Archive for December, 2017

A Tale of Two ER Patients

December 27, 2017

The blood came gush from the nose

Staining the floor and the clothes

But a Merocel pack

Slid from front to the back

Brought a stop to the flood, I suppose.

 

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia, to which we have returned. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

A tale of 2 ER patients.

I find the process of transferring patients out daunting and frustrating. The remoteness of the community demands stewardship of the two ambulances with their crews.  Thus, when possible, I send  patients to Prince George via POV (privately owned vehicle).

Even then, the process of stabilize-and-transfer can involve an hour or two of ER time when I get to chat with a patient.

I got to talk with a chef, who gave me permission to write a good deal more than I have. His camp, with 120 workers, employs three cooks, each responsible for one meal a day.  We had a great time talking about gravy; we agreed that corn starch beats flour for thickener, and that a good broth or stock means more to the sauce than the drippings.

*-*-*-

 

I gave a different ER patient the reverse of my usual dietary advice. Eat three scoops of premium ice cream at bed time, I told her.  Don’t drink water, always make sure your beverage has calories, especially high fructose corn sweetener.  I described how the Iowa beef industry uses it to accelerate fat gain in cattle.   I told her not to eat anything without gravy, mayo, or a sauce.

At the end, I said, “I write a blog. I won’t mention name, diagnosis, or age, but I’d like to write about the eating plan I gave you, the opposite of what I usually give out, how poison for one person is life-saving for another.”

She waved her hand and said, “You can use my name if you like.”

 

*-*-*-

During my IHS time in New Mexico, I saw 2 or 3 major nose bleeds a week for 18 months.  In that time, I became skilled at packing the front part of the nose to stop the bleeding.  Most times I could get the stanch the flow, and when I couldn’t, I knew what to do to get the patient to specialist care.

But since then the nose bleeds I’ve seen were simple, easy to stop temporarily followed immediately by a touch with a silver nitrate stick for permanent resolution. .

But the problem of serious epistaxis (bleeding from the nose) relies heavily on equipment, and the equipment has changed in the last 30 years. Our hospital has specialized catheters with inflatable balloons (the Rapid Rhino), and sponges made of material that promotes clotting (Merocel).  We also have tranexemic acid, unknown in the 20th century

For the time frame involved, I’ve seen more than my share of complicated nosebleeds this trip. I discovered that the closest Ears, Nose, Throat specialist doesn’t take call, and that most of the ER docs cheerfully confer by phone.

Croup treatment has and hasn’t changed

December 21, 2017

With a cough like the bark of a seal
And the kiddy so good doesn’t feel
There’s no way to avoid
A dose of steroid
Croup must be treated with zeal.


Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia, to which we have returned. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.
I had cause to contemplate how things do and don’t change in medicine. Consider, for example, croup. If a virus swells a child’s narrow airway, a barking cough, much like a seal asking for a fish, follows. Death can ensue if the airway narrows to the point of closing, or if the child stops breathing out of exhaustion.
The pediatric ward in the hospital where I did my residency had two outdated features for treating croup when I arrived.
One consisted of a tiled room that could be filled with water vapor; a large cloud chamber that could sleep 8. During my tenure its only use was storage.
But the spacious balcony on the other side of the nurses’ station told a different story. It had sliding glass doors and space for 6 cribs. In a bad croup year, the nurses bundled the children up, to sleep with their faces uncovered in the cold, dry Wyoming air.
It worked for most of the kids, and I still recommend that strategy, saying, “Now if the spasm of croup doesn’t clear in 3 breaths you’re already headed to the ER.”
Treatments have come and gone and come back. Antibiotics, we found, did no good. Theophylline (a close cousin of caffeine, and found in pharmacologic amounts in chocolate) helped, but not much, and had a lot of side effects so has since been completely displaced by the albuterol (in Canada, salbutamol) updraft.
Every winter, during the peak croup season, I’d ask my pediatrician friends if we’d gotten anything new for croup, and every winter they’d shake their heads.
We used to use inhaled adrenaline (also called epinephrine). It has come and gone in five year cycles. A year and a half ago I thought for sure that I’d never use it again when I heard a study showed it did no better than inhaling saline (salt water).
We used steroids a lot and stopped for a while in the 90s, started again just before the millennium, and continue to this day. Controversy remains regarding dose, and method of administration.
But croup has changed. The really, really bad version, where the epiglottis (the flap valve between the airway and the swallow tube) swells has disappeared with modern immunizations for diphtheria and Hemophilus influenza. And with the decreasing smoking rates we don’t see nearly as much as we used to.
I had cause to research croup treatment recently, finding, to my surprise, that all my internet sources recommend inhaled epinephrine and steroids. Just like 1982.

I joined NIRD

December 20, 2017

I think that what you have heard

Could be boiled down to a word

The truth I must face,

And even embrace

Is the fact that I’m really a nerd.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia, to which we have returned. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

No one called me “nerd” in high school, only because the word hadn’t come into currency. I belonged in the clique of intellectuals that didn’t have a clique. I figured out pretty early that I’d rather study than party, read a dictionary than drink, and find a movie’s logical inconsistencies and anachronisms than sit back and enjoy it.   By the time I could relax and embrace my nerdiness, I knew how to find groups that valued and even revered book learning.

So I jumped at the chance to join Northern Interior Rural Division of Family Practice, or NIRD and the chance it offered for a Christmas party and an opporutnity to get together with other rural docs. I even ignored the misspelling.

True to my inner nerd, I got us to the party on time at 11:00AM, and before anyone else.

Most physicians brought their families and most of the kids were younger than 12. I probably graduated from med school before half the docs were born.

I gave a yoyo demo. Bethany and I repaired an 11-year-old’s yoyo, I gave him a new string and taught him how to wax it to improve the sleep time.

The docs from our clinic, with spouses and kids, settled at one table. To my surprise and delight, we didn’t discuss patients.

We had a great meal, centered on turkey but with plenty of vegetables. We didn’t rush dessert, and chatted on after everyone else had left.

At 3:00PM, little daylight remained. Bethany and I picked out a movie, but couldn’t find the theater in the dark despite 3 GPS units.

We stayed overnight in a rather nice hotel room. I’d never seen glass interior walls that opacified for privacy.

The next day we bought groceries at Costco and Real Canadian Super Store, which vies with Costco for great prices but offers a better selection.

Without the rampant Canadian politeness, we probably wouldn’t have escaped from the parking lot of either store before closing time.

We had a beautiful drive back, with clear skies and bright sun, and fine, gleaming white frost on the trees.

 

 

Why the nicotine patch fails, and what to do about it.

December 17, 2017

The smoker should take part of a straw

Through which, when breathing, should draw

For the smoking cessation

It bring relaxation

And that, with the patch, is the flaw.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia, to which we have returned. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

 

I hate tobacco with a passion which I restrain to as to not alienate patients. I ask people, on a scale of 1 to 10, how ready they are to quit.  If they say 1 or 10 I move to another topic.  If they say anything else, I ask them to tell me why they aren’t LESS ready to quit, and to name the best three things about smoking.

Smokers most commonly say “stress relief” as the best thing about smoking. I used to argue, pointing out that smokers smoking have the same level of stress as non-smokers at baseline; the stress the patient felt, I would say, comes down to nicotine withdrawal.

That approach didn’t help anyone quit; if anything it hardened the person’s commitment to death by tobacco.

Recently, I have started to point out that if a person wants stress relief, the deep breathing exercise that every smoker has mastered brings half the stress relief of smoking. Inhale like you’re getting the best drag of the day, I say, and your stress level will go down.

(Recently the FDA approved a device to treat high blood pressure.   Really an app, it gets people to slow their breathing.)

I think the nicotine patch fails so often because the people don’t get the stress relief of deep breathing.

Today, a patient who had already figured out that strategy announced he planned to get some straws and to breathe through, to give him something to do with his hands.

And, just like that, within an hour I had two more patients intending to quit smoking.

I advised both to get a soda straw, cut it in half and carry the half where they carry their cigarettes. And to breathe through the straw as if smoking a cigarette.

This simple, brilliant technique will answer the habit strength question, help with stress management, give the person something to do with their hands which also includes the mouth, and give the person much the same velocity of air as breathing in through a lighted cigarette.

 

The First week back in Canada

December 10, 2017

Oh, the joys of that 12th vitamin B

A low makes me dance round in glee

For without scalpel or knife

I can save someone’s life

And the med costs a very small fee.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia, to which we have returned. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Though scheduled for orientation on Friday, I remembered a good deal of the electronic medical record (EMR), and started in with walk-in patients at 10:00AM. By the end of the day, I’d attended 11 people, as good as my best 8 hour clinic day during my most recent month in Alaska.  Patient flow goes very well here, documentation comes easily.

I carry the title locum tenens, which means that I’m a substitute or a temp, and only the night before did my name fall onto the schedule. Yet I knew 4 of the patients I took care of.

Monday started a very good week. I enjoy patient care, but I know that seeing too many patients in too short a time brings too much stress.  I saw a decent number of patients, rarely ran more than 10 minutes late, got lunch every day, and finished my documentation before 5:30 PM.

Filling in for two docs, at one point I had more than a thousand lab results to sign off.

An unusual percentage of the alcoholics I saw recognized the problem, and an unusual number of smokers had already decided to quit. Although, in fairness, an almost identical number of smokers had no interest in stopping.

I took call on Thursday to Friday morning. I slept poorly as much from the emergency at 3:00AM as from zigzagging time zones.

Friday more than half my patients represented repeat business. The clerical staff informed me that when people learned of my impending return, they waited to schedule with me.

Three of those patients had vitamin B12 deficiency. One of them gave me permission to write about the thrill I get from running the right test at the right time and finding that diagnosis.  I don’t often get to save a patient’s life, and, with B12 deficiency, I get to do it for pennies a day.

B12 deficiency most commonly presents as fatigue. In the past I started the investigation on the basis of depression, anemia, numbness, gait disturbance, erectile dysfunction, ADHD, and dementia.

In other clinics, management has discouraged me from ordering B12 assays in the Emergency Room or Urgent Care contexts. Yet, finding a result in my lab queue with that critical L beside the number brings me disproportionate joy and gives me a goofy grin for the rest of the day.

Which is why I prefer positions where vitamin B12 measurements are appropriate.

Back to Small Town Friendly, Canadian Polite

December 7, 2017

We had a short, boring flight

In Prince George we stayed over night

Though the sky turned quite black

It’s good to be back

The laughter and warmth bring delight.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia, to which we have returned. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

We waited in the boarding lounge in Vancouver for our next flight north, and fell to talking with fellow passengers. One has retired, and I asked what he does in his spare time.

His wife has volunteered at the hospital for 50 years, he said, and he visits her on the days she does. He also farms, raising hay in the summer. As I have farm land, and have worked with farmers, I very much wanted to know how many cuttings of hay he gets in a year.

“One,” he said. And in the exceptional year when he tries to get two, the next year’s yield suffers.

He also told me about his medical problems. While the rules of confidentiality don’t apply to airport conversations, I don’t like to write about anyone without permission.

The sun set while we chatted, and we boarded in the long twilight.

The flight was short and boring, the best kind.

We stayed over night and the next day hit the mall.  In general we don’t like shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas because of insane crowds and impossible parking. Without a checked bag, though, we lacked critical items. I hoped to make up for my lack of a parka with a sweater, and we’ve found trekking poles almost as necessary as cleats when walking on ice.

And the grocery store in our target small town couldn’t hope to match the price or selection of Costco.

We got a great clearance price on a cooler.

Then we drove north on roads clear in the sun and snow packed in the shade, always alert for black ice and moose.

We got our old hotel room back. We unpacked and lunched at the Chinese restaurant, then I strolled to the clinic just before closing.

The laughter, warmth, and high physician morale enveloped me when I walked in. I grinned for a lot of reasons: small town friendly, Canadian polite, great nurses and support staff, and the special magic of this particular group.

 

Holiday rush

December 5, 2017

Home from the Arctic we set

At the Omaha airport we met

But, Oh! What a drag!

We can’t check a bag!

And we went to Vancouver by jet.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I finished work 15 hours before our flight’s scheduled departure. We acquired little during our stay, but the task of packing took all of Bethany’s considerable skills.  We cobbled together a supper of edible odds-and-ends.  We played one more Scrabble game but couldn’t fall asleep till 5 hours before we needed to get the taxi to the airport.

The airlines advise 2 hours for security and check in, but here we couldn’t check baggage more than an hour ahead. We slipped our ice cleats into the checked suitcase, gate checked our 2 roller boards, and fell asleep before the plane took off.

We spent the long layover with Les, a friend of 35 years and Anchorage resident for 30. Without the wind we’d faced for the last month, the Anchorage temps while a few degrees colder seemed positively friendly.

Contrast, as always, the essence of meaning, the big-city realities of Anchorage jarred our senses. We faced traffic, stop lights, food prices that don’t take the breath away, and stores the size of hospitals, and did our best not to stop and gape.

We helped move a boat and shop, then after dark found ourselves in an airport decorated with full body mounts of moose, musk ox, polar bear, brown bear, and halibut. We landed in the rain in Seattle.

Because of the very long times and distances involved, the vast majority of Alaska traffic overnights in Seattle and Anchorage, thus the large number of hotels close by.   Less than 18 hours after checking in, we landed in Omaha.

Less than 48 hours of mail, laundry, and friends later, back in the Omaha airport for Thanksgiving travel, Bethany headed to Virginia, and I to upstate New York.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with two brothers, three sisters, a brother-in-law, two nieces, two nephews, a daughter, and a son-in-law. I had to slide my internal clock back across 5 time zones, adjust to outdoor temps above freezing, and accommodate to twice the daylight hours.  I find sleeping in generally difficult but, due to a body clock both shaken and stirred, managed to sleep past 9:00AM.  Coffee in the morning, contrary to usual habit, helped.

Just like that Bethany and I met in the Omaha airport and headed back to Sioux City with 3 days to get ready for the next month in Canada.

The night before departure, Bethany looked carefully at the itinerary and announced we only had an hour layover in Chicago, where we changed airlines. We would not be able to check a bag.

Then followed a furious baggage editing. While we spent thirteen weeks in New Zealand with one roller board and one back pack each, we didn’t have to deal with serious cold.

We decided we could get trekking poles and sweaters in Prince George if needed.

In Vancouver, when asked the purpose of my trip, I replied, “Business.  Would you like to see my work permit?”  The young BC Immigrations man did, and asked me what sort of business I do.  “I’m a doctor,” I said.  “I’ll be working up north for a month.  And, boy, do I like your system.”

He looked up.  “Well thanks for coming! We’ve a shortage of doctors.”

Summation of a month in the Arctic

December 3, 2017

The alk phos kept coming up high

And the local docs can’t tell me why

And the TSH low?

It’s just part of the show

Like the constantly cloudy sky.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. A month in the Arctic followed a month in Iowa followed 3 months in British Columbia.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I finished in Arctic Alaska the Friday before Thanksgiving. I found the pace  leisurely, sometimes to the point of frustration.  I enjoyed my most productive days, 14 in 12 ER hours and 11 in 8 clinic hours, but the day 5 patients spread over 8 hours I filled the empty minutes with Continuing Medical Education (CME), email, Wikipedia, and naps.

I found 6 mildly low TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) assays out of 9 that I ordered. Out of the 12 alkaline phosphatase (an enzyme found in liver and blood) tests I requisitioned, 10 came up mildly high. When asked, the clinical director confirmed that, yes, those two tests came back abnormal more often than not, but had no good explanation.

I covered the twelve-hour ER shift four times, coming into contact with 2 patients with dislocated fingers. I got to follow, from afar, the progress of the sickest patient I saw, sent out on a plane to a surgeon and hospitalized for the better part of two weeks.

I never worked more than 44 hours in a week.

I bought Rosetta Stone Inupiaq, the language of the Inuit, only to find it wouldn’t work on a computer using any software newer than Windows XP.

The major plus of the assignment: great leadership. The major minus: the housing (supposedly built from recycled cargo containers) which promoted isolation.

The rainy weather that greeted us promptly froze 4 days after our arrival, when the snow started. Cloudy skies prevented a good view of the Aurora Borealis, and the wind might have shifted direction a few times but never went under 20 mph.

During the month, a baby seal strayed through a breathing hole in the ice and appeared at the foot of an apartment house stairs. A week later, a caribou showed up at the hotel, looking lost.  Three days after we left, I got a video of a herd of caribou running on the sea ice outside the same hotel.

Inspired by the high cost of food, both Bethany and I lost weight.

I bought a hat made of beaver fur and a letter opener of mastodon ivory.

We never quite made it to the gym but we took lots of walks in the cold and the wind.

Bethany substitute taught Special Education, and found herself paid a good deal more than she’d expected.

Would we return? Absolutely!  But we would have to ask, When?