I have swum across the Chesapeake Bay 10 times and been a competitive tri-athlete. I was a swimmer in college, and although that was many years ago, I still love the exercise and the challenge of a long-distance, open-water swim. But the last time I did it, it was too long and too challenging. Although I finished, I was more fatigued than usual, and the recovery took longer.
Floyd "Tripp" Bradd III, M.D.
Then another curious thing happened. With all four of our children grown and out of the house, my wife and I moved into a smaller home. That process, too, took an unusual toll. After work, I would come home exhausted and go to bed early. I blamed my lack of energy on the move and a full-time family medicine practice.
The feeling lingered, but you know what they say about doctors being the worst patients … well, my wife is a nurse, and she insisted I see a doctor.
She was right. The diagnosis was myelodysplastic syndrome.
That was in March 2017. The year since then has been a struggle physically, emotionally and financially. But the amazing thing is, I feel closer to my patients, colleagues and community. And when I go back to work this summer after a few months off, I think the experience will make me a better doctor.
I've practiced in Front Royal, Va., for more than 30 years, and I've owned my own practice for more than 20. For the past few years, I've been a solo doc with a nurse practitioner and a small staff, caring for an active panel of about 6,000 patients. So, one of my first thoughts, aside from my own health, was what would happen to my practice? Who would care for my patients?
I decided that as a solo doc in a small community, the best approach was to be transparent and direct, so I've talked to my patients in person, and I've also written a blog with regular updates(trippbradd.blogspot.com) about my treatments and status. My patients know what I'm going through.
And now I know what many of them are going through.
I now know what it's like to be a patient in a large medical center, going from one treatment to the next.
I understand their fear and uncertainty.
I understand their pain and suffering.
As a family medicine resident, I trained for a short time at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. The participants were courteous, and they listened to me. But did they really hear what I had to say? I tried to connect with them, but I felt like I failed in that regard because they knew I had never experienced their unique struggle.
Fast forward more than 30 years, and I have seen a change in the way my patients communicate with me. They are more willing and eager to share. Cancer patients, in particular, are more likely to tell me about issues they are having with side effects. I no longer have to dig for information.
What I've learned is that being open to patients about who we are can make a big difference. Patients want to us to take care of them, but they also want a relationship. The 12 months I worked after my diagnosis reinforced that idea and increased my joy in practice.
Now I've reached the point where I need to step away for a while. I was scheduled to have a stem cell transplant from my daughter this month, but complications have pushed it to April, which makes my treatment, recovery and time away from my patients even longer.
As a solo physician, I know my practice can't survive if we aren't seeing patients. And my patients need to be seen. So, what is a sick solo doc to do?
I've been fortunate to participate in the Primary (Care) Practices Research Network(pbrn.ahrq.gov) for many years. I also started an online community(emrvillage.com) more than 20 years ago for physicians who use the Practice Partner electronic health record system. When I shared my story with this network of friends and colleagues, my prayers were answered.
Oscar Lovelace, M.D., of Prosperity, S.C., was named the AAFP's Family Physician of the Year three years ago for his dedication to his patients and community. He showed that dedication to patients wasn't limited by geography when he volunteered to take time off from his own small practice to come fill in for me.
Six other out-of-state family doctors have followed suit, including Don Stewart, M.D., of Sammamish, Wash., who came out of retirement to help. My thanks also to Susan Andrews, M.D., of Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Mary Arenberg, M.D., of Plymouth, Wis.; Joseph Jeu, M.D., of Hilliard, Ohio; Kathy Saradarian, M.D., of Branchville, N.J.; and George Schroeder, M.D., of Plymouth, Wis. All these physicians committed to take time off from their own practices, travel to Virginia at their own expense and go through the process of getting licensed in a new state so they can help for a week or two.
Local physicians also are filling in for me, as well, including family physician Thomas Ball, M.D., and internist Thomas Patteson, M.D.
My treatment likely will end up costing more than $800,000. Insurance will cover the majority, but not all, of my medical expenses, and I won't be earning an income for a large chunk of time. Fortunately, my community has rallied around me. Both schools where I serve as a team physician have had fundraisers, as has our church and others.
This isn't a plea for more help but rather a reminder that too often we physicians put off addressing our own health issues, and too often we are reluctant to ask for help. I hope my story will help you and your practice.
Floyd "Tripp" Bradd III, M.D., is a board-certified family physician practicing in Front Royal, Va.