough.  Tough decisions had to be made, things evolved and changed rapidly over the course of the next hour.  The family was distraught, and multiple discussions had to take place from their standpoint as well.  We have these discussions with people every day, and nothing that I was saying was something I had not said before.  But for some reason, I really identified with this family, and it touched an emotional nerve.  We also had to get consultants to come in from home (this was later on a weekend night), and convince them what we thought was going on was correct.  An hour after I first met this patient and family, they were taken to get further care in another part of the hospital.  

If you have listened to Scott Weingart and Cliff Reid's great podcast discussing the book "Combat Physiology," Then you will have a good idea of what may happen next.  Having been running on chatecholamines for an hour, and having some heavy family discussions, I hit a wall, emotionally and physically - the true definition of a post adrenaline crash.  I was fortunate to be able to step out of the department and compose myself for about 5 minutes.  Upon returning, sure enough another sick patient that required immediate intervention had arrived.  Over the next two hours until the end of my shift, another two patients would arrive that were also complex patients requiring resuscitation.  All the while, the less critical patients were still showing up, and the ones we had seen previously still needed dispositions. My colleague had to stay almost an hour after their shift as they had helped run the department while we were in resuscitation number one, and I was there about an hour after my shift trying to get another patient stable for sign out and the ICU involved.  I only live about 5 minutes from my job, so I do not have much decompression time before I get home.  When I did, I was not the most fun person to talk to for awhile, as I'm sure my wife can attest, and then as soon as I went to bed I passed out, completely zonked.  

I think for those training in Emergency Medicine, and those thinking about pursuing this career, there are some important considerations here.  For those not in Emergency Medicine, I think it gives an important insight into what goes on in an ED on a daily basis.  

For EM residents, and sudents thinking about EM as a career, think about what it took for each case.  You of course are managing multiple patients at a time.  Then someone incredibly sick shows up.  You are meeting them and their families for the first time, working on limited, dynamic information, and making rapid critical decisions based on this limited information.  You have to wear many hats in addition to being a "smart doctor."  You have to be an effective team leader, managing a team of people with multiple backgrounds, stress levels, comfort levels, and knowledge.  You have to be an effective manager, making sure the different pieces of a resuscitation run smoothly, You need to be an effective communicator with consultants, recruiting them and mobilizing them to the common task of doing what is best for your patient.  You also have to be able to talk to patients and their families.  Sometimes, this means telling someone that you just met 10 minutes ago that their loved one is sick, or dying, and do so in a way that is caring, empathetic, and understanding, but also straightforward enough so that they understand the situation.  This may involve taking care of someone or talking to people that strike a personal cord with you, but you must remain objective.  We are giving people the worst news imaginable, and we only just met them.  

If you are not the one in resus, then you have to be able to change gears, picking up the slack your colleagues leave behind when their patient takes a turn.  You have to work as a team.  This may mean staying late.  We all know about the nights, weekends, and holidays the job requires, time away from families, and the cumulative toll the job takes.  Burnout is a real problem.  The job can have physical effects.  When you are in a high catecholamine situation like this, you crash afterwards.  And when you are done, you may have to start doing it all over again, or even manage multiple teams with multiple patients at a time.  As residents, this is sometimes difficult to appreciate as there are usually multiple residents at a time in the ED.  When you are out on your own, however, it may just be you with multiple sick patients, or supervising multiple residents with multiple sick patients.  Wellness outside of work is of tremendous importance, and will be discussed in further detail in future posts and podcasts.  

You will note, the medicine is but a piece of the bigger picture.  At CORD and other discussions amongst educators of EM residents, it is often said we as educators really need to point out when we are teaching.  Remember that teaching and learning does not just happen when someone asks you a board style question, and is not just simply the nuts and bolts knowledge of EM.  Managing a sick patient, running a resuscitation, talking to a consultant, giving bad news to a family - these are all incredible teaching and learning opportunities.  Pay attention to them, get feedback, and learn as much as you can from these situations.  The medicine is interesting, but each one of our patients and their families have so much more to teach us.  If you have a chance, debrief after big resuscitations, and not just about the medicine.  Talk about the good and bad of the non-medical aspects of that patient's care.  

So am I trying to depress you, or drive you away from EM?  Not at all.  After a good night's sleep and some time with my wife and kids, I felt back to normal.  I am learning a bunch thinking about the cases, mentally debriefing.  And ultimately, I am extremely appreciative of the people I work with, and proud of the job that we do.  There are few places in the hospital that could manage that number of crashing patients and the complicated social situations and non-medical work surrounding them on such limited information.  Few in medicine are as lucky as we are.  We have the chance to take care of many different types of patients, and help them through the worst day of their lives.  It does not always have a happy ending, but we do an important job that makes a huge difference.  We should never lose sight of this important responsibility.  I firmly believe that nowhere in the hospital is there such a cohesive team that is so good at resuscitating sick patients, and coordinating all of these different aspects of their care.  Ultimately, it takes a lot to do our job, but we have much to be proud of, and the sacrifice is worth it.  I can not say it any better than Cliff Reid when he talked about what we do and how we can be heroes.    

Residents, think of all the learning opportunities you get managing these cases day to day.  Learning is so much more than the boards and learning how to do procedures.  There is really an art to what we do.  And for the medical students, if this sounds like your bag, than you might make a great EP.  Just don't tell me you are going into EM to make money without taking call - you can do better than that!