Doing the best with what you have

Medicare doesn’t cover everything.

It can’t. There are new things being thought up all the time. Some are legitimate and some are scams. There are tons of quack medicine videos and supplements and stuff on line.

But there is also a matter of personnel and resources. Sometimes we do not have enough. Then we have to do the best we can with what we have.

There is a particularly difficult case from my second year of rural Family Medicine with Obstetrics. Things went right but just barely. This is from memory and over 25 years ago, in the 1990s, so I can’t violate hipaa because I can’t remember names from then. Mostly.

I had a pregnant woman whose pregnancy had gotten complicated. Her ultrasound showed an abnormal placenta. Very rarely, the placenta can grow into the uterus too far, and form a placenta increta. Even more rarely it can grow THROUGH the wall of the uterus and into another body part. That is called a placenta percreta.

In this case we thought that the placenta had grown into the bladder. We were not certain. The obstetricians were aware. Our patient was aware. A cesarean section was planned for when the fetus was mature.

Then she developed a second pregnancy complication. Preeclampsia. This is a complication where blood pressure rises, there is protein in the urine and many things can go wrong. It can progress to eclampsia, which means seizures. This is Very Bad, which means the mother and fetus can die.

She developed HELLP syndrome. This is an acronym. The P is what I worried about, platelets. Platelets help your blood clot. Her platelet count was dropping out of sight. We were rural, 180 miles from the nearest high risk obstetrician. We did have blood for transfusion but NO PLATELETS.

The treatment for preeclampsia with HELLP syndrome is to deliver the baby. I called our obstetrician the minute I got the lab result. “No platelets — can I fly her out?”

“YES! FLY HER OUT!”

Transfer to a bigger hospital with facilities for a premature infant and with platelets, because she needs a cesearean section and she could need a hysterectomy if that darn placenta has grown through. Messy.

Problem number three: weather. We are in Alamosa, Colorado, at 7500 feet, which is the valley floor. We are surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks with passes in four directions. That nearest hospital with platelets is 180 miles and over a 10,000 foot pass and it is snowing.

I call Denver first. 250 miles. Fixed wing life flight. Nope, the weather is too bad to the east and north.

I call Albuquerque. 250 miles. Nope, the pass is socked in, the plane can’t get through.

I call Grand Junction. About the same distance. They say “WHERE are you?” I’ve never tried to send anyone there before. They demur and I cajole and beg. “Okay, okay!” The high risk obstetrics doctor can’t be looking forward to meeting this patient, but they accept.

From the start of calling to the arrival of a plane and crew usually takes about four hours. I want to chew my nails.At last I hug my patient goodbye and they go.

I get the call about 6 hours later. Delivered and they did have to do a hysterectomy, but mother and baby are fine. Her bladder was untouched. They had platelets.

Whew! I was so happy, and mom and baby too. Let’s give credit to my patient too: she got prenatal care. She paid attention. She knew she was high risk. I had told her to come in if anything changed and she did, so we caught the preeclampsia on time.

But it could have gone wrong in all sorts of ways. We were both careful and we were lucky. If the storm had been over Alamosa we would have done the best we could then, too, but it could have turned out quite differently. And thanks to the high risk obstetrics doctors who accept complex patients that they have never seen from rural doctors like me!

Blessings. Blessings on all the nurses and doctors and midlevels and hospital housecleaners and security and lab workers and the Life Flight personnel and First Responders and everyone who has worked and worked and worked through the pandemic.

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I took the photograph in Maryland in December: abstract and complicated water, ice and reflections.

Why can’t I just call for a referral?

Why, you say, do you need to SEE your doctor for a referral? It’s so stupid!

Multiple reasons:
1. Triage.
2. Scarce resources.
3. Your primary care may be able to handle it.
4. The specialist only wants to see people that they can help.
5. You may think that you and Dr. Google have it figured out, but Dr. Google sucks.
6. For physical and occupational therapy, it has to do with caution and malpractice insurance.

Let’s go through them backwards.

6. People call for a referral to physical therapy. I say I need to see them. No, I can’t make a diagnosis through the phone. Arm hurts is rather vague. The person says their insurance does not need a referral. But then the physical therapist wants one: why? Well, my malpractice outranks the physical therapists, so to speak. If the therapist sees you without your doctor examining you and something happens… yes, things have happened.

5. Dr. Google. You’ve read extensively and you know exactly what is going on and you just need the referral. No, you have not gone to medical school or residency. Every quack who can say anything even faintly convincing now has a website. Dr. Google sucks. There are very very rare exceptions to that…

4. The gastroenterologist does not want to see your bladder problem. The neurosurgeons hate seeing the people that will not benefit from back surgery, but they have to because the back pain patient doesn’t believe me, so the patient has to hear it from the surgeon. The patient thinks I am “gate keeping” them from the specialist. I’m not.

3. Primary care learns to handle a lot of things. One frequent referral is a postnasal drip, to the Ear Nose and Throat specialist. I recommend trying an acid blocker first. The person doesn’t believe me. “I don’t have heartburn.” I sigh, and do the referral. $450.00 later, the ENT has put the scope through their nose and put them on an acid blocker.

2. Scarce resources: We had 8 neurologists on the Olympic Peninsula for about 450,000 people. We are down to two. I called one for a complex stroke-that-wasn’t and had to do a series of MRI/MRA studies looking for specific things. It was a vertebral arterial bleed. Rare. I called the neurologist back and he said, “Send them to the other one. I am swamped.” He is in the larger population area and two others quit. The rule is sickest is seen first…

1. Triage. What is wrong, what are we worrying about and how sick is this person? If they are really sick I will call the specialist to ask for recommendations, or which test to do, or see if they need to be seen within a short time. I am not going to interrupt the specialist unless I think it’s really necessary! That would burn through my carefully built credit with them! And I have had a person come in for a new patient visit for a “lung problem”. I call the specialist, get him seen and he has a heart bypass….

0. And I am a specialist too. I am a Family Practice physician, board certified and board eligible, three year residency. The internist, the pediatrician, we are all specialists and all special.