On The Edge of Humanity Magazine

Huge thanks to The Edge of Humanity Magazine, for publishing two essays.

The first one on May 9, 2022, that abortion must remain legal for women’s health:

The second today, about behavioral health in a pandemic and war. As caring humans, how could we NOT respond with distress to the suffering and deaths from both Covid-19 and disasters and wars?

I am so delighted to be featured on this platform. I enjoy so many of the artists and writers and poets who are featured there and I am very happy to contribute!

how doctors think, a dual pathway

A friend calls today and says that another person is bleeding and yet they have been set up to be seen Monday. Why isn’t this an emergency?

Based on the limited information the friend tells me, I agree with the doctors. It is NOT an emergency and I explain why. It is uncomfortable for the person because it may be cancer. Why is that not an emergency?

Let’s use chest pain in the emergency room as an example. Doctors have two brain tracks that are triggered simultaneously by every patient. The first one is “What could kill this person in the next five minutes?” The second is “What is common?” Common things are common and more likely. In medical school the really rare things are nicknamed zebras. You know there are a lot of horses but you can’t miss the zebra. I suppose that in Africa the common things are zebras and the rare ones are orcas or something like that.

Anyhow, the killers for chest pain are heart attacks, sudden death. But there could also be a dissecting aortic aneurysm, where the largest artery in the body is tearing. That person can bleed to death really really fast and that is a surgical emergency. No doctor wants to miss it. There could be a pulmonary embolism, a clot blocking the lung. Chest pain could be from a cancer. A very rare chest pain is from the valve leaflets in the heart tearing so that the person goes in to flash pulmonary edema. And there is Takayasu’s Arteritis, “broken heart syndrome”, where the heart suddenly balloons in size and again, heart failure ensues. Heart failure is actually pump failure, so fluid backs up in the lungs or the legs or both. It is usually slow but rarely very fast and dramatic. A collapsed lung can also cause a lot of pain. And my list is still not complete, I haven’t mentioned pericarditis or myocarditis or a compression fracture.

The common things do include heart attacks, but also anxiety, musculoskeletal problems, inflamed cartilage of the chest wall, fibromyalgia flares, broken ribs, trauma and other things. I was very puzzled in clinic by a woman with pain on both sides of her lower chest wall. In front but cutting through her chest. I ruled out many things. I thought that it was her diaphragm. I sent her to a rehab doctor for help. The rehab doctor sent her to radiology. She had a compression fracture of her spine and the nerves were sending pain messages on both sides. That was not even on my “differential diagnosis” list, because she had no back pain at all. My list changed that day.

Physicians and nurse practitioners and physicians assistants and registered nurses and licensed practical nurses and medical assistants are all trained to think of this differential diagnosis. We are alerted by the history and have to think down both pathways. Last year working as a temporary doctor, the medical assistant came to me saying, “This patient’s blood pressure is 80/60.” “Is he conscious?” I asked, as I went straight for the room. “Yes, he’s talking.” He WAS talking, which means that he’s gotten to 80/60 slowly or is used to it. His heart rate was fast, up near 120. I immediately had him drink water and keep drinking, as soon as he denied chest pain. The problem was dehydration: he was developmentally delayed and had only had one cup of fluid that day and it was now midafternoon. I spent time explaining that he needed 8 cups each day. Not more than that, because if he had too much fluid, it would lower his sodium and make his muscles weak. Most days he drank 3-4 cups. His chart graphed the problem: some days he had normal blood pressure and a normal heart rate. Other days his blood pressure was below normal and his heart rate was fast, his heart trying to make up for the low level of fluid. Cars don’t do so well when there is almost no oil, do they? His kidneys were affected as well. I asked him to drink the 8 cups a day, discussed the size of the cup (not 8 gallons, please) and then recheck labs in 2 weeks. If his kidneys did not improve, he would need a kidney specialist. It turned out that he had nearly fainted that morning in the waiting room. His group home person admitted that no one had noticed that he really was not drinking fluid. I thought that the patient understood and would try to drink a better amount of fluid.

So back to the person I was called about. Infection has been ruled out. This is blood in the urine. A kidney stone has been ruled out, but there is something in the kidney. This is urgent, but if the person is not bleeding hard, it is not emergent. When there is blood in the urine it does not take very much to turn it red. If there is a lot of blood, that can be an emergency, but from the story I got third person, it’s not very much. The emergency things are ruled out but there is still not a clear diagnosis. Yes, cancer is one of the possibilities but it could also be benign. Now a specialist is needed to figure out the next step and the differential diagnosis, the list of things it could be. They will order tests in the same dual order: what could kill this person quickly and what do we need to rule out as common? People often can be very anxious during this period, which is normal. The person says, “I don’t care what it ISN’T, I want to know what it IS.” But sometimes it is a zebra and it takes a while to get to that specific test.

Another example is a woman that I sent to the eye doctor. The optometrist thought it was something rare and bad. He sent her to the opthamologist, who ruled out the first thing, but thought it was something else rare and bad. He sent her to a retinal specialist. The retinal specialist ruled out the second rare and bad thing and said, “No, you have something very rare that is benign.” My patient said, “I have three diagnoses. Who do I believe?” I replied, “No, you have one. The optometrist knew it was unusual and sent you to an eye doctor. The eye doctor know it was unusual and sent you to an even more specialized eye doctor (a “sub specialist”. We keep them in basements.) Now you have a diagnosis. It was a scary process, but I think you should focus on the third opinion because hey, she said it’s benign and it won’t hurt you! That is the best outcome!” She thought about it and agreed. The process was frightening but the conclusion could not have been better.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: disquieting.

how to use a specialist

I am a rural Family Medicine doctor, board certified and board eligible. I have used the Telemedicine groups in the nearest big University Hospital since 2010.

Initially I started with the Addiction Telemedicine. I accidentally became the only physician in my county prescribing buprenorphine for opioid overuse in 2010. I panicked when I started getting calls. Dr. Merrill from UW had taught the course and gave me his pager number. I acquired 30 patients in three weeks, because the only other provider was suddenly unavailable. Dr. Merrill talked me through that 21 day trial by fire.

I think that I presented at least 20 patients to telemedicine the first year. The telemedicine took an hour and a half. First was a continuing medical education talk on some aspect of “overuse”, aka addiction, and then different doctors would present cases. We had to fill out a form and send it in. It had the gender and year of birth, but was not otherwise supposed to identify the person. TeleAddiction had a panel, consisting of Dr. Merrill (addiction), a psychiatrist, the moderator/pain doctor, and a physiatrist. Physiatrists are the doctor version of a physical therapist. They are the experts in trying to get people the best equipment and function after being blown up in the military or after a terrible car wreck or with multiple sclerosis. There would usually be a fifth guest specialist, often the presenter.

After a while, TeleAddiction got rolled into Telepain and changed days. They added other groups: one for psychiatry, one for HIV and one for hepatitis C. These can all overlap. I mostly attend TelePain and TelePsychiatry.

After a while, I pretty much know what the Telepain specialists are going to advise. So why would I present a patient at that point? Ah, good question. I use Telepain for the weight of authority. I would present a patient when the patient was refusing to follow my recommendations. I would present to Telepain, usually with a very good idea of what the recommendations would be. The team would each speak and fax me a hard copy. I would present this to the patient. Not one physician, and a rural primary care doctor, but five: I was backed up by four specialists. My patients still have a choice. They can negotiate and they always have the right to switch to another doctor. Some do, some don’t.

I am a specialist too. Family Practice is a specialty requiring a three year residency. The general practitioners used to go into practice after one year of internship. My residency was at OHSU in Portland, with rotations through multiple other specialties. We rotated through the high risk obstetrics group, alternating call with the obstetrics residents, which gave me excellent training for doing rural obstetrics and knowing when to call the high risk perinatologist. In my first job I was four hours by fixed wing from the nearest more comprehensive obstetrics, so we really had to think ahead. No helicopter, the distance was too far and over a 9000 foot pass, in all four directions. That was rather exciting as well.

sciatica

Gnomes have dermatomes
call me on their cell phones
inflammed neurons fire moans
after lifting heavy stones

gnomes with grumpy dermatomes
stop riding on your spotted roans
ice your backs, lie down at home
gnomes complain and curse and moan

gnomes with calming dermatomes
glad they iced them there at home
families help, they’re not alone
healing gnomes pained dermatomes


For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: dermatome.

from blue to breathe

I attended a medical conference on line yesterday and today and it made me very blue. At first it just frustrated me, because it is about increasing behavioral health access. Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, but they completely missed the biggest barrier for primary care: TIME.

With the current US medical corporate money extracting insurance non-caring system, primary care is increasingly forced into 20 or 15 or 10 minute visits. I fought my hospital district when they said “See patients for one thing only.” I replied “That is unethical and dangerous: if it is a diabetic with an infected toe, I HAVE to check their kidney function, because antibiotic dose must be adjusted if their kidney function is reduced.” And there are at least two and maybe three problems there: infection, and if the diabetes is out of control that worsens the infection, and then kidney function. And actually I have to be sure anyone going on antibiotics has good kidney function or adjust my dose. I am very very good at this, but it takes time. I can work with complex patients, with veterans, with opiate overuse, with depression: but none of this is a simple template slam dunk. A study more than a decade ago says that the “average” primary care patient had 5 chronic illnesses. My patients don’t want to come in for each one separately and anyhow, if they have kidney problems I have to pay attention when I pick medicines for their high blood pressure. None of it can be separated out. That is why medicine is complicated.

Someone asked why can’t I just post the price of a “simple” visit for a sore throat. But a sore throat can be viral, can be strep A, can be a paralyzed vocal cord, can be a throat abscess, can be vocal cord cancer. I can’t tell ahead of time. I can’t. Early on during covid, a patient called and wanted a Zoom visit for abdominal pain that he said was constipation. I said “No, I can’t do abdominal pain over Zoom safely.” I can’t ASSUME it is constipation. It was appendicitis and he had his appendix out that evening. He called from his hospital bed the next day to thank me for making him come in.

The conference made me blue because they ignored my questions about why they were not advocating for primary care to have more time with patients. They claim to be all about change, but changing the US medical system? Nope. Do not want to talk about that. But I do want to talk about it. You can help by letting Congress know: single payer or medicare for all. That insurance company gets 20 cents of every dollar to profit and wastes tons of money forcing doctors’ offices to call for prior authorization. And if we have single payer, think of all the small businesses that will start because the terror about health insurance will disappear! I think it would reduce everyone’s stress, except the insurance CEOs. And they have earned more than enough, goodbye greed.

I am also tired of specialists telling me that primary care needs to do MORE. When I get told that I am not doing enough about hypertension, bladder leakage, depression and stopping smoking, and then 20 other specialists lecture me. Ok, so one minute per topic to fulfill what all of them think I should do? I want a primary care conference where primary care doctors are celebrated: cases are presented where the specialist says what a brilliant job the primary care doctor did.

I received a consult letter from a cancer doctor a few years ago. He wrote that I had diagnosed the earliest case of chronic leukemia that he had ever seen and that he was impressed and the patient would do fine. That’s the conference that I want to go to: where primary care and specialists talk about that and we inspire more doctors to do primary care.

You can learn more and how to talk to your congressperson here: HealthCare Now: https://www.healthcare-now.org/

or at Physicians for a National Healthcare Program: https://pnhp.org

And put your vote and your money towards healthcare, not health insurance.

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.

speaking up

A friend says he does whatever he wants. He refuses to answer questions about how he makes his money. He doesn’t care if this annoys people. I suspect he may enjoy it.

I have one of those public jobs. Well, had. I have now been disabled from Family Medicine for a year. My lungs are much better than a year ago but they are not normal. And I have now seen 17 specialists and 3 primary care doctors since 2012. The consensus is “We don’t know.” Though many specialists are not willing to say that. What they say instead is, MY testing is NORMAL, go to someone else. My lungs are not normal, but I am on my fourth pulmonologist. I saw a cardiologist this year and the first thing he says is, “It’s your lungs, not your heart.” Well, yeah, I know that.

I miss my patients, but there is something freeing about not working. Ok, more money would be nice, but I am doing ok. Meanwhile, I am thinking about what to do now. I can write full time. Write, make music, travel (on a budget) and sing. And speak up.

Doctors have interesting portrayals on television. We went from Dr. Kildare to Dr. House, working our way through the shows with an emergency room and medical residents. ER drove me nuts. No one EVER dictated a chart so at the end of each show I hyperventilated at the hours of paperwork/computer/dictating they had left. House interests me because it’s always the thing that the patient is hiding or lying about that is the key. “Go search his apartment.” says House. I have figured out cases by getting permission to call family or a group home. More than once.

But a physician is a public figure. I had been here for less than a year when a woman comes up to me in the grocery store and says “What are my lab results?” I look at her blankly. I can’t remember if I really did the snappy comeback that comes to mind: “Take off your clothes and I will see if I remember.” I respond politely and she says, “Oh. I should call the office, right?” “Yes, I try to leave the work there,” I say. If a particularly difficult person was bearing down on me, I would whisper “cry” to my kids. That worked. They would act out on cue and I would be the harassed mother. The person would back off.

I am in a small town. We have three grocery stores. I see patients everywhere, now that it has been 22 years. If I remember every detail, that means they are or were really sick. And we have the layers of relationships: someone might have kids the same age or work with boats or be in chorus with me. Once I take my daughter to a party. The mom introduces me to two other mothers. “She’s my doctor,” says the introducing mom. “Well, me too.” says the second. “And me,” says the third. We all laugh.

Once I am visiting my brother outlaw’s bicycle shop. He has a customer. The customer starts talking to me too. Brother outlaw says, “Do you two know each other?” The customer eyes me. I have my neutral doc face on. “She’s seen me NAKED!” says the customer and I howl with laughter. What a great reply. And my brother outlaw gets it.

Docs have to pay attention to HIPAA. When three women say that I am their doctor, I reply, “Yeah and I left my brain at work, so I can’t remember a thing.” Those three were healthy, so I really do not remember labs or the results of a pap smear. Once I was in cut off shorts and waved at an older woman who was at the ophthalmologist’s. She sniffs and looks away. I get the giggles: I think she did not recognize me. My town is only 10,000 people, so after 22 years I have taken care of many of them. Though sometimes people thank me for taking care of their mother, and after it sounds unfamiliar I ask if they mean Dr. Parkman? Oh. Yes. People get me mixed up with two other small Caucasian woman doctors.

I started the “outfits inappropriate for work” category last year when I was still very sick and short of breath and on oxygen. I did not go out much, partly to avoid covid. My pneumonia was something other than covid and it was my fourth pneumonia and I should not need oxygen. Now I’ve had mild covid and the oxygen is only part time. I sang at my son’s wedding, off oxygen, so I can sing off oxygen for a short time. I danced off oxygen too and did get QUITE short of breath. Since I am no longer a public figure, I can speak out and speak up more. I am thinking about that, particularly with the recent Supreme Court news. I do not agree with what they seem to be planning.

Patient Satisfaction Score

The latest issue of Family Practice Medicine has an article on patient satisfaction scores.

I remember my first patient satisfaction score VIVIDLY.

I am in my first family medicine job in Alamosa, Colorado. I receive a 21 page handout with multiple graphs about my patient satisfaction scores. I am horrified because I score 30% overall. I am more horrified by the score than the information that I will not receive the bonus.

I go to my PA (physician’s assistant). He too has scored 30%. We are clearly complete failures as medical providers.

Then I go to my partner who has been there for over 20 years.

She snorts. “Look at the number of patients.”

“What?” I say. I look.

My score is based on interviews with three patients. Yes, you read that correctly. THREE PEOPLE.

And I have 21 pages of graphs in color based on three people.

I am annoyed and creative. I talk to the Physicians Assistant and we plan. I call the CFO.

“My PA and I think we should resign.”

“What? Why?”

“We scored 30% on the patient satisfaction. We have never scored that low on anything in our lives before. We are failures as medical people. We are going to go work for the post office.”

“NO! It’s not that important! It is only three patients! You are not failures!”

“Three patients?” I ask.

“Yes, just three.”

“And you based a bonus on three patients? And sent me 21 pages of colored graphs based on three patients?”

“Um…”

“I think we should discuss the bonus further….”

I did not get the bonus. It was a total set up and I am not sure that ANYONE got that bonus. Much of the maximum “earning potential” advertised was impossible for any one person to get. You would have to work around the clock. They got out of paying us by having multiple bonuses that each required a lot of extra work…. They were experts in cheating the employed physicians. That became pretty clear and I was 5th senior physician out of 15 in two years, because ten physicians got right out of there. I lasted three years, barely. I knew I would not last when an excellent partner refused her second year of $50,000 in federal rural underserved loan repayment to quit AND stayed in the Valley working in the emergency room. I called the CEO: “Doesn’t this get your attention?”

“She just didn’t fit in.”

“Yes, well, I don’t think anyone will.” I asked my senior partner how she stayed. “You pick your turf and you guard it!” said my partner. I thought, you know, I hope that medicine is not that grim everywhere.

Unfortunately I think that it IS that grim and getting grimmer. Remember that in the end, it is we the people who vote who control the US medical system. If we vote to privatize Medicare, we will destroy it. Right now 1 in 5 doctors and 1 in 4 nurses want to leave medicine. Covid-19 has accelerated the destruction of the US medical non-system, as my fellow Mad as Hell Doctor calls it. We need Medicare for all, a shut down of US health insurance companies, and to have money going to healthcare rather than to paying employees $100,000 or more per year to try to get prior authorizations from over 500 different insurance companies all with different rules, multiple insurance plans and different computer websites. Right now I have specialists in four different local systems. The only person who has read everyone’s clinic notes is ME because it is nearly impossible to get them to communicate with each other. Two of them use the EPIC electronic medical record but consider the patient information “proprietary” and I have to call to get them to release the notes to each other. Is this something that we think helps people’s health? I don’t think so. I have trouble with the system in spite of being a physician and I HATE going to my local healthcare organization. Vote the system down and tell your congresspeople that you too want Medicare For All and single payer.

Physicians for a National Healthcare Program: https://pnhp.org/

Healthcare Now: https://www.healthcare-now.org/

I have had people say, but think of all the people out of work when we shut down insurance companies. Yes AND think of the freedom to start small businesses if we no longer have to fear the huge cost of insurance: Medicare for all!

Fibbing Friday in the movies

  1. Finish the quote: One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous lines is, “I’ll be…” “I’ll be PEEEEACE!”
  2. Finish the song title: One of Randy Newman’s best known songs is “Why Can’t We…” “Why Can’t We Peace Each Other!”
  3. Twilight wasn’t about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. What was it about? The Forks Vampire/Human/Werewolf Peace Consortium that healed the entire world.
  4. What made Blade different from the vampires he hunted? He changed his name from Blade to Peace and his very touch brought peace to the hearts of the world of Vampires.
  5. In what movie did Billy Crystal play a character named, Miracle Max? WORLD PEACE IS HERE
  6. The Goonies wasn’t about a group of kids searching for a lost treasure. What was it about? Some silly kids who start a peace movement in their neighborhood and end up leading the UN.
  7. What was name of the character than Alan Rickman played in the first movie that he starred in? PEACEMAN.
  8. In The Professional, who does Natalie Portman’s character shoot with a paint pellet? The Horseman of WAR. Peace ensues.
  9. The Phantom of the Opera isn’t about a disfigured man who terrorizes a Paris opera house. What is it about? A Peace Phantom who keeps changing the tragedies into Joyous Hymns to Peace.

For Fibbing Friday.

making peace

denise levertov writes making peace
that it is an active process
it is not the absence of war
but a process in itself: how do we make it?
Make Peace

how do we wage peace?
wage is not the word
we do not do it for money
we must be more active than hoping
engender peace?
spread peace: like a pandemic
a pandemic of peace

the comfort of peace
the joy of peace
the love of peace

the peace of the grave
the peace of sleep
the peace of heaven
peace here now
peace not distant nor below the earth
peace conscious, aware and present
peace alive, breathing, welling up in everyone
peace here now

a pandemic of peace
a river of peace
peace flowing through and around, above and below us
peace full, peace out, peaced
let us verb it
I am peaced today
I peace you
I peace Russia
I peace the soldiers
I peace the Ukraine
I peace the entire world

I peace you
please, will you peace me?
peace me now, then there will be two
and everyone else
peace the world now
a pandemic of peace
make peace

___________________

I taped a conversation with a wren one morning in Wisconsin. I never saw my wren and clearly I have not got the language down, but she kept talking to me anyhow.

Conversation with a wren.