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Archive for October, 2010

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: Saving a Target Part II

Little did I know how hard it was going to be to help my Bellevue target, Jean. He didn’t know he was being mugged when the gangbanger asked him for his jacket. How could he? He only spoke French. He couldn’t tell the police officer who came to the scene that it was HE who had been assaulted. How could he? He only spoke French! At Riker’s Island he had no idea that the gangbanger sharing his cell was demanding his fancy, leather sneakers. How could he? He, well, you know…

So what could I do? How could I help? What could I possibly do to help make the end of this very bad day a little bit better? Well, first off, I clearly needed to make sure that Jean did not go back to Riker’s Island any sooner than was absolutely necessary. The prison guards, who had now become quite a bit more interested in Jean knowing  his story, agreed that nothing but very bad things were likely to happen to this young, skinny, soft boy from France if he ended back at Riker’s. We decided to keep him at Bellevue as long as we could.

What else? Well, the theme that runs through Jean’s very bad first day in America was his total inability to tell HIS side of whatever story he was in because he spoke only French. I decided that what he really needed was to be able to tell his story, and to do so we needed someone to translate for him once he left Bellevue. No problem, right? I mean, we were in New York City, the biggest, most cosmopolitan city in all of America. Should be a snap.

It turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of France in New York. I called the French Consulate hoping to have someone from France take charge of my French target. It was pretty late at night, around midnight if I recall, and the consulate was closed. “Please leave a message…” No problem. Bellevue is on 1st Ave. at 27th St., and United Nations is only a couple dozen blocks north on the same Avenue. I rang up the French delegation to the UN. They, too were closed. “Please leave a message…”

I imagined out loud what it must be like to call France itself. You know, just ring up the country and talk with whoever answers the phone. This was back in the days of answering machines, not those ubiquitous “for thus and such press one” messages. At midnight midweek I told the guards it would certainly go something like this: “Thank you for calling France. Our business hours are Monday through Friday, nine o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon. If you would like to negotiate a trade agreement, sign a peace treaty, or seek political asylum, please call back during normal business hours.”

Okay then, plan B. Lots of other folks speak Parisian French in New York City. I thought the next logical place to look for Francophones would be at a French restaurant. Good thinking, right? At this time in the mid-1980s the most famous French restaurant in the United States was Le Cirque, so I gave them a call. A  little after midnight the restaurant was still open and still busy. I asked the woman who answered the phone if anyone there spoke French. Yes, indeed, there were lots of folks who spoke French. In fact, there were more than a dozen French citizens who worked at Le Cirque! Great, I said, I have this young man from France who has been assaulted and he needs someone to help him tell his story to the police and to the judge. (I was getting visibly psyched; the prison guards were smiling). Oh no, Monsieur, we are MUCH too busy to do any such thing. We could not POSSIBLY have anyone available to provide that type of service. Have a pleasant evening Monsieur.

Wow. Made me think of that Robin Williams routine where he describes a conversation with a Frenchman. “(Puffs on a Galoise) We are French (sneers)… we don’t care.”

Now I’m stuck. It’s almost 1 o’clock in the morning and I can’t think of any other way to get someone to translate for Jean. Think! Think… think… think. What would I do if it was ME? Who would I call if I was in a foreign country and needed a translator, needed help with the language and the authorities? And then it hit me: American Express Global Assist! Remember those commercials? Any help you could ever need any time anywhere, as long as you were a cardholder, American Express would be there. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my wallet, and took out my own American Express card (which I had never actually used). I dialed the number on the back of the card and the very helpful operator connected me to American Express Global Assist, and the equally helpful operator there put me on with the head of their French translation department, right there and then. I told her the sad story of Jean the target and then handed him the phone.


The only thing left to do now was to keep Jean at Bellevue through the night so that he wouldn’t have to go back to Rikers; my friendly pair of prison guards pointed out that if we did, indeed, do this, Jean would miss the bus taking him to court, and would end up spending an extra day at Rikers. The guards were now fully into the project, however, and they agreed to ride the bus with Jean back to Rikers, and to sit with him in a duty room so that he did not have to go back into the prison population. Not only that, they personally escorted him into court (off the clock, on their own time) and delivered him to a French speaking attorney whose assistance had been arranged  by American Express Global Assist. Upon hearing the story the judge threw out all charges, and the city of New York and American Express put Jean on a plane home to France that very afternoon.

There’s a very nice epilogue to this story as well. Many months later I received a letter in that same consultation room at Bellevue Hospital. There was a brief type written note from American Express. Dear Dr. White, we apologize for the delay in delivering this note. In the excitement of helping Jean we failed to obtain any of your contact information. Please accept our apologies. Please let us know if we can ever be of any assistance to you, or your patients, in the future. Sincerely. The note was wrapped around a postcard, the message written in French.

Thank you for saving my son’s life.

There are only two kinds of people in New York City, targets and people who hit targets. At Bellevue Hospital we took care of the targets.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: Saving A Target Part I

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: targets, and people who hit targets. At Bellevue Hospital we took care of the targets.

I’m not sure if they still use these terms, but I take full credit for the original use of “target” to describe the victims of violence who came to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room. As an ophthalmology resident I was on call every fifth night, and because I lived outside of the city I actually have to spend each on-call night in the hospital. The bad news, of course, is that I didn’t get to sleep in my own bed. The good news was that I developed a more friendly relationship with the ER attendings, fellows, and residents, as well as the nursing and clerical staff. I also developed a very easy relationship with the prison guards from Riker’s Island. The term was coined, and the game was set when I sauntered into the ER in the wee hours of some morning and asked out loud to no one in particular: “okay, where’s the target?!”

Whether it was primary care or specialty care clinics like our ophthalmology division, Bellevue Hospital was where people who fell through the holes in the safety net went for their medical care. Pretty much everyone received care that they couldn’t receive anywhere else, so it was easy to feel good about the contribution that you were making, even as a resident. It would be difficult to pick out the person I helped the most over my three years in New York except for young Jean, the target from France who I saved one night while covering the ER.

It was around midnight and I was seeing an older woman who was complaining of flashes and floaters. A Latina, my patient spoke not a word of English, so I was delighted to make the acquaintance of her daughter, a lovely woman roughly my age who accompanied her mom and acted as translator. I excused myself when the phone rang. “We gotta target from Rikers for ya Darrell. Not a word of English.” Send ’em right up was my response, pretty confident that my new friend the patient’s daughter would be able to translate for what I expected to be a Riker’s Island prisoner who spoke nothing but Spanish. Imagine my surprise when a rather thin, soft, artsy looking boy of 20 or so from France shuffled into our waiting room, his right eye black and blue and swollen tight.

The target part was pretty much standard fare, punched in the eye, but everything else was totally out of place. The visual was just wrong on more levels than I could describe. My new best friend said she knew little bit of French so I sent her out to chat with Jean while I examined her mother’s retina. Our French lad was clearly not much of a threat; the unwritten communication between the doctors and the writers Island guards told us as much, the guards chatting between themselves at the other end of the room. These two particular guards, a man and a woman who were not part of the normal Bellevue Hospital crew, would actually become a pretty important part of saving this target.

I finished up with my older woman, reassuring both her and her daughter that the flashes and floaters were nothing to be alarmed by, and that they would eventually go away. I asked her daughter what she had discovered, and with a sad, slow shake of the head she started to tell the story.

Jean, our target, had been in the United States for less than 24 hours. He was to visit friends, and had arrived a day earlier than a bilingual friend, another young Frenchman who would be the tour guide and connector for a group of kids in New York City. Rather naïve and not the least bit street–savvy, Jean decided that he would go on a walking tour of the city around Penn Station. This was back in the mid-1980s, and Jean came from a very fashion conscious family. It was cold in the city and he was wearing a fancy, team logo jacket, the kind the gangbangers in the city were wearing at the time. Sure enough, he happened upon a group of gangbangers very early in his travels.

The leader of this street corner group told Jean that he admired his jacket. He admired it so much, in fact, that he thought Jean should give him the jacket. Jean, of course, had absolutely no idea what the gangbanger was saying;  he only spoke French. The gangbanger pulled a knife and threatened Jean. Amazingly, Jeann took away the knife and stabbed the gang banger! When the police arrived and asked what had happened Jeann stood mute while the gangbanger screamed that John had tried to kill him. Unable to tell his side of the story–the street cops didn’t speak French– he was arrested for attempted murder and sent to Riker’s Island.

Now jacketless but still otherwise fully clothed, our target found himself in a holding cell at Rikers. It turns out that he was also rather fashionably shod, wearing brand-new leather sneakers that were all the rage at the time. You know, the kind of sneakers the gangbangers wore. Not too surprisingly his cell mates, at least some of them, were gangbangers. One of them approached Jean and proclaimed his admiration for these brand-new sneakers. Jean, of course, had no idea what he was talking about, seeing as he still didn’t speak a word of English. When it became clear that the gang banger was demanding his shoes Jean refused. The gangbanger cold-cocked him in the right eye and another target was off to the Bellevue Hospital emergency room.

With the exception of this fascinating story taking care of Jean was otherwise standard target fare. After prying open his swollen eyelids I was able to determine that his eye was intact and that no damage to his vision would ensue. But now what? What do I do with this thin, soft, French speaking 21-year-old all alone in New York City. I decided that I would help this one. If I ever made a difference, I would make a difference for this one.  This target, the recipient of violence he neither deserved nor sought, this was the one target, that one patient I would help outside of the professional help I gave everyone else.

How? What could I do? What did this young man need? There it was! What this young man needed was help telling his story. I was in the middle of the biggest hospital in the biggest city in America. Surely I could do this. Little did I know…

Tiny Memories

I had an apple for lunch today. A MacIntosh Apple. Remember them? Remember when “apple” was the SECOND word in a phrase, when it was a “something” apple, not an Apple “something”? All alone at home, save for the pet menagerie, I had a MacIntosh apple for lunch and I was transported back in time, born aloft on the wings of tiny memories.

We always talk about the big things when we talk about memories, don’t we? We just assume that the bigger the event the bigger the memory, and the bigger the memory the more it must resonate. Beth and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and this of course prompted us to reminisce about our wedding day. We had an absolutely spectacular wedding, one that our friends and family still talk about, still compare with other weddings. It’s funny, though, when I look back on that magnificent day all of the really big things that you’d think I would remember are really kind of running “fast forward” and filmed through a slightly out of focus lens. I remember them, I really do, the bigness is just kind of… big! What I DO remember though is every tiny detail about my first date with Beth. I burned the scallops! And yet many’s the night when I sit down to dine with my “netty empster” partner, just the two of us, and a tiny memory of that first date alights.

Tiny memories are different like that. Take that Apple I had for lunch. A McIntosh apple, the kind of apple that pretty much everyone I know thinks of when they think of an apple from childhood. I just started buying them again; I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve bought any real Macintosh apples for some 15 years or so. Do you remember the apples of your childhood? I sure do. My mom wasn’t really a great cook, if you define greatness by complexity or the use of fresh ingredients plucked from some farm stand or specialty shop somewhere. My Mom was an expert at foods that created tiny memories, though.

We only ever had MacIntosh apples in the house. All by themselves they were something better than good. Every now and then there would be something a little bit special. Maybe Mom put the salt shaker out and we remembered to shake a little bit of Morton’s goodness on our Apple. Perhaps she whipped up a little bit of cinnamon sugar to sprinkle on the apples. This was usually REALLY special because cinnamon sugar apples were almost always sliced in a bowl! When she made apple crisp… even without ice cream apple crisp was an event.

I find that tiny memories can be triggered by equally tiny things, and those tiny memories always seemed to transport me back in time to to a warm and happy place. It’s not always a trip to childhood, although the first stop on the trip may indeed a be a place I knew as a child. It’s not that these places or that these memories evoke a better time or anything like that. I’m truly convinced that the best day of my life so far was today. No, it’s something else, something a little less and something a little more. The best of the tiny memories seem to be crystal clear in their details, kinda viewed in HD.  Tiny portraits or little scenes whose details are surrounded and framed by happiness. Perhaps even by love.

Do you have these? These tiny memories that flit and fly across your consciousness like so many tiny sprites, floating aloft on wings so delicate they can’t be seen? No matter how hard your life might have been, I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have at least of few of these tiny memories. I can’t land at O’Hare or Midway without at least a little smile. Going to Chicago! That’s what I chanted when I traveled through the kitchen in the turkey basting pot. Who knows why Chicago. Every successful landing in Chicago comes with one of my tiny memories.

I wonder, as I get older, what will become of my tiny memories. Will they be the ones that will remain? Will they be the ones I’ll hang onto, call upon, resurrect as I plow on? I sure hope so. I sure hope that the first barefoot step on a beach, new or old, will still make me hear the screen door slam at the beach house in Manasquan. I hope I have to climb over someone on my way to the “way back” of some great big SUV, so that I can remember the epic climb over my brother and sisters to the back of that Chevy wagon my Mom drove. I hope I’m standing on the tee at some golf course watching some guy wiggle and waggle and generally make a fool of himself as he gyrates through his pre–shot routine, and I hope a tiny memory of my Dad barking at me or my brother floats in for a landing. “Quit farting around!”

Dad said FART!

Yup, I was home today for lunch, just me, the dogs, and Thug, the world’s biggest rabbit. I had a MacIntosh apple for lunch. Not sure which was sweeter, that wonderful, nearly perfect apple, or that tiny memory of a time long ago, the details in HD, so vivid. The details–the memories–surrounded by love.

I smiled. Someone had left the salt out.

A 24/7 Free Lunch?

Former Budget Director Peter Orszag wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled “Health Care’s Lost Weekend” in which he offers several reasons why healthcare in general, and doctors in particular, should be open for business 7 days a week. “Doctors, like most people, don’t love to work on the weekends…” is his first shot across the bow. He cites a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (the only medical journal to which God subscribes) which is actually a pretty darned good study, one that shows an increase in cardiac mortality of 0.9% (decimal point is correct) for people admitted to the hospital with a heart attack on the weekend in comparison with those admitted during the week.

I’m willing to buy this conjecture, even willing to say that Mr. Orszag’s conclusion, that medical services should be available 7 days a week with expanded hours of business to boot, is a desirable and necessary goal for American Healthcare. The difference between the two of us is that I will openly state what it will take to make such a thing happen, whereas Mr. Orszag has taken the cowardly politician’s route but simply saying “this isn’t right…this isn’t fair…this must be changed,” without offering anything about how.

Someone, or some someones, will pay something somewhere to make this happen. There, I said it.

There are actually a couple of really good examples of this phenomenon right now in my community,  Cleveland. The vaunted Cleveland Clinic is downgrading the trauma service at one of its hospitals, ostensibly because the city of Cleveland is “oversupplied” with trauma centers,  and because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find trauma surgeons to staff these emergency rooms. All true, but in reality it’s because the Cleveland Clinic has decided that the operating loss associated with keeping this trauma center open is more charity than the institution wishes to give to the city, especially in light of a palpable lack of civic gratitude. Similarly, all of the emergency rooms in town are finding it difficult to provide specialty coverage as specialists are declining to make themselves available. Insufficient compensation for the inconvenience associated with that availability, as well as the significant exposure to a litigious patient population are the culprits.

The funny thing is, once upon a time we actually had the equivalent of a 24/7 medical service economy. Back in the day, when Mr. Orszag and I were children, physicians were held in high esteem because they put their patients and their medical practice first, in front of every other aspect of their lives, 24/7.  They were incentivized to do this in two very specific ways: they were paid, and paid very well to perform their services, and they were afforded out–sized doses of respect, occupying a place of honor in every community. In return for this combination of handsome concrete and social compensation medical care was provided when medical care was needed, 7 days a week.

My first real job was caddying for wealthy golfers at the local country club. Not surprisingly, a significant percentage of the country club members were local physicians. Mind you, this was back in the day when only doctors carried beepers. I can’t begin to count the number of times I had a fantastic loop toting the bag for a doctor in the middle of a career round only to see some easy shot go careening into the woods when his beeper went off at the top of his backswing. I vividly remember seeing the assistant pro speeding down the fairway coming directly toward us in a golf cart to retrieve a doctor who was needed at the hospital. Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, Wednesday evening… no matter.

What was the cost? Well, certainly the doctors didn’t do this for free. They asked for, and received, handsome compensation for this 24/7 availability. Society readily made this investment, in part because the best technology available was actually the technology available only between the ears of the physician. This is somewhat different today given all of our fantastic technological innovations and advancements, but not so different, really, because the stuff between the doctors ears is still what drives all that new technology.

There were hidden costs back then, too. Hidden costs are the ones that are actually the most expensive when we really drill down to see what the ramifications would be if Mr. Orszag had his way. Countless physician families were roadkill, collateral damage to the single-minded emphasis doctors placed on practicing medicine. Troubled children, troubled marriages, broken marriages, broken people all littered the landscape of the medical community, silent testimony to the cost of 24/7 availability. So, too, the nurses and technicians and orderlies who worked the swing shift and the graveyard shift. The social and physical pathologies of shift work are now quite well known. How does Mr. Orszag intend to handle THIS cost? Surely he’s not willing to ignore the well–documented evidence of the social and psychological harm that befalls workers and their families when they are forced to to work weekends and nights?

Behavioral economics is based on the simple concept that people will act in a manner consistent with rational self–interest. Most of the time this is EXACTLY how people behave. Over the course of the last several decades, as physician incomes have declined and as the doctors’ societal esteem has plummeted, physicians have been notably less willing to put their families in jeopardy by putting their profession first and foremost. By the same token, the vast majority of non-–physician workers in healthcare are loath to do the same, hence the difficulty filling nighttime and weekend shifts in hospitals, clinics, and the like. No one likes to work on the weekend when their family is home, when their friends are not working.

So, a  24 seven medical service economy? Sure. Who wouldn’t want THAT? Even without the data from that NEJM study it would be very convenient to have that colonoscopy I’ve been putting off on a Saturday instead of a workday, maybe even a Sunday with Saturday for the prep (prep…yuck). Heck, I found it pretty inconvenient that I couldn’t get a sandwich at one o’clock in the morning at a big convention hotel in Chicago last weekend. I was even willing to pay a premium, not only for my sandwich, but also to the person who made that sandwich appear. I would have given effusive thanks as well.

Therein lies the beginning of the solution. If you wish to have high technology medical care available seven days a week you must provide a significant incentive to those people who provide the care. Simple. I will offer as well that it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to bash those very same people you are trying to convince to put aside some part of their self-interest (or the interest of their families) to work weekends; who is going to do something nice for someone when their reward is to have that same someone turn around and show nothing but disdain for not only the service provided, but also for the provider of the service?

So Mr. Herzog if you want me and my colleagues to be available on Sunday afternoon to take care of people exactly the same way we might on a Tuesday morning you  have to be willing to do two things which thus far you and others of your ilk have demonstrated no inclination to do: you must pay us what those services are worth, and you must be thankful that we are willing to provide them. It’s not enough to declare the “what”, you also have to declare the “how”. Isn’t that what REAL economist do, Mr. Orszag?

Heinlein was right. It doesn’t matter what time you serve it, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

A Tribe Of Adults: The Pond Theory Of Management

We’ve had lots of new people around Skyvision Centers recently. Two sets of consultants have come through at our invitation, our hope being that they would help us improve our patient education process. While they certainly had lots of really good ideas, systems and protocols that have been tested and found to be quite helpful in typical eye care practices, we found that they didn’t really translate terribly well “off-the-shelf” at Skyvision.

Why? It turns out that we have a very different culture at Skyvision, and that the management structure we use to foster that culture is so foreign to traditional medical care that we had to eat up some of our consulting time teaching the consultants who we are and how we work. Oddly enough, the question that set this process off was one that probably seems to be ridiculously basic to these two groups of consultants, but one that turned out to be nearly impossible for us to answer. “Who is your office manager?” Um… well… Gee., we don’t really HAVE an office manager. “Well, who should we talk to , then?” The answer to this question turned out to be just as difficult for them to understand: “everybody.”

I should start, I guess, with a word about our culture. I described the Skyvision culture to a new employee yesterday as a group of adults behaving like adults and treating each other like… adults. I told her to think of us as a Tribe of Adults! This is all I really wanted from my staff five years ago when I founded Skyvision. My most enjoyable part of management has been “blue-sky thinking”, setting priorities, charting a course, and allowing my people to work to the absolute limits of their capacity and ability in order to bring us home. Employee relationship monitoring and management is beyond boring and only barely tolerable. Hence, a Tribe of Adults.

Unfortunately, the typical management structure in small businesses in general and medical businesses in particular is not really conducive to fostering this kind of culture. Pretty much every other medical practice that I’ve ever been involved with, either as a physician, a patient, or a consultant has been set up as a steep management pyramid. Very strict top–down management in a command and control environment. Lots and lots of rules and regulations with an equally dense layer of middle management whose prime objective appears to be applying discipline to everyone who falls below it on the pyramid. Individual initiative is totally suppressed, and even the task of managing your relationship with a coworker is given over to a manager. Yuck.

But a Tribe of Adults clearly needs to be managed in a totally different way. A group of people who are willing to take responsibility, not only for the outcomes of their work product but also for their own personal behavior and relationships within the organization is best managed with as flat a management structure as possible. The ultimate flat organizational chart would be one in which literally no management existed. This is impossible, of course, because at some point someone has to chart the course, lay out priorities, and designate goals. After that  a Tribe of Adults shouldn’t need much management!

Enter the “Pond Theory of Management.”  Unlike the top–down management of a pyramid, if you look at an organizational chart set up according to Pond Theory from the side, what you will see he is a very thin layer on the surface of the pond and a few tiny flowers sticking up a bit above the surface. The magic, though, is looking at this organizational chart from above. If you look down on the pond what you see are a number of lily pads which flow on the surface of the pond, one for each employee in the business. The flowers above the lily pads represent a small number of individuals responsible for big picture issues and those very few instances where the Tribe of Adults cannot work through an issue on its own.

How does this Pond Theory of Management really work? The key, critical difference between a business run based on Pond Theory and one that is run on traditional command-and-control principles is in the allocation of tasks. In command-and-control theory some manager assigns a worker to a task, and might even assign that worker responsibility to direct other fellow workers in the accomplishment of that task. In the Pond there are areas where lily pads overlap, tasks that could be performed and responsibilities that can be shared among two or several workers with similar skills or job descriptions. Where these lily pads overlap the responsibility and the accountability for completing this task or achieving this goal is determined by mutual affirmation of all the workers whose lily pads overlap.

The individual who now has accountability and responsibility for this task retains them as long as he or she is able to deliver the desired outcome; all of the other workers whose lily pads overlap accept this individual as their leader for this particular task. In a similar and related manner, those workers who have affirmed this individual give up any “right” to criticize how this outcome is achieved. There are certain rules and regulations that might apply, of course. In our medical world HIPPA and other government regulations are unavoidable. National, state, and local laws apply, too! Beyond this what we achieve in “The Pond” is outcomes with minimal managerial oversight,  interference, or necessity.

After two full days with us I’m still not sure the consultants really got what I was talking about, and if they did I’m pretty sure they didn’t really believe me. How about my new hire? She came from an extremely rigid practice with rules and regulations to account for pretty much every minute of her day, and a manager who monitored each one of those minutes to make sure that there was 100% compliance with all of those rules and regs. What was her reaction when I explained to her the culture of a Tribe of Adults working in an extremely flat organization, working on the Pond?

“Wow! We’re all BIG girls here!”

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