Wean yourself

SoFarSoStu has tagged me for the three days, three quotations and tag three other people. This is day three, only I am a day late.

The rules are to post 3 quotes over 3 days and nominate 3 bloggers each time to carry on with the challenge.

Today I choose Rumi’s phrase “Wean yourself” and post his poem. This is one of my two favorite Rumi poems.

Wean yourself
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say ‘The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.’

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.

Listen to the answer.

There is no ‘other world’
I only know what I have experienced.
You must be hallucinating.

_____________

I love this poem. To me it’s about our human development and I love that we go from a searcher after wisdom to a hunter of more invisible game. Have you ever had the feeling that you have figured some part of your life out, that aha! moment? Smooth sailing now, you think…. only to find out that new challenges present.

I use this poem in clinic. When I am talking to a new patient I have to find out where they are, what some of their medical beliefs are, what their level of education is, what their prior experience with allopathic medicine is, do they see a naturopath, are they taking ANY pills? Prescription, over the counter, alternative, herbal, homemade? I read Rumi’s poem as a discussion about our levels of development: we come out of the dark to be an embryo. Where do we go from there? I have to understand at least some of my patient’s background in order to communicate with them: I have to meet them halfway. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes my doctors fail…. we experienced that when my mother was in hospice. We were not given instructions for how to take care of her nasogastric tube at home…. and it got blocked. I think that the inpatient nurses made assumptions and the hospice nurses may have too… or just didn’t know.

This poem also relates to how my thoughts about healing and health keep evolving. Currently I keep reading on the internet and hearing from patients that they want a stronger immune system. There are all sorts of “immune system boosters” being sold. I think this is interesting and I think it is a wrong approach. Why?

I have gotten seriously ill four times. Each was triggered by severe stress in my life: mononucleosis at age 19, influenza in 2003, systemic strep A in 2012 and systemic strep A in 2014. So… do I think that my immune system needs boosting? No. When I got symptoms in 2014, my thought was “I am so stupid.” My father had died in 2013. His will confused me, the house was full of his things, my mother’s things, my sister’s things, my grandparent’s things, all dead. I would work in clinic and then go out there and try to get things done and mostly sit and cry. I did deal with the estate, but what is wrong with this picture?

I ignored what I would tell a patient to do…. I did not take time off to rest and to grieve and to take care of myself. Rather than a failing immune system, I pictured my immune system marshaling troops. “She won’t rest. We are going to have to take her down AGAIN. Won’t she ever learn to listen to her body? When will she learn to REST? Let’s see, who do  we have to knock her down…. ah, strep A! Great! Here, the door is open, take her out.”

And boy howdy, did it. I was out for ten months and ten months later am still on half time work. And I could have kicked myself! How stupid I am! If there is a major emotional loss in your life, cut back and rest and take time to let yourself heal!

So when people say, “I need an immune booster,” I wonder. I wonder what is happening in their lives, what their level of stress is, are they taking care of themselves. I worry that our culture thinks that we just need the right combination of supplements and then we can keep going and drive our bodies into the ground, instead of stopping and saying: “Oh. I am really cumulatively tired. I really need to rest, and sit at the beach and stare at the waves, or lie on the couch and read a silly novel, or just have a cup of tea and do nothing.” I don’t really like pills. I think that pills are often a band aid on a deeper wound than we admit. If I had rested, I would not have needed high dose penicillin: though I am deeply grateful to have another try at healing and health.

And three people to tag to do the three days of quotations if they so choose… everyone may be too busy at this busy time of year:

hargunwai

mindlovemisery

ohmyglai

The pink edged cloud looks like a giant paramecium or other bacteria, up in the sky….

Armour Suit III

My trial run for this vacation is swimming 400 yards. The swim is slow but fine. However, at 4:30 am I start having vertigo and throwing up. Have to cancel clinic. Lasts about 4 hours. Not reassuring for our Christmas plans.

My daughter has her wisdom teeth out on Monday before Christmas, so is instructed to not exercise heavily for five days. I got dry sockets and was sick as snot in college, but mine were much more impacted. She does fine, stops the hydrocodone in 24 hours, and drops to a 200mg ibuprofen three times a day by Christmas. On with the ski plans!

We head for a family resort on the east side. Up to to slopes on a hotel ski bus the first day, renting skis. For the first time ever, my goal is to ski gently. I have been skiing since age 9, but have not skied in five years and had two major bouts with strep A that affect my muscles. The second time my fast twitch muscles didn’t work for ten months. The first goal was to survive and the second is will I get my muscles back?

I rent downhill skis. Last time I skied telemark, but they don’t have any to rent, and anyhow, tele is harder. In college I had 190cm dead straight Heads for downhill, so now they rent me 163cm skis. We ride the lift up. 20 degrees at the top, an inch of new snow on groomed slopes and gorgeous. And… I can ski.

I am trying NOT to engage the armour suit. My massage person thinks that’s what made me sick swimming, reengaging it and just trashing my muscles. He’s right, I think. I just swam the way I always have, but slowly. My goal down the hill is NOT to fall into old patterns. I ski gently, let the skis do much of the work, carving swoopy turns. Every so often I get quickly and feel the suit kicking in and I back off. I drag my right pole for balance when I am tired.

My daughter asks for pointers on our third or fourth run. She has not skied for five years either. She is doing the work and I show her how to finish a turn using the curve of the ski. Finishing the turn lets her slow down, so she gets the swoopy feel in the turn but doesn’t lose control. On the lift we watch people. Nearly everyone drops their hands. Try turning your lower body with your arms dropped behind. Doesn’t work. Hands and shoulders down the hill and let the lower body do the turning….

I can ski! I ski with my toes lifted, not curled and gripping the ground. It changes my balance and I have to pay attention not to engage the suit. By 11 I want food and on the chair at 2 I am on my last run: I can feel the cold through my coat. We have a few more days, save energy. Also my right shin is informing me that I’ve bruised the crap out of it…

And the next day! Bruised shin, but more skiing, still gently. Now I have hope that I will get muscles back! Hooray for hope! Hooray for skiing toes up! Hooray for skiing without armour!

Rural medicine crisis: Job offers

One of the signs that we are entering a worse crisis for rural medicine is job offers.

I am starting to keep the email job offers: so far the record is from Texas, a random out of the blue job offer for $500,000 yearly.

One half million dollars for a Family Practice job. I won’t take it. I like my clinic and anyhow, the pace they would set me to work is burning out physicians. They are quitting, though some die instead. A recent article said that this year a physician poll reports the number at burnout this year has risen from 40% to 50%.The job offers roll in. I get phone calls, emails, mailing and now my cat is getting rural family medicine job offers. Really. Desperate times.

Years ago I read that only 30% of family practice doctors are willing to take a rural job and that only 30% of those are willing to do obstetrics in a rural area. I did obstetrics as part of my practice from 1996 to 2009. I stopped when I opened my own practice, because the malpractice price tag is three times as much and my rural hospital was grumpy at me. Starting in my third year of medical school, I did deliveries for 19 years. During my nine years here, the cesarean sections were done by the general surgeons and we did not have an OB-gyn. I called Swedish Hospital Perinatology when I needed help. I got to know them well enough that if I had someone in preterm labor I would call and find out who was on call BEFORE I chose a medicine, because I knew which perinatologist liked terbutaline and which one would rather I would skip it and use procardia. They were fighting out the research: I didn’t know who was right, but it is a huge benefit to have your consultant be happy with your choice if you have to lifeflight the patient by helicopter at 3 am. With a 25 bed rural hospital, we try not to deliver a baby under 35 weeks, and it’s better to fly the baby in mother if you can’t stop the labor.

Back to the numbers: so 33 out of 100 family practice doctors will take a rural job and only 11 of those are willing to do obstetrics. Our first day of medical school, the faculty said, “Shake hands with the person on your right. Shake hands with the person on your left. At least one of the three of you will be sued for malpractice in your career.” Oh, goody, let’s start training with paranoia. Or is it just being realistic and prepared?

I worked for five years between college and medical school and took the GREs first. I thought I was going to get a PhD. However, I did not want to write a thesis and did not want to be one of three world experts in anything. I had a friend who was one of three world experts in honeybee behavior. I asked what happened when they got together. “We argue.” he said. I also did not want to publish or perish, tenure was becoming more of a problem and anyhow, I did not want to be tied to a university. I got a job working as a lab tech in the National Cancer Institute at NIH in Bethesda. Two years there gave me my answer: primary care is the ultimate generalist. I could work anywhere in the world, in a city, in a small town, and there is endless lifelong learning. I took the MCATs and got into medical school, determined to do primary care.

Back to the job offers: 450K for Iowa. 310K, 350K, signing bonus, paid move, 6 weeks “off” (As far as I can tell it’s always unpaid leave. No sick leave, no paid holidays, no paid leave at all. Do factor that in.)Production bonus. No call or phone calls only. Near a city! In a city! Cheap houses! Excellent schools for your children and 6 stellar golf courses! FP job in Texas, 315K, 4 day work week, signing bonus, loan forgiveness!

The most that I’ve made in a year, I think, is less than half the listed average income for family doctors, though that has risen by nearly 1/3 in the last ten years. And that was enough and I didn’t see enough of my two children and the next year I worked less. I have never made the “MGMA average” for what a family doctor makes and it was more than ten years ago. I am below average in income but I think I am above average in personal happiness and way below average in burn out! I made way less last year, because I was out sick for 6 months. Ok, I lost money. However, my clinic still nearly covered expenses and stayed open, with no provider from early June to November 15, thanks to my receptionist, my patients, the PA who stepped in in November and the other independent practitioners in town. The hospital system refused to help except that they took over my 18 patients on controlled substances… after I threatened to complain to the state that they were refusing care. How nice.

I have an old house and old cars. I have a son finishing college and a daughter about to start. More money to retirement seems like a good idea. I now have 25 years as a member of the American Academy of Family Practice and I am an “old” doctor, because I didn’t retire at 50. I told a younger partner at the hospital that I was deliberately being “below average” because I was going for a career with longevity and wanted to avoid burning out. He left town last year….

From the American Academy of Family Practice paper http://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/rural-practice-paper.html : family practice providers are 15% of physicians in the US, but do 23% of the visits each year. And in rural areas about 42%. “In the U.S. as a whole there is 1 Primary Care physician per 1300 persons while in rural areas the ratio is 1 Primary Care physician per 1910 persons and 1 Family Physician per 2940 persons. In the most rural counties, those with a community of at least 2500 people but no town over 20,000, close to 30,000 additional Family Physicians are needed to achieve the recommended 1:1200 ratio.” I have patients driving from over an hour away because it takes months on the waiting list to see a primary care doctor in their area, and now I am seeing veterans too, because we are more than 40 miles by road from the nearest VA hospital.

This article:  http://doctordrain.journalism.cuny.edu/the-broken-system/family-practice-just-doesnt-pay/ makes me laugh. The student says that 90% of family practice visits are probably coughs and colds. Uh, I would say that less than 5% of mine are. Half of my patients are over 65 and what I do is care for chronic disease with some acute disease thrown in. Diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, rheumatoid arthritis, stage III renal failure, opiate overuse syndrome, depression, PTSD, and the average patient has 4-5 chronic diseases, not one. So the complicated ones have 9 chronic diseases. If they have walking pneumonia and diabetes and are 80, what was their last creatinine so I can adjust the antibiotic dose for their stage three renal failure? My oldest current patient is 98, has diabetes and still is out haying…. rural medicine is never ever boring and some days I think, oh, I would pay to see a simple cold. In the last two months one patient had a four vessel bypass, two have hepatitis C, one has hepatitis B and last month I found one with pertussis: whooping cough. And one has to go to the Big City to see the gynecologist-oncologist….

Rural family medicine is the ultimate generalist. I have to know a little bit of everything and know when to call and ask questions and who to call. Once I had an obstetrics patient with severe and confusing back pain after an epidural. I knew it was something peculiar because we could barely control it with opiates and her back exam was fine. I started calling specialists: ob-gyn didn’t know. The nurse anesthetist. My local internist. An orthopedist. A neurologist, the closest one 90 miles away. Then I got it: I called an anesthesiologist in Denver, 250 miles from where I was. He said it was an inflammatory reaction to the epidural medicine and to give her steroids, which would fix it. It did… but it was my being sure that I had something different on my hands and the stubbornness to keep calling until someone knew the answer….

A friend from college got a PhD in genetics and then went to medical school at the same time as I did. We talked when we picked our specialties. She chose pathology. I chose Family Practice. “Not Family Practice!” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “You can’t know everything!” she said. I said, “Well, no one knows everything. Put three top specialists in a room and they argue about the research. The trick is knowing what you know and what you don’t know.”

We need more primary care physicians and more rural family doctors. And it’s only getting worse.

http://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/rural-practice-paper.html
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071163/
http://healthleadersmedia.com/content/COM-208773/Physicians-Offer-Insights-on-Practicing-Rural-Medicine.html
http://www.siumed.edu/academy/jc_articles/Distlehorst_0410.pdf
http://doctordrain.journalism.cuny.edu/the-broken-system/family-practice-just-doesnt-pay/
https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/newsreleases/358410/20131024.html
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/05/22/how-many-patients-should-your-doctor-see-each-day/
This blog post helped inspire this article: https://theridiculousmrsh.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/why-i-hope-my-doctor-is-off-having-a-cup-of-tea-as-seen-on-the-huffington-post-yup-actual-huffpost/

The picture is some of the madashell doctors on our first trip stumping for single payer health care in 2009.

Causes of Death in the United States in 2012

When I first started doing annual physicals I sat down and looked at the top causes of death and then organized the counseling part of the physical around them: starting with heart disease and working down the list. I think of the annual physical as my opportunity to “MOM” patients and say “STOP DRINKING LIKE A FISH OR YOU GONNA DIE EARLY,” though perhaps with a little more diplomacy. Sometimes without much diplomacy at all.

The top ten causes of death in the United States in 2012 were heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide.

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db168.htm#which_population

This is 2,543,279 deaths in 2012.

Let’s take the causes one by one.

Heart disease: This is number one. 599,711 deaths. 23.6% of total deaths all ages both sexes in the US in 2012. So that is where I start when I do the counseling part of a physical.

Let’s review heart disease risk factors:
hypertension
high cholesterol
family history
diabetes
kidney failure
lack of exercise
tobacco
alcohol
smoking other things…
illegal drugs
stress
obeisity
As you might guess, this part of the discussion can use up a lot of the visit….

Cancer: All the cancer deaths together are 22.9% of the 2012 total.
We can screen for a few cancers: lung cancer is now the number one killer for both sexes. A chest xray is useless for screening. There is a certain population of current or former heavy smokers where a screening CT is useful. No, I do not recommend a “screening full body CT”, that is crap. Yes, lung cancers do get picked up randomly when we do a chest film for some other reason.
We can screen for breast cancer, colon cancers, look for skin cancers, the prostate cancer screen is a counseling nightmare and I don’t recommend a PSA but will do one if the person wants and other cancers pretty much we have to watch for symptoms….stop smoking, ok? That’s what causes 70% of the lung cancer and breast cancer used to be number one in women but smoking made lung cancer beat it out….
If you want details about any screening test, go to the US Preventative Task Force site:
http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Name/tools-and-resources-for-better-preventive-care

Chronic lower respiratory diseases at 5.6%: ok, smoking again. Emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, AKA COPD. Asthma too. This article is fascinating, that third generation children of smokers in a polluted part of California are worse and have inherited genetic modifications than third generation children of non-smokers who live in a less polluted part of California. Lovely. I grew up in a two pack a day camel household and no wonder my lungs are tricky.

Stroke, also called CVA, cerebrovascular accident, at 5.1% and then there are TIAs, transient ischemic accidents, the stroke warning symptom.

What are the risk factors for stroke?
Oh, smoking of course
hypertension
high cholesterol
stress
lack of exercise
obeisity
blocked carotid arteries
blood clots
atrial fibrillation

Unintentional injuries at 5.3%, also known as accidents.

Deaths from prescription medicines taken correctly outstripped deaths by MVAs, motor vehicle accidents and guns in 2007. The CDC declared an epidemic of overdose deaths, but it’s just starting to creep into newspapers and public consciousness.

Here: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6101a3.htm

The unintentional injury counseling list includes:
wear your seatbelt
don’t drive inebriated
don’t get in the car with inebriated drivers
check your smoke alarms
in the elderly, decrease fall risk. don’t stack stuff on the stairs.
wear a helmet if you bicycle motorcycle ATV rollarblade ski or invent some new way of getting on the Darwin list. Base jump, for example.
don’t take a lot of controlled prescription medicines or combine them with each other or combine them with alcohol: opiates with benzodiazepines with alcohol with ambien or sonata with barbituates and hello, the drug dealer is not your friend and tells lies: they are cutting the methamphetamines here with tricyclic antidepressants and barbituates and my long term cocaine addict patient was getting methamphetamines with benzodiazepines when he was paying for cocaine. Really.

Alzheimer’s at 3%

This is moving up the list. Fast. Everyone dies of something. Alzheimer’s patients live an average of seven years from diagnosis….And the recent article about Human Growth Hormone transmitting not only prions but Alzheimer’s is really interesting, implies an infectious cause.

Here: http://www.nature.com/news/autopsies-reveal-signs-of-alzheimer-s-in-growth-hormone-patients-1.18331

That was HGH from cadavers. I still would not take HGH made in a lab for “anti-aging” either. Nope, nope, nope.

We don’t know how to prevent Alzheimer’s but that is not the only cause of dementia and we’re still naming different kinds. Very frequently a brain CT or MRI says “decreased white matter” or “small vessel disease”, so there is a contribution from all of the heart and stroke risk factors that can do bad things to the brain with the top ones being: tobacco, alcohol, hypertension, high cholesterol, stress, lack of exercise, diabetes, illegal drugs, and so forth. Keep your brain active and busy.

Diabetes at 2.9%
Ok, it can make you more likely to have a heart attack. Also the biggest cause of blindness in US adults and the biggest cause of lower limb, yes, foot or leg amputation and the biggest cause of kidney failure in adults. Also if your legs are numb from uncontrolled diabetes, you don’t feel injuries and are less able to heal infections. And if blood sugar is high, there are lots of bacteria and especially staph and strep that LIKE high sugar.

influenza and pneumonia at 2.1%

Get Your Flu Shot. Really. And if you are 65 or older or you have tricky lungs or you have a tricky heart, get the pneumovax shot. The pneumovax protects against pneumococcal pneumonia ONLY, not all the colds or influenza or hemophilus influenza. And get your Tdap, because that stands for Tetnus, Diptheria, acellular Pertussis. Pertussis is whooping cough. It’s back. We’ve had three outbreaks in our county in five years. It kills babies under six months. They don’t whoop, they just stop breathing, apnea. Other people whoop, but even with antibiotics, they can cough for MONTHS. The flu shot usually gives 80% protection by two weeks after the shot. Only 80%, people say? Well, are you perfect?

Kidney disease at 1.8%

Causes: kidneys get worse as we age, for one thing.
diabetes
supplements and drugs: kidney failure is on the rise! Everything that we absorb and metabolize is metabolized by either the liver or the kidneys. Liver function can be perfect at age 100: that is, if it has not been trashed by alcohol, hepatitis B or C, drugs, supplements, mushrooms, whatever. Kidney function usually drops by age 80 and I am there calculating the function before I choose an antibiotic because you have to use lower doses in the over 80 crowd and the early kidney failure crowd. If you take ANY PILLS you should have a yearly test of your kidneys and liver function.
infection can hurt kidneys
inherited disorders

Suicide at 1.6%
40,600 deaths in the United States in 2013

Risk Factors http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/riskprotectivefactors.html

Family history of suicide
Family history of child maltreatment
Previous suicide attempt(s)
History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
History of alcohol and substance abuse
Feelings of hopelessness
Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
Cultural and religious beliefs (e.g., belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
Local epidemics of suicide
Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
Physical illness
Easy access to lethal methods
Unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts

And for those who want in depth information, 15 leading causes of death by state:
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/mortality/lcwk9.htm

Talking about death 2

“But,” you say, having read Talking about death, why should I do a POLST form if I am young and healthy?”

Because of accidents and comas.

How do you feel about comas? Would you want to be fed and kept alive by a machine if there were an accident? Let’s make it an accident where you are the heroine or hero: a bank robber is escaping with money and a child hostage and your best bud trips her (the robber is female) and you grab the little boy and run with him to safety. The ceremony where the mayor pins medals on both of you is really fun but even though the robber was caught, the getaway driver wasn’t. You are leaving the ceremony and a car driven by the getaway wench hits you and you are in a coma…..

The fourth and last question on the Washington State POLST form is the key one for this: do you want long term feeding or not? Would you want short term if you were going to get better? Does long term fill you with horror? Ok, the odds of ending up in a coma are really really really small, but not zero. Most of my patients choose the middle road but some say “No tube feeding or iv feeding EVER!” They may have had family or a friend that were kept alive for longer than they think was right. I do have the rare person who wants feeding and everything forever….and that is ok too. It helps to know that.

Back to question one: for a healthy fifty or sixty or seventy old, I advise them to ask to be resuscitated. That is the default anyhow, to do everything. You don’t have to do a POLST if you want everything done. But if you DON’T, then it is worth filling out and it’s helpful to talk to your family as well as your doctor. And I am often surprised by what people want. It helps me to know a bit more about them as their doctor.

One woman in her upper 80s said, “I don’t want to think about this.”

I replied, “If you don’t want to you don’t have to. But, if you don’t say what you want, your daughter and I will have to guess when something happens.”

She then said what she wanted. In her age group I talk about stroke: some strokes are lethal. Some are not and the person looks horrible. However, they improve after the first 48 hours, as brain swelling goes down. The key that makes a stroke survivable is whether the person can swallow or not. If they can’t protect their airway, they aspirate and get pneumonia.

Think if all our elders knew that, that after the stroke they will improve in 48 hours. Wouldn’t it be less terrifying? And we aren’t going to “unplug” them in the first day, because the amount that they improve is not totally predictable. Nothing in medicine is, really….

I am careful to say to a healthy sixty year old that this form is to be filled out as if something were to happen NOW, this week. Not to think of the form as for being when they are much older and very sick. The form has update slots on the back: we are supposed to revisit it at intervals when a person’s health changes. And people change what they want.

I had a lady in her upper 80s who was on coumadin for atrial fibrillation, to prevent stroke. The family was going through a rough patch with the death of a small child. She said, “I don’t want to take this.” She denied depression but she didn’t want to do the regular blood tests. We switched her to aspirin. Coumadin lowers the stroke risk by 1/2 and aspirin by 1/4.

A year later she said, “I think I want that coumadin again. Things are better.”

Sometimes things are better.

http://www.polst.org/programs-in-your-state/
http://www.wsma.org/wcm/Patients/POLST.aspx
http://americanhospice.org/caregiving/coma-and-persistent-vegetative-state-an-exploration-of-terms/

Talking about death

We are not very good at talking about death in the United States, but we are slowly getting better.

I have had families call me in a panic because their loved one’s “Do Not Resuscitate” form was changed to “Do Resuscitate” when the person went into the hospital or went into a nursing home. Often this is because of very little training in discussing end of life code status combined with fear and/or religious beliefs and/or confusion. I have checked with the nursing home and the rumor is that the patient is asked “Do you want to die?” when they are admitted and if they answer “No.” the code status is changed.

I use a POLST form to discuss end of life wishes and plans. Here: http://www.polst.org/. The conversation goes something like this:

“Mrs. Elder, you have transferred care to me. I see that you have had four heart attacks, three bypass operations and two cardiac arrests. You have a living will but I would like to discuss what your wishes would be if you got sick or live another five years and are over 100.”

“Talk louder. Are you really a doctor?” says Mrs. Elder.

“Living wills are written by attorneys. They say that if two doctors agree that you are terminal and might die within 6 months, don’t do too much. This has two problems. One is that doctors are not very good at predicting the 6 month thing and the other is that no one ever has explained what “don’t do too much” means.”

“Ok.” says Mrs. Elder. She bangs her walker on the floor. Her son rolls his eyes.

“The most common cause of death is the heart. If someone drops dead, two doctors will agree that they are dead, but what they really want to know is whether the person wants a natural death or wants to be resuscitated.”

“I don’t want to die yet.” says Mrs. Elder. “That new mailman is cute.” She cackles.

“This is a POLST form. It is to go with the living will. The first question is about a person who has no heart beat and is not breathing. They are dead. If your heart stopped, would you want a natural death or would you want us to try to revive you.”

“Bring me back if I’m gonna be ok.” says Mrs. Elder.

“We don’t know that. You don’t have a little pop up thing like the turkey that says “Too late.” If someone drops dead at 40 and we get them back quickly, they are fine. But at 95 if your heart stops, it’s like a stoke and you won’t be fine.”

“I don’t want a stroke. Also I don’t want to wake up with that scar on my chest again. It hurts.”

“Ok, so natural death.”

“Of course.”

“Next are questions if you have a heart beat and are breathing, so not dead.” I am using the Washington State form:
http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/PhysiciansOrdersforLifeSustainingTreatment.
Would you want a breathing machine if you were really sick?”

“No, I had that once.”

“Would you want to be moved to a bigger hospital if you had a heart attack?” We are rural and have a 25 bed hospital. “We can give you medicine but we are too small to have a heart surgeon and too small to have a cardiologist.”

“I don’t like that heart surgeon who did it last time. Stay here.”

“We gave you antibiotics last month. Would you want antibiotics if you were going to get better?”

“Yes, sure.”

“The next question is about feeding. If you were really sick and couldn’t eat, would you let us feed you through a tube?”

“I don’t know.”

“This question is really about comas. Most people are willing to be fed for a little while if they are going to get better, but not long term. Some people don’t want it at all. You are 96 pounds and if you got pneumonia, you might not get better if we didn’t feed you.”

“I want whiskey if I’m dying. A shot a day, that’s my secret.”

“We can request that.”

“No feeding. I’m ready.” She signs the form.

“I will photocopy and put it in your chart and send a copy to the hospital. You take the green copy home and put it on your fridge. Any questions?”

“What is the new mailman’s name?” She grins at her son, who is looking very relieved.

“Remember that we only use the form if we can’t talk to you or if you are too sick to answer questions or if you lose your memory. Otherwise you can change your mind.”

“Ok. Can we go now?”

“Yes. You are so healthy, Mrs. Elder, that I think we can go six months before I see you again. Ok?”

“Ha. I’m healthier than him,” she says, nodding at her son, “He doesn’t exercise. I walk out to the mailbox every day.”

I try to do POLST forms not just on my 95 year olds, but on everyone, especially everyone over 50. It does not cover every contingency, but it really does say to the family that the person has had a conversation and it gives better guidance than the living will. It was developed at OHSU, in Portland, Oregon, which is where I had my Family Practice residency. Hooray for OHSU! The last time I looked at the map: http://www.polst.org/programs-in-your-state/ it was in 8 states, but it’s busily spreading all over the United States. The POLST form is designed to be redone every few years as people’s health status changes.

Take the burden off your family and do your POLST form.

Chronic pain update 2015

As a rural family practice physician, I am in an area with very few specialists. Our county has a 25 bed hospital and we have a urologist, three general surgeons, three orthopedists (except when we were down to none at one point), two part time hematologist oncologists and that’s it. We have a cardiologist who comes one day a week. We have a physicians assistant who worked with an excellent dermatologist for years: hooray! Local derm! Our neurologist retired and then died. We had two psychiatrists but one left. We had one working one half day a week.

I trained in treating opiate addiction with buprenorphine in 2010 and attended telemedicine with the University of Washington nearly weekly for a year and a half. Then life intervened. I attended last week again, but not the addiction medicine group. That is gone. Now there are two telemedicine pain groups.

And what have I learned since my Chronic pain update 2011?

Chronic opiates suck, and especially for “disorders of central pain processing” which includes fibromyalgia, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, TMJ, chronic fatigue, and all of the other pain disorders where the brain pain centers get sensitized. We don’t know what triggers the sensitization, though a high Adverse Childhood Experience score puts a person more at risk. Cumulative trauma? Tired mitochondria? Incorrect gut microbiome? All of them, I suspect.

Jon Kabot Zinn, PhD has been studying mindfulness meditation for over 30 years. He has books, CDs, classes. Opiates at best drop pain levels an average of 30%. His classes drop pain levels an average of 50%. I’ve read two of his books, Full Catastrophe Living and ….. and I used the CD that came with the former to help me sleep after my father and sister died. Worked. Though I used the program where he says, “This is to help you fall more awake, not fall asleep.” Being contrary, it put me to sleep 100% of the time.

Body work is being studied. Massage, physical therapy, accupuncture, touch therapy and so forth. It turns out that when you have new physical input, the brain says, “Hey, turn down the pain fibers, I have to pay attention to the feathers touching my left arm.” So, if you have a body part with screwed up pain fibers, touch it. Touch it a lot, gently, with cold, with hot, with feathers, a washcloth, a spoon, something knobby, plastic. Better yet, have someone else touch it with things with your eyes closed and guess what the things are: your brain may tell the pain centers “Shut up, I’m thinking.” Well, sensing. A study checking hormone blood levels every ten minutes during a massage showed the stress hormone cortisol dropping in half and pain medicating hormones dropping in half. So, massage works. Touch works. Hugs work. Go for it.

There are new medicines. I don’t like pills much. However, the tricyclic antidepressants, old and considered passe, are back. They especially help with the central pain processing disorders. I haven’t learned the current brain pathway theories. The selective serotonin uptake reinhibitors (prozac, paxil, celexa, etc) increase the amount of serotonin in the receptors: chronic pain folks and depressed folks have low serotonin there, so increasing it helps many. As an “old” doc, that is, over 50, I view new medicines with suspicion. They often get pulled off the market in 10 to 20 years. I can wait. I will use them cautiously.

We are less enthused about antiinflammatories. People bleed. The gut bleeds. Also, the body uses inflammation to heal an area. So, does an antiinflammatory help? Very questionable.

Diet can affect pain. When I had systemic strep, I would go into ketosis within a couple of hours of eating as the strep A in my muscles and lungs fed on the carbohydrates in my blood. This did not feel good. However, the instant I was ketotic, my burning strep infected muscles would stop hurting. Completely. I am using a trial diet in clinic for some of my chronic pain patients. I had a woman recently try it for two weeks. She came back and said that her osteoarthritis pain disappeared in her right hip entirely. She then noticed that the muscles ached around her left hip. She has been limping for a while. The muscles are pissed off. She ate a slice of bread after the two weeks and the right hip osteoarthritis pain was back the next day. “Hmmmm.” I said. She and I sat silent for a bit. It’s stunning if we can have major effects on chronic pain with switching from a carb based diet to a ketotic one.

I attended one of the chronic pain telemedicines last week and presented a patient. My question was not about opiates at all, but about ACE scores and PTSD in a veteran. The telemedicine specialists ignored my question. They told me to wean the opiate. He’s on a small dose and I said I would prefer to wean his ambien and his benzodiazepines first. They talked down to me. One told me that when I was “taking a medicine away” I could make the patient feel better by increasing another one. As I weaned the oxycodone, I should increase his gabapentin. I thought, yeah, like my patients don’t know the difference between oxycodone and gabapentin. No wonder patients are angry at allopaths. I didn’t express that. Instead, I said that he’d nearly died of urosepsis two weeks ago, so we were focused on that rather than his back pain at the third visit. All but one physician ignored everything I said: but the doctor from Madigan thanked me for taking on veterans and offered a telepsychiatry link. That may actually be helpful. Maybe.

And that is my chronic pain update for 2015. Blessings to all.

http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/about-us/people/2-meet-our-faculty/kabat-zinn-profile/

I can’t think of a picture for this. I don’t think it should have a picture.