Influenza: check your pulse!

This year influenza is bad. My key test in influenza is not a chest x-ray. It is taking a resting pulse and a walking pulse.

Why? Influenza can cause a walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia is where the lungs are infected throughout and there is tissue swelling. It is different from a lobar pneumonia. In lobar pneumonia people run a higher fever, look sicker, and on the chest x-ray, that part of the lung is white: infection, not air.

In walking pneumonia, the chest x-ray may be read as normal. This is because all the lung tissue is equally swollen. The swelling means that there is less air space. The person may feel ok at rest. They feel exhausted when they walk because the heart must take up the slack for the missing air space, the swollen lungs. At rest this week one person’s heart rate is 84. After walking it is 124. Normal is 60-100, so 124 is like running a marathon: exhausting and hard on your heart and body.

I have patients saying “I was sick two weeks ago and I am still exhausted.” If their pulse is much over 100 after they walk, they cannot work until it comes down. If they work and wear themselves out, the lungs can’t heal. The treatment is rest. If they are at work with a pulse of 114 or 124, then they risk getting a secondary infection in already damaged lungs. They could die.

Check your pulse at home. Count the number of heartbeats in 60 seconds. That is your pulse. Walk around, sit down, and check again. That is the walking pulse. Over 100 is not normal.

This is a bad influenza. The tamiflu (oseltamivir) helps but works best in the first three days of flu. Check your pulse, be seen, rest and get well.

http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/news/three-die-of-flu-on-peninsula-public-helath-officals-say-a-fourth-death-said-to-have-been-in-seattle/

sober garden

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: garden.

We have beer gardens at many local events. Centrum music, the Wooden Boat Festival. People have to show identification to get into the beer garden and must keep the drink in there.

I want to start a Sober Garden as well as a Beer Garden. Let’s have a substance free area, roped off, for families and those who are choosing not to use substances, alcohol, opioids, tobacco, meth, whatever. At the events with families, the Beer Garden is roped off, but let’s rope both off. Let us have a Sober Garden and have food trucks and drinks and welcome families and welcome people who are not drinking alcohol or using other substances.

Let’s bring children out to the music and let families set a conscious example. There is no stigma if it is a Sober Garden for families and to support the whole community, including those recovering from addiction. Let us make it conscious and attractive.

When we rope off the Beer Garden and check identification to get in, aren’t we sending the message to the youth, especially teens, this is special, you are not allowed. Let us reverse that and have a bracelet for those going in to the Sober Garden. A sticker, a garden for families, a garden for people healing, a garden for making a different choice.

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music by Mike and Ruthy: simple and sober. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsFlHuhDP0A

My garden waiting under snow for spring.
Spring buds in the ornamental plum, with a bird.

Sometimes it takes a while to warm up to an idea. But spring will come and warmth.

Connections between Pain, Opioid use, Suicide and Opioid Use Disorder.

Excellent blog by Janaburson: https://janaburson.wordpress.com/2019/01/14/complex-connections-pain-opioid-use-suicide-and-opioid-use-disorder/

The picture is the tree with berries that the robins are eating, outside my clinic window. They clear it from the top down. Deer come too and stand on their back legs to reach up for berries.

augmenting a living will

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: anticipate. Anticipate can mean thinking ahead.

I wrote this in 2009 under the title “Better than a living will.” I think both living wills and POLST forms help families. Do you have one?

A living will is better than nothing, but unfortunately they are written by lawyers and don’t answer key questions. The number one cause of death in the United States is heart disease. The living will usually says “if two doctors certify that I am terminal within six months, don’t use extraordinary measures.” This has three main problems. One is what constitutes an extraordinary measure? Two, doctors are usually somewhat in denial and aren’t very good at saying when someone has only six months to live: for hospice people are often referred within days of death. Three: the most common cause of death is heart disease. Think about heart disease: if you are having a heart attack, the two doctors haven’t a clue whether you are terminal in the next 6 months. Actually your heart could stop in the next 5 minutes and then they would be very comfortable saying that you are dead, but the real question is “Do you want a natural death?”

People say they want a natural death but when confronted with a form, they often are a bit squeamish. In the state of Washington we have a POLST form: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. This is much more helpful and practical than the living will and it is meant to augment it, not replace it. It has four questions. The first is “Patient has no pulse and is not breathing.” This means that the person is dead. Does that person want an attempt at resuscitation? Check resuscitate or do not resuscitate. I ask if people want a natural death and people agree that resuscitation is not natural. Also, if someone is in their 70s or older, if the resuscitation is successful (mostly not) they are likely to have some brain damage from lack of oxygen. People often say, “Well, bring me back if I’m going to be okay.” I say that unfortunately our higher power has not provided us with a little pop up thing like roasting turkeys have that says “Done.” We really don’t know. We may have opinions, especially if the person is 40 and otherwise healthy versus 83 and has had a quadruple bypass and died three previous times. We have 8 minutes to bring someone back, so if you want to be resuscitated, die in the emergency room. The odds are much better. Also, most of the security guards at Las Vegas casinos have brought back more people than I have, because they have the automatic defibrillators and they are quick to put them on when someone wins a jackpot, grabs their chest, and keels over. If someone asks what I would do if I were them, I do answer. It depends on age and health. As a doctor I want to bring someone back if they are reasonably healthy and there is a decent chance. I don’t really want to do CPR on 90 year olds because it doesn’t work and their ribs break. Ick.

I once was doing a form with an elderly couple. The husband had already had more than one heart attack and he had been resuscitated from a cardiac arrest once already. I asked about a natural death and if he wanted to be resuscitated again and he said, “No, I don’t want that.” His wife elbowed him, “Yes you do.” He said, “I do? Why?” She said, “You have to stick around to take care of me!” He said, “Oh, okay. Yes, I do.” He WAS taking excellent care of her: she had by then had “end-stage” emphysema since she had come to our clinic 12 years earlier. I asked the pulmonologist how that could be and she said, “Some people are just wrapped in cotton wool by their families and they can stay around for years.” I don’t mind if someone wants to be recusitated even if I think it’s medically futile, because most people make sensible choices. If someone is really frightened of death, at a certain point no doctor can keep them around if the body has stopped working. There are really very few cases like comas or brain injury where someone can be kept alive on a machine. It is extremely rare.

I was discussing the choice with a woman in her 80s and her daughter and the 80 year old said, “I don’t want to think about this.” I said, “It may be uncomfortable to think about, but if you don’t tell me and your daughter what you prefer, we would have to guess. We don’t want to guess and we would probably err on the side of doing too much.” She grimaced, but she did make the decisions. The POLST form and living will are only used when we can’t ask someone, so a person who can talk can change their mind.

Question two is “Medical interventions”, asking how much intervention you think you would like. There are four levels on our revised form. The most interventional is defibrillation (shock), intubation (ventilator) and CPR. Since I live in a rural area, I also have the luxury of asking whether people want to be transferred to a big hospital. I explain that I can use medicine for a heart attack, but I don’t have a heart doctor or surgeon and I can’t do stents or surgery or bypasses or anything besides medicines and oxygen. Sometimes being rural protects people who don’t want much intervention, since the cardiologist and pulmonologist and gastroenterologist aren’t down the hall. Who would refuse to be transferred? A man who had two previous heart surgeries said, “I don’t want to wake up with that scar on my chest again. It hurts.” A frail man in his upper 80s had pneumonia and a tricky heart and kidneys. We said that we were family doctors and a cardiologist and nephrologist and pulmonologist would no doubt do more and they could do some monitoring that we couldn’t. He said, “Do the best you can for me here. I trust you and my family is here and I will either pull through or I won’t.” Four days later we told the family that he wasn’t. If we protected his lungs and heart from too much fluid, his kidneys failed more, and if we helped his kidneys, he couldn’t breathe. We changed to comfort care and he was surrounded by his family. I think that we all felt comfortable that we had given him the most respectful care possible and had honored his wishes. The second most interventional choice on the form is “All care above and consider oral/nasal airway, bag-mask/demand valve, monitor cardiac rhythm, medication, IV fluids.” The least interventional is comfort care only: “Oral and body hygeine, reasonable efforts to offer food and fluids orally, medication, positioning, wound care, warmth, appropriate lighting and other measures to relieve pain and suffering. Privacy and respect for the dignity and humanity of the patient/resident. Transfer only if comfort measures fail.” I like the thoroughness of the comfort measures.

The third question is “Antibiotics”. Three choices: no antibiotics unless needed for comfort, no invasive(IM/IV)antibiotics or full treatment. Who would choose no antibiotics? Sometimes someone with end stage cancer or a very disabling disease, like Lou Gehrig’s. Someone with a terminal illness who is not going to get better and is ready.

The fourth question is “Artificially Administered Fluids and Nutrition.” Three choices again: No feeding tube/IV fluids (provide other measures to assure comfort), no long term feeding tube/IV fluids (provide other measures to assure comfort), or full treatment. Most people choose the second. Most people would like nutritional support if they have a reasonable chance of getting better. An elderly frail person with pneumonia sometimes needs iv feeding, or after surgery or after a bad accident. Most people do not want long term feeding by iv or tube if they are in a coma or have severe brain injury to the point where they can’t even eat.

I am very happy to have the POLST form and it is an excellent augmentation to the living wills. It is very comforting to families as well. If a widowed mother has discussed her decisions with me and signed the form, then it doesn’t fall to her three children to make decisions about how much care to give. She has left them and me a map and guidelines and we try to follow them as best we can. We are not left with the fear that maybe we did too little and that we should have done more. The hardest decision with a loved one is when to stop intervening.

I want the POLST form to have one more section. Question five: “Memory loss”. If you have lost your memory to the point where you no longer recognize family, you have forgotten personal hygiene and toilet training, you may not even be able to speak any more, do you still want other things treated? My answer is no, for me. Too many of our hospital patients are frail, elderly, demented and the hospital confuses them. They often call out or cry or scream at night because it is frightening to be in another place and they don’t like having their blood drawn. Sometimes we have to drug them or use restraints in order to treat the pneumonia or urinary tract infection. I really wonder how ethical it is. The problem is that by the time they have lost their memory, they can’t really say, “no, don’t keep treating me.” Except for one woman. I have one lovely woman who has been at our nursing home for more than 4 years. She realized that she was losing her memory and said to her husband, “I don’t want any drugs, no ivs, no feeding tubes ever. And I never want to go to the hospital again.” He visits her every day and talks to her. Sometimes she won’t let me examine her on my routine visit, but that is okay. Once she ran a fever of 102 for two days and didn’t eat or drink anything. I checked with her husband and he stuck with her wishes. The fever went away and she got better. I am so happy that she doesn’t have to have medicines or any blood draws or anything that she doesn’t want. Another woman told me that she’d gone to our hospital family group on death and dying. Her husband had lost his memory and was in a nursing home, having gotten to the point of not recognizing her and not remembering toilet training. She said that the group said, “He’s not dead.” and weren’t very welcoming. She said, “They don’t understand. He’s left his body and all I have is the live shell. He’s really gone and he left slowly, bit by bit. They don’t understand that the part that was him IS dead.”

I don’t think that doctors are terribly good at doing POLST forms with people. For a while I thought it was because my partners were younger than I was. Then I moved to a clinic where two doctors had left and they were both older than me. They had lots of people over age 65 and practically none of them had POLST forms. I’m not saying that people under 65 should not have a form. They really should, especially if they care about that coma scenario. But I REALLY think that people over 65 should have a chance to address this. Our form is bright green and after it is filled out I scan it into the computer and then the owner is supposed to put the original on his/her refrigerator, where the ambulance crew knows to check for it. Someone still might end up with a ventilation tube temporarily, if they become unconscious in a public place and the crew has no guidance. They too have to err on the side of doing more rather than less. I theorize that doctors’ discomfort with the POLST form stems from a mostly unconscious idea that their job is to “make people better.” I have been interested in end of life issues since medical school and it occurred to me that if I thought of my job as to “save” people or keep them alive, then I was going to have a 100% failure rate, because actually everyone dies eventually. Instead I thought that my job was to help as best I could with a good life and a good death. It is turning out that no two people define a good death in the same way. It is entirely individual. My job turns out to be partly about telling people and families when I think death is approaching and helping them define their good death.

To see if your state has a POLST form: https://polst.org/

doctor’s orders

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: recommend.

doctor’s orders

I recommend a daily walk

no earbuds
no headphones

listen to the wind
to the trees
to the birds
to the traffic
to the city
or the country

feel the ground
the pebbles
the sidewalk
the dirt
the grass
the wind
the sun
the rain
the cold
the crunch
of snow or ice

look at trees
weeds
birds
dogs
people
sidewalks
cracks
water
snow

smell cold
snow
rain
sun
sand
sidewalks
grass

taste the wind
a snowflake
a leaf
ice

touch the earth

and let the rest go

USPSTF

USPSTF is the United States Preventative Services Task Force.

Here: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/.

This is a site I often use and frequently show to patients. For further reading….that is, if they want to know more about a topic. There is a nice two minute video about the Task Force right now, saying that it’s a volunteer organization that started 30 years ago, to review research about preventative care, agree on a recommendation and publish that recommendation.

Before they publish or update a recommendation, they ask for public comments and expert comments.

I have great respect for the USPSTF. Let’s take breast cancer screening. The current recommendation is here: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/RecommendationStatementFinal/breast-cancer-screening1. There was a big furor when this came out, because the recommendation is for biennial mammograms. Every other year, not every year. The USPSTF went through reams of data and papers and said that they could discern no difference between yearly and every other year screens in normal risk patients. The screening recommendations are different for people with abnormal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

So who yelled about that recommendation? Radiologists for one. Now, there is a financial incentive on their part to have women get the mammograms yearly. The American Cancer Society was annoyed and the Susan B. Komen Foundation too. But the USPSTF stand their ground. The guidelines get updated in a 5-10 year cycle.

Reasons that I like the guidelines:

1. They are online. My patients can look at them too.
2. They make recommendations for screening by age groups.
3. They rate their recommendation: A, B or C level evidence or I for Insufficient Evidence.
4. You can read the fine print. They put the article with all the detail and all the references on the website. The weight of evidence is apparent.
5. They say “We don’t know.” when there is insufficient evidence.
6. The site is pretty easy to use.

I have to weigh evidence in medicine. A functional medicine “study” that is not a randomized double blind clinical trial and that only has 20 patients is really more of a case report. Hey, we tried this supplement and they liked it. The recent study about alcohol from Europe with 599,912 patients has a lot more weight. The Women’s Health Initiative had 28,000 women in the estrogen/progesterone arm, and 21,000 in the estrogen only/had a hysterectomy arm. Length of study, design, all of these are important.

There is a recent headline about a study saying that coronary calcium scores have now had one study where they were useful. That is a study. The guideline from the USPSTF is here: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/UpdateSummaryFinal/cardiovascular-disease-screening-using-nontraditional-risk-assessment. The guideline says “insufficient evidence” and that’s what I tell patients who ask for it. I offer referral to a cardiologist to discuss it, but I am reluctant to do a test where I really don’t know what to do with the results. I pay very close attention to the guidelines and they are always changing. They have the strongest and least biased (by money and greed) evidence that I can find. And patients can read them too, which is wonderful.

Even though the USPSTF says that there is insufficient evidence for mammograms after age 75, we can still do them. That is, medicare will keep covering them. Some people keep doing them, some don’t. I discuss guidelines, but I will support the person continuing the care if that is what they want and they are informed. People are infinitely variable in their choices and logic.

The chances of a poet reaching us are slim

I wrote this after working at Madigan Army Hospital in 2009 for three months as a temporary doctor. I am posting it here because Shoreacres sent me this link about poetry and medicine.

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I would pray if I could. It seems ludicrous to pray for a poet, but there it is.

It started with two soldiers. The Army was embedding a behavioral health specialists (the new politically correct term for mental health specialists) in units starting before 2010. Soldiers were trained in suicide prevention, instructed to stay with a buddy if they made any comments about suicide. A soldier was to walk his or her buddy directly to the behavioral health specialist or to to higher rank. As soldiers went on their fourth and fifth tours, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injuries were rampant. Unfortunately, psychologists basically felt like they were putting Power Ranger band-aids on hemorrhaging brain arteries. It wasn’t working.

A soldier was accompanying a convoy in Iraq when an IED went off. Right through the bottom of a convoy truck. The driver died screaming from an arterial groin bleed. Two of the eight soldiers were killed. The truck was abandoned and the rest of the convoy got back to the safe (mostly) zone. That soldier had the glassed ghost look in her eyes and got quiet. The usual response was to avoid someone’s eyes and hope for the best, but another soldier wouldn’t let her alone. She kept asking, “Tell me. What happened?”

The first soldier finally snarled out part of the story.

The second soldier pinned a poem to her pillow, describing the event. Our first soldier came in screaming and threw the crumpled ball of paper at her chest. “That’s not what happened! That’s not how I felt! Not even close!”

“Well, what DID happen!” The rest of the unit tried to hide in plain sight or disappeared to the bathroom or got really interested in books or watching the same video over and over, but the two of them stood face to face and went at it. Words, not fists. The crumpled paper was retrieved, the poem rewritten. It took two weeks before soldier one suddenly said, “That’s it. That’s pretty good. For a poem.” But she was back, her gruff foul mouthed efficient self.

Of course it wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the behavioral health specialist hadn’t joked about it to his superiors. The Army was really desperate. In spite of all the work, the suicide rate was still challenging the combat death rate, and there just weren’t enough people to deploy.

The Army went looking for poets. Four were promptly deployed into units. Two of them turned out to be pretty useless, but the other two: the units thrived. Word started getting around. The poets were swamped with people from other units.

The recruiting campaign: “We want you, yes we do, poet show your heart so true!” was painful, but the Army did not care. And poets stepped forward from within the ranks! Don’t ask, don’t tell turned on it’s head. In spite of the medical community’s cries for waiting until more scientific studies were done, and the press and cartoonists drawing pictures recruiters welcoming wimpy pale asthenic writers with open arms, the Army embedded a poet in every unit, right beside the behavioral health specialist. Oh, of course they tried prose too. The academics had a field day fighting about why prose didn’t work. But it didn’t.

It’s the height of irony that we’re cut off with everything we need, except a poet. A water source, food, ammunition. We’re holding our position. Our back up poet is dead ten days ago, but our main poet got an IED blast. Traumatic brain injury, two weeks ago. We can’t get him out, of course. You would think someone would bleed if they were that bad, but he just can’t hold on to any memory. The soldiers tell him their stories, he struggles and tries, but he can barely hold on to one line. Can’t read, though he can write. Can’t see very well either.

The whole unit is starting to look glass-eyed and haunted. Smith asked to go in the jail yesterday and for the door to be closed. He promptly started screaming. It got quiet after a while so they went in. He was sitting on bunk. “Ok.” he said. “I might come back tomorrow.” Some soldiers are writing their own limericks or free verse. It’s ironic that it hurts morale so much, knowing there’s help available. Knowing the chances of a poet reaching us in time are very slim.

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I will use this for the Ragtag Daily Prompt: comeback.