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

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Jeff, the Jugular, and Me

To be read with “Is Your Doctor Hurting Your Mental Health? Why You Need an Emotionally Intelligent Doctor,” originally published by ALS News Today, October 2, 2017

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 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.

The Surprising Reason I Need to See You Dump Ice Water on Your Head

For me, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not just a way to raise money for ALS research. It’s not just about hope. The effect on me goes much deeper when I watch the videos. I know I have a vast support system that includes you, my dear readers. However, I can’t see you read my blog and articles. I get statistics on how many people read my words, and occasionally there are kind comments, but there’s a certain distance between us.

When I watch your Ice Bucket Challenge videos and you say my name, I feel seen. I feel less alone. The gift you give me when you make and post those videos is long-lasting and powerful. You kindle my heart, and I hold that light in my chest until next year when it’s time to repeat the challenge.

This year, I have only seen one video, and that weighs heavily on me. I feel forgotten, like the challenge was just a short-lived trend, not the promise of support and camaraderie that I originally believed it to be. I am holding on to hope that the last few days of August will surprise me, though.

Won’t you let your heart kindle mine?

If you need a reminder of how the Ice Bucket Challenge, follow the instructions below. Don’t forget to challenge three people in your video and tag them when you share the video on Facebook. If you are able to make a donation, you can do it at alsa.org.

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Are you wondering what the donations have accomplished so far? Check it out!

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Feeding Tube Foodie; or How I’m Being Lured to the Dark Side

The sound of the microwave whirring to life sliced through my interest in the book I was reading in the living room. I made a beeline for the kitchen where my husband Evan was clearly up to something delicious. (it was a good day for me in terms of hand strength, so I was able to steer Ruby, my beloved power wheelchair, myself) Just as I suspected, Evan was warming up some leftover pizza.

“Hey, hun. Is that your dinner?” I asked. I knew I had to play it cool to keep Evan from becoming suspicious.

“That’s the plan,” he replied, settling in at the kitchen table.

“I think I’ll just hang out here while you eat,” I said, rolling up to the table. “Hey, as long as I’m here, can I watch you eat?” I grimaced. Real smooth, Rachel.

“Um, I guess.”

“Cool, cool, cool.” Yes, keeping it casual. This time, I would control myself. I would NOT make it weird.

Evan took a bite, then another. I was riveted.

“You’re really starting at me.” He shifted in his chair.

I made a conscious effort to blink before saying, “You know, I was just wondering if you can try chewing slowly.”

With obvious discomfort, Evan complied with my request. One bite later, he stopped. “You’re leering at me. It’s freaking me out. I am going to eat in the living room.”

I huffed in frustration when he walked away. I miss food desperately, and I am always looking for ways to hold onto at least the memory of the joy of eating.

At my most recent clinic, my speech therapist put me on a pureed foods diet after she discovered that I can no longer move my tongue from side to side. Losing that motion makes me unable to sculpt my food and move it between my teeth. As a result, I have little control over where the food in my mouth goes. I am at risk of choking if I deviate from the pureed foods diet because anything I eat can slide to the back of my throat and block my airway. Even crumbs are a danger. Then there is the possibility that tiny particles of food may slip into my lungs without me even knowing it. This puts me at risk for pneumonia, which can be fatal to someone with ALS.

To protect my lungs and prevent choking, I get most of my food all of my hydration through my feeding tube (I can’t drink water because it moves so quickly that aspiration is inevitable). I eat orally at dinner, usually a pureed soup my mother-in-law Brenda made for me that morning – she concocts everything from broccoli and feta soup to savory butternut squash puree – or a fruit smoothie. I get a decent variety of flavors, but the lack of texture is starting to get to me, I fantasize about chewing on a piece of cheese or sinking my teeth into crisp slices of tomato, bell pepper, zucchini, and apple. Lately, I am nursing an obsession with all things toasted, specifically paninis. The longing keeps me up at night, and I suspect it’s chipping away at my sanity, which led to this, ahem, eccentric text exchange with a friend. Read on to witness the burgeoning madness of a Foodie on a feeding tube…

Me – I would do unspeakable things for a panini.

Melissa – Has anyone ever invented something like a chew toy for humans?

Me – Someone really should. I want to bite something and feel it crunch.

Melissa – I feel like I could put a panini in some mouth safe baggy and hold it in your mouth to feel on.

Melissa – Or I could just put a panini in your mouth and then take it back out, over and over, with purée in between so you get full.

Melissa – These might be very foolish, even offensive ideas. I just would love to please your mouth. I feel so strongly for food and I can just imagine the panini longing.

Me – no, I love it! I would drool all over a panini bag.

Me – I am desperate and the more desperate I get, the more violent I am willing to be to get what I want.

Me – I am like bargaining with some powerful dark force. ” if you let me eat a panini, I will burn down Chicago.”  **

Melissa – I can’t say I know what you’re going through, but i know it can’t be easy! When I’ve had to not eat solid food for just some period of time, i went mad.

Me – I always saw myself as a force for good, but it has taken so little to push me over the edge. Am I truly a slytherin when all my life I thought I was a hufflepuff?

Melissa – Serious hunger can push any human to the brink.

Me – Exactly. My teeth are depressed. They have lost their purpose and they are not taking it well. I think I feel at least two spite cavities forming.

Me – Can I put this conversation on my blog? I think it is a wonderful representation of my life as a feeding tube foodie

Melissa – I’d be honored.

 

 

 

On the Delivery of my CDC National ALS Conference Speech

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This morning, my mom and dad attended the CDC National ALS Conference to deliver a speech I wrote. I had hoped to attend the conference myself and have my husband speak for me since my voice is almost completely lost. However, my ALS threw a few wrenches, a hammer, and a screwdriver in that plan. At first, the trip seemed so manageable. However, as I learn more about the process of transporting the breathing machines and my wheelchair, and the damage that could be done to them, I have become uncomfortable with the idea of travel. It just seems a bit too risky to me. If my wheelchair is disassembled, I would be up a creek without a paddle. And there would be piranhas in the creek. And a hole in the boat. Plus, my intense spasms could make for a rough and painful flight. This is the nature of my beast.

Watching my mom give the speech, I felt no bitterness or envy. Her practice with my dad showed in her fluency. She delivered my words perfectly all of the jokes landed, and she addressed the room with conversational warmth that engaged the audience and fit my message. I was thrilled, smiling like a lunatic as I watched her do what I couldn’t in exactly the way I hoped. My dad handed out my business cards at the break while my mom texted that everyone raved about my speech and promised to email me. I have already heard from the VP of Public Policy at the ALS Association! The gratitude I feel for my parents is bigger than words.

I hope to get a recording of the speech soon to share with you. Stay tuned!

The Power of the Bucket List

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The approval of Radicava, the first medicine for ALS in 22 years, had me reconsidering my post that labels my belief that I will survive this disease “wild.” Then, the vessel of  my most precious dream was wrecked on jagged rocks I never saw coming.

The federal budget for 2018 calls for the complete defunding of the National ALS Registry, and the shock of learning that my own government would so callously undercut one of the most important parts of the search for a cure left me – and I imagine many others – frightened and enraged. The budget also cut funding to Medicaid and SSDI (social security disability insurance), a fact that barely sunk in. I just didn’t know how to process the realization that the registry was in danger, and Medicaid was as well. Medicaid covers machines, medication, feeding tube supplies, caregiver fees, and so much more that we could never be able to afford on our own. On top of that, if we lost the $600 per month we receive through SSDI, how would we afford the expenses Medicaid doesn’t cover, like my daily injections of B12?

I chose to focus on saving the National ALS Registry155 a campaign I am continuing to expand. Narrowing my focus and taking action gave me a chance to salvage some of my former optimism.

Then came the second hit: a health care bill drafted in the dark that slashed Medicaid so deeply that 14 million of the most expensive beneficiaries – including the ALS community – would lose coverage and very likely their lives. My joy over Radicava seemed distant, even foolish. What good is this new treatment if we can’t afford it because our insurance has been gutted or taken away? Obstacles were coming from all sides. Rising tides of depression and fear threatened to drown me. They still do.

I had to find a path back to joy and hope in the midst of the battles I had been forced to join. Enter my inspiring friend Glynis, who made a bucket list with her husband Vince after he was diagnosed with ALS. The list helped them focus on enjoying the present, no matter how hard it got, and gave them things to look forward to. I decided to follow her example, and I came up with a list that includes both things I can accomplish despite my disease and other dreams I look forward to achieving after I am cured. Now, I have something new to think about as I try to fall asleep and worry creeps in. Have a peek at the list. What would you add to your own?

Save Medicaid from Being Slashed!

The health care bill draft currently being reviewed by the Senate slashes Medicaid to the bone. If the bill is passed, 14 million of the most expensive beneficiaries – particularly, the elderly and disabled, including those suffering from ALS – will be kicked off Medicaid! Use the following text to write to or call your representatives and let them know that you expect them to oppose this health care bill (contact information here138). We must act quickly since senator Mitch McConnell intends to have the Senate vote by JUNE 30th!

The Honorable [NAME]
United States House of Representatives (or: United States Senate)
United States Capitol
Washington, DC

Dear Representative (or: Senator) [NAME]:

I am writing to ask for your help to ensure that people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease have the coverage and health care they need and deserve. If passed, the Better Care Reconciliation Act will seriously impact the lives of people suffering from ALS and their families. In fact, it may even be a death sentence since many will be kicked off Medicaid.

The cost of living with ALS is staggering. Depending on the level of care a person needs, expenses can reach $250,000 per year. If patients are left with the burden of paying all the costs that Medicaid currently covers, these people will go without the feeding tube surgery and supplies that prevent them from starving to death. They will lack the medicine that relieves their tremendous pain. They will not be able to afford the caregivers who help them with toileting, medication, tube feedings, bathing, and monitoring vital machines such as ventilators. Most cruel of all, thousands will face the decision to go on a ventilator, or forgo the life-saving procedure in order to avoid bankrupting their families. In short, thousands of Americans with ALS will lose their dignity and their lives an agonizing death if they are deprived of Medicaid. (Optional: insert personal story of the impact of ALS on your life).

This is a matter of life and death, not politics. This health care bill is inhumane. I know there are a number of initiatives and programs under review. However, I think, and I hope you do as well, that Medicaid, which saves the lives of countless citizens, must be preserved and well-funded.

As a resident of (STATE), I hope that I can count on your support and look forward to watching closely as the health care bill moves through the legislative process.

(Optional) If you need more information on the impact of ALS on the people in our state, please don’t hesitate to contact the ALS Association of (STATE ORGANIZATION) at: (insert chapter website).

Sincerely,

Your Name

Help Launch Phase 2 of the “Save the National ALS Registry Campaign”!

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WANTED! I am looking for people with experience canvassing for petition signatures. Phase 2 of my “Save the National ALS Registry Campaign” is to create and publish a guide that allows citizens to reach out to their neighbors and get signatures to send to representatives along with a letter explaining why we need them to oppose trump’s budget as long as it includes completely defunding the National ALS Registry.

Even if you don’t have experience, message me if you are willing to help do some research on how to support and mobilize advocates who are ready to pound the pavement!

Remember, this is NOT a partisan issue. You can love Trump and still advocate for the ALS community! #ALSaware #DefeatALS #NationalALSRegistry