Nights at the VA medical ICU could get lonely sometimes. When the hubbub of the day had drawn down and the critical care fellows had gone home, the work in the ICUs slowed.
I figured that I would make use of the time that had seemingly stopped. I grabbed the ultrasound and went to scan and chat with a friendly gentleman whom I had admitted the previous night. It became readily apparent that I was still a struggling learner at this point in my training. There was something that looked like cardiac motion, but not resembling anything like the diagrams and videos I had looked at on my own. It was an uncomfortable place to be.
I imagine that is where a lot of people get frustrated and stop, especially when they don’t have someone to encourage and nurture their continued practice. I had a different luxury. Just a few weeks prior, I had received an inquiry about participating in a new general medicine POCUS fellowship at Oregon Health & Science University, and I was instantly sold on its potential. Here was a chance to carve out a new path and to invest in a skill that offered me a skillset that could improve my patient care. And I knew that I would have the benefit of POCUS experts literally holding my hand as I learned the skill. What a luxury!
So, I kept scanning in the ICU prior to my fellowship. You know what I found? Patients are much more forgiving than we might imagine them to be. Most understand that hospitals are frequently places of learning and like to be engaged in the process and, as I stumbled through my next few exams, I was reminded of my Dad’s words of encouragement, “the only difference between you and an expert is that they have done it once or twice.” So I kept at it. I was terrible the next times too. But, it got easier and I felt less intimated with each scan I performed. By the time I hit fellowship, I was already moving in the right direction.
When I started my POCUS fellowship, I was fortunate to work with all sorts of supportive colleagues that allowed me to continue to grow. Where I had struggled to build a foundation on my own, colleagues collected from internists, sonographers, and EM physicians provided me with the scaffolding. They provided me with lessons. “Remember, air is the enemy of ultrasound” and “ultrasound does not give you permission to turn your brain off. It is a problem-solving tool.” They entertained clinical application questions. They gave back when I leaned in. These colleagues were an amazing support network and would help me construct the mosaic that I teach from now.
A few months into the fellowship, I could complete a competent exam comfortably. It came together one day for me when I completed a Cardiovascular Limited Ultrasound Exam (CLUE) on a pleasantly demented older man, who had shortness of breath likely representing heart failure. As I looked at his lungs, taking stock of the bilateral B-lines and pleural effusions that confirmed his diagnosis, I discussed and showed the findings with his daughter.
“This makes so much sense now!” she remarked. The lightbulb went on for her as I democratized her father’s clinical information. The lightbulb came on for me too as I had a sense of satisfaction of both feeling confident in my diagnosis, but also being better able to teach and engage a family in their medical care. My transformation from novice to competency was mostly complete.
Now, a little more than 2 years removed from my fellowship, I have a little more perspective on the road from novice to competency, not only from my personal experience but also from my opportunity to network with an amazing group of enthusiastic (IM) POCUS educators.
These educators are largely trained by their own curiosity, their attendance at POCUS CME courses, or by latching onto experts from peripheral medical departments. In essence, these educators are pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps in a time when there is a distinct scarcity of POCUS educators within Internal Medicine, which can leave the supposed “all-knowledgeable” physician in an uncomfortable place of vulnerability. They have shared the angst that POCUS is a particularly challenging skill to learn due to its humbling nature – we may not know how badly we were hearing murmurs as medical students, but I bet most learners can guess by looking at a picture how poorly they are doing when they are scanning. It was a feeling I shared back in the ICU as a resident, but our experiences diverged when I had mentors who invested in me learning this valuable skill.
But, these physicians who learned POCUS independently are now at the next, even harder, part. As new leaders, we must reach behind us and pull up the trainees, whether that be by creating the next POCUS fellowship, starting or improving a residency POCUS program, or simply training your fellow colleague. We are tasked with making new learners feel supported and encouraged, and to make this technology accessible in fields where POCUS is not the standard of care. We need to foster these learners’ growth so that they can arrive at their own lightbulb moment and so they keep scanning on the ICUs in the effort to improve the care they deliver.
What was your defining moment in your decision to go into ultrasound? Have you had a unique learning experience? Comment below, or, AIUM members, continue the conversation on Connect, the AIUM’s online community to share your experience.
Kevin M. Piro, MD, participated in and helped build a point-of-care ultrasound fellowship at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), becoming only the second general medicine-focused ultrasound fellowship in the nation. Dr Piro is now a hospitalist at OHSU.