Unabridged: “Is Your Doctor Hurting Your Mental Health? Why You Need an Emotionally Intelligent Doctor and How to Find One”

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If you are anything like me, you do a little research before choosing a doctor. Patients can easily learn about the traditional aspects of their doctor’s qualifications, such as the college they attended, years practicing, and awards earned, with a simple Internet search. However, it’s quite a bit harder to get a feel for a doctor’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to think and gather information about emotions, and then to use that information to achieve goals. Goals may include managing one’s own or others’ emotions, like staying calm, cheering someone up, or deciding how to share important news.

Whether or not your doctor practices emotional intelligence will make an enormous impact on the quality of your care and mental health. At best, a doctor lacking emotional intelligence can make you feel unheard, unimportant, or confused. At worst, you may end up feeling completely devalued or even traumatized.

Let’s travel back in time one week. Zoom in on me lying on the table in the OR. Right away, things started going wrong. I stayed on the table for a half hour while nurses darted around me like frightened birds, trying to find out where the surgeon was through every phone and pager in the room. One nurse even ran out into the hall to ask random people the question on everyone’s lips: “Where is Jeff?” I knew the instant he finally arrived because he owned that room. Even though my face was covered, I could feel him walk towards me, the nurses falling silent as he passed. He never paused his diatribe about paperwork and how he refuses to do another page today. He didn’t even stop when he put his hands on me. I remember thinking, he should see my face, speak my name, explain the procedure to me, anything to indicate that he knew he was touching a sentient, feeling being. That’s what an emotionally intelligent doctor would do. When he touched me, I felt like a piece of meat.

Next, the team couldn’t sedate me because of my low blood pressure. I was paralyzed when I heard this. That’s right, heard as in, overheard. No one said, “Your blood pressure is pretty low. Has this ever happened before?” No one said, “If we do this procedure right now, you won’t be able to have a sedative. How do you feel about proceeding?” Taking care of a patient means approaching him or her with empathy. A cornerstone of emotional intelligence, empathy consists of admitting ignorance about a person’s inner life and taking steps to remedy that ignorance by asking questions and imagining a different perspective. However, Dr. Jeff was too busy ranting about his least favorite nurses and why they should get fired to address me, much less ask for my opinion.

The team gave me Lidocaine, which didn’t cut it – pun intended. Apparently, Dr. Jeff remembered he was operating on a person because he finally spoke to me: “You are going to feel just a little pressure here.” I braced myself. Then, a fire alarm went off in my brain, screeching, “Sharp! Sharp! Sharp!” as red strobe lights blinded me. I cried out when I felt the blade going in and out of my skin.

“You are going to feel pressure, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dr. Jeff patronized. Did he forget I was not sedated?

The next thing I heard was, “Wow, she is bleeding all over the place.” This is not what you want to hear immediately after someone slices your jugular. It seems that one of my medications contains an anticoagulant. At that point, an emotionally intelligent doctor would have addressed me to manage my emotional experience of the surgery and reassure me. You probably know Dr. Jeff well enough by now to realize that this didn’t happen. In fact, after he closed the artery, he joked, “Now don’t go repeating anything you heard in here.” Naturally, I interpreted this comment to mean, “Hey, Right Shoulder and Side Neck, thanks for being such a good sport. Feel free to publish this experience as a non-example in your article on emotional intelligence in ALS News Today.” So here we are.

Apparently, a lot went right with the surgery. The results were exactly as hoped for. Still, imagine my surprise when I returned to my room to find my mother and husband smiling. They squeezed my hand, kissed my forehead, and told me how brave I was. “The surgeon stopped by and said that the procedure was a success!” my mom said.

It was then that I started to cry. The experience of being helpless to pain and violence dragged me back eleven years to the night I was nearly murdered. My PTSD symptoms flared to life; anxiety and depression crept in, first through nightmares, then into my waking life. I kept thinking about how different my mental state would be if Jeff had just spoken to me. I remembered how my would-be killer barely spoke to me, either. Why would he? I was meat to him, too.

How does the term “medical success” not take patient experience into account? Answer: when the success is being described by a doctor who shows zero emotional intelligence. No one deserves this treatment, especially not those made vulnerable by disease. Emotional intelligence in doctors is an absolute must, just as vital as the medical degree that allows them the privilege of being in the room with you.

Lucky for me, the doctor I see most frequently, a neurologist named Dr. Goslin, is an expert at practicing emotional intelligence. From the moment I stepped into her office, I felt like I was the most important person in the world to her. She wanted to know all about me, way beyond my ALS story. In fact, she knows as much about me as some of my friends do. The day I met her, all she wanted to do was listen. Then, she asked me about my emotional state and medical goals. I told her I felt positive, ready to fight, and I wanted to survive this terminal, currently uncured disease.

Her response? “I think that’s a great goal, and with the way research is going we definitely have reason to hope.” I knew what I had said would be laughable to many people, but she managed to respect my feelings without making me promises she couldn’t deliver. That conversation set the tone for every future interaction we had. We follow a treatment plan that focuses on the goal of survival by staying ahead of the disease and minimizing its strain on my body while I wait for the cure. Dr. Goslin used emotional intelligence to learn about me and achieve her goal of designing a treatment plan for me, not just my disease. Now every time I see her, I feel empowered. She is an important part of keeping my mind healthy.

When I decided to write about how the emotional intelligence of doctors can affect a patient’s mental health, I asked Dr. Goslin if I could interview her. She agreed with enthusiasm.

At the beginning of the interview, she said, “I think that emotional intelligence as you have defined it is one of the most important aspects of being a good clinician. Acknowledgement of the importance of emotions is part of treating the whole person and not just the disease. [However], my medical training did not address this aspect of care at all.  There wasn’t any acknowledgement of the importance of emotions (of the patient or of the self) in caring for patients.”

Well, that explains Dr. Jeff, but what about Dr. Goslin? Where did she learn about emotional intelligence and how to practice it?

“I have attended various educational meetings regarding awareness of this topic, particularly based on mindfulness, meditation, and being in the moment. It is definitely something that I cultivate,” Dr. Goslin said.

She went on to explain, “A lot of emotional intelligence comes from experience and a willingness to be open to emotions, both mine and others. When emotions arise that would typically be unpleasant or uncomfortable I tend to allow them to flow over me, and I sit with them, without actually judging them as negative. I then use awareness of the emotions to help determine what the patient finds most important to have addressed and how best to do this.”

Being a doctor who practices emotional intelligence sounds difficult, even draining, but Dr. Goslin can’t imagine treating her patients without interacting with their emotions. “I believe that patients’ emotional response to disease and to their care factors heavily into how effectively they can be treated. Fear and anger are two common emotions that occur in the setting of illness and that can impede medical treatment. Often when a doctor can recognize and address these emotions, road blocks to treatment can be removed.”

“How does practicing emotional intelligence affect you on a personal level? Is it challenging?” I asked.

“I think that emotional intelligence sometimes allows me to have a closer relationship with patients, which can make my sorrow for the patients more extreme. It is also important but sometimes difficult to recognize my own emotions and not let them interfere with patient care. For example, before going into a room to give a patient a diagnosis of ALS, I might be feeling fear and anxiety about how the patient will accept the diagnosis and how well I will be able to respond to the intensity of emotions that are likely. I have to control these emotions so that the patient can be the appropriate center of focus.”

When I asked her what emotional intelligence brings to the table when dealing with a terminal disease like ALS, she answered with the optimism that is perhaps her defining characteristic: “While ALS is terminal, it is not without treatment and hope. I think that use of emotional intelligence results in a closer patient doctor relationship and builds a level of trust and openness. I hope that the positive emotions that I bring to treating diseases (even terminal ones), increases the likelihood that patients will also have positive emotions.”

So, how can you find the emotionally intelligent doctor you need and deserve to keep your mind mighty? Dr. Goslin, of course, has the answer. “In some ways, I think the web based assessments of doctors can reflect their emotional intelligence because I believe that patients have greater satisfaction when treated by a doctor with emotional intelligence. Of course these assessments can be also be done by patients who are unhappy with a doctor for  unrelated reasons, like the doctor wouldn’t prescribe narcotics.”

Keeping that caveat in mind, I recommend using the following free sites for finding reviews: healthgrades, RateMDs, Yelp, and Zocdoc. Once you have a list of a few you like, you can call each doctor’s office or sometimes even email the doctor directly to ask if he or she follows what I call “The Goslin Equation:” mindfulness + meditation.

Need help planning what to say during your phone call or in your email? Check out this script:

“I am interested in working with a doctor who practices emotional intelligence. How is emotional intelligence part of the way you treat patients? Can you tell me if you have had any mindfulness or meditation training?”

Now go get the fantastic care you deserve!

Abridged version originally published by ALS News Today on October 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

A Wild and Lonely Belief

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9Dedicated to Dr. Goslin for giving me permission to believe, and my husband Evan, who shields me from the worst of the winter winds.


I am a voracious reader. I always have been, thanks to my parents and grandparents, who planted books around my house in places I could reach even when I was still crawling. They were treasures I was allowed to discover on my own, and as a result, they felt special and personal to me. The books I read in my childhood became a part of me in that they showed me how to dream, hope, and believe. Even now, those stories influence the way I understand the world and cope with the rocks and daggers it throws at me. When I spot trouble coming my way, I snatch up one of these books, opening it wide to use the front and back covers as a shield while I confer in hushed, hurried tones with the characters inside.

Lately the shield I crouch behind is the work of one J. M. Barrie, and Peter Pan is whispering in my ear: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ a fairy somewhere falls down dead… Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap your hands! Don’t let Tinker Bell die!” I watch the children bring Tinker Bell back by clapping and shouting, “I believe!” But what good can Peter Pan’s words do me, a young woman dying of ALS? More than you might ever imagine.

You see, I have this conviction that I will not succumb to my disease. I believe I will survive this. I can count on one hand the people who share my belief. I often hear other pALS (people with ALS) talk about their sadness over the special moments they will miss after the monster we are all battling cuts their lives short. On the earth beneath which we have been laid to rest, our loved ones will blow out birthday candles, throw graduation caps into the air, walk down the aisle, paint nurseries, and build cribs. We can only hope they think of us now and then as the flowers of their lives continue to unfold long after our own blooms have wilted and shriveled.

That’s not my story, though. My blossom is wilting because winter has come, not because I am dying. Bitter winds may batter my petals, but my roots are safe and strong. They remember spring and are waiting for it to come again. I have been told not to get my hopes up, and my answer is always the same: “What harm can believing do? If I am wrong, I won’t be around to cry about it.” The fact of the matter – which I rarely endeavor to explain anymore – is that believing is a source of strength for me. After all, Peter Pan said belief can save a life. If you need to hear about the power of belief from someone with more authority, consult another prominent book from my childhood. Open the Bible to Matthew 17:20 where you will find the following words: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

To me, belief is so powerful because of what it inspires. The magic of belief lies in the way it empowers us to live, and when necessary, fight. I believe that I will be cured, but that doesn’t mean I expect an easy path. I know that only if I work hard and plan carefully, I will survive long enough to be cured. This conviction shapes how I live now. In order to last until the cure, I need to keep my lungs strong and clear with daily use of the cough assist and AVAPS machines. Each day, I also complete two dozen physical therapy exercises and follow my feeding tube meal program. I can bear all this and more – hours spent in the hospital for clinics and drug trials, daily vitamin injections, even a tracheotomy if my lungs fail – because I know that my story will have a happy ending.

This is my wild lonely belief: that I am not a withering rose, but a winter one, waiting with patient certainty for the sun.

A Lesson on Joy

In the movie adaptation of my life, the climactic scene would go like this: the camera slowly sweeps up to where I am snuggling into a warm plaid blanket on a rustic porch.  The sun peeks out from where it slept behind the mountain range. The soft light on my face shows I’m at peace. I struggled throughout the whole movie with how to carry on living, but last night I found the trick. My friends pushed my wheelchair out into the meadow behind my sister’s cabin, and we stayed up all night watching the stars, singing, laughing, and telling secrets. I know now that this is the key: live in the moment, live for today, and let no adventure pass me by until I close my eyes for the last time.

That’s what dying people are supposed to do, right? It’s our bittersweet version of happily ever after.

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Hanselmann Photography

For me, though, there was no mountain cabin, no midnight epiphany. For the longest time, there was only the looming specter of my death. When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I described the doctor telling me the news by saying, “He told me I’m dying.” I used to get those two things mixed up: having ALS and dying. They do sound the same. After all, there is currently no cure or treatment for this ruthless disease. Immediately after diagnosis, I planned everything from who would get my beloved cameo necklace passed down from my great grandmother to the type of funeral I want. I imagine a ceremony around a sapling which my family and friends can visit and tend to as it grows into a memory tree. I hoped my loved ones would picnic there, and children would climb my branches.

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Of course, not all of my death thoughts were so serene. The prospect of dying young fueled what became an obsession with fading into a distant memory as my loved ones grow old without me. I worried most about what I would become to my husband, Evan. I imagined being a brief chapter of his life before he meets the woman who will be the main act, the mother of his children. She will succeed where I failed, giving him the family and future he deserves, transforming me into a tragic footnote in his biography. With my mind drenched in such excruciating fears, how could I surrender to the beauty of the present?

A series of fortunate events saved me from despair. First, we moved to Portland, where I received the exact kind of care I hoped for at my new ALS clinic. I now work with a creative, emotionally intelligent doctor who is full of hope regarding treatments currently being tested. She immediately empowered me by involving me in one such trial. Finally, I was doing something to fight back, and I dared to dream that the end of my story might not be written on a tombstone.

Then, a few months later, I found the next rung of the ladder that I would climb towards joy. ALS Awareness Month crept in, and a flurry of fundraising activity swept across my Facebook feed. Guilt pressed down hard on my shoulders; I was the one with ALS, but my family was doing all the advocacy work. As a last minute attempt to get involved, I decided to write a little note on Facebook every day about my life with ALS. I didn’t expect to generate much interest, especially since I wasn’t sure how much had to say on the subject. Flash forward three days, and I was pouring my heart out to a shockingly large and invested audience. I became enamored of power those posts gave me over my experience. That power, just like the power I gained from the drug trial, gave me the bravery to fight like never before. I dove into fundraising for the ALS Association, and my doctor and I collaborated with ALS Worldwide to learn new ways to preserve my speech, strength, and mobility. As my hope blossomed, I realized I couldn’t honestly fight for a cure without spending at least as much time imagining my life after ALS as I had spent fixated on my death.

I came to understand that joy will remain a distant dream if a person can’t give equal head space to the best and worst outcomes.

Real, lasting joy pumped from my heart to every inch of my failing body when I gave myself permission to dream. Now, I imagine that Evan and I will make up for all the years we have spent bound to our home and hospital by renovating an Airstream trailer and roaming all over the country, exploring national parks, chasing northern lights, and following music festivals. I will return to writing novels because the miracle of a cure will mean that a blog about ALS will be unnecessary. Evan will play guitar in the evenings, and I’ll sing along like I used to. Everything will be beautiful, and nothing will hurt.

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A few months after I started my blog, I got a feeding tube. Lying on table looking at the distant ceiling of the operating room, it occurred to me that this would be the first scar ALS left on my body. I got sad thinking about how I would never get rid of it, even if one day I no longer needed the feeding tube. But then, I thought of myself leaning out the window of the car on a sunny day with hundreds of miles ahead of me, Evan looking handsome in the driver’s seat,  our Airstream trailing behind us, glittering in the sun like a mermaid tail, and I didn’t mind a small scar at all. Some day, it will be the only reminder of what I suffered, and should I ever get scared embarking on my new adventure, I can look to the hole sewn up right beneath my heart and know I will survive.

Choosing Hope Over Fear

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Agent Fox Mulder, the protagonist of the cult classic TV show “The X-Files”, is on a mission born of personal tragedy. He is obsessed with hunting down UFOs in order to find answers about extraterrestrials because as a child he witnessed his sister being abducted by aliens. His search for answers is relentless even though science hasn’t caught up with his belief that “the truth is out there.” Every time he investigates a case that seems bound to result in revelation, he gleans only enough scraps of information to keep from losing faith. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Those of us who have been personally affected by ALS have a similarly dogged commitment to searching for the truth about a disease nearly as mysterious as ETs – one without a known cause or cure. The countless studies made possible by extraordinary fundraising efforts such as the Ice Bucket Challenge are providing glimpses into the shadows shrouding ALS. Sometimes I wonder, though, when the revelation I am waiting for will finally come.

Like my favorite FBI character, faith keeps me going. Many people think that you either have faith or you don’t, that believing is an ability we can’t control, like a natural talent for music or art. However, I experience faith in the dedication and brilliance of the scientists working to slay this dragon is a decision. Agent Mulder is famous for his line, “I want to believe.” Being impatient and afraid are inevitable, but letting those emotions overwhelm faith is a choice. I want to believe, and so I decide to, again and again, for as long as it takes.

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How To Pee From A Sling With Dignity

Immediately upon being diagnosed with ALS, I heard from doctors, support groups, books, and websites that this disease will steal my dignity. I wanted to be on guard against this, but there was a problem: I didn’t have a clear understanding of what dignity means. It was always just a collage of images: Dame Judi Dench’s face, a smattering red shame, and a slug trail across the canvas indicating where self-respect left the building. Only when I was in danger of losing my dignity did I feel it running through me.

The night I learned about dignity started with horrible muscle spasms in my limbs. Fresh out of marijuana, I had to fall back on Vicodin, which is less effective and leaves me unable to move because my balance suffers so greatly. I was only a few hours into my deep narcotic sleep when I woke up with a serious problem: a painfully full bladder.

“Evan,” I whimpered to my sleeping husband. “I have to pee really bad!”

“I’ll get the walker,” he mumbled, easing out of bed.

“I can’t stand up for the transfer to the commode. The vicodin gave me noodle legs.”  I tried to keep my voice steady, but I was afraid that if I didn’t get to the commode fast enough, I would have an accident. It had happened a few times at the beginning of ALS. This was before I started a medicine that silenced the fried nerves tricking my poor bladder into letting go.

Evan paused, considering. “We have to use the Hoyer lift,” he concluded. “It’s our only option.”

I wiggled to help Evan put the Hoyer lift sling underneath me. Normally, it would wrap around my legs as well and hold me in the fetal position while Evan used the lift to raise me off the bed and put me in the wheelchair. However, now that I needed to land on the commode, my pants had to come off.

For the record, hanging pantsless in mid-air in one’s bedroom is not nearly as fun as it sounds, especially when abrasive canvas ropes curl a person so her legs are smashing a full bladder.

“Hurry,” I squeaked from inside the sling, trying hard not to panic.

“I’m lowering you over the commode now.”

Except when I landed on the commode, I was on my back. The commode is narrow and shallow. It does not tilt like my wheelchair to catch me as I descend. Evan immediately raised me up, promising, “I’ll try again. We’ll figure it out.”

At this point, the Vicodin had me thinking I was becoming a chimpanzee baby in a swinging leaf-cradle. I was not really in a place to strategize, and I silently thanked god for Evan.

However, one more try, and it was clear I would not be landing on the commode. I started crying. Between the way the Hoyer irritated my bare legs and my burgeoning belief that I would never be able to pee again (courtesy of the Vicodin), I was losing it.

“I think,” Evan began, then paused just long enough that I knew I wouldn’t like what he said next. He started again: “I’m going to hold the bucket from the commode under you; you’ll have to pee like that.”

By then, I was sobbing. “I can’t,” I cried. “It’s too humiliating.”

“It’ll be fine,” he soothed. “I swear this will work out just fine.”

As he said these last words, I felt the bucket press against the back of my thighs. I cried harder, the pain in my bladder sharpening.

“You can do this,” Evan encouraged me gently. “I’m right here.”

Choking on the mucus and tears of my embarrassment, I finally let my bladder go, mostly because I could not control it anymore. My hair clung to my sticky face, tangling in my lashes, and I looked for patterns in the textured ceiling to get my mind away from this horror. I couldn’t escape my feelings, though. Something vital around my heart fractured.

“That’s my dignity,” I thought, imagining I could see it floating away.

And then…

“You’re doing so well, honey,” Evan said, full of warmth and pride, all because I was peeing into the bucket he held.

The sound of his voice arrested the pieces in their ascent.

“Everything’s going well. There are no spills. I’m so proud of you.”

The pieces hovered and, in the unhurried way of feathers, drifted back down to me.

Then it was over. Evan removed the bucket and put it back in the commode. He put his face by mine, his hands brushing my hair and tears from my cheek, then kissed my forehead and said, “It’s all over, and you did so well. Do you feel better?”

“Yeah,” I replied softly, my breathing evening out.

Evan used the lift to settle me back in bed. He pulled up my pants and tucked me in. After the rough sling, my sheets felt luxurious. As I fell asleep, my thoughts returned to dignity, and I finally saw it clearly. Now I know how to use it.

Here’s how to pee from a sling (or do any other wacky thing your heart desires) with dignity :

  1. Know the nature of dignity: Understand that dignity is a fine gold filament threaded through the spine and pulled taut so a person can stand straight.
  2. Surround yourself with people who value your dignity: Your sense of dignity can be delicate. It has to be nurtured.
  3. Have confidence: With the right attitude and a solid friend, you can get away with almost anything. Just hold your head up and think of running water.