How ocean plastic picking made me a better pediatrician

It has been over a month since I started this new hobby. I told my middle-school-aged daughter tonight, “I am going to write a post about how ocean plastic picking has made me a better pediatrician.”

She replied, “You mean better than other pediatricians?”

“No, I mean a better pediatrician than I was before,” I answered in all seriousness. I know where her thoughts were coming from. I have always thought that anyone who makes it through the medical training process, including her mother, must have some level of narcissism and arrogance to make it and succeed. We have to convince parents, patients, and colleagues that we are just special enough to deserve their trust, their respect, and that we know what we are doing. Being mid-career, I certainly know I am competent. But the regular ritual of collecting ocean plastic has helped me be a better and more humble pediatrician.

Now I get to finally write one of those countdown lists:

1. I am a better listener: One of the first things I was taught in medical school was “90% of everything is history.” The cacophony of the office, modern life with parents and myself with our pinging iPhones, and various metrics I know I need to achieve during the patient visit makes it sometimes hard to listen as a doctor. Ocean plastic picking is a quiet process. That daily quiet has helped me listen better to everyone, including my patients. I have again, like when I began many years ago, let them tell me their story now without interrupting them.

2. I focus on the real patient: I was reading avidly about climate change and signing facebook petitions for years, but picking up plastic woke me up to do something tangible every day. Every time I reach out to pick up a piece and place it in my grocery bag, I’m doing something real – right now. It reminded me that, like climate change, my patients are not within the electronic medical record. Yes, their information is there, and it is important, but they are right in front of me as well. I really do see them more clearly now, and not their MRN.

3. I viscerally react to cigarette butts. I pick up a lot of cigarette butts and also have found several remnants of vaping. When I see teenagers, I deliver anti-smoking messages with real emotion.

4. I counsel on reducing unhealthy snack foods and advocate eating as a family. I pick up a lot of bits of pieces of convenient snack foods. The little pieces of snack wrappers often glisten in the setting sun. There are so many constipated children, prediabetic teens, children with abnormal lipid panels. I deliver the basic same sound information that I did before, but for some reason, my counseling is resonating more with my patients. I connect the bad food our children are getting to really a broken food industry and a broken society, which has made parents too busy to be able to cook and real food difficult to buy. Real food that is not covered in plastic. I get excited when I counsel parents and the children about how wonderful real fruit is, and that you can buy real produce and iron-rich turkey or beans to combat their anemia. If I can convince my families to eat real food and fewer snack foods, than its better for their bodies and less plastic for everyone to pick up.

5. I am reminded that children need to sleep, and their circadian rhythms are often off. Our children are bombarded with digital this and digital that. All their homework is on google docs now. It is here and will not go away. But the byproduct of all these LED-backlit devices and teenagers with iPhones is that no one is sleeping when they are supposed to be sleeping. I was guilty of this, and coffee was fueling me, like many adults, through the normal workday. The best time to pick up ocean plastic is early in the morning when the sun is just rising, and its cool and about 45 minutes before sunset. I know my preteen patients and teenagers are busier than I am, but when I see their anxiety, depression, prolonged post-concussive syndromes – some of this is due to their abnormal sleep patterns. I was not a great believer in “Nature Deficit Disorder,” but there is something to be said for being outside and connected to the rhythms of the earth. When I talk to families about this in the abstract, I think it’s resonating. My prescriptions still include psychiatry referrals and various treatments, but I am also asking families to keep bedtime sacred and to get outside and walk/hike/exercise together.

As I was watching tonight’s beautiful sunset, I was grateful for the lessons that this journey has taught me.

 Vi Thuy Nguyen is a pediatrician who blogs at Dr. Plastic Picker.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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