Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A weekend call full of chest pain

July 9, 2018

This weekend I was hard pressed

And, as always I worried my best

The lilt in my song

Comes when I’m wrong

About the cause of pain in the chest.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, a friend’s funeral, a British Columbia reprise, and my 50th High School reunion, I’m back in Northwest Iowa.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission

I took ER and hospital call this weekend.

The chaos that suffused my time came as no surprise, but the consistent theme of the people seeking my services, chest pain, did.

The area involved can be anywhere between the diaphragm and the jaw. The complaint doesn’t have to include pain; so often the person says, “It’s not a pain, really, more of a discomfort.”  And, sometimes the patient doesn’t feel discomfort at all, but shortness of breath, or nothing more than fatigue.

Of course I worry about the heart. If the body’s main pump runs out of blood carrying vital oxygen, it can’t pause to rest, and parts of the heart muscle die.

But I also have to consider the possibility of pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs), pericarditis (inflammatory fluid around the heart), aortic aneurysm (where the aorta, the main artery coming from the heart falls apart), cancer, broken ribs, pleurisy (an inflammatory roughness of the smooth shiny membrane that lines the chest), or esophageal spasm (a cramp in the in the swallow tube).

By the end of the weekend, the nurses had gotten used to my routine: an aspirin, chewed, and a nitroglycerin pill slipped under the tongue, both while obtaining an electrocardiogram and getting blood drawn for a series of tests. Sometimes I asked for chest x-ray, sometimes a CT of the chest to rule out pulmonary embolism.

Sometimes the studies revealed the problem, sometimes not. I saw a good cross-section of diagnoses including the profoundly serious and the mundane.  I sent patients out by ambulance and by car, and I kept a couple in the hospital for observation.

(Everyone in town knows the helicopter came and went; for reasons of confidentiality I will neither confirm nor deny it had anything to do with a patient I attended.)

I took care of patients from the age of 13 to the age of 88. I enjoyed talking to two consultants I knew from my private practice and Community Health days.

But the highlights of the weekend had to do with me thinking of serious pathology and being wrong.

 

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Looking for things I don’t want to find

July 1, 2018

Pessimism is my inspiration

When I’m testing for inflammation

Sometimes we’re stuck

With a run of bad luck

I’m hoping for no information.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, a friend’s funeral, a British Columbia reprise, and my 50th High School reunion, I’m back in Northwest Iowa.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I make my living by thinking up worst case scenarios. As my knowledge and experience grows, I can dream up increasingly horrific things to rule out.

A lot of people, for example, just plain don’t feel good. I listen to the story, I take all the details seriously, I try to figure out the context, and then I go looking for diseases.  My favorites are the ones I can cure without specialist consultation, intrusive interventions, or expensive drugs.  I don’t like to find conditions that will last for the rest of the patient’s life, disrupting the plans of friends and family, misery that echoes down the generations.

Most disease, about 70%, comes to us directly from our choices: nicotine, alcohol, recreational drugs, overindulgence, and exercise avoidance.

But a sizeable portion of my work has to do with bad luck.

No matter what the source of the problem, my task is to make the patient better, and help the patient meet their goals.

But to get to that point I have to listen to the patient.

I listen a lot. I think pessimistically, and I run a lot of tests.

I use two particular assays, the C-reactive protein (CRP), and the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate) to make a major division in my lines of inquiry. Both seek to confirm or deny inflammation throughout the body, and two normals mean I can rule out a lot of illnesses. A high number in either parameter means I have to keep seeking till I find an answer, and, generally, an answer I don’t want to find.

Too many times this week I’ve looked at a lab sheet and used words unbecoming to a professional vocabulary.

At this point in my career, I shouldn’t take an abnormal lab test personally. I can either handle the patient’s treatment or I can find someone who knows more than me.

I look at the consequences of illness not just to the patient, but to the surrounding community. Every one of my patients exists in a context, and, just as the patient cannot be understood without understanding the context, the context cannot be understood without understanding the patient.

I shouldn’t take an abnormal lab test personally, but I do. Every patient is part of my context.

New Job, First Week

June 13, 2018

I laughed, and said with a snort

In the square of the town there’s a court

You could call the town small

There isn’t a mall

And friendly comes by the quart

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, a friend’s funeral, and a British Columbia reprise, and my 50th High School reunion, I’m back in Northwest Iowa.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I saw a distressing number of serious pneumonia cases during my first week on the new job. Each patient presented differently, each brought in a life story from a family context.  And each challenged me in a different way.

We have exceptional pneumonia vaccines that don’t prevent pneumonia nearly as well as they prevent death from pneumonia.

In the last 40 years the disease has changed a good deal, and we’ve reduced the death rate, but not nearly enough.

The history and physical make the diagnosis more than anything. We listen for a crackling sound as the patient breathes in, but mostly we listen to the patient’s narrative.  Still we get blood counts, blood cultures, chest x-rays, and occasionally CAT scans.  A new blood test, pro-calcitonin, helps a lot but hasn’t made an appearance in any facility where I’ve worked.

I disappointed several patients by not finding ear wax.

I have acquired a minimalist approach to medication at this stage in my career, an approach that many of my patient appreciate. I especially enjoy stopping statins, a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs that can stop heart attacks and strokes, but will not prevent a first one after the age of 65.

The facility has a small staff and a small footprint. I counted 36 steps from my office to the ER, and 6 steps from ER to radiology.

I get a steep discount on meals, reasonable cooking served in reasonable portions.

Various licensing details have insulated me from the worst of the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) headaches, and I get to dictate my notes.

A small parking lot separates my accommodations from the ER; a landline assures good communications in the unlikely event of a sound night’s sleep.

I haven’t run into marijuana problems yet. Smokers constituted a surprisingly small proportion of the patients.  Not surprisingly, binge drinkers here, as everywhere, have difficulty with insight.

The facility has a gym, a CAT scanner, anesthesia, and a surgery program. I worked with two of the nurses here during my days in private practice, and I established a relationship with the radiologist during one of my other assignments.

Most of the referral traffic will go to Sioux City, where I still know many consultants.

And there’s an absolutely first class pizzeria about 20 minutes away.

 

High School Reunion 1: Siblings, sushi, and fractures

May 29, 2018

The cause might have what it takes

For the fractures that give rise to the aches

The stresses from running

Can be downright stunning

Bringing the ankles to breaks.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, a friend’s funeral, and a British Columbia reprise, I am taking a break from Sioux City for my 50th High School reunion.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I grew up in Denver. I went to a private school with uncompromising academic standards, and I returned here for the 50th reunion of my high school class, 1968.

My family arrived in 1956, when the city had fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. As I grew, the city grew.  I remember when the population passed a million.  I stopped growing, the city didn’t, and suburban sprawl long ago devoured wheat fields and cattle ranches.

I left Denver the first time in 1968, bound for Yale. My vow to never return lasted almost 6 weeks.  I returned in 1972 to do my pre-medical education at University of Colorado at Denver.

At that time I thought the traffic just barely tolerable, and I resented how much time I spent getting from one point to another.

I lived in my mother’s basement then, and regarded that house as my permanent address till 1979, when I finished med school, and cleared out my belongings on my way to residency.

I came in a day early because I still have family and friends in the Denver area. My parents passed away years ago.  Two of my sisters, one of my brothers and his wife, a brother-in-law, two nephews and a niece still live here.

I retain a map sense of the city’s general layout. The major arteries have changed; Interstate 25, which we used to call the Valley Highway, runs 8 lanes through the city.  Santa Fe Drive, formerly the Santa Fe Trail, has entry and exit ramps.

I marveled at how much the air quality improved in the last 50 years, despite obscene traffic, and equally at courtesy of the drivers.

In the late afternoon my sister, her husband and I went to meet my brother, his wife, another sister with her boyfriend and two children for sushi. My niece fell and injured her wrist, necessitating a trip to Urgent Care and thus a change of restaurant.

Our family likes to gather, we go out of our way to do so, and this time my arrival served as the excuse.

My brother had just finished taking the Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT), and he asked me what it was like when I took it in 1974. I could but remember one question, and that regarded Saladin and his place in the history of the Crusades.  I hadn’t known about him when I took the exam, but I looked him up afterwards.

The MCAT’s General Knowledge section, which contained that item, has since dropped out of the exam due to massive cultural bias. Medical schools still use the MCAT score and the premed GPA as inflexible cutoffs.

My sister and her children joined us while we munched edamame. My niece broke both bones of her right forearm just about the wrist; she came in with a sugar tong splint and a sling.  Towards the end of the meal her facial expression told us all that her ibuprofen had worn off.

I showed her how to put her wrist over her head. Within a minute a smile reigned and she went back to giggling.

I told her to use gravity as an ally whenever possible, as gravity inevitably pulls downhill the swelling that amplifies pain.

Soon the adults told broken bone stories.

At age 17 x-rays showed stress fractures of my lateral malleoli: breaks in my outside ankle bones sustained from compulsive running.

Normal teenagers don’t run so far or so hard that their bones break, and, perhaps, normal people don’t come back for their 50th reunions.

 

 

Weekend call: propranolol, Mounties, x-rays, Dave Brubeck, and geographic confusion

April 16, 2018

Geography knowledge is rare

And even those doctors who care

Have recommendations

That get emendations

With exclamations of “WHERE??!!”

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, and a friend’s funeral, I have returned to British Columbia.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Another weekend on call has passed. The heaviest day was Saturday; I attended 13 patients.  For the most part people came in a steady stream, yet I got breaks for lunch and supper.  With no regrets, I took every opportunity to nap.

I saw 4 Workman’s Compensation cases and 3 others from a motor vehicle crash. I don’t know why, but  I stand to benefit from laws governing reimbursement these two classes of injuries.  They represent the only two Canadian system areas lacking crystal-clear transparency.

My broad background helps me connect with a wide variety of patients. I relied on my short musical career to help one patient.  In the ‘60’s the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s artistry enchanted me into relentless listening of the ground-breaking album, Time Out.  I advised the patient to check two cuts on YouTube, Take Five and Unsquare Dance, examples of drum solos in difficult, unconventional rhythms (5/4 and 7/4) taken to artistic extremes.

I used my 7 years’ experience attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings to help another person. I pointed out that, just as perfect people rarely come to see me, perfect people rarely choose to become doctors.

I dealt with patients with neurologic, respiratory, infectious, psychiatric, blood, eye, gut, skin, and bone problems. I ordered and interpreted 3 electrocardiograms (all normal) and two x-rays (both abnormal). Four people had viral illnesses, expected to resolve with no treatment.   I ran 2 urine drug screens, results from one but not the other had surprises.

I sent one patient by ambulance to Prince George.

I called the Mounties once.

I ordered two CT scans for the upcoming week, fairly confident that one will come back normal and concerned that one might not.

I sought consultation from a Vancouver specialist who gave me a series of recommendations. After I hung up I called back.  She hadn’t realized the geography involved.  Just as well.  The patient (rationally, I felt) refused those measures.

I prescribed propranolol twice. With the blood pressure indication eclipsed by better drugs in the same class, it still has a lot of off-label uses: migraines, ADHD, stage fright, performance anxiety, premature ejaculation, rapid heart rate, tremor, and buck fever.  It stands as the first-line treatment for over-active thyroid.

I drove rather than walked the kilometer to the hospital. Temperatures have stayed close to freezing, with daytime thaws since I arrived, and frost coated the car windows after sunset.  This car rental didn’t include a scraper so I used a movie rewards card.

Morning crisis, skin biopsy

April 10, 2018

It’s hard to make sense when you’re stressed

And sickness makes you depressed

I won’t interrupt

Nor be abrupt

If you’re in crisis, I will do my best.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, and a friend’s funeral, I have returned to British Columbia.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Depressed people get sick, sick people get distressed. Just as a bridge fails under maximum load, people come to see me when they come to a breaking point.  To do the best for a patient in crisis, I have to listen, and to listen, I cannot interrupt.  People in emotional turmoil frequently don’t know what they want to say, and if they do, they have trouble articulating.  Often, the first patient of the day fits this description, and the time required invariably spills into the next patient’s time slot.

While I can take pride in my work by handling the situation well, I have to apologize to those whom I kept waiting.

Later that morning, a patient expressed concern about a mole (and gave me permission to write about it) that had radically changed in the last two weeks.

When we evaluate moles, we talk about the ABCDE (asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolution) criteria to separate the worrisome from the mundane. Even a perfectly symmetric mole with a regular border, homogenous color, and a diameter less than 8 mm deserves biopsy if it changes.

The mole in question had rapidly expanded until I could not cover it with my thumb, spots of black and white marred the overall pink color, in places the edge wandered. All in all, the worst mole I’ve seen so far this century: almost certainly malignant melanoma.  I strongly recommended biopsy, with the intention of doing the procedure immediately.

Last century, at a different clinic, I spotted a worse mole the size of my hand on the back of someone sent to me (rather than his regular doctor) for a work physical, and recommended he get it taken care of definitively as soon as possible. He returned 18 months later for a biopsy, and ever since, if at all possible, I do the biopsy the same day.

Moving to ER, scrubbing, anesthetizing, removing a 5 mm circle from the mole, and putting in a stitch took less time than finding the equipment.

I finished the morning more or less on time but with no documentation done.

And the documentation came harder; in succession I had seen two patients of the same ethnicity, age, and gender, with similar problems but very different diagnoses. I relied on notes I jotted during the visits.

April 7, 2018

Of the patients there’s never a lack

I can tell you it’s good to be back

I think that it’s neat

When the patients repeat

And I can see that they’re on the right track.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, a new granddaughter, and a friend’s funeral, I have returned to British Columbia.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Today I cared for 12 patients, 1/3 of whom I had cared for either last summer or in December. Respiratory problems dominated the clinical landscape, but I also saw 3 who came in to find out test results and five who needed prescription refills.

I recognized the first patient and without prompting opened the visit in French. He gave me a heartfelt grin.

I recognized one patient as a New Zealander by his accent. At the end of the visit I got into geographic specifics, and in short order we started talking about Warkworth (pronounced Walkwith), Leigh (pronounced Lee), Matakana, Omaha Beach, the Kauri Museum, Pakiri Beach, and Whangarei (pronounced Fahnga Ray).

Three patients discussed travel to Mexico, either completed or anticipated.

In December I posted about a patient whom I gave the opposite of my usual dietary advice; she returned to see me today. The plan worked, and the problems related to excessive weight loss disappeared.  We discussed favorable labs, and she requested I write about her in more detail.

A quarter of the patients use marijuana regularly. The only smoker wanted to quit.  Nobody admitted to excessive alcohol.

I did yoyo tricks for my one pediatric patient.

The return to work came as a relief after two months without employment. Including those seeking casual medical advice, I averaged less than 3 patients a week since February 1.  Today I fell into the rhythm of my usual questions: tell me about it, tell me more, what else?

News of my Immigration problems circulated here even before I published my last blog post. Patients, staff, doctors, and bystanders commiserated with me.  I pointed out there are few better places to be stuck than Vancouver.  We all agreed if you have to get turned away at a border, none can beat the US-Canada border.

A lot of people, in the clinic, the hotel, and the mall, asked after my wife, Bethany. She made a lot of friends during our last two stays. I got the feeling people missed her as much as they did me.

It was good to be back at work, in a system centered on patients and not cash flow. And it was good to be with a bunch of my colleagues, talking about cases and learning from each other.

At the end of the day, pleasantly tired from the action, but far from exhausted, I stepped out into bright sunshine and temperatures just below freezing. I had finished all my documentation.  I didn’t have to think about anything else but the weekend.

 

 

What not to do for bite wounds

March 24, 2018

I’m at leisure, but I’m not at rest

And I always still try my best

By day or by night

Don’t sew up a bite

Just leave it cleaned up and dressed.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, I’m taking a break to welcome a new granddaughter, deal with my wife’s (non-malignant) brain tumor, and attend a friend’s funeral.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

 

Even without a regular office or practice site, people ask for my expertise. I can’t discuss the people without their permission, but I can discuss, in general, certain medical conditions.

Dogs, cats, and humans inflict the vast majority of bites in 21st Century USA, not surprising as these comprise the species with the most human contact.  Cat bites almost always cause infection, and human bites, though less dangerous than cat bites, carry large amounts of really nasty bacteria.  Dog bites carry less than half the risk of infection of the other two, but still deserve a good course of antibiotics.  I prefer amoxicillin/clavulinate for bite wounds.  I always have to consider if the bite was provoked, and, in the case of pets, the vaccination status.  Running tap water and soap cleanses wounds as well if not better than sterile water or peroxide, and drug stores sell the best dressing supplies.

(In Africa, the most common fatal bites come from hippopotami).

I don’t suture gaping skin wounds from bites unless on the face or genitals; I advise the patient they’ll have a scar. Sewing the wound predisposes to having a wound infection, and having that infection turn ugly.

When I treat overuse athletic injuries (including workman’s compensation cases) I rarely recommend complete cessation of the activity, partly because athletes won’t listen. I advise decreasing the stress (whether by duration or intensity) by 1/3 for 3 weeks, then increasing by 10% or less per week.  Perhaps those under 18 can bounce back faster, but mostly I deal with the others, the ones who comprise the “aging athletes.”

Then comes the eternal RICE protocol: Rest, Ice, Compression (such as an Ace bandage), and elevation. For cooling, I prefer a cold (not frozen) can (not bottle) of regular (not diet) soda.

The medical profession has used those principles for 40 years, they still work and have few side effects.

Several decades ago I completely some surveys (really, very thinly disguised marketing ploys) and in return received, as compensation vouchers for medical equipment. I now own seven stethoscopes, four head lamps, and two splinter removal kits.  Those kits have extremely sharp tweezers, which make extracting slivers of wood from the skin much quicker than using a hypodermic needle.  Which I can use, in a pinch.

Yoyo memories at the meat counter

March 21, 2018

For a child hiding under a chair,

A technique that I use with much flair,

With the yoyo, a trick

For the well and the sick

The resistant are ever so rare.

 

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, I’m taking a break to welcome a new granddaughter, deal with my wife’s (non-malignant) brain tumor, and attend a friend’s funeral.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Bethany and I went grocery shopping and stopped at the meat counter for lamb shanks. The butcher who served us recognized me immediately as his former physician (and gave permission to recount the interaction).  After he took our order he recounted with delight how I could soothe his children with my yoyo tricks.  I reached into my pocket and brought out the toy.

Of course the string had tangled in my pocket, and I had to disassemble the yoyo to straighten things out. To my horror, the bearing dropped off the axle and went rolling across the floor.

Even to the best eyes on the planet, finding an object as small as a yoyo bearing (about 5mm) on a place as big as a grocery store floor come with difficulty, and I don’t have the best eyes on the planet. Bethany and I looked, and then encouraged a couple who just wanted to buy meat to engage the butcher.  When I had given up, I found the shiny metal piece on the linoleum, reassembled the yoyo, and wound the string.  By then my audience included the butcher, my wife, and the other couple.

I chose my single most elaborate (not most difficult) trick: Around the world sideways twice followed by double or nothing.  A great visual but not as hard as it looks, I do it with my eyes closed and invariably draw applause; in this case small applause from a small audience.

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Over the years I developed a system to establish rapport with children, eventually I figured out how to do so even with the sick ones. After 1991, the yoyo found a key place in my armamentarium.

Many children come to me after bad interactions with the health care profession, whether dentists or other docs or nurses, and many of those hide under chairs before I walk in. Generally, I just get out my yoyo and play with it and talk to the parent until the kid gets curious.  Regretfully, once or twice a year a child arrives so traumatized that my best tricks don’t work.

At a funeral I ran into a parent of one of the many children I charmed out from under a chair.

 

A friend’s death 2: massage

March 13, 2018

With one exception, when I wrote about the death of my brother-in-law, I have opened these posts with a limerick.  Understandably, until now.

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. 2017 brought me adventures in Iowa, Alaska, and northern British Columbia. After a month of part-time in northern Iowa, I’m taking a break to welcome a new granddaughter, deal with my wife’s (non-malignant) brain tumor, and attend a friend’s funeral.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Physician is a large part of my identity. I observe people wherever I go, I note physical findings.  A stiff gait, poor arm swinging, and a face that doesn’t move normally indicates Parkinson’s disease, even before the tremor.  I call that airport neurology.

In any social gathering, people will come to me for medical advice, and I don’t even try to dodge. Lack of a state medical license limits what I can do out-of-state.  I listen sagely and say the 7 things the doctor always says: nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, overweight, exercise, sleep, and seatbelts.  And, these days, I recommend vitamin D.

None of those who gathered for my friend’s service uses nicotine. Most caffeine users expressed a willingness to taper down to zero and stay caffeine free for two weeks as long as they could do a full dose rechallenge.  Almost all get regular exercise and about half do yoga.  None are overweight, all have conscientious diets, and most do not sleep well.

In our college years, Bob and I hung out in a social group where we did a lot of back rubs; one of us went on to become a licensed massage therapist.

I can feel other people’s pain by touch. Such a talent has a surprisingly wide distribution: almost all massage therapists and chiropractors.  Bob taught me a good deal about finding hot spots in other people’s backs, and what to do about those spots.

I remember early in our friendship, as he leafed through a Playboy magazine, he said something like, “If she doesn’t get that T6 adjusted she’s going to get an ulcer.” I looked, he pointed at the photo of a good-looking young woman’s naked back.  “You look for the ridge-valley sequence,” he said, “And where there’s an interruption, there’s a problem.”

He taught me how to adjust the spine, from the critical vertebra at the base of the skull to the place where the pelvis joins the lumbar spine.

I shudder now to think that I acquired the tools before learning when to use and when not to use them, comparable to giving a 3rd grader a chain saw.  But acquire those tools I did, and when I took the osteopathic manipulative therapy course in med school I had close to a decade of experience.

Over the last 30 years I developed a routine for relaxing the muscles in the upper back and neck, and for most the routine takes 3 minutes. A couple of years ago, at a clinic I will not name, a teenager’s neck muscles (trapezii and paracervicals) melted when I touched them in the initial tactile scouting expedition, cutting 2 minutes and 50 seconds off the routine.

This last weekend, the people I massaged, Bob’s friends and family, relaxed very easily. When I demonstrated the way to relax the muscles without help, I had an audience of half a dozen.