The Fly in the Currant Cake

Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant;
and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy.
~Mark Twain

Today I will wrap up 45 years of uninterrupted training and doctoring. Most of that time, I have worried I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake. 

Maybe no one has noticed. These days we call it the “impostor” syndrome. Mark Twain knew all about currant cake and how easy it was for a fly to blend into its batter.

Even while bearing three children and going through a few surgeries myself, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time.  This is primarily out of my concern that, even after a few weeks, I would forget all that I’ve ever known. In fact, half of what I learned in medical school and residency over forty years ago has evolved, thanks to new discoveries and clarifying research. I worried if I were to actually to step away from doctoring for an extended time, then return to see patients again, I would be masquerading as a physician rather than be the real thing. A mere fly among the currants palmed off on the unwary.

If being truly honest, those who spend their professional lives providing medical care to others always share this concern: if a patient only knew how much we don’t know and will never know, despite everything we DO know, there would really be no trust left for us at all.

Of course, some say, didn’t the COVID pandemic prove our ignorance? Physicians started at Ground Zero with a novel virus with unclear transmissibility and immense potential to wreak havoc on the human body … or cause no symptoms whatsoever. We had no collected data to base prevention or treatment decisions: would masks just protect others or would they only protect ourselves, or maybe they protect both? Could a common inexpensive anti-inflammatory/antimalarial drug be beneficial or would a parasitic wormer medication be somehow effective to fight the devastation of the virus?

Effective treatments are still being sought all these months later; others have been debated, studied and discarded as worthless.

Or would this pandemic finally resolve thanks to effective yet controversial public health mandates while rapidly distributing highly effective vaccines developed from many prior years of carefully performed research?

During the past 16 months, your next door neighbor, or the loudest tweet on Twitter proclaimed more expertise than the average medical professional and definitely had a stronger opinion. At least we doctors knew how much we didn’t know and how much was simply guess work based on experience, good intentions and hopeful prayer. Gradually, while lives were lost, including too many of our own, real data began to trickle in so decisions could be made with some evidence backing them. But even that data continues to evolve, day by day, as authentic medical evidence always does.

That doesn’t stop all the “quack” flies out there from climbing into the batter pretending to be currants. With so much rapidly changing medical information at everyone’s fingertips, who needs a trained physician when there are so many other resources – sketchy and opportunistic though they may be – for seeking health care advice?

Even so, I am convinced most patients really do care that doctors share the best information they have available at any point in time. None of us who are doctoring wants to be the “fly” in the batter of health care.

As I meet with my last patient today, I know over forty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for the subtle signs and symptoms that no googled website or internet doc-in-the-box can discern.  The avoidance of eye contact, the tremble of the lip as they speak, the barely palpable rash, the hardly discernible extra heart sound, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base.  These are things I am privileged to see and hear and about which I make decisions together with my patients.  What I’ve done over four decades has been no masquerade; out of my natural caution, I am not appearing to be someone I am not.  This is what I was trained to do and have done for thousands of days and many more thousands of patients during my professional life, while passing a comprehensive certification examination every few years to prove my continued study and changing fund of knowledge.

The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough that an unwary patient might gobble it down to their ultimate detriment. I know I’ve not been that doctor. I’ve been the real thing all these years for my patients, even if I’ve seemed a bit on the tart side at times, yet offering up just enough tang to be exactly what was needed in the moment and in the long term.

And someday, hopefully not too soon, I will die happy having done this with my life.

My ID photo from my first year of medical school 1976
45 years later…

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Learning the Hard Way

photo by Nate Gibson

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation.  The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
— Will Rogers

photo by Nate Gibson

Learning is a universal human experience from the moment we take our first breath.  It is never finished until the last breath is given up.  With a lifetime of learning, eventually we should get it right.

But we don’t.  We tend to learn the hard way when it comes to our health.

As physicians we “see one, do one, teach one.”   That kind of approach doesn’t always go so well for the patient.   As patients, we like to eat, drink, and live how we wish,  which also doesn’t go so well for the patient.  You’d think we’d know better, but as fallible human beings, we sometimes impulsively make decisions about our health without using our heads (is it evidence-based?) or even listening to our hearts (is this what I really must have right at this moment?).

The cows and horses on our farm need to touch an electric fence only once when reaching for greener grass on the other side.  That moment provides a sufficient learning curve for them to make an important decision.  They won’t try testing it again no matter how alluring the world appears on the other side.   Human beings should learn as quickly as animals but don’t always.  I know all too well what a shock feels like and I want to avoid repeating that experience.  Even so, in unguarded careless moments of feeling invulnerable (it can’t happen to me!), and yearning to have what I don’t necessarily need,   I may find myself touching a hot fence even though I know better.   I suspect I’m not alone in my surprise when I’m jolted back to reality.

Many great minds have worked out various theories of effective learning, but, great mind or not,  Will Rogers confirms a common sense suspicion: a painful or scary experience can be a powerful teacher and,  as health care providers, we need to know when to use the momentum of this kind of bolt out of the blue.  As clinicians, we call it “a teachable moment.”  It could be a DUI, an abused spouse finally walking out, an unexpected unwanted positive pregnancy test,  or a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection in a “monogamous” relationship.  Such moments make up any primary care physician’s clinic day, creating many opportunities for us to teach while the patient is open to absorb what we say.

Patient health education is about how decisions made today affect health and well being now and into the future.  Physicians know how futile many of our prevention education efforts are.  We hand out reams of health ed pamphlets, show endless loops of video messages in our waiting rooms, have attractive web sites and interactivity on social media, send out innumerable invitations to on-site wellness classes.  Yet until that patient is hit over the head and impacted directly– the elevated lab value, the abnormality on an imaging study, the rising blood pressure, the BMI topping 30, a family member facing a life threatening illness– that patient’s “head”  knowledge may not translate to actual motivation to change and do things differently.

Tobacco use is an example of how little impact well documented and unquestioned scientific facts have on behavioral change.   The change is more likely to happen when the patient finds it too uncomfortable to continue to do what they are doing–cigarettes get priced out of reach, no smoking is allowed at work or public places, becoming socially isolated because of being avoided by others due to ashtray breath and smelling like a chimney (i.e. “Grandma stinks so I don’t want her to kiss me any more”).  That’s when the motivation to change potentially overcomes the rewards of continuing the behavior.

Health care providers and the systems they work within need to find ways to create incentives to make it “easy” to choose healthier behaviors–increasing insurance premium rebates for maintaining healthy weight or non-smoking status, encouraging free preventive screening that significantly impacts quality and length of life, emphasizing positive change with a flood of encouraging words.

When there is discomfort inflicted by unhealthy lifestyle choices, that misery should not be glossed over by the physician– not avoided, dismissed or forgotten.  It needs emphasis that is gently emphatic yet compassionate– using words that say “I know you can do better and now you know too.  How can I help you turn this around?”

Sometimes both physicians and patients learn the hard way.  We need to come along aside one another to help absorb the shock.