Hahnemann Part One

I was going to spend the rest of this blog talking about my Life After Transplant. I was going to talk about all of the crazy, sad, funny, and even some unfortunate things that happened to me after getting discharged in January 2019. My first everythings— my first acute rejection, the first “coffee date” I had with one of my favorite ER nurses, my first hair cut, the first time I got sick and was worried about having to get admitted to the Intensive Care Unit all over again. My first BBC interview. Wink.

I was going to start work on July 1, 2019. Part-time— administrative and teaching duties to begin with. I was going to spend the rest of my summer hanging out by the pool, blogging about my unforgettable firsts during my “discharged” days, and studying everything that I may have forgotten about Emergency Medicine. Hashtag post-transplant-life.

But instead, life handed me a new surprise.

Like, RANDOM SUDDEN HEART TRANSPLANT. Things looking good. And then. BAM! SUDDEN HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT HEALTHCARE CATASTROPHE AND UNEMPLOYMENT!

The week before I started working again, there had been rumors going around that my hospital (Drexel/Hahnemann University Hospital aka The Big H aka HUH) was going to shut down. Mind you, these rumors had been going around for years. Decades. Once in awhile, they’d resurface. We’d laugh. The hospital wouldn’t shut down. And we would continue with our jobs.

HUH was one of the oldest hospitals in the nation. Basically run like a county hospital— an inner-city tertiary care center catering to all different types of patients. We were always “doing more with less.” We didn’t always have the most innovative and sexiest medical technologies available. Our elevators didn’t always work. And yeah, our patients didn’t always have insurance, and in fact, many of them were homeless. But we loved taking care of them. We loved our jobs.

So...

July 1, 2019. I went back to work. The crazy transplanted ER doctor resident girl, basically on her deathbed just months ago, back at work. What a miracle, how beautiful, how courageous. Inspiring. Tupac & Oliver Sacks would’ve been proud. I was ready to conquer the world, and then as I walked into the hospital, I realized:

Shit. THIS HOSPITAL IS CLOSING?

News cameras everywhere. People crying. Everyone in disbelief. My phone going off by the second. The OB resident saying this, the Anesthesia resident saying that. The Internal Medicine resident continuously calling the Radiology resident, in turn continuously calling the Nephrology fellow… The Emergency Medicine residency group chat just ding-dinging with updates (or rumors, we weren’t quite sure).

From what we could gather, Joel Freedman, our hospital’s CEO, decided to shut down Hahnemann. He was losing $5 million a month. Allegedly. (We will never know what was really going on.)

Anyways.

Was he *expecting* to profit off of The Big H? Do not compute. What?

Oh wait, he was no doctor. He wasn’t even in healthcare. Silly me to keep forgetting that ... healthcare institutions... are… usually… run by... business people. Womp womp.

He purchased HUH exactly one year ago, stating that his company was going to help us out. Turn everything around. I mean, it SEEMED like he wasn’t in it for the money.

And then there he was, telling us that he was losing millions of dollars per month. Telling us that he was going to shut down the hospital. Boom.

He wasn’t noticing the 2000+ employees (nurses, doctors, techs, support staff included) losing their jobs.

It didn’t seem like he cared about all of the medical and nursing students who were using HUH as their first glance into the Real World of Medicine— an educational platform, where lectures were taught, where renowned Drexel University professors were attentively listened to.

He wasn’t acknowledging us residents, working 40-80 hours per week, after sacrificing our 20s to learn the intricacies of Medicine, using HUH as our training institution to further our careers. To take care of some of the sickest people who needed our help, no matter their gender, skin color, socioeconomic status.

Most importantly, though, he wasn’t seeing our patients. If only he saw what we handled and dealt with on a daily basis. How many lives we changed. How many souls we saved. How many people would come into our emergency department, afraid of being seen by our doctors because they didn’t have insurance but also really wanted to get a wound checked out. A safety net hospital. We also had patients who would come in regularly, for hemodialysis or chemotherapy. What were they going to do?

All right. We were going to close. That’ll take at least a year, I thought. Nothing is going to happen overnight. (Fast forward - it took just a couple of weeks). I called my parents. I called my cousin, a business lawyer. I called anybody I could think of— even my friend who once took a course in Contract Law. I remember that he said that it was the hardest class that he had ever taken. He might have been able to help me out here. Someone HAD to help me understand what was going on.

I remember some words like LLC, Chapter 11, Chapter 7, subpoena, deposition, corporate vs. civil, bankruptcy court ... and I remember them all being really confused about the situation but ultimately saying something like, “Yep. It is what it is. Welcome to America.”

And then I remembered myself in the hospital just a few months ago. People pestering me about how this could have all happened to poor me, and I remember basically always responding with,

“It is what it is. Let’s move on with the show.”

I took my little heart thing and tried to look at the bigger picture. Remember? I tried to make something of it. I tried to learn from it.

So I took a step back and tried to look at the bigger picture of our hospital closing. It is what it is.

This was disastrous. But this was something we could learn from.

What Joel Freedman and AAHS (his company) did was an absolute travesty. However, the system let it happen. What we had here was a failure of the system. HUH was a for-profit hospital. A company with a business-minded CEO was able to buy it and thus tried to profit off of it, as it would any other Macy’s or Dave & Buster’s (am I not right on this?). It ultimately did not profit off of this urban, inner-city healthcare institution that catered mostly to uninsured patients. So it filed for bankruptcy.

So there’s one system mistake: for-profit hospitals.

A lot of things were kept under wraps from us. Really. Nobody believes us when we say it, but we didn’t know much about what was going on. Doctors— attendings and residents— were not represented very well in all of this. Our nurses did a wonderful job of speaking up and making themselves heard (and we joined them many times during their rallies). The administration knew about what was going on most of the time. But I felt like us physicians were the last to know anything, and the least represented. The ACGME was able to help us residents towards the end of all of this. But our faculty had little say in anything and did not know what was going on most of the time. And they continued to work, and they continued to help us look for new residency spots, without knowing what was going on, without knowing if they were going to get a paycheck (or have a job) by the end of the week.

So there’s another system mistake: physician representation during hospital catastrophes. I’m a fairly new physician. A young and naive physician. I ask those who have been practicing for years (our mothers and fathers and mentors): are physicians even represented well … EVER? Are our voices ever heard?

Oh and, 500+ residency and fellowship slots were at stake during all of this. Our funding through CMS was at stake. There were rumors going around that, because the company had filed for bankruptcy, we would be “unfunded residents” looking for new hospitals to work at. This may be a bit confusing to understand (I don’t really understand it either), so please bear with me as I try to explain the process:

  • Residency slots are funded by CMS - Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

  • CMS gives each hospital XXX dollars per resident that they hire.

  • Hospital takes a part of it, and resident gets a part of it as their annual salary.

We were supposed to be transferring to new hospitals to continue our training (another fiasco that will be talked about), but it would be helpful only if we transferred to that new hospital with our funding. There were rumors circulating for 3 weeks about whether or not our funding was going to “come with us” (because of the bankruptcy filing), putting us all through way too much stress. Was there one lump sum somewhere waiting for us? Did the company that owned the hospital even have this money or did they spend it on yacht parties? I don’t know what CEOs do, but I saw that Enron documentary once. And Fahmi Qadir taught me a thing or two about businesses.

System mistake #3: probably not a good idea to have residents who depend on CMS funding at for-profit hospitals.

(Another mistake: communication issues in general, we were getting our information about what was happening to us from WHYY and The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

The funding wasn’t the only issue with the residents. There were no guidelines set in place for 500+ trainee physicians to suddenly become “orphaned” (aka have no residency because of a hospital shutdown) in this fashion. Remember, this was SUDDEN. Specialties (like Orthopedic Surgery and General Surgery) that have specific rules in place to be able to sit for their board exams (e.g. their final two years of residency must be completed at the same institution) were scrambling to come up with solutions/exceptions because of this never-before-seen emergency. International Medical Graduates had their own set of problems to deal with regarding their J-1 Visas. And those doing extra Chief years in various specialties (like Internal Medicine) had no idea what they were going to do.

And yet another mistake: no guidelines in place for residency and fellowship program emergencies. I can’t blame ACGME or CMS or the People in Charge (and at this point, we are really confused as to who exactly is in charge), because this has never happened before. But perhaps we can use this experience to come up with some sort of emergency plan for the next set of residents this may happen to. And I have a feeling that if Wealthy Businesspeople in Suits see what happened with this for-profit hospital, and we don’t put an end to this quickly, this JUST MAY happen again.

Because let’s just face the reality of it all: condos in Center City, Philadelphia will make this company more money than Hahnemann ever did. And I believe that they knew this when they purchased the hospital in the first place. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

So, there are TONS of things we can learn from this. And I’m only talking about the system right now. Yeah, it’s totally “Alin” to look at the bright side of things. “Hey guys, at least everything sucked for only a few weeks but we are mostly OK now and we can learn from it all!” I know.

But, I keep telling people that dealing with all of this sucked, but in the weirdest way … it kind of brought me back to reality.

It’s kind of nice to be able to experience even the crappiest of experiences than to not experience anything at all.

As in, it’s kind of nice to be able to experience all of this than be dead. You know?

I know that it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Through all of this, I have had a different perspective than most (again, I want to make sure people understand that I *do* think that this is all terrible, and in no way justifiable).

My first week back at the hospital was filled with people seeing me for the first time, not realizing who they were talking to, saying things like, “This is such a crappy situat—-ALINNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH MY GOD! YOU’RE ALIVE!!!!!!!!” We’d cry and hug. And we’d get angry at the CEO together. And we’d laugh at how ironic my whole situation was all over again. The whole spectrum of human emotion, multiple times a day, every day that I was there.

And I would walk back home every single day thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe this hospital is shutting down, and I can’t believe my residency program is coming to an end, and I can’t believe I only had a few months left … And I can’t believe that I am so alive right now.”


So that’s just the beginning of what I had to deal with during the month of July. Part Two will be available soon, it’s kind of all still going on. But I figured— I keep getting asked about what happened so I thought I’d put “my side” of things out there for everyone to see for now.

What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
— Charles Bukowski

The Letter

I recently received a letter from my organ donor’s family. I have been very vague about the contents of the letter to respect them and their wishes (and please do not ask me to send it to you). What I have not been (or will not be) vague about are my feelings about reading it, processing it, and continuing my life knowing who’s heart is beating inside of me. 

My organ donor was a young girl who was, also, in the prime of her life. She was in school and was involved with many extracurriculars. She seemed very loving, and was absolutely admired by all around her. She was passionate and had many big goals that she never got around to accomplishing.

But her loving, caring heart lives on inside of me. 

Some have asked how I felt when I read it? Reading the letter was difficult and emotional because I really found out about the girl who died and gave me her heart. She was another human living her precious life on Earth, just like me. She was a beautiful soul.

I realized that the day I celebrated the most (and have been celebrating) was the day that I was reborn with a new heart— during the early morning hours on that cold, January day. But now, I will remember that this day marked the end of her life. She will forever be a big part of me (both literally and figuratively). So do I celebrate life? Or do I mourn death? 

The obvious answer is that I should celebrate life. Her legacy will live on. I can do so much with our heart. I can go back to saving lives. She will go back to saving lives. I get it. I absolutely do. Really. I understand the positive things about this.

But I am only human. The darker thoughts will always linger. 

I am so grateful that someone young with a healthy, strong heart died as an honorable organ donor— I needed that heart quickly. But I am so upset that someone young with a healthy, strong heart died. I am so happy that I get to live the rest of my life to accomplish all of my goals. I am so sad that someone else will not be able to accomplish her own goals because of a sudden tragedy. I am so excited to spend my time with my friends and family during this (awful) medical leave. I am so angry that her friends and family can’t spend time with her, unless you count the moments they stand around her gravesite— being six feet under is just not the same.

I am so lucky to be freely breathing this fresh air with no cough and without any lifesaving pressors and inotropes— remember, I can conquer the world nowadays. 

I am feeling so guilty, though. These were supposed to be her breaths. 

It’s interesting to think about. Truly. We were both in Intensive Care Units, miles apart, at the same time. We both probably had the same procedures done to us— was her central line on the right or left side of her neck? Was she on propofol and fentanyl? Surely she was on her own life-saving medications, I wonder which ones. Did her arterial line continuously kink and need to be replaced? 

I imagine that her family was there, too, hoping that she would get better. I wonder how many balloons and gifts were neatly laid out around her bed. I wonder if her friends were there, trying to make her laugh with stupid jokes. I wonder how many times they held her hand. The words haunt me now …. “Can you squeeze my finger?” She wasn’t able to. 

Sigh.

On the same day, two incredible things happened: 

In an ICU, I was told that I was going to be able to live my life again. A glorious moment. My physicians and nurses came in to hug me. 

My family and friends were in and outside of my room. Everybody was hugging and crying. 

But a physician in an ICU, miles away, told a family that there was little hope left. She listened to the last of her lung sounds, her heart sounds. She checked her pupils, both dilated. A quick "Time of Death" was recorded in the chart.

Her family and friends were in and outside of her room. Everybody was hugging and crying. 

So similar, yet so different...

I guess Kurt Vonnegut put it so nicely once:

”And so it goes.”

I will write the rest of this post (selfishly) for my own peace of mind. Perhaps her family will read it someday:

My Kyank, 

Kyank is the literal Armenian word for “life,” but it is used to address the very special people in your own life (the ones you love more than anything). It’s only fitting that I call you that.

I am you, and you are me.

I had a lot in common with you. It was more than just our blood type and body habitus. In fact, it was kind of chilling to read about your interests. We probably would have been good friends. But instead, our paths crossed in the strangest of ways. On the last day of your life, on the first day of my life. On the worst day of your life, on the best day of my life.

And I will be honest— I don’t know if I should be upset or happy or angry or guilty or grateful about that. I just don’t know. 

What I do know is what I've been saying since I woke up with your heart inside of me: I will do everything that I can to honor you and your family. 

Thank you for the gift of life.

I love you. 

-A