It doesn’t matter where I’m standing, the type of object I’m about to throw away, or which hand I’m throwing with. I always make it into the trash can. Well… almost always. It’s become a standard joke of mine when people raise their eyebrows in amazement at my ability to consistently “make the basket”: “That’s what happens when you do Anesthesia for a long time.”
All kidding aside (and by the way, I do not try this with sharp objects!), my garbage-throwing accuracy got me thinking about all the skills I’ve honed over years of practicing my specialty. Despite being a part time physician now, I’ve done thousands of cases both in and out of the OR. With time and sweat equity, you truly become an expert in your field of work – no matter what that field is. But there are also subtle skills, some that cross over into my non-work life, that have showed up too.
1) I know how to get people to warm up to me quickly. When performing a preoperative assessment and consent for anesthesia, I must convince patients (and potentially other family members) to trust me with something very precious: their lives. And I only have about 10-15 minutes to do it. Over the years, I’ve learned how to ask questions, make little jokes, and explain my anesthetic plan in such a way that patients from all backgrounds feel comfortable with me.
This skill translates to everyday interactions with people, like a fellow mom at preschool, the tire guy at Costco, a clerk at the grocery. Despite being an introvert, I end up making connections now that I never would have as a young adult.
2) I can read people’s level of receptivity to complex information. Pursuant with 1) above, I’ve learned when to give more detail about anesthesia vs. stop at the basic information. When I first start talking with a patient, I can gauge their level of interest and understanding – not only about what my role is in their care but also about their own health status. Surprisingly, some people are very unaware of their own risk factors. I view this with non-judgement and explain things accordingly.
This ability to modulate my communication style translates to interactions with friends and family as well as coaching client sessions and business transactions. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing, and I’m pretty good at figuring out when those times are.
3) I’m a mega multitasker. After I get a case going, I optimize my patient’s ventilator settings, give drugs to stabilize their hemodynamics, help to position them in an ergonomic way, set up a means to keep their bodies normothermic, draw up more drugs, get ready for the next case, and chart on the present case all at the same time. Multitasking gets a bad rep, but it’s a huge part of my job.
It’s often said, “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” Admittedly, it would behoove me to sometimes turn off the skill of multitasking at home. Multitasking can lead to distraction toward some tasks but away from things that matter, like family. Putting down my phone each night for a period of time, doing yoga and meditation help to bring uni-tasking back into my life, but I could still be better about slowing down and looking away from the ever-expanding To-Do list.
“With time and sweat equity, you truly become an expert in your field of work – no matter what that field is.”
4) I employ a mean mise en place. The term mise en place refers to a cooking technique that translates to “everything in its place”. It’s also a state of mind for how we can organize our lives. In anesthesiology, it’s extremely important to be efficient and organized. If you don’t have all your drugs labeled accurately and positioned in a recognizable pattern and location, you’re likely to commit a medication error. If you get two of your nine patients’ medical histories for the day confused, you’re likely to develop an inappropriate anesthetic plan. If you fail to find a vital piece of equipment in your cart during an emergency…
Utilizing mise en place has crept into my daily life outside the hospital, necessitated also by being a mother and entrepreneur. Now that I’ve downsized my wardrobe and other possessions to fight decision fatigue and mental distraction, I’m able to find things much easier at home.
5) I’m calm under pressure (to a certain point). It’s not that I’m always calm. I’m guilty of uttering a four-letter word or two during a difficult procedure or an unstable case. But what I have learned how to do over my years as an anesthesiologist is quickly assess an adverse event and know if it’s going to turn around without harm or spiral into badness. I know which blips on the normal radar will harm my patient and which won’t. We’re trained to call for help early and often, and I’ve developed a good sense of when it’s necessary to do so.
Conversely, a little dip in the oxygen saturation reading after an intubation isn’t something to worry about when I’m actively taking steps to reverse it. Neither was the recent time my daughter broke a mug and cut her finger on the shards. She freaked out at the sight of the blood, but I ran over with a cloth and cleaned it, covered it, put pressure on it, and reassured her. It will stop bleeding. Cuts always stop bleeding, unless they’re really really big. It’s going to be ok, give it a few minutes.
Another important skill I have, which didn’t necessarily come from my work as an anesthesiologist but more likely from life experiences being a cancer and infertility patient, is to know how to take care of myself. I know my work quality will suffer if I don’t prioritize sleep, exercise, and good nutrition. I must employ laser focus and solve complex problems at work, so it’s imperative to be fresh and healthy. And if I’m not, the consequences stand to be severe.
What superpowers have you acquired through your work and life experience?