Not Dead but Not Alive; The terminally unhealed languish in America’s hospitals.

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May lay in a hospital bed, her wrinkled and mottled skin covered with leads, and sensors that monitored her every breath and heartbeat. A camera that was mounted on the wall allowed a doctor to zoom in closely enough to count her tattered eyelashes. Her husband  sat at her bedside, gently stroking her withering gray hair  as her chest moved slowly up and down accompanied by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the ventilator that breathed for her. He stared expectantly at her face as if at any moment she would rise and free herself from the myriad tubes that sustained her.  Her adult daughters sat and stared blankly at the floor, waiting for something, anything. The streams of data transmitted from her body were monitored closely both by a team in a remote electronic-ICU bunker 50 miles away and her ICU nurse 15 feet away. Yet what May could not have realized was that despite her family’s presence at her bedside and the twenty-four hour care she received, she had been abandoned. She was alone. 

Several weeks earlier, May came to the hospital from her nursing home, “yet another pneumonia”, the note in her chart said.  “She seems to get one of these every few months” said her husband “can’t we give her something for that?”. The Emergency Room physician explained that she had aspiration, essentially choking on her own food and spit. She would continue to get pneumonia, until she eventually passed away. This wasn’t the first time he had heard this. “They told me before to let her die, but I didn’t listen to them, I told them to treat her anyway, and she made it through. I didn’t give up on her then and I’m not going to now”, adding “she’s a fighter”. Her husband Daniels countenance was such that the Emergency physician admitting May to the hospital didn’t bother asking whether his wife should be resuscitated in the event her heart  or lungs stopped working and she needed to be put on life support. May was admitted to the general medical ward, and was started  on antibiotics, but she eventually got worse. Sometime in the middle of the night a nurse found her ashen and struggling to breathe, and called a “code blue”. May’s breathing had gotten so bad that she needed life support, she had a tube put down her trachea and was taken to the ICU where she was put on a ventilator.

Doctors worked on her for more than a week,  treating her pneumonia with powerful antibiotics. But even as her pneumonia cleared, her body withered. Her skin hung from her bones as her muscles wasted away, her eyes hollowed, and the skin of her arms filled with bruises as nurses struggled to find a place from which to draw blood. On the second Sunday of her ICU stay, the doctors tried a “trial extubation”. As the family understood it, her lungs had improved to the point that she might be able to be taken off the ventilator, but her body was now so weak, they did not know whether she would actually be able to breathe on her own. If she had to be put back on the ventilator, the doctors told them, she would require a tracheostomy that would allow her to live on the ventilator long term.  The social worker would then seek placement in a long term facility for patients on long term ventilators, essentially a hybrid hospital, rehab, and nursing home in one. Her breathing failed within minutes of being taken off the ventilator, and she was immediately put back on life support.

It was the following day, Monday morning, that I met with May’s family to discuss what had happened the day before, it was the beginning of my ICU week. For May and her family it was the beginning of their third week in the ICU, and it showed. Her husband, Daniel looked unkept, his thick shock of gray hair was whirled and tangled, his flannel shirt partly tucked into ripped and stained jeans. He gave the impression of someone who had not been taking care of himself, let alone someone who could take care of his chronically ill wife. His visage upon seeing me betrayed both surprise and regret as he recognized me from four months earlier.  I was the doctor who told him that May was going to die. Continue reading “Not Dead but Not Alive; The terminally unhealed languish in America’s hospitals.”

Pulmonary Medicine Update: Bariatric surgery for COPD exacerbations & The Mortality Indicator that Won’t Die.

Study Shows That Bariatric Surgery Reduced COPD Exacerbations by More Than Half

I often tell my patients with COPD that quitting smoking can have a greater effect on their respiratory health than any inhaler that I could prescribe them. Should I now also extend that advice to include weight loss for obese patients with COPD? In this journal CHEST® study, researchers used registry data to look at COPD exacerbations for patients both before and after bariatric surgery. In the year before bariatric surgery, risk of COPD exacerbations was 31%. Looking at the rate of COPD exacerbations during the year after bariatric surgery, that rate dropped to 12%, an astounding change.

The accompanying editorial proposes mechanisms explaining why this might be so and postulates whether obesity could be a modifiable risk factor in COPD. While these results are certainly exciting, we look forward to future investigation into whether bariatric surgery, or other weight loss means, could further help reduce risk of COPD exacerbation.

Pneumonia: If You Can’t See It, Does It Still Exist?

The diagnosis of pneumonia requires the radiographic presence of infiltrates on imaging. However, with its greater resolution, CT scanning can often demonstrate infiltrates when none are seen on chest roentgenogram. Do we treat these the same as a regular pneumonia? This study sought to quantify differences between patients with pneumonia as seen on a chest radiograph vs CT scanning. The differences between the two groups appeared to be minor, with procalcitonin levels appearing to be lower in the CT group. Otherwise, it would appear that patients with pneumonia seen only on CT scanning should be managed like other groups.

The accompanying editorial raises the question of what to do with patients who are suspected of pneumonia but have negative chest radiographs. Certainly, exposing them all to CT scanning can’t be the right answer. Perhaps we should err on the side of caution and treat these patients for pneumonia when clinical suspicion is high. Conversely, we should consider CT scanning in this group only if suspicion is low and the presence of an infiltrate would change management. Continue reading “Pulmonary Medicine Update: Bariatric surgery for COPD exacerbations & The Mortality Indicator that Won’t Die.”

Devastation in Puerto Rico leads to hospital shortages in U.S.

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Hospitals run short of critical medications after loss of production in Puerto Rico facilities. 

“Doc, you mind switching that to an oral preparation?”, our clinical pharmacist inquired during multi-disciplinary rounds as intravenous infusion devices beeped annoyingly in the background.  Taking care of ICU patients can be extraordinarily complicated, so doing it as part of a team helps make sure that all bases are covered. ICU’s like ours have a BEEP BEEP BEEP. Excuse me, for a moment,  Staci, can you get that thing to stop, please? BEEP, BEEP, BEE– Thanks, Staci!. As I was saying, like many hospitals, ours uses a multidisciplinary model which makes rounds on all patients in the ICU.  An ICU nurse, clinical pharmacist, dietitian,  social worker, pastoral care, respiratory therapist, each provides important insight and perspective that guides patient care in the right direction.

As a pulmonary, critical care doc, I’m lucky to have a great team, so my ears perked up when I heard the suggestion. This was now the third patient he had made a suggestion to switch a medication to the oral route from the intravenous route. “What gives, Scott?” Over the past few years, we’ve been experiencing alot of spot medication shortages either because of inadequate supply, or because of precipitous price increases;  we can usually change to an alternative. But today was different. Today we were switching a number of different medications, all of which were intravenous to oral formulations of the same or similar medicines.

“It’s not the medicines,” he replied, “It’s the bags they’re in”. Continue reading “Devastation in Puerto Rico leads to hospital shortages in U.S.”

Doctors’ Prescription to Reduce Gun Violence

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Like a lot of people, I get pretty numbed to gun violence on television. I stopped watching the local news because all they seem to show is news about shootings. The general public’s perception about gun violence is that it’s always somebody else, that the person  who was shot had somehow been involved in crime. The numbness we feel to gun violence often ends for most of us when things hit close to home, when you or someone you know is affected. Continue reading “Doctors’ Prescription to Reduce Gun Violence”

Stem Cells and COPD: What You Need to Know.

I enjoy fielding questions from patients. Yes, I sense you’re rolling your eyes, but really, anything that I can answer that helps keep them out of the hospital is, I feel, time well spent. Recently though,  I’ve been fielding a number of questions that have me concerned. These questions often have a leading tenor about them like, “are you using stem cells for COPD yet?” The questions imply that stem cells are the de rigeur treatment for COPD. Now I may not be at the leading edge of any fashion, but being unfashionable in my treatment regimens? Never!

I can’t blame anyone for wanting to seek out treatments for COPD. It is after all, a leading cause of death and illness in the U.S. And it’s widely regarded that the changes caused by COPD/emphysema in the lungs are permanent. While there are now several different treatment options for emphysema/COPD, very few can prolong life. So if I had a family member with emphysema, I might naturally seek out treatments for COPD that go beyond the usual treatments, and with all the hype surrounding stem cells, why not take a look?

What people find when they google “stem cells and COPD” is in a word, distressing. It’s a fantasy world full of promises of health, healing, and better breathing. Equally distressing are the things that people who visit these sites aren’t recognizing: the greed, lies, lack of ethics, illusions, and misleading claims. Continue reading “Stem Cells and COPD: What You Need to Know.”

Top 5 Ways That Television is Ruining Your Sleep.

As a sleep physician, I spend a lot of time educating patients about what sleep is and how it works. Sleep, as I often explain, is not simply the lack of being awake; anymore than landing a plane is simply the lack of flying. It’s becoming increasingly understood that sleep is an actively generated state, created by a series of neuro-hormonal changes which work in concert to nudge the brain into the sleep state. To stretch the plane analogy further, if being asleep were like the plane being on the ground, then falling asleep is like the act of landing the plane. And just like when you land a plane, there are a lot of variables that are involved. There are numerous events that must happen in succession, each affecting and triggering other events which ultimately induce the brain to sleep. A recent study demonstrates just how watching too much television can wreak havoc in this delicate process. Here’s just a few of the ways that television can ruin your sleep.

     5. Watching television makes you go to bed later.

Television watching has steadily increased in our society, and its migration into our bedrooms marked a time when it began to disrupt our collective sleep and sleep habits. The most obvious effect that this might have is the most simple; we stay up later watching a program that has our attention. This few minutes a night may seem innocent enough. But our brains have a pre-determined amount of sleep they need to function well. When we miss that sleep we build up a “sleep debt” that can make us tired all of the time. Even if we catch up on a bit of sleep the next day, unless that sleep debt is paid back, the brain will still be fatigued.

     4. Watching television alters your brain’s bedtime habits. Continue reading “Top 5 Ways That Television is Ruining Your Sleep.”

The Shocking Truth Behind “Shocking” Healthcare Social Media Statistics

As a regular follower of social media, I am keenly aware of changes in the healthcare landscape as it relates to social media. While there’s much talk about the impact of social media in healthcare, most of the action sits on the consumer side of the equation. Much of the medical world has to yet to tap into its potential. For most healthcare providers social media engagement amounts to little more than watching as others dip their feet, testing  the waters. A few watch as they anticipate their own entry into the arena. Still many others watch with the expectation that the water would soon become bloody.

So its with a burlap full  of salt that I read various healthcare social media stats promulgated in various infographics, twitter feeds, and blog posts celebrating Medicine 2.0 powered by social media. Collectively they hash and rehash a series of surprising statistics that aren’t exactly bogus, but aren’t exactly completely factual either.

A recent one caught my eye with the claim was that “53% of physicians practices have a facebook page”. This was curious to me, because as I read this in the physician lounge and  took my own poll, the results was much closer to 5% than 50%. Continue reading “The Shocking Truth Behind “Shocking” Healthcare Social Media Statistics”

September is Pulmonary Fibrosis Awareness Month, Learn More About This Deadly Disease.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis  is a disease which involves progressive scarring of the lungs of unknown cause (hence the term idiopathic).  The median survival from the time of diagnosis is 2 to 3 years, though the course is variable and many patients deteriorate rapidly.

There is little in the way of effective treatment and no cure other than lung transplantation.

There are excellent resources available to learn about this disease.

For Patients: The Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation and Coalition for Pulmonary Fibrosis. Both resources provide information regarding patient support groups,  fund raising, and advocacy.

For Physicians: The CHEST Foundation website includes information for patients and physicians. I have found this helpful in answering many common questions for patients with newly diagnosed IPF. The author is a pulmonologist whose father died from IPF.

In addition, the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation conducts numerous activities throughout the year and is a great resource for information about the disease.