BE YOUR OWN HEALTH GURU
“Doctor, don’t let my son die,” a frantic man with a little boy in his arms said to me as he ran into the ER. He laid the boy down on a gurney. “Please save him!”
I noted that his son was blue and barely breathing.
It was midnight on my first shift as a full-fledged emergency room doctor. I was a young physician in training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and I was working my first-ever shift completely on my own, moonlighting in a small ER in a remote little town in Tennessee. I had confidence in my skills and training, but it was an incredibly scary experience to know that for the first time ever, I was solo and had no backup. Until this particular night I had always been under the supervision of an attending physician, but now I was completely on my own.
Until that moment it had been a quiet night, punctuated only by the sounds of the cleaning crew, the vending machines, and the beeps of hospital equipment. I was partway through a twenty-four-hour shift, and feeling good since nothing catastrophic had happened.
As I looked at the boy, who was helpless and at the edge of death, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility and dread, accompanied by an adrenaline rush from having the opportunity to put my skills to the test. It was a feeling no amount of medical training could have prepared me for. I thought, This is where the rubber meets the road.
My brain switched into my doctor’s autopilot mode, a hyperfocused state of mind that happens when I’m faced with a very sick patient in a crisis and the clock is ticking. As a nurse pulled a crash cart of emergency tools and equipment over to the boy, I repeated a simple mantra to myself, “A, B, C”—the basic CPR drill of check the airway (A), check breathing (B), and check circulation (C). They’re the first steps I take with every sick patient I see, and it’s a sequence of action that’s been burned into my brain since Day 1 of medical school.
The child was unconscious and making some labored attempts at breathing, but he was not protecting his airway—he did not have a gag reflex, which is an involuntary safety response our throat uses to prevent aspiration.
I realized we had to address the unprotected airway first. I quickly checked his pulse. It was faint and very fast. In my mind I chanted another refrain: “IV-02-monitor… IV-02-monitor.” Still on autopilot, I knew what I had to do: start an intravenous line, place an oxygen mask on the boy, and hook him up to an ECG monitor.
But before I could, the boy stopped breathing completely.
I squeezed a bag-valve mask over his nose and mouth to send oxygen into his lungs so it could then be pumped by his heart to other vital organs, like the brain. In a scenario like this, time is of the essence because a brain without oxygen is facing catastrophic consequences. “Time is brain,” the saying goes, meaning that every minute without oxygen means more brain cells die, never to be recovered.
I gathered my airway equipment, checking that everything would work properly. I then checked his blood glucose, which was normal. As I passed the endotracheal tube through his mouth and into his trachea, I could have heard a pin drop. The room was almost deadly quiet, which is exactly what you want as an ER doctor, since unnecessary commotion causes a lot of undue panic. I watched the tube pass down through the young boy’s vocal cords and I started squeezing oxygen into his lungs through the artificial breathing tube I’d just placed.
As I worked, the boy’s father was standing in the corner of the room in a state of complete disbelief. I kept talking to him, trying to figure out what might have happened, all the while attempting to reassure him that we would do everything we could for his son.
“Do you have any medicines in the house?” I asked the father as I simultaneously analyzed the ECG, or electrocardiogram, that traced the heart’s electrical rhythm. “Could he have swallowed some?” We were able to figure out that the boy had gotten into his family’s medicine chest and had likely taken what should have been a fatal overdose of antidepressants. That discovery was absolutely crucial to figuring out how to treat him.
Fortunately, I was able to stabilize the child’s condition. Soon thereafter, we airlifted him by helicopter to a larger medical center. Four days later the little boy left the hospital without any residual effects from his overdose.
Looking back on it, I see this event as the moment in my life when I truly began to see myself as a doctor; up until that point people called me Dr. Stork, but I didn’t really feel like an MD. Such events are incredibly exhilarating but also quite scary. That’s life in the emergency department. Along with the absolutely mind-blowing feeling of saving someone’s life, moments later you may have to tell a wife that her husband has just died. I’ll never do anything in my life that comes close to rivaling the challenges of being a good doctor, which is why I have so much respect for my peers in the world of medicine. It truly is a one-of-a-kind job.
As an emergency medicine doctor, I’m able to help people who are confronted with acute and sudden medical challenges, often with a “ticking clock” counting down quickly toward very severe consequences, including permanent injury and death. In a sense, all of medicine is potentially emergency medicine. But as an emergency room specialist, I get to develop expertise across an incredibly wide spectrum of medical subjects, which is one of the features I love about it as a profession.
It definitely isn’t always pleasant in the ER. I’ve had patients physically attack me, projectile-vomit on me more times than I’d like to remember, and I once had an intoxicated gang leader assault me with the very suture needle that I was using to repair a wound he had sustained in the previous night’s gang battle. In the typical emergency department, patients are often lined up in hallways, and it can be pure chaos. Sometimes people come into the ER too late to be saved and they die in my arms. But the good far outweighs the bad, and the variety of experiences in the ER is like nothing else.
Being an ER doctor is my dream job, but I’m lucky to have two more responsibilities that I absolutely love. As a member of Vanderbilt University’s faculty, I get to teach medical students and resident physicians in training. I was blessed to have many incredible teachers along the way, and now I’m able to pass on the lessons I’ve learned to future generations of doctors and see them begin their life’s mission to improve medical care for everyone. I love seeing the passion of the medical students and residents working at Vanderbilt. These are some of the nation’s brightest minds and they chose medicine because they want to help people.
And as host of the daily TV series The Doctors, a program devoted to bringing the best medical and health information to our viewers, I, along with a panel of other doctors, get to go on TV every day to talk about health and wellness. The success we’ve achieved so far—strong ratings, critical acclaim—is a perfect illustration of how much we all want the best, most cutting-edge information to help us live the healthiest lives we can. People have a real thirst for accessible and reliable health information.
I didn’t plan on a TV career. First and foremost I’m a doctor, and I plan on staying that way. I’d never been in front of a camera until my final year of residency. Through a series of accidental coincidences a number of years ago, I wound up appearing on the TV show, The Bachelor: Paris, which at the time I figured was a unique, you-only-live-once type of experience. Then I got a call from the Dr. Phil show to contribute regular medical segments to the program, which I really enjoyed. Later, when Jay McGraw developed the concept for The Doctors, he asked me to host the show along with obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Lisa Masterson, plastic surgeon and reconstructive surgery expert Dr. Andrew Ordon, and pediatrician Dr. James Sears.
You know what clinched the deal for me? When Dr. Phil told me that I could educate more people, in terms of sheer numbers, in a one-hour episode of The Doctors, than in my entire career in the ER. Also, my boss, the chairman of the Emergency Medicine Department at Vanderbilt, Dr. Corey Slovis, has always encouraged me to “show people what emergency medicine is really all about.”
In a sense, it all started for me that day in the ER with the boy who took the overdose of antidepressants. The way his father looked at me, I knew he trusted me with his son’s life, and that made me realize how much responsibility I have as a doctor. In that moment I was the most important medical authority and the greatest health guru on Earth to that man and his little boy.
But here’s an amazing idea, something you may not realize yet and should cause you, to some extent, to feel the same way I did in the ER that day: you have as much power over your health as I had with that child. I am convinced that secret can change your life. In fact, the power I held at that moment in time over that boy’s life is only a fraction of the power you hold in your grasp every single day of your life to affect your own medical destiny, your ability to achieve optimal health. It’s true. The power you have over your own health is potentially thousands of times stronger than that of any doctor. The most powerful health guru in history is you.
How strong is this power? In health there are no guarantees, but consider this: by making a few simple “tweaks” to your lifestyle and the way you think, steps I will outline in the pages that follow, you can...
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