Bridges: An Essay on MLK Day of Service 2020

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service is today and the University of Iowa has taken a quote from King to set the tone each year for this event. This year it is:

“Let us build bridges rather than barriers, openness rather than walls. Rather than borders, let us look at distant horizons together in a spirit of acceptance, helpfulness, cooperation, peace, kindness and especially love.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I look back on my career in medicine, it’s only natural for me to think of my role as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist as a sort of bridge between medicine and psychiatry. I’m pretty sure most would agree that as I chased around the hospital up and down the stairs doing the 3 and 30 (3 miles and 30 floors; I never take the elevator), I was doing my level best to bring psychiatric care to the patients in the general hospital who were suffering from medical illness as well.

The featured image shows the cover of a little book of kind remembrances I received from colleagues and trainees when, during one of my two such lapses in good judgment, I left the University of Iowa to have a try at private practice. The book has an image of a bridge on it. At the time, I thought of it as a depiction of my path between academia and community psychiatry. We need bridges there too, although one person let me know that someone has to teach new doctors.

I also got a fancy birdhouse as a going-away gift. I still do some bird-watching.

As I head into retirement, I hope that I’ve been a bridge of sorts between the old ways and the new to the next generation of doctors. After all, I’m the institutional memory of psychiatry on the medical and surgical units, in a manner of speaking.

The Medical-Psychiatry Unit (MPU) at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics was where I learned how this ward of patients with both medical and psychiatric illness served as a bridge between the departments of psychiatry and medicine. My teachers were doctors who were and still are great leaders. I still recall Dr. Roger Kathol, MD, an internist who also trained in psychiatry, and who designed and started the MPU decades ago, gave readings during sit-down rounds in the unit conference room. He read passages from the works of Galen, the Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Dr. Kathol assigned to me a task one day, which was to give a short presentation the following day on hyponatremia and how to distinguish psychogenic polydipsia from the Syndrome of Inappropriate Antidiuretic Hormone (SIADH). That night I was on call and got 4 admissions on the unit, which was chaotic. One patient actually broke a bed. I didn’t get any sleep. I was up running around until we all sat down to discuss patients.

I struggled through presentations of the 4 patients I had admitted the night before. I could barely talk. I had actually looked up a little information for my assigned presentation on hyponatremia but I was sweating it because I could barely stay awake. I was not the first resident to have episodes of microsleep on rounds and I knew Dr. Kathol saw it happening to me. That was in the days of 32 hours of call. They don’t make trainees do that now.

Dr. Kathol gave me sort of a sidelong glance as we finished discussing patients, which was usually when trainees were expected to give short educational talks. That day, he skipped me.

I should mention that he thought the proper name for the MPU was the Complexity Intervention Unit (CIU), owing to not just the medical and psychiatric complexity of our patients, but also to their social environments and the U.S. payer system which often led to many having inadequate, dis-integrated health care, meaning that there was no bridge between psychiatric and medical illness treatment and split health insurance coverage even though research showed that mental illness definitely lessened quality of life and increased health care costs. He has his own company, aptly named Cartesian Solutions, and it’s a major organization dedicated to helping hospitals and clinics set up collaborative ways to bridge the needs of patients with comorbid psychiatric and medical illness.

The University of Iowa model for the MPU has been disseminated to a number of other hospitals in the country, one of them in Pennsylvania, which I mentioned in a previous post, “Brief News Item,” on May 23, 2019. I’ve just received word a couple of days ago from Dr. Kolin Good that the unit, called the Medical Complexity Unit (MCU), a name which bridges the underlying intent of MPU and CIU, has saved the hospital a great deal of money, has drastically cut the use of sitters doing one to one observation (an extremely expensive intervention), is treasured by patients, and popular with trainees. They are very proud of it and have every right to be so. They are bridge builders too.

Dr. Louis Kirchhoff has been one the most notable internal medicine co-attendings on the MPU. He’s an infectious disease specialist, but has a knack for communicating effectively with patients who are mentally and medically ill, even speaking fluent Spanish with some of them. He and I shared triage call to the MPU every other night before the triage system was changed to a more humane schedule. He was a bridge between internal medicine and psychiatry trainees rotating on the ward. He could explain psychiatry to the medicine residents as well as I could.

I have had a penchant for finding a chair to sit down when I interview patients in their hospital rooms. There are usually not enough chairs in the rooms. A few years ago, Dr. Tim Thomsen, a surgeon and Palliative Care Medicine specialist as well, lent me a camp stool which I carry around with me so that I’m never at a loss for a chair. Everyone likes it. I think the camp stool helps build an emotional bridge with patients.

The little chair

There are special combined specialty residencies at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics which bridge Internal Medicine and Psychiatry and Family medicine and Psychiatry. Slowly but surely the siloed departments of academic medical centers are broadening their curricula and training regimens to rebuild the bridge between mind and body.

It’s been evolving for years. I’m proud to have played a small role in it. This is a place where teachers, researchers, and clinicians build bridges in many ways, foster openness, and search the “distant horizons in a spirit of acceptance, helpfulness, cooperation, peace, kindness and especially love.”

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