She nearly died at her own hospital, and it taught her how to be a better doctor.

"I effectively bled to death in my own hospital," said Dr. Rana Awdish.

Dr. Rana Awdish. Photo from Henry Ford Hospital.

In 2008, Awdish was seven months pregnant and just finishing up her fellowship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. On her last day, however, something suddenly went deeply wrong inside of her. She began to bleed into her abdomen — fast. Her body effectively crashed out. It took more than 26 units of blood products that night just to keep her alive. She would go through organ failure, respirators, even a stroke.


Ultimately, the hospital was able to save her, but unfortunately, not her baby. Later, they'd discover the cause was an undiagnosed ruptured tumor in her liver. Her recovery would take years and five major operations.

"I had to relearn to walk, speak, and do many other things I had taken for granted," said Awdish. She told her story in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Today, Awdish is back at work, but the experience forced her to confront some uncomfortable truths about her job.

Doctors are trained in how to cure patients, but actually being on the opposite side of that relationship revealed something Awdish had never realized: how inadvertently hurtful even an amazing doctor's words could be. Stuck in a hospital bed, Awdish saw how seemingly normal hospital jabber could hide a mess of tiny, unseen emotional barbs.

"We're going to have to find you a new liver," someone said to her. "Unless you want to live here forever."

“You should hold the baby,” another medical staffer said. “I don’t want to be graphic, but after a few days in the morgue, their skin starts to break down, and you won’t be able to anymore, even if you change your mind.”

But in those words, she also saw her own practice as a doctor.

"I overheard a physician describe me as 'trying to die on us.' I was horrified. I was not trying to die on anyone. The description angered me," said Awdish. "Then I cringed. I had said the same thing, often and thoughtlessly, in my training."

She realized that as a doctor, she had focused on getting people healthy. Just keeping people alive was her measure of success. But actually being sick herself brought up waves of emotion.

"I realized when I sort of kept dying in the hospital is that I had all this existential angst," says Awdish. "Can we talk about how I'm dying? You see it. I know you see it. You just coded it. This feels awkward that we're not discussing it."

But at the same time, Awdish realized she had been blind to her own patients confronting similar feelings. "I remember having patients ask me, when they're diagnosed with cancer, 'But how could this have happened?' And as a doctor, I had taken that as an invitation to give them data," says Awdish. "But that's not what they were asking. It was a request for a connection."

The problem, in the end, was that empathy had taken a backseat to everything else.

When Awdish went back to work, she decided to change her entire outlook of what medicine should be.

"My experience changed me. It changed my vision of what I wanted our organization to be, to embody," she explains.

While she had received years of training in how to fight illness — years of breaking disease into digestible parts, memorizing strategies, practicing care — there hadn't been an equivalent training in how to talk to patients. She had just been more or less expected to pick it up as she went.

Awdish began working with an organization called VitalTalk, which helps train physicians in how to communicate with patients. She and a group of like-minded doctors began recruiting improv actors from around Detroit and Pittsburgh to help them rehearse how to have tough, emotional conversations.

Awdish and her colleagues did this for years as a kind of grassroots movement. Today, Henry Ford Hospital has embraced Awdish's culture of empathy.

Awdish is now part of the hospital system's new Department of Physician Communication and Peer Support. Among other things, medical staff at Henry Ford now get access to a suite of talks, apps, workshops, and courses. They might learn how to recognize anxiety or how to connect with a patient's values before prescribing therapies, says Awdish. There are even shadowing programs, where the doctors can get discreet feedback and coaching.

New hires are also taught that everyone, not just doctors, can help people in the healing process. For this, Awdish can draw examples from her own experience.

"Radiology technicians learn what a kindness it was that they stopped trying to awaken my exhausted husband to move him from my bedside for my portable X-ray — instead throwing a lead cover over him and letting him sleep," said Awdish.

Awdish says even the doctors themselves could be benefiting from the changes. Physicians might have to have multiple, very difficult conversations with patients every day. It takes an emotional toll. By equipping doctors with the tools to better connect and communicate with patients, it's helping them too.

As for whether this is working, a pilot study suggested that patients can see a difference. The hospital is now collecting big picture data and plans on publishing it.

There will always be painful moments, but by putting empathy at the heart of medicine — as Awdish and Henry Ford Hospital did — we could potentially build better health system altogether.

via Pexels

There are certain things in the real world that just can be duplicated virtually. No matter how hard we try, a virtual happy hour isn't as fun as a regular happy hour. It's difficult to find chemistry on a Zoom date, and virtual dance parties will all be something we make fun of when this pandemic is over.

My heart goes out to all of the students and teachers across the country who have had to make do with virtual learning over the past year. It's a frustrating thing for all involved, but it's the best we can do at a time when we have to be apart.

Distance learning can be an effective way for kids to learn, but a mother on Twitter just told the world about a thing called Zoom Detention and nobody's here for it.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less