Long Covid fatigue and overdoing

I’ve been reading journal articles about Long Covid. The three primary symptoms are fatigue, shortness of breath and brain symptoms. Mostly brain fog. Then there is a long long list of other symptoms.

For the fatigue, the journals are recommended graded increase in activity “without triggering a fatigue crash”.

Now, that is all well and good, except it’s a moving target. The amount of activity one can do is NOT static.

I have something that caused CFS-ME. My fast twitch muscles came back on line sometime between Christmas and New Years. GREAT! Then I was helping a sick friend until January ninth. I flew home and then there is all the unpacking and bills and catching up and sweeping up catfur dust elephants. Finally I got to exercise. I walked a couple miles on the beach one day and then around town with a friend the next.

Which crashed me. The third day I spent lying on the couch. My muscles basically were ALL hurting and saying, “We hate you.”

The fast twitch are back on line but they are weak as newborn kittens. For the first two days I felt strong and normal. The third day I felt like a steamroller had gone over me.

So did I do the wrong thing? Well, no. I won’t know what I can and can’t do it unless I do it, right? After four rounds (or more) of pneumonia with muscle weirdness, I can tell when it’s improving. Then I have to rebuild the working muscles. Also my slow twitch posture muscles are frankly pissed off and have been doing all the work and are not very interested in working with the fast twitch when they first come on line. “Where have YOU been? We’ve been doing YOUR work AND OURS.” I have to learn to walk again.

I was doing well with pulmonary rehab in the fall, building up on the treadmill twice a week, until I got my flu shot and then my Covid booster. Well, they are supposed to raise antibodies. Unfortunately they raised the ones that make my fast twitch muscles not work. Muscle blocker antibodies. I am just glad that my slow twitch work, because I sympathize hugely with the people who end up lying in bed. It’s still inconvenient, difficult to explain and annoying.

At any rate, gentle graded increase in activity is all very well as advice. But do you control everything that happens in your life? I don’t. Someone gets sick, the mail goes awry, a billing company changed their address and I didn’t get the memo. It all takes energy. Some days I am going to overdo, especially when I feel better. And it rather sucks to lie around the next day, but it is ok.

Over the last week I had a friend up from Portland. We walked three days running. On the third day we walked paths from my house to the lighthouse and back. About 5-6 miles. I was not quite limping when I got home, but I knew I could rest the next day. My muscles got HUNGRY and are continuing to improve.

So when your doctor tells you “graded activity to avoid fatigue crashes”, remember that it is not wholly controllable because life is not wholly controllable. Some days you will do great and others, well, hmmm. That was too much.

Blessings.

https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2022/1100/long-covid.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html

pulmonary rehabilitation

I am fractious and grumpy when I first go to pulmonary rehabilitation at my local hospital.

This is because I have local hospital PTSD because of past treatment. However, there is only one hospital in my county.

I am anxious and tachycardic when I first arrive. I have sent patients to cardiac rehabilitation and to pulmonary rehabilitation, but it’s the first time I’ve gone. My doctor did not refer me until I ask her. I thought it up while I was talking to my insurance company’s chronic care person. You know you are desperate when you call your insurance company for ideas. The insurance company is motivated to pay for pulmonary rehabilitation because I am expensive. I have had loads of tests this year and cost a bunch of money. They would like me well. Me too. So yes, I qualify for pulmonary rehab by virtue of four pneumonias in nineteen years and this time a year on oxygen continuously and still part time now.

I have two people to help me. One is a respiratory therapist and the other a physical therapist. I am an unusual referral. Many of their patients have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and/or emphysema, usually from cigaretes, but also from things like asbestos or alpha-1-antitrypsin disorder or progressive muscular disorders.

They explain. There are 24 visits, over 12 weeks. I come in twice a week. I am weighed, they ask about symptoms, and we go to the small gym. It has three treadmills, three stationary bikes and three of those semi-horizontal not really a bike things. I pick the treadmill. After I describe my lung weirdness, that a fast heart rate preceeds hypoxia, they put a wrist pulse oximeter on me. Unlike the little finger ones, it can pick up heart rate and oxygen rate even when I am walking on the treadmill. My blood pressure and pulse is checked and I start the treadmill. I go slowly the first time. My heartrate is over 100 to start with, but that’s partly the PTSD reaction. I can slow my heart rate just by slowing my breathing and not talking, into the 80s.

Here is how I looked the first time:

https://www.reddit.com/r/FunnyAnimals/comments/zadptv/this_is_whats_happened_in_gym/

Ok, not really. I start walking on the treadmill and go for 30 minutes. Blood pressure and heart rate are checked mid way through. The only time I drop my oxygen level is when I walk AND talk and then I drop it to 87. I stop talking.

After the treadmill, there is another 15-20 minutes of “patient education” about the lungs. This is usually a video, discussion and handouts. They can have up to 3 people simultaneously. At first there is another woman, but she finishes her 12 weeks. She is still on oxygen. I am doing the treadmill without oxygen. “What is your goal?” asks the respiratory therapist. “I want to ski this winter.” I say. She blinks.

The patient education alternates with lifting hand weights. The physical therapist does that with me. There is a stretching session each time too. The weights are slow twitch muscles so that is easier for me to push.

On the third day on the treadmill, I start pushing myself. My heart rate before starting was 81. I get to 120. “Um, don’t push it further than that.” says the therapist.

“Why not?” I say.

“Well, the guidelines are that we’re supposed to not have the person exercising at a heart rate of more than 30 over their baseline.”

“Oh,” I say. I am at 40 over. I slow down a little, aiming for a heart rate of 115. My blood pressure is between 90 and 115 systolic to start with, even anxious, and goes up to the 140s or 150s in the middle of exercising. If I talk too much while I am on the treadmill, my oxygen level starts to drop. It drops the third time down below 88 and the therapist says, “Shall I get oxygen?” “No,” I say. “I just need to shut up.” I do and my oxygen level recovers.

I steadily improve on the treadmill. I can enter my weight and it will measure “METS”. I start out at only a few mets. My goal is as high as I can go. By week 8 I am pleased to be alternating walking and running and I am averaging over 8 mets. Bicycling takes 7-9 mets, and more if you race. I want to return to bicycling.

Then I get my flu vaccine. I feel terrible the next day and cancel my rehab. I see my doctor for a routine visit the next Tuesday and she gives me the covid booster. That hammers me. I go back to being tachycardic much more easily and my fast twitch muscles are not working again. I contact my cardiologist and primary, do I put pulmonary rehabilitation on hold?

I decide to go and I do not drop my oxygen. However, I get tachycardic much more quickly, I can’t get up to over 8 mets, and it feels truly terrible. And my muscles give me hell and hurt horribly for the next two days. I put pulmonary rehab on hold and wait and do slow twitch exercises. The working theory is that there are antibodies to my fast twitch muscles, so the vaccines have activated my immune system. Not just antibodies to influenza and covid, but also the ones that make my muscles not work and hurt. A fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue flare. I start sleeping 12 hours a day again, as I did when I got sick over a year ago. I am really anxious at first but there are no signs of pneumonia, I am not hypoxic, and it’s mostly muscles and fatigue.

After three weeks I return and do my last four pulmonary rehab visits. It hurts way more than the first 8 weeks and it is way more exhausting. I don’t like sleeping 12 hours a night. It could be worse, though. Some people have chronic fatigue where they have to lie in bed most of the time. I don’t have that, so I consider myself lucky. Mine is fast twitch muscles only. Presumably theirs is fast and slow twitch muscles. I have an annoying but relatively mild version of chronic fatigue.

I graduate from pulmonary rehabilitation. Many thanks for the help with my muscles! I want a wrist pulse oximeter, but they cost $700 and I dont’ really need it. By now I can tell when I have a fast heart rate and I can tell when I am getting hypoxic. It makes me goofy and silly, though I normally have that anyhow.

Many thanks to Jefferson Healthcare’s Pulmonary Rehabilitation Department. And if you have had pneumonia more than once or long Covid, consider asking your doctor to refer you. It makes me much more confident about exercising and pushing myself and what is safe. And eventually these stupid antibodies will fall off the receptors again. I hope.

________________

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: fractious.

PS: The Rehabilitation Department was closed then open then closed then open during the last two years. They did not have many people when I was there. Get in soon, because there are limited spaces!

Long Covid and fatigue

Sometimes medical articles are SO IRRITATING! Like this:

Symptomatic Long COVID May Be Tied To Decreased Exercise Capacity On Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing Up To Three Months After Initial SARS-COV-2 Infection

Healio (10/18, Buzby) reports a 38-study systematic review and meta-analysis “suggested with low confidence that symptomatic long COVID was associated with decreased exercise capacity on cardiopulmonary exercise testing up to 3 months after initial SARS-COV-2 infection.” According to the findings published in JAMA Network Open, “underlying mechanisms may include but are not limited to deconditioning, peripheral mechanisms, hyperventilation, chronotropic incompetence, preload failure and autonomic and endothelial dysfunction.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if they believed the patients?

Let’s break this down. What does it all mean? Ok, the “low confidence” irritates me because it implies that the physicians can’t believe the patients who say “hey, I am short of breath and have a fast heart rate and get really fatigued if I try to do anything!”

I have had my fourth bout of pneumonia with shortness of breath and tachycardia. This time, since I am older, I had hypoxia bad enough to need oxygen. This is the FIRST TIME that some physicians have actually believed me. They believed the pulse oximeter dropping down to 87% and below, with a heart rate in the 140s, but they did not believe me and some accused me of malingering, for the last 19 years. Can you tell that I am a little tiny bit annoyed? If my eyes shot lasers, there would be some dead local physicians. And I AM a local physician, disbelieved by my supposed peers.

Let us simplify this gobbdygook: “underlying mechanisms may include but are not limited to deconditioning, peripheral mechanisms, hyperventilation, chronotropic incompetence, preload failure and autonomic and endothelial dysfunction.” The way I think of it is that sometimes a pneumonia will cause lung tissue swelling. Ok, think of the air space in your lungs as a large balloon. Now the wall of the balloon swells inwards and suddenly there is half as much air space. Guess how your body takes up the slack? The heart goes faster and you have tachycardia. This is a very simple way to think about it. I have tested patients who complain of bad fatigue after an upper respiratory infection with a very simple walk test. 1. I test them at rest, heart rate and oxygen saturation. 2. I walk them up and down a short hallway three times. 3. I sit them back down, and watch the heart rate and oxygen saturation. I watch until they are back to their seated baseline.

A friend tested recently and his resting heart rate was 62. After walking, his heart rate is in the 90s. H does not have a pulse oximeter, but his oxygen level is probably fine. However, that is a big jump. He has had “a terrible cold” for 8 days. I would bet money that his heart rate normally doesn’t jump that much. He still needs recovery time and rest.

In clinic, I had people who were ok at rest but needed oxygen when they walked. We would get them oxygen. More often, they did not need oxygen, but they were tachycardic. When they walked, their heart rate would jump, over 100. Normal is 60-100 beats per minute. If they jumped 30 beats or jumped over 100, I would forbid them to return to work until their heart rate would stay under 100 when they walked. If they went back to work they would be exhausted, it would slow healing, and they might catch a second bacteria or virus and then they could die.

Patients did not need a pulse oximeter. I would teach them to take their own pulse. The heart rate is the number of beats in 60 seconds. I have trouble feeling my own wrist, so I take mine at my neck. It’s a bit trickier if someone has atrial fibrillation but the pulse oximeters aren’t very good with afib either.

When I have pneumonia, my resting heart rate went to 100 the first time and my walking heart rate was in the 140s. I had influenza and felt terrible. My physician and I were mystified. It was a full two months before my heart rate came down to normal. I was out of shape by then and had to build back up. If I tried to walk around with my heart at 140, I was exhausted very quickly and it also felt terrible. The body does NOT like a continuous fast heart rate and says “LIE DOWN” in a VERY FIRM LOUD VOICE. So, I lay down. Until I recovered. For a while I was not sure if I would recover, but I did. This time it was a year before I could go to part time oxygen.

The fatigue follows the heart rate. Tachycardia is not good for you long term. If the heart is making up for reduced air space in the lungs, it doesn’t make sense to slow the heart rate with drugs. You NEED the heart to make up for the lungs. You need to rest, too!

Blessings and peace you.

The photograph is Elwha, helping me knit socks. With the bad air from the fires and my still recovering lungs, I am staying indoors and knitting socks .

A Good Reaction 2

I am still working my way through my immune response to an influenza shot and six days later, my Covid-19 booster.

I am kicking myself a bit for having them that close together, but at least my immune system responds. I think my immune system takes a shotgun approach and raises ALL the antibodies, and since I most probably have some antibodies that attack my own tissues, it’s not terribly much fun. I’ve had to put pulmonary rehab on hold until my fast twitch muscles work again. They aren’t working and my slow twitch muscles are very pissed off and stiff at having to do double duty. If I do aerobic things, my rib muscles hurt for two days. THAT feels awful.

The good thing (ha.) is that I am having the antibody response but I do not have pneumonia. The working theory is that I have PANS and antibodies to tubulin. Tubulin powers muscles, including lung cilia. Their job is to clean any trash out that gets breathed in. I am at much higher risk for getting pneumonia while the lung cilia are on auto-immune vacation. I am mostly staying home and masking when I go out. A friend got exposed to Covid-19 and refused to test at day five. Well, ok for him, but he could be asymptomatic. So he’s not allowed anywhere near me for at least another ten days. I disapprove of his callousness towards me and others.

Tobacco also paralyzes lung cilia. When I was working I would warn smokers that they might cough more when they stopped smoking, because the cilia would wake up and clean house. “Hey! No one has swept here in years!” A year after quitting smoking, the lung cancer risk drops almost to that of a non-smoker, because those cilia clean house. Isn’t THAT cool?

I don’t know how long my fast twitch muscles will be screwed up. With the last pneumonia, it was nearly a year before the antibodies finally went down. I woke one morning with my slow twitch muscles insanely stiff and my fast twitch back but weak as a newborn kitten. My slow twitch muscles were yelling at my fast twitch: “Where have you BEEN? We’ve been doing YOUR WORK!!” My fast twitch were confused, weak and surprised. I could barely walk down my stairs that day.

Even so, I am lucky. I have a version of chronic fatigue, but because only my fast twitch muscles are affected, I can still do stuff while sick. The people who can barely get out of bed, my working theory is that it is both the fast twitch and the slow twitch muscles that are affected.

And then there are the brain antibodies. Ugh. The silver lining is that the antibodies make me a bit OCD and a bit ADHD, so I am organizing the house. I vacuumed the stairs. That sounds trivial except that I HATE the vacuum. I usually use this peculiar cat hair sponge thing on the stairs, but this time I got the vacuum out. I think organizing and vacuuming are hella funny symptoms of autoantibodies.

Here is a blog post by another physician, also about brain antibodies and encephalopathy. Brain inflammation.

https://www.potomacpsychiatry.com/blog/infectious-diseases-and-psychiatric-illness

Great blog post. And the NIH paper on multiple studies of encephalopathy:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6455066/

If I have the energy today, I may try to look up the trajectory of antibody rise and fall after immunization. My brain tells me somewhere between 6 weeks and 6 months, pulling old data from somewhere, but I took immunology classes when I was working at the National Institutes of Health (late 1980s) and in medical school (early 1990s), so there may be new information. Science changes. I am hoping for less than six months really, and meanwhile trying not to get pneumonia.

Blessings and peace you.

I took the photograph in 2021, while I was REALLY sick. Glow in the dark Zombies stealing the cat food. I have to entertain myself somehow when I have pneumonia.

Practicing Conflict II

Practicing conflict II

In Practicing conflict, I wrote about practicing conflict by arguing different sides of a topic inside my head. I wrote that I don’t fear conflict and have learned to enjoy arguing with myself. I am a physician and physicians argue all the time.

What? No they don’t. Well, the doctor persona does not argue with the patient much. Some doctors give orders to patients, others try to negotiate, some try to convince. But behind the scenes, doctors are more like the Whacky Racer Car with the Cave Guys, running with their feet and hitting each other with clubs.

In residency in Family Practice at OHSU in Portland, Oregon, I start on General Surgery during internship. This is in the early 1990s and there was not much in the way of “disruptive physician” rules. I have to cover Trauma and Plastic Surgery and General Surgery at night on call. The resident is present but I get paged first for patients on the floor. I learn that I should go to all Trauma pages in the emergency room. If I know what is happening with the new Trauma patient, it’s a lot easier to handle the phone calls for more drugs and so forth. Also, the resident is less mean to me.

We attend the Trauma “Grand Rounds”. These are unreassuring to a new intern. A resident presents a trauma patient, giving the history in the accepted formal order. The Faculty Trauma Surgeons interrupt, disagree with management of the patient and yell. They yell at the resident and at each other. The upper level residents yell too, being well trained. The Trauma Surgeons do not agree with each other. They are inflammatory and rude. I am shocked initially: medicine is not a cookbook, is not simple and it appears that it is a controversial mess. It turns out that medicine IS a controversial mess.

There is not as much yelling on the next rotation. At that time Trauma Surgeons yelled more than any other set of doctors that I ran across. They yelled in the ER, at each other, at the staff, at the nurses, at the residents. The culture has changed, I suspect, but that’s how it was then.

I take Advanced Trauma Life Support as a third year resident. The Trauma Surgeons at OHSU helped write the course. They don’t agree with it. On some questions the teaching Surgeon says, “The answer to this question is (c), “ followed by muttering loudly, “though I totally don’t agree with that and I would do (b).” Another Trauma resident or surgeon then might start arguing with him, but they moved on pretty quickly, to teach the current agreed best practices in the book. Which change every few years. Great.

Years later (2009) I join the Mad as Hell Doctors, to go across the US talking about single payer. They are a group from Oregon. Physicians for a National Healthcare Program are a bit cautious with us the first year: we might be whackos. We have an RV with our logo and we have a small fleet of cars and what do you think we do in the cars? We argue. Or discuss. Or whatever you want to call it. We spend the driving dissecting issues and how to present things best and tearing apart the last presentation and rebuilding our ideas. The group does 36 presentations in 24 days. Each presentation takes an hour to set up, two hours to do and another hour to break down and debrief. We get more and more exhausted and cranky and um, well, argumentative, as the trip proceeds. Even though I think of the Whacky Racer Cave Guys running with their feet and bonking each other with clubs, this is the most wonderful group of doctors I have ever been with. A common goal that we all want to get to, discussing and disagreeing on strategy all the way! I feel closer to those physicians in a week then I feel to any of the physicians that I’ve worked with for the last 9 years in my small town. Conflict with a common goal.

Doctors are TRAINED to argue, even with themselves, to document every decision in the chart with reasons why they have reached that decision. And that they have thought about all of the reasons for say, a low potassium, thought of every possible cause and worked their way through testing. The testing always has two strands. One strand is rule out the things that could kill the person NOW, even if rare. The other strand is what is common? You have to think about both at the same time, always. And argue with yourself about which tests should be done, in what order, what is most important, how do you treat the person while awaiting results, and have I missed anything? And if we aren’t sure, we call another doctor, run it by them, wait for them to shoot holes in our logic or to say, no, I can’t think of anything else.

We can deal with conflict. We must deal with conflict. The world is too small not to deal with conflict, with disagreements, with different viewpoints and positions and ideas. If doctors can do it every single day at work, then everyone else can too. Trying to see all the positions and possible diagnoses saves lives in medicine. We need to extrapolate that to everything else. Try to see other positions, try to understand them, to respect them. We can and we must.

Blessings.

Here are the Whacky Racers:

And Madashell Doctors blog: http://madashelldoctors.com/category/uncategorized/page/3/

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: discuss.

The photograph is from my clinic once we had stopped seeing patients and were selling everything. Mordechai was our clinic skeleton, made of plastic, from China. This was in January 2021.

how to protect codgers

A friend calls me yesterday, complaining that the new Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t prevent infection nearly enough for him to want to get it. He is in his 70s and says darn it, he’d still have a 60% chance of getting infected.

I thought about it and wrote back this morning:

Re the new vaccine the POINT is NOT to prevent infection, though it lessens it in codgers like me and you.

The point is that the vaccinated younger people shed a s–tload less virus if they get it, because their immune system kills it fast. This reduces the amount of circulating virus so that the codgers stop dying like flies. Also the codgers get less sick if their immune system recognizes B4 and B5.

Got it? Get the vaccine.

I am waiting for the top ten causes of death for 2021 to come out. Over one million US people have died of Covid-19. In 2020, there were between 300-400,000 deaths from Covid. That means that we lost 600-700,000 in 2021. If we lost close to 700,000 people, then Covid-19 would beat out heart disease as the number one cause of death in the US. When did that last happen? During the 1918-1920 influenza, the “Spanish” flu that has been traced to a chicken farm in the US midwest.

Here is a provisional and not final list: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/health_policy/provisional-leading-causes-of-death-for-2021.pdf. Hmmm. The numbers are not adding up unless a lot of US people died of Covid-19 in early 2022. And cancer is higher than it’s ever been and creeping up on heart disease. But these are not the final numbers, sigh.

Here is a fascinating chart: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/lead1900_98.pdf. If you scroll to the end, the top two causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia first and tuberculosis. Heart was fourth. Heart rises to first in 1910 but then pneumonia is back at the top in 1918-1920. I think that the heart has been number one ever since, in the US. World top ten is not the same.

This is not the first pandemic and it won’t be the last. It is horrible. I think that everyone is doing the best they can, though some responses seem saner than others. Remember the old doctor joke about what to do in a code (when someone’s heart has stopped). First: check your own pulse. It’s a corollary that if the patient is dead, you can try to bring them back, but you can’t make them more dead. Also, my latest Advanced Cardiac Life Support class, on line, told me that sometimes I do not have to do cardiac life support. Their example was a decapitated patient. Really? Ouch, doctor humor. But truly, if you are freaking out or want to scream at someone or feel like the world is nuts and you have to do something, first check your own pulse. Slow it down. Breath in four and out four. I can drop my pulse from 101 to 71 in 20 seconds, just by slowing my breathing. You can learn to too.

My recommendation is that if you are due for the booster, get it. And thank you for protecting me and my friend and the other codgers.

No, it is not snowing here yet. But codger seems to be a word for an old GUY. Humph. Would a grumpy hummingbird be a grummer? What is a female codger? I am using codger for any gender, to heck with it.

Healing

I realized I had pneumonia for the fourth time on March 20, 2021. It has been a year and five months now. I do not have an “overarching diagnosis” for why I am so vulnerable to pneumonia, though not for lack of trying. I have seen twenty specialists since 2012, including four pulmonologists.

Most specialists dismiss me as soon as their tests don’t fit me into one of their boxes.

I have one now who is not dismissing me. He referred me to the Mayo Clinic. They did not call back when I did a self referral three months ago nor when my primary care physician referred me. However, they called within a week of his referral.

Mayo Clinic called yesterday. I may need a prior authorization or something, I have a number to call today.

I am healing. I still am on oxygen for singing, flute, night and heavy exercise, but pulmonary rehabilitation is working. I have built up steadily on the treadmill for 6 weeks. I have 5-6 more. Many of the pulmonary rehabilitation people are on oxygen and will not get off oxygen, so I am an outlier here too.

I feel better than I have in seven years, since the 2014 pneumonia. I had strep A pneumonia in 2012 and 2014 and really did not fully heal after 2014. I was tired all the time. I think I went back to work too soon and just did what I could. Not returning to work is helping immensely. I can’t return anyhow, unless the Mayo Clinic or someone figures out my “overarching diagnosis” and how to make me less vulnerable to pneumonia. Seems unlikely after 19 years. My first round was influenza in 2003. Maybe choosing a different career than primary care would have made a difference, though maybe I would not have survived a pneumonia without being a primary care doctor. We aren’t supposed to treat ourselves, but if no one believes us, well, there is not much choice, is there?

The photograph is from a beach hike in November 2021.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: heal.

Top ten causes of death, US, 2020, and doctor time pressure

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm

There is an article about US doctors, that primary care would have to work around the clock to apply all of the guidelines, here: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/primary-care-doctors-would-need-more-24-hours-day-provide-recommended-care.

Yes, but this is not new news. There was a trio of articles twenty years ago that said the same thing. And the guidelines have only expanded. Primary care is doing the same thing it has always done: what it can. Meanwhile we go to “Continuing Medical Education” and the other specialists ALL say we are not doing enough, we need to do more. Makes a woman cynical, don’t it?

Family Practice is a specialty, did you know that? We do a three year residency. Internal medicine is also three years, but many then “sub specialize” — further training in cardiology or rheumatology or nephrology, and etc. Sometimes we get a primary care doctor who doesn’t do the extra years but gets interested in something and they learn to subspecialize. We had a pulmonologist on the peninsula here, best I’ve worked with, who had not done the fellowship but learned it on the job. She was excellent and is now retired.

So you as a patient need to be aware of the top ten causes of death and do some thinking. Heart is still number one, in spite of Covid-19. All the cancer deaths are number two, but that’s only a fraction of the cancers. You want cancer screening, to pick it up before it is lethal. Pap smears, colon cancer screening, get your skin checked. Covid-19 is number three in 2020. Let’s look at the list.

US top ten causes of death, 2020.

  • Heart disease: 696,962
  • Cancer: 602,350
  • COVID-19: 350,831
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 200,955
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 160,264
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 152,657
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 134,242
  • Diabetes: 102,188
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 53,544
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 52,547

The list changes. What has fallen out of the top ten, since Covid-19 was not on the list back in 2019? “Intentional self-harm” aka suicide, was number ten in 2019.

Let’s go through the list one at a time and give you some basic tools and ideas about prevention, since your physician doesn’t have enough time to deal with all of it.

  1. Heart: The people who have not seen a doctor for twenty years, um, go see a doctor. If you have high blood pressure for twenty years, you will also have heart failure, which means pump failure. This is bad and will kill you. Check in at least every three to five years. In the US currently, you are a “new” patient after three years, so it’s best to show up just before that three year mark. Call ahead, everyone is short staffed. Check blood pressure, cholesterol and quit smoking (that includes pot, also bad for the heart), cocaine is very effective at trashing the heart, alcohol is bad for it, so is methamphetamines, and any other silly and stupid substance “overuse”. Kratom? Bad. Fake pot? Also bad. Turn off the tube or computer and go for a daily walk. Outside. Without headphones or earbuds. Try to figure out the bird noises, ok? Eat more vegetables. Don’t be stupid.
  2. Cancer: do the screening tests. Get the HPV vaccine for your children. Get pap smears. Use sun screen. Get your colonoscopy when you hit that age. Want to read about a screening test? Go to this site: https://uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/home . This is the clearing house for the current guidelines AND THEY CHANGE. They get updated. The vaccines are all here too. Get them.
  3. Covid-19. If you aren’t vaccinated then I don’t even want to talk to you, unless you are seriously immunosuppressed and your docs told you not to. Otherwise your brain has been taken over by non-scientist crazy whackos. IMHO.
  4. Accidents have been rising up the list and currently number one is opioid overuse deaths. Do not buy pills on the street because even if they claim to be oxycodone they may actually be fentanyl. The drug cartels aren’t so good at diluting the fentanyl enough to not kill you. If you are on prescribed opioids you should have a shot to reverse it (narcan shot or nasal spray) and your family or friends should know where it is and how to use it. Next is guns and cars. Guns should be locked up with the ammunition locked up separately when you are not working as a policemen or hunting a deer or rhinoceros. Cars should not be driven under the influence and hello seat belts. Oh, let’s see, wear your helmet on the bicycle, roller blades, e-bike, jet-skateboard or whatever. Wear a life jacket in the boat. Don’t point Axe towards your face and try to light the spray on fire.
  5. Stroke. This is all the same stuff as heart. And also Covid-19 increases your risk of stroke.
  6. Chronic lower respiratory disease: this is mostly caused by tobacco, tobacco, tobacco, marijuana, tobacco, asbestos, tobacco and woodsmoke or firefighting. Smoke is bad. Vapor is smoke, ok? See your doctor to get help quitting smoking. My father quit after 55 years of 2 packs a day of unfiltered Camels, so don’t tell me you can’t. Also it takes an average of 8 tries or so to quit. Yes you can.
  7. Alzheimer’s: keep your brain active, eyes are important, ears are important, eat those vegetables and if you live where I do, vitamin D in the winter.
  8. Diabetes: sweet drinks are bad. Fake sweet drinks are bad. A coke has 32 grams of carbohydrate. A Starbuck’s mocha 12 oz has 60. Quit drinking sweet drinks. Your goal is no more than 15 grams of sweetener a day. Now, what exactly is a carbohydrate? It’s anything edible that is not fat or protein. However, there are lots of very low carbohydrate vegetables out there. A cup of kale only has 8 grams of carbohydrate. Sweet peas and sugar beets have a lot more. Diabetics and everyone else should have at least half of every meal be vegetables, green and yellow and orange. Fruit is sweeter and all of the portion sizes (except kale) are less than you’d like to eat. Prevention is good.
  9. Influenza and pneumonia. Get your flu shot. There are two pneumonia shots and the first is given at age 65 and the second at 66. Except in people with heart or lung problems, then they get the vaccine early and repeat at 65 and 66. I think we are going to have a group of people who always mask on planes. I am one of them.
  10. Nephritis and etc. This is kidneys. What can affect your kidneys? Pills and illegal drugs, mostly. All pills that are absorbed are metabolized (which means broken down) by either the liver or the kidneys. Kidney function goes down slowly over a lifetime with age. We are seeing a huge rise in kidney problems because of too many pills. Yes, supplements too. Natural does not mean safe and what the heck is natural about a pill anyhow? Take as few pills as possible. Take ALL the pills to show your doctor. Ok, your doctor might be clueless about supplements. We had one person nearly hit the liver transplant stage until she showed my partner her supplement’s new label “Can affect the liver.” Holy cow. Should say “Can kill you.” So back to prevention: my baseline was that people should have blood lab basic testing every five years before age 50 and every three years after that if they were on NO PILLS. If they are on ANY pills, I recommend yearly testing. Did you know that the supplement companies can change what is in the pill at any time without telling you? Isn’t that reassuring? Heck no.
  11. There are still a long list of other causes of death. Liver disease, intentional self-harm, and on.

Since your doctor does not have time to think about all of this every time you stop by, it’s partly up to you. I don’t trust Dr. Google at all, but the sites I go to are the CDC, the Mayo Clinic, NIH, AAFP (American Academy of Family Practice). I look at lots of quack sites too, to see what is being sold, but I am not advertising them!

Be careful out there.

The photograph is Elwha watching the four point buck and wondering if it will eat him or not. From last week.

Covid-19: Long Haul III

The CDC has guidelines for Long Covid and it can qualify for disability in the United States.

Here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html

And here: “As of July 2021, “long COVID,” also known as post-COVID conditions, can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Learn more: Guidance on “Long COVID” as a Disability Under the ADA, Section

Here is the list of “most common” symptoms from the CDC:

General symptoms

  • Tiredness or fatigue that interferes with daily life
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental effort (also known as “post-exertional malaise”)
  • Fever

Respiratory and heart symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)

Neurological symptoms

  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Headache
  • Sleep problems
  • Dizziness when you stand up (lightheadedness)
  • Pins-and-needles feelings
  • Change in smell or taste
  • Depression or anxiety

Digestive symptoms

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain

Other symptoms

  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Rash
  • Changes in menstrual cycles

There are recommendations for a work up by physicians. Depending on symptoms, this may include labs, ECG, echocardiogram (heart ultrasound), CT scan and other tests.

A friend has just gone through those four tests . They are “normal” except for her heart rate. At rest her heart rate is 70 with a normal oxygen level. Walking, her heart rate jumps to 135. Over 100 is abnormal in this athlete who is NOT exerting heavily.

So WHAT is going on with NORMAL testing? I think this is “Covid-19 Viral Pneumonia”, a complication of Covid-19, just as “Influenza Viral Pneumonia” is a complication of influenza. Ralph Netter MD has an illustration of lungs from a person who died of influenza viral pneumonia: the lungs are swollen and inflamed and bruised. WHY is the testing “normal” then? The swelling is throughout the lungs, so a chest x-ray sees it as all the same density and a CT scan also sees it as all the same density. The lungs may have mildly decreased breath sounds, but the sounds are even throughout the lungs. The useful TEST is a walk test. I have tested patients with “walking pneumonia” in clinic for years: get a resting heart rate and oxygen level. Then have my patient walk up and down the hall three times and sit back down. Watch the heart rate and oxygen level. If the heart rate jumps 30 beats up or is over 100, the person needs to continue rest until the heart rate stays under 100 or jumps less than 30 beats. It is important to observe the heart rate until they recover. Sometimes the oxygen saturation will drop as the heart rate comes down, and some people qualify for oxygen. Steroids do not seem to work for this. The length of time to healing is not totally surprising, because a lobar pneumonia that is visible on chest xray takes 6-8 weeks to fully clear. It is not too amazing that a bad walking pneumonia could also take 6 weeks or more to clear. If the person returns to work too soon, they prolong the lung inflammation and they are at risk for exhaustion and for a secondary pneumonia. The treatment is REST REST REST and support.

Do they need oxygen? Currently oxygen is covered only if the person’s oxygen saturation drops down to 88%. However, I think that oxygen would help recovery and make them less exhausted. With my first walking pneumonia, which was influenza, my walking heart rate was 135 and my resting heart rate was 100. Both were abnormal for me. Neither I nor my physician could figure it out. This was in 2003. I did look in my Netter book: I took one look at the painting of the influenza lungs and shut the book. “Oh.” I thought. “That’s why I can’t breathe.” The image is here, though I wish it were bigger.

It took two months for my heart rate to come down, the lung swelling to improve, and me to return to work. I read the text of Dr. Netter’s image a year later and then I read an entire book about the 1918-1919 influenza. Since then I have walked people who come in complaining of exhaustion after a “cold” or “bad cough”. Viruses can cause this and so can bacteria: mycoplasma pneumonia, chlamydia pneumonia, pneumococcal pneumonia, legionella and strep A. If the fever is gone, the infection has probably resolved, but it still can take days or weeks for the lung tissue to recover.

For Covid-19, I would add a third test: walking with weights. We test cardiac patients by asking if they can carry two bags of groceries up a flight of stairs. That is 3 Mets, a measure of the heart load. We need to measure the lung load as well. If the lung tissue is swollen, the amount of airspace is cut down and can be half normal. The heart attempts to take up the slack. The person may tolerate a heart rate of 135 for a while, but it is like running a marathon. If they are older or have heart disease, this can trigger a heart attack. I would walk the person carrying hand weights, and see the recovery.

Also, brain fog is unsurprising. If your oxygen level is borderline, it is darn hard to think. I write really strange songs when I am hypoxic. I get goofy and feel weird. The fast heart rate also feels like anxiety: I think that the body is trying to tell me to rest.

The definition of Long Covid is symptoms after 30 days. Please see your physician if you are still ill and continue to have symptoms.

Blessings.

Here is a recent article about T-cells and inflammation in the lungs of Covid-19 patients: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8460308/

and this: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2020.589380/full

Covid-19 and walking pneumonia

I wrote this essay in July 2017. Before Covid-19. It is clear that Covid-19 is also causing a walking pneumonia. People are exhausted when they get out of bed. No fever, they may not cough much, but if they get up, they can feel exhausted. The key to this is the heart rate, the pulse. If the pulse jumps 30 points faster or more, this implies lung swelling and reduced lung capacity. Right now, the only treatment we have is rest and time to heal. I should know, I’ve had really bad walking pneumonia four times: the first two times I was out for two months. The third time 6 months with 6 more months half days and chronic fatigue. The fourth time put me on oxygen.

I want to offer hope to the people with Long Covid-19. Having been through four bad pneumonias, with increasingly long recovery times, and now disabled for doing Family Medicine, I have experience to share. I will write more about that in the next essay.

From 2017: Walking pneumonia is changing.

The classic bugs are four “atypical bacteria”:

mycoplasma pneumonia
chlamydia pneumonia (this is not the STD chlamydia. Different one.)
legionella
pertussis (whooping cough)

However, streptococcus pneumonia can also be a walking pneumonia OR a lobar pneumonia. In a lobar pneumonia the person usually is short of breath, running a fever of 102-104, and they point to where it is: hurts in the right upper chest. On chest x-ray there will be consolidation: whited out from fluid or swelling instead of nice ribs and dark air. They are often tachycardic and hypoxic.

In walking pneumonia the person often has no or minimal fever, they just feel tired or short of breath when they do things, and the chest xray can be “clear”. It isn’t really “normal”, it’s just that the bacteria or virus affects the entire lungs and causes some swelling throughout and doesn’t white it out.

“Double” pneumonia is when the chest film is whiting out on both sides. We also see the lungs whiting out with ARDS — acute respiratory distress syndrome. So after trauma in a car wreck and lots of broken ribs, the lungs can be bruised too and white out. Ow. Influenza virus can cause lung swelling and in the 1917-1918 flu infected military recruits lungs were swelling shut. They would turn blue and die.

“My” strep that I’ve had pneumonia with twice is streptococcus A, not strep pneumonia. It causes strep throat mostly though it can invade and cause sepsis or pneumonia or cellulitis. There are currently 4000+ known strains of strep A, and some are resistant to antibiotics or can cause kidney damage or do all sorts of nasty things. I think that “my” strep is resistant to azithromycin.

The current guidelines say to treat walking pneumonia with azithromycin. However, a paper came out this year saying that resistance to azithromycin is rising among streptococcus pneumonia and that nearly 50% of strains tested were resistant. Uh-oh. That means that azithomycin doesn’t work and the person can get sicker and may die. I talked to a pulmonologist in Seattle when I needed help with someone. He said that he would have said there weren’t any resistant strep pneumo strains here in Washington except that he had one intubated and in the ICU right then. “I’m convinced now, ” he said.

A lobar pneumonia is easier to diagnose. Abnormal chest x-ray, reasonably healthy people run a high white blood cell count (so my frail folks, immunosupressed folks and 90 year olds don’t raise their white blood cell count), and a fever (ditto) and look sick. The walking pneumonia people come in saying they have been coughing for 3 weeks or 4 weeks or two months. I am doing more lab testing because of the resistance.

This winter I have seen 6 different causes of walking pneumonia here: influenza A, respiratory syncytial virus (In more than one person over 60. That is NOT who the books say it should affect. It’s supposed to mostly cause bronchiolitis in babies and preemies), pertussis, strep pneumococcus, strep A and none of the above. All looking pretty much the same, but with different treatment.

https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/15/8/08-1187_article
https://www.cdc.gov/pneumonia/atypical/mycoplasma/index.html
http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/820736
https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/pdf/ar-threats-2013-508.pdf#page=79
RSV: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/rsv.html
Mycoplasma resistance to azithromycin has been reported too: http://erj.ersjournals.com/content/36/4/969