Learning the Power of "No"


I wanted to be an actor. I had no reason to think I could succeed in the arts, but I loved the theater. I had no formal training, I couldn’t sing at all, and had never taken a single dance lesson. My stage experience was limited to a couple of very low quality high school productions but that didn’t stop me from enrolling in college as a theater arts major. I had a dream. I wanted to act.

The dream died my first day of college. I do not remember what prompted the moment of reflection but after my first, very boring day at Cal State Fullerton I sat and reflected on the reality of my goals. Given my complete lack of musical talent there was no hope for Broadway. Drama or comedy were a possibility, but I was not leading man material. I was not particularly good looking. I had a very slight build and was not particularly tall (somethings never change!). “Romantic lead” was not going to ever appear on my resume. If I was going to be an actor I would have to do it the hard way. I would have to have another job and scrounge for any role I could find, likely as a bit player or character actor.

While many similarly endowed have gone that route and eventually succeeded I realized there would be another barrier to success, my beliefs and values. As a committed Christian, there were limits to the roles I could accept. There were things I would not say, even in character, and things I could not do because of my faith. There would be times I would be forced to say, “No.”

As I pondered all of these facts in my head I realized I had no choice. The chances of me making it as an actor, making it to the level of being able to one day provide for a family without compromising my values, were nil. My dream had to die and it did. As I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life I dropped out of school to reconsider my life path.

This story from my past came to mind this week as I read more of the tales of abuse and harassment in Hollywood. The lurid accounts of shameful and disrespectful behavior validated the conclusion I reached almost 40 years ago. So many have given up so much in pursuit of acting careers, preyed upon by lecherous men like Harvey Weinstein. It seems it is almost impossible to make it as an actor or actress without compromising one’s values.

As disgusting and offensive as the actions of Harvey Weinstein were I cannot ignore the reality of why they continued for so long. Men like Weinstein do what they do because there are men and women who are desperate enough to allow them to. Morals are tested, challenged and frequently cast aside. One compromise leads to another, and the compromises of one person lead others to feel pressured to similarly give in.

Strings of compromise lead to entitled expectations from powerful people who make or break careers. Actors and models who are willing to take off their clothes and imitate lewd behavior on camera for money or the opportunity at fame should not be surprised when others think they may be willing to do the same in private. When you have established a price, people will try to buy you.

The solution to this problem isn’t only to punish the perverts (although the punishment should be severe). The solution requires values and boundaries. People need to be willing to accept the potential adverse consequences of saying, “No.” They may lose coveted roles or even their careers to the whim and spite of a power-hungry sleaze, but they will keep their dignity.

They may lose a Hollywood career, but they will not lose their chance for happiness. They will have the same opportunities for happiness as the rest of the world, the happiness that comes from being a good spouse, parent, friend or co-worker. They can have joy that surpasses fame, the joy of being a good person who is true to their values. They can live a fulfilling life that is not subject to the whims of another, fulfillment dependent on neither fame nor income level.

I do not know any celebrities but my distant observations are that few of them appear to be truly happy. Most of the people I know have lives of better quality. I know I do. I have been happily married to my best friend for over 35 years. I have close relationships with my adult children. I have no skeletons in my closet and no terrible secrets waiting to be discovered. I also have my values and my dignity.

-          Bart

"Want to see a Fat Man Naked?"


I have said a lot of stupid and offensive things in my life but none of them rise to the level of stupidity displayed by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein, twice married with 5 children and the producer of blockbuster movies (5 of which have won Oscars for best picture) can now lay claim to the dumbest pick up line ever spoken. He is reported to have asked Ashley Judd, “Do you want to watch me take a shower?”

A quick Google image search of Mr. Weinstein answers the question for all women (at least all of those not stricken with a pudgy fetish). No one would want to watch Harvey Weinstein take a shower. Ever.

Given the obviously disgusting nature of the question and the blatant sexual harassment it represents one is left to wonder why he would even ask it. What sort of man thinks it is appropriate or acceptable to ask women who work for him if they want to see him naked? Why would he think he could get away with such behavior? The answer seems to be that there were women who took him up on his offer, and that he did get away this behavior for over twenty years.

He was able to get away with it because he lives his life in a world without moral values, a world where money, power and fame are all that matters. In Mr. Weinstein’s world morality is about attending women’s marches, distributing movies about the victimization of women on college campuses (2015’s “The Hunting Ground”) and donating to the right political candidates. For him, morality seems to have very little to do with how he treats the actresses who work for him. He was too important to concern himself with the feelings of others.

While Weinstein’s pig-ness is unassailable, the fact he got away with it is also concerning. While the actresses who were victimized and harassed are not to blame for his behavior it is nonetheless sad that so many remained silent for so long. The danger of their careers being harmed should they speak out drove many to silence. Ms. Judd referenced this fear herself.

While these women are not to blame for the harassment the reality that their silence allowed it to continue cannot be ignored. In situations of abuse if we calculate the cost of making a stand, if there is a price we will not pay for our principles, bad will be inevitably allowed to continue. Values are either invaluable or worthless. Compromise is not an option.

This truth applies to every area of our lives. Every time we compromise our values, every time we say something is “Not that bad” and do things “a little wrong but not terrible”, every time we make excuses for our bad actions, every time we allow wrong to continue for financial or personal gain we follow the example of Harvey Weinstein. We become people without a moral compass.

I do not want to be like Harvey Weinstein. I cannot change the culture of Hollywood or influence what happens in the halls of power but I am not powerless. In my own circle of influence I can choose to treat people well, to make difficult and costly choices and to do the right thing, every time. I cannot change the world, but I can change my world.

-          Bart

A Police Shooting, A Facebook Debate


Last week a Huntington Beach police offer shot and killed a man outside of a convenience store. The deadly exchange was captured on cell phone video by two different bystanders, one of whom posted the video to Twitter within minutes of the encounter. It took only a few minutes more for arguments to begin on social media.

The video was only 17 seconds long and captured only a portion of the interaction but that was enough for hundreds of people on Facebook to make confident judgments about the rightness or wrongness of the officer's actions. The opinions were diverse, with the officer being described as everything from a hero to a murderer.

The assessments were diverse but shared a common confidence. Multiple "analysts" expressed their opinions without wavering, seemingly oblivious or uncaring of the thoughts of others. People chose their sides and held their ground eager to judge not only the officer and the man who was shot but also the assessments of fellow commenters. Scorn, praise, disdain and encouragement were freely given to complete strangers based on brief comments on Facebook. The relative of anonymity of social media led to name calling and personal attacks, peppered with dismissive insults of others such as “Embarassment”, “Fool”,  “Wackadoo” and “Asshat.”

Those against the officer's actions demanded he be punished, confidently stating he could have and should have acted differently. Some declared that the officer could have shot his attacker in the kneecaps instead of the torso, (which leads me to wonder if they have ever fired a handgun, as such marksmanship under pressure would be truly incredible). Others asserted that the officer, after an intense wrestling and fighting match with the man, should have somehow been able to subdue the man with his hands alone. Some were confident that had the officer only had better training in mental health issues he would have been able to “deescalate” the situation and avoided violence. They described the 27 Year-old man who attacked the officer in sympathetic terms, as a victim of society, the mental health system and overly aggressive policing.

Others decided not only to support the officer but to devalue the humanity of the man who attacked him. His name, once revealed, was seldom used as people chose to instead call him pejoratives such as "scum", "garbage" and "loser". Many said that not only that the officer justified in his actions but that the man "deserved to die."

Almost all of the comments revealed major flaws in American society, the seemingly universal inability to listen to and entertain alternative points of view, as well as the inability to questions one’s own positions and arguments. Battle lines take priority over lines of communication. Personal feelings of moral superiority trump the personal feelings of others. We are quick to judge, quick to speak and completely unwilling to listen to one another.

Many of the responses I read displayed a type of selfishness, an apparent desire to elevate one's self over others and to gain a sense of moral superiority. Opinions mattered more than people. Lacking in most of the dialogue was a sensitivity to those involved in the actual event, as if they were characters in a drama instead of real people. I do not know the officer but I suspect he has no need for others to question his actions.  He will undoubtedly undergone countless hours of self doubt and questioning in addition to the inevitable formal investigation. For the rest of his days he will have to deal with the reality of taking the life of another human being. The family of the man killed have had his mental illness and irrational behavior put on display for all of the world to see, with their family dynamics called into question. Those who disparage his upbringing and support network do so with no knowledge of the pain and agony experienced by the loved ones of those with serious psychiatric disorders. Families of the mentally ill often question themselves, wondering where they went wrong and what they could have done differently. This family has the added emotional stress of processing the graphic video images of someone they loved die from gunshots. With so many opportunities to question themselves and their past actions, they do not need the questioning of strangers.

It is time for all to take a step back. We need to be less confident in our opinions, more questioning of ourselves, and less questioning and judging of others. We are all flawed and broken people, we all fail, and we all struggle. None of us wants our imperfections publicly displayed and debated or to have our actions examined under a public microscope. We need grace more than we need judgment.

For me, I am going to make it a personal goal to change my initial responses to the actions of others shared in the media. Instead of jumping to conclusions and passing judgment I aim to fall to my knees and pray, for this may actually accomplish something.

- Bart

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"It's Cancer"


“It’s cancer.” I have said those words to patients hundreds of times. Sometimes the news was particularly bad, news that a cancer was not only present but had spread. Other times the news was more encouraging, of a minor cancer that was easily treated. Patient responses have been as varied as the diagnoses. On hearing the news some patients were shocked and some were tearful while others were stoic or silent. All were changed by the diagnosis as all saw themselves and their futures differently for having heard those two words.

I spent most of my morning today waiting to hear those words myself. I was certain they would come. 10 days ago I had my Physician’s Assistant biopsy a new mole on my forehead. I first noticed the mole a few weeks ago. Although no one else was worried about it,  its newness combined with my family history of melanoma made me concerned. My PA dutifully and skillfully performed the biopsy and sent the tissue to the lab for analysis.

Skin biopsy results almost always arrive within 5-7 days of submission. When day 7 arrived without results I started to wonder. This morning was the morning of day 10 and when results were still not in my inbox my wonder evolved into worry. I could not see any way that a benign diagnosis would take this long, especially when I had already gotten results back on patient biopsies submitted after mine. In my concern I had my nurse call the lab and ask for the results. The lab secretary told her that results were not yet available because the tissue had been “sent out for additional tests.”

That settled it for me. I was certain the diagnosis was melanoma. No one does “additional tests” on benign moles. The only question left was the seriousness of the diagnosis. Did I catch it early enough, or had it already progressed to a dangerous stage? I had the staff leave a message for the pathologist to call me back as soon as he arrived, wanting the final diagnosis as soon as possible. Waiting has never been easy for me, waiting for this call was agonizing. As melanomas can be deadly I found myself wondering what the impact on my family would be if the prognosis was poor. I began to mentally prepare and brace myself for the potential bad news.

My office staff was stressed as well. We are a close knit group and their concern was obvious. I made lame jokes that were not well appreciated and served to amplify rather than calm their fears. Sensing this I leaned over to my receptionist and quietly spoke words that were meant to encourage both of us saying, “Nothing about the diagnosis will have any impact on God’s eternal plan for me.” The truth of these words brought me comfort.

As there was nothing else I could do in that moment I went back to seeing patients, less distracted than I expected but distracted nonetheless. My eyes frequently drifted down to the clock in the corner of my computer screen. How long was the pathologist going to wait before returning my call?

When 11:30 came I decided I was done waiting. I called the lab myself. After a few minutes on hold the pathologist came on the line. “It is a lentigo maligna, a melanoma in situ,” he said. I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. It was melanoma (the worst kind of skin cancer with the potential to lethally spread throughout the body) but it was “in situ”,  meaning that it was still confined to the surface of the skin and had showed no signs of penetrating deeper. I had cancer, but it was completely curable with minor skin surgery. I would not need chemotherapy, I would not need body scans or additional testing. I had caught it in time.

I spent the rest of the day emotionally drained. I felt like someone who had been involved in a near miss plane crash or car accident, relieved but shaken by the reality of the disaster that could have been. I found myself on the verge of tears as I drove home from work tonight. I realized that something about me had permanently changed. I am now, in a way, a cancer patient.

I have cancer, cancer that could kill me if I don’t get the rest of it removed. I will get it treated and I will be cured but for the rest of my life “melanoma” will be a part of my personal medical history. It will always be in the back of my mind. Every time I look at my moles and every time I look in the mirror I will wonder if there is something there. I will need to remain ever vigilant. The fear that I may not be as fortunate the next time will likely never fade away.

The events of today have also caused me to reflect on my patients who have experienced similar near misses, as well as those who were not so lucky. I currently have patients in my practice who have been treated for lung cancers, breast cancers, and melanomas. Some are battling widespread disease and face long odds. Others have no current signs of disease but continue to vigilantly follow up with their doctors, doing everything they can to detect any possible recurrence as soon as possible. I am just beginning to understand the truth of how cancer may have changed them.

I am grateful that my cancer is treatable, grateful of the time I have been given and the future that remains. More importantly, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow. I pray that this episode will help me better understand the fears, pains and concerns of the cancer patients God brings across my path.

This seems to be a part of his eternal plan for me. 


Great Doctors, Terrible Outcome


I stood silently by his bedside in the Intensive Care Unit listening to the rhythmic hissing sounds of the ventilator as it repeatedly pushed oxygen into what was left of his lungs. “Poosh, poosh, poosh,” the sound a constant reminder of how sick he was. On the monitor above the bed the tracing of his heart rate kept its own rhythm, an almost mocking evidence of life. Although he felt nothing, I felt a pain deep in my stomach and an ache in my heart. I asked myself, “How did we end up here?”

He seemed perfectly healthy a few weeks earlier when he came to see me in the office for his check up. His blood pressure was good, his heart was strong, his lab work was normal. He exercised regularly and was in near perfect shape for a man in his early seventies. The only blemish on his health record was a distant one. He had once been a heavy smoker but had stopped 10 years earlier.

If his visit had been scheduled a few months earlier I would not have ordered any additional tests, but he came in shortly after a study on lung cancer had been announced. Less than a month before his physical I had been a part of a team of doctors involved in drafting a new lung cancer screening protocol for the hospital. The recent study had shown for the first time that early detection of lung cancer could have a positive impact on survival. The evidence revealed a 20% decrease in lung cancer mortality when patients over the age of 50 with a heavy smoking history had annual CT scans to screen for small tumors. He was the first patient of mine who met the criteria for testing and I enthusiastically recommended the test.

I was stunned when the test revealed a cancer but was hopeful that we had found it in time. That was, after all, the purpose of the test. I referred him to the thoracic surgery team for removal of the tumor. The surgeon, one of the very best at his craft, met with the patient, did the appropriate evaluation and scheduled him for surgery. Everyone was upbeat and hopeful. The day before the operation he played basketball in the driveway with his grandchildren.

The first hint that things might not go as hoped happened in the operating room. The initial plan had been to resect the tumor and leave most of the lung intact. The plan fell to the wayside when the surgeon discovered that the tumor was larger and more invasive than the scan had suggested. The cancerous mass had wrapped itself around the bronchus, the air tube supplying a major portion of the lung. The surgeon had no choice but to remove the entire lobe, significantly more tissue than he had planned. The doctor was disappointed, but was still confident that he had removed all of the tumor and the patient had a good chance at recovery. He sewed the patient up and moved him to the ICU, where all chest surgery patients go after leaving the recovery room. The plan was to keep him on the ventilator for a day or too while the lungs healed and then allow him to breath on his own.

That never happened. The years of smoking had caused another previously unknown problem. Although he was physically active, he had undiagnosed COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The combination of the stress of surgery and the chronic disease were too much to overcome. The remainder of his lungs were too diseased to support him breathing on his own. Lung specialists, heart specialists, and other specialists were all asked to help but there was nothing anyone could do. He was never going to get off of the ventilator. It was up to me to inform the family of the bad news.

The conversation with the wife was intense. The question was asked, “What went wrong.” The answer was both nothing and everything. Each and every doctor had done everything exactly right. I had ordered the right tests, as had the surgeon. The surgeon had made no mistakes during the operation and the correct medications and treatments had been prescribed. In spite of our combined efforts  he remained unconscious and dependent on a ventilator. It was a hard message to accept. The wife and I agreed to wait a few more days to give him a final chance to respond, praying for a miracle. It was understood that if no improvement came that we would have to let him go. A few days later we said our tearful goodbyes.

His death was a devastating loss for all who were involved in his care. I found myself wishing I had never ordered the CT scan and grieving the decision to proceed with surgery. I wrestled with the reality that while his death from lung cancer was a certainty, it need not have happened so soon. I will never forget the anguish of his wife as we stood at his bedside, nor the heartfelt tears in the eyes of the surgeon when he told me there was nothing more that he could do. He was a good and kind man and the loss was real.

I have also never forgotten the truth that excellent care does not guarantee good outcomes. Life happens, and death happens, even when doctors do everything right. I am reminded not to assume the worst when bad things happen and to avoid placing blame and pointing fingers. Sometimes our best just isn't good enough, in all areas of life.

- Bart

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