Thursday, June 21, 2007

Three Life and Trading Lessons From a Personal Crisis

I was in Vermont on a family reunion and had just picked up a couple of snacks for the hotel room. Oddly, I couldn't find them when we returned to our resort. Only later in the day did I realize that they had been left in a storage compartment in our Jeep. I quickly took them out. One item was a container of egg salad. I didn't want that to go bad.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was 48 hours away from a medical emergency that could have been fatal.

The trip home from the reunion was not pleasant. It started with a small stomach ache in the morning and then became a fever and then developed into nausea. I was sick through much of both legs of the trip. By the time I returned to my Naperville home, however, the fever had subsided and my nausea was gone. All that was left was some stomach cramps. It was food poisoning, I reasoned, and the egg salad was the likely culprit.

Monday morning, and I'm scheduled for a flight to NY to meet with hedge fund traders. Still some cramps, but no fever, no nausea. I debate whether to call off the trip, but decide I'd rather not alter my plans. It was a fateful decision that would land me in a hospital.

The Monday meetings went well, and I took a car from the trading firm to my airport hotel. By this time the stomach pain had moved to a more specific area: the lower right side of my abdomen. I was increasingly concerned that this was appendicitis, not food poisoning. I checked into the hotel, took a look around my room, and turned right around with my bags. I asked the hotel clerk for the nearest, good hospital. She called a cab for me and away I went.

I've never seen neighborhoods like the ones the cab went through. Most of the signs on the stores were in languages other than English. I truly felt as though I was in another country. One sign alerted me to my location: Jackson Heights, Queens. Shortly after, the car dropped me off at the emergency room. There were few places to sit in the triage area; people with everything from primary care problems to broken bones to heart ailments to gunshot wounds came through here. I was the only Caucasian American in sight.

The pain grew over the next hour of waiting, and I alerted the triage nurse. She became interested in me when I told her I taught at a medical school and worked with ER staff. She moved me to the head of the queue, and I was wheeled into a holding area. A medical resident asked me questions, and now I felt on familiar turf. I explained my own medical background and why I thought the symptoms might be appendicitis.

Two hours later, I was interviewed by the full medical team, and two hours after that I received a CT scan. A friendly surgical resident with great bedside manner delivered the news: acute appendicitis. I would not be making my flight home. An hour later, I was in surgery.

It turned out, the surgeons told me, that the appendix was not merely infected, but actually gangrenous. Two-thirds of the tissue was already dead. The organ was "tissue thin" when they operated, a situation that could have spread bacteria throughout my body cavities and led to peritonitis.

Recovery was slow. Once again, I found myself the only native English speaker on the floor. The staff didn't ask what insurance I had; they asked if I had insurance. Police guards were placed throughout the hallways; many patients were loud and disruptive. Just about every bed was filled; my room was one of the few with vacancies. The nursing staff was continually on the go; it was clear that, in this community hospital committed to serving everyone, there just weren't enough hands to go around.

Still, the staff was extremely supportive. There were a number of mistakes in the system: I was brought meals that weren't appropriate for post-surgery, and I was not given the IV antibiotic the surgeon had recommended. When I called these items to the staff's attention, they eventually were remedied. When my roommate arrived--an engaging man who described himself as having major psychiatric problems--similar oversights led him to become extremely agitated. I told the nurses that I was a psychologist, and I explained how they could calm the situation. They did so, and I wound up with an excellent and appreciative roommate.

As I got on my feet, I wandered the floors and met many patients and staff: a kind man from Colombia who also had his appendix removed; an Irish security guard who told me of his own recent hospitalization and confided his frustration with the overwhelmed health care system; a third year medical student who went out of her way to find out how I was doing; a graveyard shift nurse from Poland who found a friendly way to wake up patients in the middle of the night for their care; a clearly burned out nurse from India who withheld simple comforts from a disruptive patient. After a while, I stopped noticing people's nationalities. We were all in this together.

By Wednesday I was ready to leave, and I flew home on Thursday. The outpouring of support from blog readers, friends, and family members was incredible. Several times I found myself on the verge of tears. I hadn't really eaten much in several days, and I hadn't stepped outside from Monday evening through Wednesday afternoon. Food tasted unusually good; the sky seemed especially blue. I was grateful to be alive and to enjoy these simple pleasures.

Perhaps the strangest experience of all, however, followed my release from the hospital. I needed to get a prescription filled, and the local pharmacy wouldn't take my insurance. The nearest Walgreen's pharmacy was 14 blocks away. Without hesitation, I shuffle-walked the 14 blocks through a neighborhood that only days before would have struck me as incredibly menacing. Again, I was the only Caucasian within view. But I had no problem with the walk or communicating with the helpful Asian clerk who worked everything out for me so that I could have my pills. By this time, I was part of the neighborhood.

So what are the life (and trading) lessons to be taken from all this? A few stand out for me:

1) A Little Knowledge Can Be Dangerous - I minimized my problems initially, sure that I had food poisoning. Only when I revised my view could I get the help I needed. If you're losing money in the markets, maybe it's a chance unlucky streak and a temporary phenomenon. But if it continues, make sure you consider alternative explanations--including the possibility that your trading ideas or methods are fatally flawed. Above all, be open to signs you're in trouble. I walked away from my hotel room when it was clear my pain was localized. When losses exceed normal drawdowns, go into defensive mode. It's the low-odds/high-risk events--those fat tails of risk--that can get you when your reasoning is following a normal distribution curve.

2) Advocate For Yourself - I'm sure some people at the hospital received excellent health care; I'm sure others did not. In a situation in which limited resources had to be devoted to the most pressing problems, many routine--but important--issues were sidetracked. The patients who received the best care were also the best self advocates. If you're an investor or trader, never assume that others will provide you with the tools and techniques you need for success. You'll only get out of forums, blogs, coaches, and seminars what you actively pursue and seek.

3) Networking Is Your Best Survival Tool - In a world of limited information and resources, you're best off networking with everyone who you can help and who can help you. I continually saw patients and staff help each other: it was in everyone's interest to share information and help each other out. Once I got that, the differences of culture and socio-economic class faded into the background. For traders, it means that knowledge is a social process; expertise is distributed. I "give away" information through my blog, but receive far more from like-minded readers.

I was in a multibillion dollar hedge fund working with traders; hours later I was in the holding area of a community hospital ER. Instead of walking Greenwich Ave., I hiked 14 blocks on Roosevelt Ave. Life is fragile; there are many twists and turns, and sometimes those offer life's best lessons. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable life situation, consider the possibility that you're meant to be there; that you can only expand yourself when you travel outside your comfort zone.

My deepest thanks to the fine professionals at Elmhurst Hospital Center. Many, many people in the schools, clinics, airports, and fire/police forces all across this country are quietly giving their best with strained resources. Theirs is a heroic story that deserves to be told.

And thanks again for all the warm support--



Jack said...

Glad you're better and getting stronger.

Well spoken, makes us all realize just how temporal and fragile life really is and what is really important.


Jack said...

Dr Brett,
Glad you're recovering nicely and getting stronger.

These things make us re-exam what in our lives are really important and what isn't


Scott G said...

Peering into your experience of being with the financial world's upper echelon one minute – to fighting for your life in a Queens’s community hospital the next – is simply amazing.

The lessons I took away from your story are to always stay humble and to always find the positive aspects of any given situation. You have a remarkable gift of being able to glean positive aspects from situations that I’d personally just have missed and/or simply complained about. Sharing what you do has helped to turn my personal radio dial to new and exciting places.

Glad to have you back Brett.

pwh said...

Glad to hear that you recovered. This is your best post by far.

Kevin said...

Hi Brett,

That's some story. I'm a true believer that things happen for a reason and that there is a lesson for us to be learned. I'm sure this experience has changed you and will probably take you down a path you might not have considered

I'm glad you are feeling better and I'm sure as soon as you find the strength, you'll be back analyzing the markets for us.

I was thinking of having an egg salad sandwich for lunch, but on second thought maybe I'll have someting else..:-)

Be Well,

Simply Options Trader said...

Hi Dr Brett,
This is truly a life changing experience. Your experience here has reminded us not to take simple pleasures in life for granted. Thanks for sharing this personal experience.

I'm glad your survived this ordeal and is feeling better now. Do rest more and please take care.

Trader Steve said...


Enjoy the rest, market is always there. Hope you'll get well very soon.


AnaTrader said...

Dear Brett

What goes around comes around and you have a guardian angel who guided you to the nearest hospital.

If an acute appendix burst, you would be infected with peritonitis which is almost fatal, if not arrested in time! Thank heavens, you did what you did and save yourself, at least from peritonitis.

Yes, often it is at moments like this which brings revelations to change our outlook in life 360 degrees, to be completely open.

We all come to this world with nothing and we shall all go with nothing, reduced dust to dust.

So we should all live and let live.

Please take it easy, Brett, and don't over exert yourself so soon, much as we love to have your daily posts.

Daz said...

Bloody hell, sounds like you had a lucky escape. I live in the UK, my wife is a Physical therapist and her favourite programme is ER (which I sometimes watch). It's sounds as if you could have been in a epsiode of this medical drama.

My non-trading reading tends to be books about War (and prisoner of war stories) as they help to put my life into perspective. No matter how bad a day I've had in the markets, it just does not compare to what soldiers and civilians have experienced during the horror of war.

Wishing you all the best
Get well soon
South Wales. UK

Serris said...

Wow! What a tale! I knew as soon as I saw that your blog was on hold that something bad had happened. Only a hospital could keep such an incredibly disciplined person like yourself from posting!

It's easy to forget the poverty of some people when we're not exposed to it every day. But I've found that at the core, most of them are people, just like us, that we can talk to (except for the occasional language barrier) and connect with.

From your tale it sounds like you help people everywhere you go. You are truly a blessing to this world, Brett, and we are glad to have you in it.

Anyway, I've enjoyed your recent series about the scientist's mindset. It's seems to be like the "let's see what happens" attitude we feel when we put on a well-reasoned trade and accept the risk.

Looking forward to hearing more on your trader coaching project; I'm particularly interested in that.

I've been thinking of you and will continue to wish you a safe and speedy recovery.

Mousefinger said...

"If you find yourself in an uncomfortable life situation, consider the possibility that you're meant to be there; that you can only expand yourself when you travel outside your comfort zone."

The artist/singer Björk recently released an album and a line from one of her most recent songs stuck with me:

"A lust for comfort suffocates the soul."

To be sure, you're right about expanding and growing through uncomfortable situations.

Great post and I'm really glad you're okay and back to share the experience.



StrasserTalk said...


We are so happy to hear of your recovery!

We like your analogy and the correlation to stocks and the market. I have compared our "garden" experiences to stocks...guess there are many comparisons to be made in our lives. :)

Be well!

parakeeps said...

get well soon, and thank you for taking the time to share the experience with us. you're an amazing person.

I.L. said...

Thanks for taking the time and energy to share this edifying experience with us.
Hopefully some of us can grow vicariously from it.

generalenthu said...

Very well put Dr. Brett. Hope you are recovering quickly and getting better.

Chris Perruna said...

That was a great post with an serious story. I am gald to see you are doing better and halted the situation before it escaladed into something far worse.

Declan Fallon said...

What a day - almost like "24"! Glad to hear you are on the mend.

But egg was made to be a story.

Best wishes,

nicker said...

Wow, you couldn't have invented a better script had you been trying for exciting fiction. What a great post on your insights. Thanks for the great lessons and examples you set.

enbentro said...

Dr. S,

I'm glad you're on the road to recovery-thanks for sharing your experience. It's amazing how quickly one's circumstances can change. Also, thanks for sharing your research efforts-they provide excellent ideas for further research.

Take care,

David J. Phillips said...


I am thrilled to hear that the medical team was able to extricate the appendix in time--imagine what might have happened had you not been your own best advocate.

By the way--your adventure: "being the only English-speaking" AMERICAN in the ER is testimony to an unsung problem with this invasion on our sovereign soil: THE MONETARY STRAIN--on an already broken--health-care system.

Sadly, as I recently said on one of my postings:

"Sadly, I believe that historians will be re-writing the last chapter of the Mexican Cession, the historical name of the present day southwestern United States ceded by Mexico in 1848.

What lands Mexico lost in war, they are winning back through their policy of a tacit invasion of the United States. With each passing day—as the number of illegal Mexicans in our country grows (compounded by births on U.S. soil), Mexico takes back a little bit more of their lost land(s) and culture."

Heal quickly!

David J Phillips, Publisher


Michael said...


I get the impression that you are quite a humble individual, and that perhaps you are not 100% aware of how important your work is to the trading community. I think I speak for all of your readers when I say that we are blessed to have access to your knowledge and intuition, and we are all glad that you are recovering. Thank you for everything that you contribute I hope that I am able return the favor someday.

All the best,

Krasimir said...


I've just browsed your blog and read your story. I'm glad that everything is OK and you are recovering.

Great lessons in the post!

All the best,

Pros said...

Glad you're doing better! Posts like these do make me reconsider reprioritizing things in my life.

Thanks for sharing and hopefully you won't have any other incidents like this in the future!

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Dear Readers,

I want to thank you for your support and well wishes during this period. It means more to me than you can possibly know.


Deborah said...

I think you had enough knowledge to have some control over your treatment. Someone with less knowledge might not have known how seriously they needed to advocate for themselves.

I always tell students they should take human biology in high school as it is the only owners' manual course offered for your body.

D TradeIdeas said...

Yours is a great story and I'm always amazed at your depth of insight you reach in everyday situations.

I'm glad this did not happen to you in Singapore or elsewhere far away.

As someone who cohorts with many doctors (all as good friends), you are perhaps the only case of a doctor being such a good patient. That is rare.

All of us at TI wish you a speedy recovery.



ChristyH said...

I respect your open-mindedness. I've been in many beautiful places where the people were rude and have been to old places where people very nice and caring. It's not a new thought but it's easy to forget and when it happens, it is very humbling. I am learning so much from your ideas! Thanks for blogging