What I learned from my first doctor job

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

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

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

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

Weird, I thought.

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

I thanked them both and the meeting broke up.

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

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

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

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

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

Falling II

poem: Falling II

I can’t fall
until I let go

my cousin says that people learn
to stay away from angry people

I am hurt and then let that go
and think, yes, she is right
my cousins say over and over
that I am too angry when I’m not angry
until it makes me angry

my cousin gives good advice
I let go and stay away
it’s not my anger

I thought allopathic medicine
was where we listened to the patient
I let go of that too, disillusioned

a family member wants to be free
I let go

I let go of you slowly
I let go of coffee
I let go of sitting next to you
I let go of seeing you daily
I let go of asking
I let go of driving by

I let go of hope

I have not let go of longing

I think that I can fall
without letting go of longing

it is only a thread
like a spider’s web
thrown into the universe

I don’t think it will stop me
from falling

Admitting diagnosis: old guy, don’t know

I wrote this in 2010, after I worked for three months at Madigan Army Hospital. I really enjoyed working there. It was the first time since residency that I had worked in a big hospital — 450 beds — and in a not rural setting. I kept asking to work with residents and eventually the Captain and I worked it out to both our satisfactions.

______________________________________

During my three months temp job at a nearby Army Hospital, I am asked to help the Family Medicine Inpatient Team (FMIT) whenever a faculty member is sick or out or deployed, which turns out to be fairly often. I enjoy this because I want to work with residents, Family Practice doctors in training. It is very interesting to be at a training program, watch the other faculty and work at a 400 bed hospital instead of my usual 25 bed one.

Two patients need to be admitted at the same time on our call day, so the second year resident takes one and I take the other. The report on mine is an 82 year old male veteran, coughing for three weeks, emergency room diagnosis is pneumonia.

The resident soon catches up with me because her person is too sick and gets diverted to the ICU. Mr. T, our gentleman, is a vague historian. He says that he has always coughed since he quit smoking 15 years ago and he can’t really describe his problem. He’d gotten up at 4:30 to walk around the assisted living; that is normal for him because he still does some o the maintenance. He had either felt bad then or after going back to sleep in a chair and waking at 10. “I didn’t feel good. I knew I shouldn’t drive.”

He’s had a heart attack in the past and heart bypass surgery. Records are vague. The radiologist reads the chest xrays essentially as, “Looks just like the one 3 months ago but we can’t guarantee that there isn’t a pneumonia or something in there.” He has a slightly elevated white blood cell count, no fever, and by then I do a Mini-mental status exam. He scores 22 out of 30. That could mean right on the edge of moderate dementia, or it could be delirium. I get his permission to call his wife.

“Oh, his memory has been bad since he spent a year in a chair telling them not to amputate his toes. And he was on antibiotics the whole time. He wasn’t the same after that. This morning he just said he didn’t feel right and that he shouldn’t drive.” So his wife called an ambulance.

The third year chief resident comes by and wants to know the admitting diagnosis. “Old guy, don’t know.” is my reply. “Either pneumonia or a urinary tract infection or a heart attack maybe with delirium or dementia or both.

The second year is helping me put in the computer orders, because I am terrible at it still. She could put them in upside down and asleep. “Why are we admitting him, anyhow? We can’t really find anything wrong, why not just send him home?”

“We can’t send him home because he can’t tell us what’s wrong. He might have an infection but he might not, and he has a really bad heart. If we send him home and he has a heart attack tonight, we would feel really bad. And he might die.”

I was getting a cold. I had planned to ask to work a half day but half the team was out sick so I just worked. But by morning I had no voice and felt awful. I call in sick.

At noon the phone rings. It is the second year. “You know Mr. T, who we admitted last night?”

“Yes,” I say.

“He had that heart attack during the night. Got taken to the cath lab. You made me look really good.” We had worked on the assumption that it could be early in a heart attack though the first labs and the ECG were negative. I had insisted on cardiac monitoring and repeating the enzymes. The resident had finished the note after I left and the night team had gotten the second and abnormal set of enzymes.

82 year olds are tricky. With some memory loss he couldn’t tell us much except that “I don’t feel right.” He was right not to drive and we were right to keep him in the hospital. And if it had all been normal in the morning, I still would not have felt bad about it. The residents are looking for a definitive diagnosis, but sometimes it’s “Old guy, don’t know,” until you do know.

No pandas

Today is PANS/PANDAS awareness day. I wrote this a couple weeks ago.

PANDAS PHYSICIANS NETWORK: PANS/PANDAS AWARENESS DAY

___________________________________

No pandas

I don’t have PANDAS because in the United States we barely believe in it in children and we don’t at all in adults.

I don’t have PANDAS because even though one psychiatrist said I did, he retired, and the next one says I don’t. Then not sure then no. They don’t agree.

I don’t have PANDAS because my primary care doctor won’t read the guidelines even after I have been her patient for seven years.

I don’t have PANDAS because my pulmonologist has never heard of it.

I don’t have PANDAS because it would be a lot easier to put me on a mood stabilizer to shut me up than listen to me.

I don’t have PANDAS because I am labelled difficult because I am afraid to take a mood stabilizer because I do not get a fever or a white count so my main symptom of infection is that other doctors think that I am manic though I am hypoxic and short of breath. They want to fix my mood while I want to not die of pneumonia, so our goals are at odds.

I don’t have PANDAS because I am a doctor and if I had PANDAS my fellow local doctors would feel guilty that they have told each other that I am bipolar and manic for the last 18 years and have shunned me at the county medical meetings and won’t even send me the invitations, except for the one that forwards them. He says he has given them my email and he doesn’t understand why they don’t send me the invitations.

I don’t have PANDAS because Seattle Children’s doesn’t allow the Cunningham Panel to be drawn and they say there is not enough evidence yet.

I don’t have PANDAS because I can’t afford to pay $925 on my own for the Cunningham Panel and anyhow my antibody level is back to whatever is my new baseline, higher than before no doubt.

I don’t have PANDAS because the other doctors are frightened: if I have PANDAS then who else does and if I have chronic fatigue caused by hypoxia and fibromyalgia and it’s related to PANDAS then who else would they have to test and neuropsychiatric is a whole different thing from psychiatric and we swear that we don’t know what causes chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.

I don’t have PANDAS because I am an adult who lives in the US though if I was in Canada or Europe I could in fact have PANDAS.

I don’t have PANDAS because in the United States we barely believe in it in children and we don’t at all in adults.

Covid-19: Emotional weather

I do not think of emotions as bad or good. None of them are bad or good. They are information, controlled by electrical impulses and hormones, evolved over millions of years (or endowed by our creator, for those who swing that way).

I don’t dismiss emotions. I listen to them.

I think of myself as an ocean. There is all sorts of stuff happening in the depths that I don’t understand. Probiotics, for example. I don’t take them. If not for penicillin, I’d be dead many times over, from strep A pneumonia twice and other infections. I don’t think we understand probiotics yet. We don’t understand the brain, either.

The emotions are the weather in my life. I don’t really control them but they don’t control my ocean, either. Some days are sunny and gorgeous and then a storm may blow up. I am afraid of hurricanes, one destroyed my grandparents’ house in North Carolina, on the outer banks. I think all the cousins still mourn that house. And I miss my grandparents too, all of them. And my parents and my one sister.

See? The weather got “bad” there for a moment, but it isn’t bad. Storms have their own beauty though we hope to batten the hatches and that not too much damage is done. Maybe there is rain, scattered showers, sun breaks, a lenticular cloud. In the Pacific Northwest on the coast, the weather can change very quickly and we have microclimates. My father lived 17 miles away, but inland from me and in a valley. It was warmer in the summer and colder in the winter.

My goal with my weather emotions is to pay attention to them, let the storms blow in and out, and try not to harm anyone else because of my weather. When my sister was in hospice, we had a sign up in my small clinic. It said that my sister was in hospice with cancer and that clinic would be cancelled at some point with little warning. Patients were kind and gentle with me. And then it was cancelled, when she died. I got cards from people. They were so kind, thank you, thank you, and I could barely take it in. My maternal family then dealt with grief by having lawsuits. I don’t think that is a good way to deal with grief, but we just see things differently. Maybe it’s the right way for them. I don’t know.

Whenever I was having internal emotional weather that stirred me up, I would tell my nurse or office manager. Because they will sense my weather and need to know what is up. I had enormous support from them during a divorce, while my partners treated me horribly. My nurses and office manager knew me and my partners didn’t. My partners distanced me as if a divorce were catching. Whatever. Their loss.

Sometimes patients sensed that I was upset. I could tell by their faces. If they didn’t ask, I would. Bring the emotions out. Reassure them that I AM grumpy but not at them. Stuff in my own life. No worries.

Sometimes clinic is about a patient’s weather. They ask if they can tell me something. Often it is prefaced by “Maybe I need an antidepressant.” or “I feel really bad.” When they tell the story, usually I would say, “I think it is perfectly reasonable and normal that you feel angry/hurt/shocked/horrified/grieved/upset.” And then I would ask about an antidepressant or a counselor and most of the time, the person would say, “Well, I don’t think I need it right now.” What they needed was to know that their weather was NORMAL and REASONABLE.

I am seeing things on Facebutt and on media saying that mental health problems and behavioral health problems are on the rise. Maybe we should reframe that. Maybe we could say, “The weather is really bad right now for everyone and it’s very frightening and it is NORMAL and REASONABLE to feel frightened/appalled/angry/in denial/horrified/confused/agitated/anxious or WHATEVER you feel.” This weather is unprecedented in my lifetime, but as a physician who had very bad influenza pneumonia in 2003 and then read about the 1918-19 influenza, I have been expecting this. Expecting a pandemic. Expecting bad weather. This will pass eventually, we will learn to cope, be gentle with yourself and be gentle with others. Everyone is frightened, grieving, angry, in denial or in acceptance. The stages of grief are normal.

Hugs and prayers for all of us to endure this rough weather and help each other and ourselves..

I took the photograph in color. My program made a black and white version. It looks like the back of a stegosaurus to me, a dinosaur now living as a mountain.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: rainbow. Because sometimes the rain and sun combine to make a rainbow.

Fuzzy Poet Doctor and the small child

I think I finally understand what I have been doing in clinic all these years. And not just in clinic. As a theory it explains both why patients, nurses, hospital staff and specialists really really like me and my fellow Family Practice doctors, particularly the males, and the administrators, really really do NOT like me.

I am on a plane flying to Michigan a few weeks ago. Double masked. N95 with another mask over it. Sigh.

A friend keeps saying that he can see into me. He can, but he can see thoughts. Not feelings. I am wondering if I see feelings. But I see the stuffed feelings particularly, the ones that people keep hidden. They are like clouds.

And then I think, oh.

I automatically scan any new person for their small child. The inner small child, who is often damaged and hidden. The small child is hidden under those stuffed feelings, which I think of as monsters. In Ride Forth, I am writing about pulling every monster feeling that I can find stuffed out and letting myself feel them. And that people do not like seeing me like that. Their monsters attack me!

Except that the monsters don’t attack. The monsters come to me and say, “Please, please, help me. I want out. The small child needs to heal.” The monsters lie their monstrous heads in my lap and weep.

Now WHY would I develop this skill? That is weird.

I develop it because my parents both drink. The myth in the family is that it was my father. But my mother’s diaries and also her stories make it clear that she drank heavily too. I think they were both alcoholics. And she told two stories about me trying to get someone to get out of bed to give me food as a toddler. As jokes. But it is not a joke. I have food insecurity. At every meal, I think of the next one and whether there is food available. My daughter has it too….. epigenetics.

I think that the only way I could love my parents was to have compassion for them. Once you see another person’s damaged small child, then how can you not feel compassion for them?

With patients I learned to be very very delicate and gentle about asking about the cloud. Just gently. Sometimes people open up on the first visit. Sometimes they shut tight like a clam and I back off. Sometimes they return the next visit or the 3rd or the 8th or after a couple years… and say, “You asked me about this.”

It’s nonverbal communication. The reason why I take the WHOLE history MYSELF at the first visit is for the nonverbal communication. When the person doesn’t want to answer a question, veers away from a topic, switches subjects: there is my cloud. That is where the hurt is. That is where the pain is.

The first cracks in the United States medical system collapse are appearing. Not doctors quitting, not nurses, but medical assistants. Here is an article about how clinics all over can’t hire medical assistants. Because there are tons of jobs, employers are offering more money, why would you do a job where you may well be exposed to covid-19 if you can do something else? And make as much money or more….

The cracks will widen. Ironically doctors are doing what I have done for the last ten years: “rooming” the patients themselves. Ha, ha, good may come out of it, after the disaster. Which is getting worse fast. If people don’t put their masks on and don’t social distance and don’t get vaccinated, I predict more deaths in the US this winter then last winter. Sigh. And in the US we will run out of medical assistants, doctors and nurses.

It is ok to gently ask a patient about that cloud. It is not polite to “see” it in a Family Medicine colleague or and administrator. I can’t “not see” it. I can’t turn it off. However, on the plane my behavior changed even before I could put all of this into words. The words are that I have to be as gentle with everyone as I am with patients.

And the trip felt so odd. I was putting this into effect before I had words. That is how my intuition works. But everyone, absolutely everyone, was kind to me on the trip. A Chicago policeman helped me in the train station and was super kind. It was weird, weird, weird, with bells on. It took me a few more days to be able to put it into words.

Problem intuited, after 60 years of study. Implementation of solution proceeds immediately. Logical brain struggling to catch up, but results satisfactory long before logical brain gets a handle on it.

Pretty weird, eh? I think so. My doctor said that an episode of Big Bang Theory could be written just by following me around for a day. I think it was both saying that I am smart AND that I have no social skills. But I have implemented the social skills program already. She’s just upset that I gave her justifiable hell two visits ago and also…. I do hide my brain. Because sometimes colleagues are jealous.

But maybe they should not be jealous. Maybe they can learn it too. Maybe I can teach. Maybe….

Mask refusal in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic

This is from an article about the history of medicine, about people refusing to wear masks in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic:

“Adherence is based on three concepts: individualism versus collectivism; trust versus fear; and willingness to obey social distance rules. Jay Van Bavel opines that some countries tend to be more individualistic,16 and therefore more likely to reject rules and ignore attempts by public health authorities to “nudge” behavior change with risk messages or appeals for altruism. In collectivist cultures, people are more likely to do what is deemed best for society. Trust and fear are also significant influences on human behavior.17 In countries with political division, people are less likely to trust advice from one side or the other and are more likely to form pro- and anti- camps. This may also undermine advice issued by public health professionals. The last and most difficult to attain is social distancing. Human beings are social animals with bodies and brains designed and wired for connection. A pandemic, in many ways, goes against our instinct to connect. Behavioral psychologist Michael Sanders argues that if everybody breaks the rules a little bit, the results are not dissimilar to many people not following the rules at all.18

From another article:

“It was the worst pandemic in modern history.

The 1918 influenza virus swept the globe, killing at least 50 million people worldwide.

In the US, the disease devastated cities, forcing law enforcement to ban public meetings, shut down schools, churches, and theaters, and even stop funerals.

In total, 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu, named after the disease’s early presence in Spain.”

I read a book on the 1918-1919 influenza. It started in the U.S. The photograph that haunts me is the bodies stacked five deep in the hallways of San Francisco Hospitals.

And in a third article:

“The scenes in Philadelphia appeared to be straight out of the plague-infested Middle Ages. Throughout the day and night, horse-drawn wagons kept a constant parade through the streets of Philadelphia as priests joined the police in collecting corpses draped in sackcloths and blood-stained sheets that were left on porches and sidewalks. The bodies were piled on top of each other in the wagons with limbs protruding from underneath the sheets. The parents of one small boy who succumbed to the flu begged the authorities to allow him the dignity of being buried in a wooden box that had been used to ship macaroni instead of wrapping him a sheet and having him taken away in a patrol wagon.”

A CDC article about the history of the 1918-1919 influenza says this:

“The fully reconstructed 1918 virus was striking in terms of its ability to quickly replicate, i.e., make copies of itself and spread infection in the lungs of infected mice. For example, four days after infection, the amount of 1918 virus found in the lung tissue of infected mice was 39,000 times higher than that produced by one of the comparison recombinant flu viruses.14

Furthermore, the 1918 virus was highly lethal in the mice. Some mice died within three days of infection with the 1918 virus, and the mice lost up to 13% of their body weight within two days of infection with the 1918 virus. The 1918 virus was at least 100 times more lethal than one of the other recombinant viruses tested.14 Experiments indicated that 1918 virus’ HA gene played a large role in its severity. When the HA gene of the 1918 virus was swapped with that of a contemporary human seasonal influenza A (H1N1) flu virus known as “A/Texas/36/91” or Tx/91 for short, and combined with the remaining seven genes of the 1918 virus, the resulting recombinant virus notably did not kill infected mice and did not result in significant weight loss.14

The 1918-1919 influenza virus was sequenced and studied in 2005. We did not have the tools before that. Frozen bodies were exhumed with the permission of Inuit tribes to find the virus.

Later, that same article talks about future pandemics:

“When considering the potential for a modern era high severity pandemic, it is important; however, to reflect on the considerable medical, scientific and societal advancements that have occurred since 1918, while recognizing that there are a number of ways that global preparations for the next pandemic still warrant improvement.”

Let us now travel back to a worse epidemic: the plague in the Middle Ages:

“Did you know? Between 1347 and 1350, a mysterious disease known as the “Black Death” (the bubonic plague) killed some 20 million people in Europe—30 percent of the continent’s population. It was especially deadly in cities, where it was impossible to prevent the transmission of the disease from one person to another.”

I am hoping that people will awaken, get their vaccines, wear their masks and stop Covid-19 in its’ tracks, so that our death rate resembles the 1918-1919 Influenza. Not the Middle Ages plague.

pigs and fishes

is it ok

if I don’t make sense for a little while?

this is hard

it’s really hard
sometimes
to communicate

I never did
join the mainstream
of medicine

I went to class
to medical school
and wondered
and noticed
that the classes resembled
descriptions of cults
how they train people

and I thought
I am not joining any cult

and I kept my mouth shut

in the elevator
when another student says
“The other day
I threw out all of my husband’s plaid shirts.
I hate them.
They are too low class.”
If he loves them, you’ve hurt him, right?
and I think
I could say
“Yes, I hate it
when my husband
wears my plaid skirt
he stretches them all out
and ruins them.”
I would be outed
even more than I already am
as weird.

I don’t say a word
I just think
words

Medical school is four years
Residency is three
I am quiet there too
impression that I am shy
which is a lie
even so, the faculty fear me

I hear, 25 years later

and I am surprised

5 foot four
130 pounds

what the hell is there to fear?

though a boyfriend says
“You turn into an ogre
when you are angry.”

but I am quiet
in medical school
in residency
except when a patient
needs me
to speak

morph to ogre
morph to werewolf
if needed

as I get older
slowly
slowly
I learn
more subtelty

mostly from my children
who are subtle
and very very smart

at any rate

I never bought in to
the give opioids to everyone

and eventually
it turns out
that my intuition
or instinct
or whatever the hell you want to call it
study of addiction from the experience
and reading in college
matches
the studies
that come out

now I have another one
an intuition

the data is catching up with me

it’s funny
in my small community

I feel so lonely
after 21 years
mother’s death, sister’s death, father’s death
divorce
single mother 2 children
niece don’t go there
I am labeled by the medical community
I hear that the senior doctor
in the community
tells a woman midlevel
at a party
that I am crazy

maybe so

but I was right about opioids

pigs and fishes

is it ok

if I don’t make sense for a little while?

maybe
just maybe

they could listen to me this time

but I don’t think

they
will

that would be ok
but it is hurting people
and I can’t bear that

so I put myself
back in the traces

once in a massage
I thought
I can’t bear this
I am not strong enough
and suddenly I was in a dream world
where my back was enormous
huge
unending
and I thought, oh, I can bear this
thank you
I think

I put myself back in the traces
I am an ox
I plant my hooves

I begin
to pull
hard

pigs and fishes

even as I cry

The photograph is from 2014. Two pairs of glasses frames ago….

Top ten causes of death: US 2020

Top ten causes of death US 2020, according to JAMA, here.

Total deaths: 3,358.814
Contrast total deaths in 2019, at 2,854,838. That number had been on a very slow rise since 2015 (2,712,630) to 2019 (2,854,838). That increase over four years is 142,208 people. Then the death rate suddenly jumps 503,976 people in one year. Ouch. I cannot say that I understand vaccine refusal.

1. Coronary artery disease: 690,882
Heart disease still wins. And it went up 4.8%. It is suspected that people were afraid to go to doctors and hospitals. I saw one man early on in the pandemic for “constipation”. He had acute appendicitis. I sent him to the ER and his appendix was removed that day. He thanked me for seeing him in person. Might have missed that one over zoom.

2. Cancer deaths: 598,932
This is cancer deaths, not all of the cancers.

3. Covid-19: 345,342
I have had various people complain that covid-19 is listed as the cause of death when the person has a lot of other problems: heart disease, cancer, heart failure. The death certificate allows for more than one cause but we are supposed to list the final straw first. I cannot list old age, for example. I have to list: renal failure (kidneys stopped working) due to anorexia (stopped eating) due to dementia. That patient was 104 and had had dementia for years. But dementia is not listed as the final cause. So if the person is 92, in a nursing home for dementia and congestive heart failure, gets covid-19 and dies, covid-19 is listed first, and then the others.

4. Unintentional injuries: 192,176
Accidents went up, not down, which is interesting since lots of people were not in their cars. However, remember that the top of the list for unintentional injuries is overdose death, more by legal than illicit drugs. If there is no note, it’s considered unintentional. Well, unless there is a really high blood level of opioids and benzos and alcohol. Then it becomes intentional. They do not always check, especially if the person is elderly. The number rose 11.1%, which seems like a lot of people.

5. Stroke: 159,050
This rose too.

6. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 151,637
This went down a little. This is mostly COPD and emphysema. So why would it go down? Well, I think bad lung disease people were dying of covid-19, right?

7. Alzheimer’s: 133,182
This seems to belie me putting renal failure due to anorexia due to Alzheimer’s. I think they actually read the forms and would put that as Alzheimer’s rather than renal failure, because it is not chronic renal disease.

8. Diabetes: 101,106
This rose too. 15.4%, again, probably partly because people avoided going to clinic visits. Also perhaps some stress eating. Carbohydrate comfort.

9. Influenza and pneumonia: 53,495
So this went up too in spite of a lot less influenza. Other pneumonias, presumably.

10. Kidney disease: 52,260
This went up.

And what fell out of the top ten, to be replaced by covid-19?

11. Suicide: 44,834
This actually went down a little. What will it do in 2021?

So what will 2021 look like? I don’t know. It depends what the variants of covid-19 do, depends on what sort of influenza year we have, depends on whether we are open or closed, depends if we bloody well help the rest of the world get vaccinated so that there is not a huge continuing wave of variants.

Today the Johns Hopkins covid-19 map says that deaths in the US stand at 608,818 from covid-19. If we subtract the 2020 covid-19 deaths, we stand at 263,495 deaths from covid-19 so far this year. Will we have more deaths in the US from covid-19 than in 2020? It is looking like yes, unless more people get immunized fast.

Take care.

Oxygen testing

“If oxygen might help with chronic fatigue, as it has helped you,” a friend asks, “how do I get on oxygen?”

Complicated answer.

First of all, one of the things that is not clear, is what recovery looks like. I think I’ve had low grade chronic fatigue for the last 7 years compared to my “normal”. Now, will I get off oxygen? I don’t know. I am hoping for September but it may be that 7 years of low grade hypoxia means I have lung damage and no, I won’t get totally off oxygen.

They have apparently recently made the guidelines for oxygen more stringent. I sort of missed that update, even though I just recertified in Advanced Cardiac Life Support. You now have to have an oxygen saturation that goes to 87% or below. It used to be 88.

Now, you can test this at home with a pulse oximeter. In 2005 after the influenza, I held my saturations but my heart rate would go up to 135. Which means that I walked across the room very very slowly because a heart rate of 135 sustained does not feel good at all. Normal is 70-100 beats per minute. You can measure pulse with just a second hand, number of beats in a minute. For oxygen saturation, you need the pulse ox and it will measure both heart rate and oxygen saturation.

So: measure pulse and saturation at rest first. Write them down.
Then walk. I usually send patients up and down the hall three times then sit them down and watch the pulse ox. In some, the heart rate jumps up. If it’s over 100 and they are getting over pneumonia, I don’t want them back at work until it is staying under 100. Or if sitting they are at a pulse of 60 and then walking it’s 95, well, I think that person needs to convalesce for a while yet. They can test at home.

As the heart rate returns to the baseline, the oxygen level will often start to drop. Does it drop to 87? Describe the test to the doctor and make sure the respiratory technician does it that way and also they should do pulmonary function tests. Mine were not normal.

Now, what if the oxygen doesn’t drop to 87? We are not done yet. What does the person do for work or do they have a toddler? If they have a toddler do the same test carrying the toddler: they sit down, exhausted and grey and this time the oxygen level drops below 87. If they do not have a toddler, do the test with two bags of groceries. Or four bricks.

When I did the formal test, the respiratory therapist said, “Let’s have you put your things down so you don’t have to carry so much.”

“I’d rather not.” I said, “I want to be able to walk on the beach, so I need the two small oxygen tanks, my bird book, camera, binoculars and something to eat.”

“Oh, ok,” she said.

So I did the test with two full tanks of oxygen, small ones, and my bird book and etc. I dropped like a rock loaded. I think I would have dropped not loaded but perhaps not as definitively. Still hurts to carry anything, even one tank of oxygen.

We are making a mistake medically when we test people without having them carry the groceries, the toddler, the oxygen tank. My father’s concentrator is pre 2013. It weighs nearly 30 pounds. Now they make ones that weight 5 pounds. Huge massive difference.

Good luck.