what would YOU choose?

Here is a story of a choice about an abortion, a theraputic abortion, where a mother has to make a difficult choice. I have seen Family Medicine patients since 1991, so this will not identify a particular person. No HIPAA problem.

I see a new patient in clinic, a woman, who already has children. She has back pain. All is routine until she says, “Sometimes my leg goes numb from the knee down.” I stop. This is NOT normal. “Completely numb?” I say. “Not patchy?” “Yes.” “How often?” I ask. She shrugs. “Not very.” “If it happens again, call me and I want to see you right away.”

Why? This is unusual because most numbness follows dermatomes if it is from back pain. The dermatomes on the skin wrap from the back down the leg all the way to the toes. When someone describes numbness or the pain of shingles in that distribution, we know which nerve is affected. Numbness from the knee down can come from diabetes and other causes, but it is not on one side and it doesn’t come and go. So the unusual stands out for me.

“Anything else weird?”

“I had vision problems in my last pregnancy. They sent me to specialists, even a neuro opthamologist. He couldn’t find anything.”

“Ok.” I shrug. We move on.

She calls two days later. “Both legs are numb from the knee down.”

“Come in today,” I say.

Both legs ARE numb from the knee down. She also can’t lift her feet. The muscles from the knees down are weak. I get neurology on the phone. “MRI her from the top of her head to the base of her spine.” I call the hospital and set it up. That day.

She has seven brain lesions suspicious for multiple sclerosis. She did have an MRI in the previous pregnancy, which was negative. I do not remember how old the child was, 2-4 years or more when I saw mother.

I call her back in for results, we talk about specialists, and I call a neurologist in the nearest big city, three hours by car from where she lives. We start medications and my patient is scheduled.

She has multiple sclerosis. The flare improves. The visual symptoms were MS in the previous pregnancy, but it was not yet visible on brain MRI.

Then she gets pregnant again. Her symptoms immediately flare. She comes to me and I call the neurologist.

The symptoms are not a little worse. Much worse. “I suggest she terminate the pregnancy.”

My patient is horrified. Until the neurologist’s next words. “She needs to terminate if she wants to be able to walk for the children she has.”

My patient chooses an abortion, to terminate the pregnancy. Because she has a bad version of MS*, she remembers the symptoms in the last pregnancy, she is young, she is clearly progressing and she wants to take care of the children she already has.

What would YOU choose? For yourself, for your sister, for your wife. If you are male, do you have any right to make that choice? Now picture yourself pregnant with that choice. And thank you for reading this.

*Addendum: present evidence says that multiple sclerosis does NOT worsen with pregnancy. However, another illness, NMO (neuromyelitis optica) instead tends to become more active in pregnancy. It previously was lumped in with MS until the antibodies (anti-NMO) were identified and it was realized it’s a different subtype of demyelination disease, with its own treatment options. Medicine changes over time and the woman, the neurologist and I were working with the information available at that time.

stranded mermaid, cilia and tubulin

I took this photograph last summer at North Beach. I thought she looks like a stranded mermaid, thrown up on shore. I couldn’t move her, she was twice my length. The rock attachment had come too, up from our sea beds.

Happy solstice. Today marks the one year day from when I realized that I was having my fourth round of pneumonia, with hypoxia, agitation, fast twitch muscle dysfuntion and felt sick as could be. I am way better but not well. That is, I still need oxygen to play flute, to sing, to do heavy exercise and to carry anything heavy. Which is WAY better then having to wear oxygen all the time. Today I find a connection between the lungs and the brain, in quanta magazine. This video talks about a new found connection between cilia and the brain. We were taught that cilia and flagella are for locomotion, powered by tubulin. However, this shows that cilia behave like neurons and there is a connection. Since my peculiar illness seems to involve cilia dysfunction in my muscles and lungs, so that I get pneumonia, and the brain, because I am wired when it hits, this is a fascinating connection. If neurons developed from cilia, the dual illness makes a lot more sense. Hooray for quantum mechanics! We use it in medicine every single day.

Happy solstice! Here comes the sun!

wearing sunglasses in the rain

Trigger warning: this is about dementia. I wrote this over ten years ago.

wearing sunglasses in the rain

I am weeping for you both

you have cared for her
for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health

and she has lost her memory

you told me on the phone
that it’s not that bad

you say it again in the room

I knew before I saw her
that it was bad, very bad, much worse
she is only 60

she becomes agitated when we try to weigh her
old style doctor’s scale
frightens her to try to step up.
gentle caregiver that you have hired
pushes her, until I say stop, stop, stop
her weight does not matter

shuffling gait
she is frightened to be in a new place
I ask her questions gently
she does not want to sit in the chair in the exam room
“No!” she says “No!”
I leave the room until she’s calmer

when I return
I give her choices
“Shall I examine you first with my stethoscope
or shall I talk to your husband?”
I choose for her, the latter
she relaxes, a little
later, I tell her each step before I do it
she is slightly tense when I lay the stethoscope
on her thin shoulders, but she doesn’t fight

she tenses as I ask her husband questions
about the memory loss
ten years now, a steady course
I ask him what he understands about the prognosis
he shifts uncomfortably
and I ask her if she would like to wait in the waiting room
while I talk to him
Firm and clear: “Yes, I would.”

She is not in the room now
he says that she is not too bad
the picture comes slowly in to focus
mild memory loss, is what he thinks

there are three stages of memory loss, I say
mild, the short fibers, where short term memory is affected
we forget what someone just said
moderate, the medium axons
we forget the recipe that we’ve know for 50 years
we forget how to do math
we forget names and how to get to the store
we forget how to operate the car
severe, the long axons
executive function
we do not initiate things
we forget to get dressed
we forget how to speak
we forget our potty training

his eyes grow sadder and sadder

at last, we return to being a baby
we forget everything
at last, we remember the womb
we no longer want to eat

is she forgetting to eat?

he is not ready to answer

as we leave the room
he says that she is not sleeping well
she seems to be awake at night
eyes closed
but her fingers are moving, as in play
he doesn’t speak to her
he needs to sleep and thinks she should too

should he give her a sleeping pill?

maybe she is happy, I say
maybe in bed in the dark
you are there and it is safe
no one is making her get dressed
no one is making her bathe
maybe that is where she wants to be awake
I would not give her a sleeping pill

the dogs are in the room
he says
and the tv is on just a little
maybe she is happy

he is wearing sun glasses
as they cajole and help her in to the van

he is wearing sun glasses
though it is overcast, low clouds and raining

sometimes it is so hard
to say what I see
to try to say the truth

sometimes the truth is not gentle
but sometimes the truth is love

I am weeping for you both

written 2010

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Dr. Aaron Beck, father of cognitive behavioral therapy, died this week, November 2021, at age 100.

Oddly enough, the best explanations of cognitive behavioral therapy that I’ve read is on a writing website. It talks about writing down all of the horrible thoughts and then going back and writing counter thoughts. Psychologists have been talking at me at medical conferences for years about cognitive behavioral therapy, but they never explained it. They said we could do it in clinic. I thought cynically that maybe I could if I knew what the hell it was.

And the explanation by the author is oddly similar to what I think of as the angel and devil on my shoulders. It turns out that I do do it in clinic.

When I react to some event, I let the devil out first. It has a fit about whatever is happening, writes poems, is reactive, paranoid and full of anger and grief. It often imagines over the top terrible things happening to the person or people that did whatever it is. Then the angel wakes up and says, wait. What are you saying? What you are imagining and cursing that person with is WAY worse then what they did. The angel writes the poems of forgiveness.

So I have been doing a homemade form of cognitive behavioral therapy.

However, I would say that it can be overused. We need to listen to patients carefully. If they are in an abusive relationship, it should not be papered over with cognitive behavioral therapy. A friend and I have been comparing terrible childhoods. His involved being beaten without reason.

I said recently that what people hit with in my family is words. They make grief and fear into stories, funny stories, that make people laugh. Shame and humiliation and reliving the feelings. I said that I am reactive and pay close attention to words. But I have reason, back to age 2. I said that books are my refuge because the words are not about me, they don’t shame me, they do not humiliate me, and if I read a book twice, it has the same words. Home, love and safe.

In my maternal family, if I said that I was not comfortable with a comment, I was told that I took things too seriously, that I have no sense of humor, that I can’t take a joke. Gaslight and then dismiss any objection. That is how one side of my family loves. I do not like it. Unsurprisingly, they do not love me, or at least I do not feel loved.

And my friend said, your family, your childhood, was worse than mine.

One of my talents in clinic is that I can listen to insane family stories. I can listen because my family is insane. They are cruel. At least, it feels like cruelty and horror to me. I didn’t ever try to find out if a family story is true. I listen and then say, yes. I think it is appropriate for you to feel angry/sad/horrified/appalled/scared/hurt/whatever.

Somehow that listening and validation is huge. I have people come in and say, “I NEED AN ANTIDEPRESSANT.” They want to supress the feelings. So I had time in my clinic: why do you need an antidepressant? Tell me the story. Fill me in. What are you feeling and why?

And more than half the time after the story, after validation, I ask, “Do you need an antidepressant?”

The person thinks. “No. I don’t think so. Let me think about it. I feel better.”

“Ok. Do you want to schedule a follow up?”

Half do. Half say: “No, let me wait and see. I will if I need it.”

Mostly they don’t need it. They have emptied out the awful feelings in the exam room and they aren’t so awful after all. I say that it sounds like a pretty normal response and I would feel that way too. Because I would. Once the feelings, the monstrous feelings, are in the light of day, they relax and evaporate, dissipate like mist, fly home to the Beloved. Goodbye, dark feelings. You are appropriate and you are loved.

Blessings, Dr. Beck, and thank you.

released like stars

I have had strep A sepsis and pneumonia twice. It was terrifying and I ended up having to take care of myself. I would be dead if I was not a physician.

Not to be named obscure website helped to sustain me, because it was a place I could go while I was alone, terrified and very very ill. The bout in 2014 took me out of clinic for six months and then I was barely able to work seeing half my usual number of patients. My local hospital refused to help me, but other people did. I am deeply deeply grateful to the people who did help me, including people on everything2.com that I have never met.

I wrote this in June 2014.

released like stars

________________

My sister used to tell me

“Everything2 is like a brain.

That’s what attracted me.

All the nodes, like neurons

Connected to each other more and more.”

Or something like that.


Isn’t it annoying?

Now that I’ve taken that memory out

Dusted it off

Embellished it

Who knows what she really said


Flashes of light now

And some where I blank out entirely

For just a moment

Only when I’ve eaten

I’m still avoiding carbs


Could be absence seizures

But she said seizures hurt

These do not hurt

And are accompanied by muscle twitches

Or muscles rolling gently across my frame


I am scared at first

Because I think they are neurons

Bursting into brain flame

And burning out

Brief candles


But I don’t think that’s right either

I think it is plaques

Deposits of antibody

Small pushpins in the wrong place

Being released like stars

What I learned from my first doctor job

When I started my first job, I had a nurse and a receptionist within a bigger clinic, all primary care. Fresh out of residency. One month in I asked to meet with my nurse and the receptionist.

The receptionist brought the office manager. I was surprised, but ok.

I started the meeting. “I am having trouble keeping up with 18-20 patients with fat charts that I have never seen before, but I think I am getting a little better at it. What sort of complaints are you hearing and how can we make it smoother?”

The office manager and the receptionist exchanged a look. Then the office manager excused herself.

Weird, I thought.

The three of us talked about the patients and the flow and me trying to keep up. About one third were Spanish speaking only and I needed my nurse to translate. That tended to gum things up a bit, because she could not be rooming another patient or giving a child vaccinations.

I thanked them both and the meeting broke up.

Later I found that the office manager had been brought in because another doctor tended to manage by yelling and throwing things. And another doctor had tantrums. So the receptionist was afraid of me and had asked the office manager to stay. The moment they realized that it was collaborative and I was asking for feedback and help, the receptionist was fine without the office manager.

That was an interesting lesson on working with people. I had been very collaborative with the nurses and unit secretaries in residency. As a chief resident, I told my Family Practice residents to treat the nurses and unit secretaries and in fact everyone, like gold. “They know more than you do and if you take care of them, they will save your ass!” The unit secretaries would go out of their way to call me in residency. “Mr. Smith is not getting that ultrasound today.”

“Shit. Why not? What the hell?” I would go roaring off to radiology to see what the hold up was.

The unit secretaries did not help the arrogant residents who treated them like dirt.

I thought it takes a team. I can’t do my work without the nurse, the pharmacist, the unit secretary, the laundry, the cafeteria workers, the administration. It takes the whole team. I value all of them.

writhe

You are sick as shit.

You go to the ER.

You finally feel safe, on a bed, they will save me, you think.

The nurse is on autopilot. He does not seem concerned. You are shaking a little as he arranges you on the bed. He puts the heart monitor stickers on and hooks you up. Blood pressure cuff, pulse ox. Blood pressure is fine, pulse is a bit fast, at 110.

You notice he is not making eye contact.

“I’m cold.” you whisper.

He doesn’t reply. He keeps messing with the wires. He puts the call button next to your hand. He leaves and returns with a warm blanket. It feels wonderful. He doesn’t say a word.

You feel better under the warmth.

The respiratory therapist wheels in the ECG machine. You smile at her but again, no eye contact. She puts more stickers on you. “Hold a deep breath.” The ECG spits out. She takes it and leaves.

The radiology tech wheels the portable xray machine in. You watch his face but don’t bother to smile. He looks everywhere but at you. It’s a bit creepy. Are they all robots? It’s 3 pm, not 3 am. “Lean forward,” says the tech, putting the radiology cartridge behind you. “Take a deep breath and hold it.” He takes the cartridge and leaves.

The nurse is back. Puts in the iv and draws 5 tubes of blood. You are shivering a little. He doesn’t seem to notice. You think about another warm blanket. The iv fluid starts and you can feel it running cold into your arm.

There is a child crying in the ER, in some other room. You start noticing the noises. Machines beeping. People typing on computer keyboards. No one is talking. The kid gives a howl of protest, rising and then is abruptly quiet.

Your hands and feet are tingling and burning. You writhe a little under the blanket. Sensation is returning to your hands and feet. It hurts but it is also good. You were at the point where all your feeling had shrunk to a tiny spark in the center of your chest. As the iv fluid runs, feeling slowly spreads out from that.

The doctor comes in. Grumpy, clearly. “Lean forward.” Listens to your chest. “Sounds clear.”

“It’s been hurting for 5 days. It hurts to breathe. Burns.” You are anxious as hell. BELIEVE ME.

The ER doc gives a little shrug. “Oxygen sats are fine.” He does a half-assed exam. He leaves.

You look at your feet, taking your socks off. Because he didn’t. There are two black spots, a couple millimeters across, old blood. Those are new.

You press the call button.

Time goes by. The nurse floats back in.

“Look. Tell the doctor to look. These are petechiae.” You point to the black spots.

If the nurse had laser vision, your feet would be burned. The nurse glares at your feet. He goes out.

The doc comes in and looks at your feet.

“They are petichiae. I have an infection.”

He gives a tiny shrug. “Your chest xray looks clear. Your labs are normal. You are not running a fever.”

“I am on azithromycin for walking pneumonia. I suddenly felt like all the fluid was running out of my arms and legs. I am worried that I am septic.”

“Blood pressure is fine. You are really really anxious.”

You are furious. It probably shows on your face. You are terrified.

“Could it be an antibiotic reaction?”

Shrug. “No rash.”

“Except the petechiae.” A sign of sepsis.

“I will change the antibiotics. Clindamycin.” He leaves.

You lie back, terrified. He doesn’t believe you. He is sending you home, septic. You will probably die.

The nurse comes in. Removes the iv and unhooks the monitor and the blood pressure cuff. You get dressed, numb and frightened and cold. The nurse goes out and returns. He recites the patient instructions in a bored voice and gives you the first dose of clindamycin.

You walk shakily to the door of the emergency room. To go home. While you are septic and they don’t believe you. You know what happens with sepsis: your blood pressure will drop and then organ damage and then IF you survive you could have heart damage or lung damage or brain damage and you might not anyhow.

You go home.

Covid-19: working in healthcare

So, should healthcare workers be required to have Covid-19 vaccines?

Yes.

What is the precedent?

Take tuberculosis, for example. Airborne, very contagious. I was born in a Knoxville, Tennessee tuberculosis sanatorium, because my mother coughed blood a month before she was due and got quarantined for active tuberculosis. Yes, the state could quarantine my mother. I was removed immediately at birth because tuberculosis doesn’t cross the placenta. The antibodies do, but the infection doesn’t. However, newborns usually catch it and die very quickly. I was lucky. My father and grandparents took care of me for 5 months. Then my mother was allowed out (after 6 months total) but was not strong enough to take care of me. So I was taken to my maternal grandparents for the next four months, and did not touch my mother until I was 9 months old.

My mother was taking 36 pills a day at home, because you have to use multiple drugs to kill tuberculosis. It develops drug resistance very very quickly.

Well, so what, you say?

Healthcare workers in the United States are routinely checked with a ppd for tuberculosis. If it is positive, you cannot work until further testing. If you have latent tuberculosis, you are treated. If you have active tuberculosis, the treatment is longer and more complicated, here: https://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/infectioncontrol/default.htm

My cousin then said, “Well, you don’t have to show the tuberculosis test to go in a restaurant!”

Well, not right NOW, because currently tuberculosis is under more or less reasonable control in the US. Remember that guy who came in to the US with active multi drug resistant tuberculosis and knowingly exposed everyone on that airplane? Great. I remember reading about that and thinking what a selfish jerk he was. And then the group of unimmunized people who went to India and all got measles. The US at that time did not bar anyone from returning, but asked them to finish a 3 week quarentine before returning to the US. One person did not do that. There was a measles outbreak in the midwest which cost the CDC (and therefore you and me because those is tax dollars) millions to trace, quarantine and clean up. So there was discussion at that time about whether the policy should be changed and we should not allow US citizens with known infectious diseases to come in on airplanes. We DON’T allow immigrants in with infectious diseases: they are tested for tuberculosis if coming from countries where it is endemic.

So, if we had a huge outbreak of tuberculosis, we WOULD have quarantines and shut downs.

I have tested a patient for tuberculosis, about two years ago. Her son had been diagnosed with active tuberculosis. We tested her with a blood test and then repeated it in three months. Negative, hooray. In residency I also saw a case of miliary tuberculosis. That is where the tuberculosis is growing so well in the lungs that it looks like little grains of rice in the lungs on imaging. Not a good thing.

My cousin: “You shouldn’t have to put something in your body to work.”

If you have tuberculosis, you do not get to work in healthcare, because you can kill your patients. I think that this is a good thing, to not kill our patients.

I am submitting this to the Ragtag Daily Prompt: starspangled. Keep America Healthy, how about that?

Covid-19: in flew Enza

Survey shows 6 in 10 Americans will delay or skip flu shots this year.

Oh, dear. Not going to get your influenza shot? I am. Well, you say, YOU are on oxygen and have tricky lungs and keep yammering about imaginary Pandas.

Yes, and you should get your vaccine anyhow, even if you are healthy as a hoss.

If not for yourself, for everyone else. Because usually influenza kills 12,000 to 61,000 US citizens a year and gosh, guess what it will do to post-Covid long haulers. Um, kill, I would expect. And with a very low influenza winter last winter, because covid and masks and social distancing, immunity is down and the infectious disease folks are anticipating that it could be a worse than usual influenza year. How many people have long covid? This just in: More than half of covid survivors experience post acute sequelae to covid 19 (PASC) at 6 months after. ““The most common PASC involved functional mobility impairments, pulmonary abnormalities, and mental health disorders,” wrote Destin Groff, Penn State College of Medicine and Milton S Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, Pennsylvania, and colleagues. ”These long-term PASC effects occur on a scale that could overwhelm existing health care capacity, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.”

AND not only that, even if you or your friend or mother or grandmother don’t die of influenza, far more people clog up emergency rooms and doctor’s offices. The “CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.”* And the doctors and nurses and emergency people and nursing home employees and first responders are already short staffed and tired. So if you won’t get your flu vaccine for the general public, get it for the first responders.

AND before you tell me that “the vaccine gave me flu”, hello, it takes up to two weeks for the flu vaccine to confer immunity, and so if you got influenza two days later, you didn’t get it from the vaccine, you got it because you got the vaccine too late. Vaccine complications, well, I have seen one complication in my 30 years of Family Medicine, and it was someone I knew, not a patient. And half the people who tell me that “the vaccine gave me flu”, stomach flu with diarrhea and barfing is not influenza. It’s more likely to be a hangover than anything else. I see a lot more post alcohol “stomach flus” than true food poisoning. Quit drinking so much alcohol, ok?

And while you are at it, you’d better get the Covid-19 vaccine while it is still available free. And before you get on an airplane for Thanksgiving or go Trick or Treating with all those little germ spreaders or fly off to see family at Christmas/Kwanza/Winter break/whatever. Two weeks before, at least. Like, NOW. Or don’t, whatever, just don’t whine to ME about more deaths.

This public service message has been brought to you by a beneficent alien lizard. Feel free to send money.

*https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html