Monday, February 27, 2017

Looking forward or looking back?

Today I had my, now semi-annual, visit with my oncologist. He ordered the usual surveillance labs and other tests. I have learned that some of these go through easily, some mean phone calls to my insurance. These phone calls are a nuisance for me. But, as a physician myself, I know how to phrase the reason so that things are approved. I know this is far easier for me than for an average patient. Yet, I worry that things will be harder in the future.

Every cancer patient has a pre-existing condition, as does every premature child, mental health patient, and many others. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), that meant that every person with a pre-existing condition could be denied coverage, forced to spend down their savings, and finally fall on the mercy of Medicaid, which differs some in the various states. They might then be limited in choices of providers. They finally would need to go to those facilities that are termed "safety net" hospitals.

I have spent most of my career working in safety net hospitals, teaching the next generation of physicians. I know we help a huge number of patients. And, we provide quality care. But, we sometimes lack in some technologies because we try to function on a shoestring budget. With the ACA, things eased a bit, since more of our patients had funding. But, still, not all technologies are available. In my case, my hospital did not have the ability to provide care had my disease turned out to be slightly more advanced. Yet, we often see patients with more advanced disease since they have tended to wait for care, if only because they might have to take a day off work due to travel time and waiting time, and so wouldn't be paid for that day. Even now, many patients miss appointments just to avoid taking time off work.

Waiting to see the doctor or have a test allows disease to advance. That makes it more costly to treat, and treatment less likely to be effective. Yet, plans are being made to force patients to have "more skin in the game" by forcing them to have higher costs when they seek care. Poor patients currently have relatively higher costs. So increasing their costs will force further delays in needed care, and so make US health outcomes worse. Last year, when life expectancy fell for Americans, poor Americans already had a life expectancy 14 years less than richer Americans (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/health/life-expectancy-us-declines.html). So, poor people have been putting their lives on the line with their health decisions.

Fortunately, I am able to have insurance and to argue for the care that I need. But, as a physician, I also have sworn to care for my patients, and will are for their care. And, I feel all people deserve quality health care. It is not a luxury, but a necessity.




Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving

Four years ago, about this time of year, I began to notice more abdominal problems than I had before. I put it to the back of my mind, and continued on, with work and family and friends. I had no idea that a little time bomb was causing this. I thought that maybe I overdid on eating more things that irritated my stomach. Especially this time of year. 

But, at the end of January, after another special meal for my daughter's birthday, the pain became more persistent. Still, I carried on for a few days, thinking it would pass. Finally, it was to the point that I could no longer avoid it. My little time bomb had exploded. My appendix had ruptured. And, so, my saga as a patient had begun.

Still, I thought, a couple weeks and I'll be back to normal. No, the little time bomb wasn't going to let my life return to normal. I had a drainage procedure and antibiotics to quiet down the ruptured appendix. Then, an appendectomy. This was even an option, as sometimes, appendectomy is not done after quieting down appendicitis with antibiotics. I decided that I wanted it out. I remembered a similar, far less severe episode years earlier. So that was scheduled. But, after things had been quieted with antibiotics. Only then did the little time bomb reveal its true nature. It wasn't simply appendicitis. It was cancer.

Even appendicitis isn't simple, though most of us in the developed world now regard it as a simple, treatable disease. When my symptoms began, I was only one year shy of the age of my grandmother's death from appendicitis. Hers had also ruptured. But, she wasn't so lucky. There weren't many antibiotics in her day. She became septic and died due to the infection. Now, that is less common. Antibiotics can treat many diseases that used to be fatal. But, the bugs are getting smart. We may again be at risk, or have to tolerate increased side effects from the drugs we use to treat infections.

But, back to me. After my appendix was removed, I had to undergo a bigger surgery, and then chemotherapy, because there was evidence of spread at that time. But, January will mark three years since the end of chemotherapy. I remain disease free. And, that is definitely something that I am thankful for today. I am also thankful for family and friends who supported me through this ordeal. And, thankful for a job that I could come back to when I was able. And lastly, I am thankful for the advances in medicine that allowed me to survive something worse than what took my grandmother's life.


Monday, August 22, 2016

The R word revisited

As I was browsing social media, I saw a blog written by an American doctor who had to take a cousin to a National Health Service (NHS) in Britain (https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/an-american-doctor-experiences-the-nhs-again/). She reports that he cousin's ankle injury was evaluated and treated in 4 hours. There was no copay. The patient only had to give her name and birthdate. Overall, the report is positive about the NHS.

A friend was visiting Germany, when her daughter had a minor eye injury. Within about 4 hours, on a weekend, the child was seen and evaluated by a the emergency physician, who called a pediatric ophthalmologist. A few years later, the same child had a head injury on a trip to Austria. Again, positive experiences with minimal if any copays.

Yet, here in the US, I just mailed billing sheets for my son's treatment. Again. They had to be revised, since the insurance company wanted things written up differently. And, I know that, since I haven't yet made the yearly deductible, I won't be reimbursed for his treatment by an "out of network" physician. As I was preparing to send these bills in, I noticed that the yearly "maximum out of pocket" has again increased, now to $25,000 for the family.

Earlier this month, I had a $2,000 copay for a minor surgery, which was collected in advance. If I hadn't been able to pay, the surgery would have been delayed or cancelled. Earlier this year, I had to pay a similar amount for a PET-CT.

I'm fortunate, in that I am again in good health, and able to return to work. I also had adequate savings, but, these kind of charges are a challenge for many people, even middle class people with insurance. As a result, care may be delayed. Sometimes, the problem will resolve as people work to come up with the estimated copays. Sometimes, it will get worse. As physicians, we work to sift out those who will resolve, and not subject them to expensive procedures. Often we are right. But, not always. And, so sometimes the problem worsens.

In July, we had a patient scheduled for a surgery for what was thought to be a slow growing cancer. She had some delay due to the preapproval process. By the time of surgery, only a few days after I had met her, another scan showed a marked increase in the size of her tumor. Hence, the plan for treatment had to be changed significantly.

These copays and "maximum out of pocket" expenses are a major limit in health care. It is a reason that many diseases are not treated until late in their course. The Affordable Care Act has helped millions, but the problem is not solved. The egress of insurance companies is not because the ACA is failing, but rather because they want more profits (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/aetna-obamacare-and-health-insurers-10-dirty-secrets-2016-08-19?mod=mw_share_facebook).

We still have a system that is flawed. It still makes it difficult for many to get needed care. And bankrupts many who try to pay. But, it is better that what it was, even if more changes are needed.



Saturday, August 13, 2016

Saved by love

About a decade ago, I started on the process to adopt two children. I had always wanted to be a mother. After two years of paperwork, I finally became a mother. Once my two came home with me, the older one kept trying to persuade me to go back and get more kids. He told me how lucky he and his sister were to have been adopted. It was a nearly daily plea.

I learned of the likely fates for children who age out of care. Far too often they end up in prostitution or drug running or enslavement. Without a family to protect them, and limited skills, they have few other options. 

I looked into starting the process again, but roadblocks kept being erected. The country my two came from, Kyrgyzstan, was closed for several years while a new government worked on rewriting the process. I looked into other countries. But, between political issues in several countries, and my work, it never came to pass. So I just have my two.

Then, another roadblock: cancer. Due to my age, this diagnosis essentially made it impossible to consider adoption again. 

After my hemicolectomy, I had very poorly controlled pain. To the point, I almost felt that I couldn't go on. I remember wanting to die. But, then, I would think of my kids, and the responsibility I had taken on of raising them to adulthood, and I knew I had to go on. I knew I had to get through this.

Last week, in a conversation with my son's therapist, I expressed my gratitude for being saved by my children's love. It kept me going in my roughest time. 

Family is especially important for patients. Not just in the physical sense of transportation to appointments, but, even when they are not physically with the patient, knowing that they want to love and support the patient. I certainly got that from my children. Without them, I think I might have simply given up.








Sunday, August 7, 2016

Graduation Day

Last week, I had a graduation of sorts. I had my chemo port removed. It hasn't been used for anything but blood draws for over two years. So, after being free of cancer for over 3 years, it was time to remove the port. My oncologist kept suggesting it. But, I kept dragging my feet, worried that it would need to be replaced.

About three months ago, I was rounding with residents and medical students. One asked about using a ventriculoatrial (from the ventricle of the brain to the atrium of the heart) shunt in a patient on our service. She had hydrocephalus with a history of shunt infections, so would not be a good candidate for a ventriculoatrial shunt due to the complications of renal failure or sudden death which may occur in the setting of shunt infection. A ventriculopleural (from the ventricle to the space around the lung) handles infection the best. Ventriculoperitoneal (from the ventricle to the abdomen) shunts are the most common type for managing hydrocephalus.

And, as we were walking down the hallway to the clinic discussing the risks, it hit me. I was living with a catheter in contact with my blood stream, like the distal catheter of a ventriculoatrial shunt. And, mine was violated to draw blood and flush it every 2 months, increasing the risk of infection. So, here I was, choosing to live with a catheter that had features in common with something I thought was too risky for my patient.

The next time I saw my oncologist, I told him that it did seem to be time to remove my port since it no longer seemed necessary. He put in the referral. And, this past week, I had the surgery. The pain has been minimal. I just notice when clothing rubs on the newly opened wound, or I move my arm a certain way. But, I feel that it is closing the chapter on this phase of my life.

Cancer will always remain part of my past medical history. I will need to have regular follow ups and imaging studies. But, it doesn't rule my life. Unfortunately, my patient will never be able to eliminate her device. She must live forever with a shunt. But, recently, she, too, had a turn for the best. Her spinal fluid was cleared of infection, a permanent shunt was again placed and she was discharged from the hospital.

So, we both have "graduated" from our recent problems. And, we are able to live more normally again. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter

With the recent news of the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, I think about gun violence. I need to disclose that I am a middle aged white female. Yet gun violence and the fear of it have been part of my life.

At 15, I visited Prague. I went with a student group. We spent most of our summer in Germany, yet crossed to the East twice, once in Berlin, and then a few days in Prague. A beautiful city with so much history. Yet with fresh evidence of the suppression of the Prague Spring. Some of the leaders were still loose. And, the hard line authorities wanted to capture and punish them all.

As we were leaving Czechoslovakia, I was pulled off the bus, then queued up again, to have the same happen two more times. Then the officer began to question me. In Czech. I knew no Slavic languages except the bits of Polish I heard when we visited my grandparents. I asked him to repeat his questions in one of the languages that I knew. Yet this questioning was done with three young men with guns pointed at me. I dared not flinch, for fear that one of the soldiers might shoot. Meanwhile, I prayed that if they arrested me, for what I didn't know, they wouldn't send me to Soviet Union. I had heard bits of my grandmother's experience there working in a Siberian labor camp for the crime of being Polish. I knew I was too soft. Finally, I was allowed to board the bus, and leave the country. Then, the driver, who had understood the exchange told me that I looked like one of the student leaders. I never heard what happened to my twin. I hope she is well.

While in residency, I came to know my neighbor, who was a police officer. At first he was on medical leave. He had killed a man. His partner had also been killed in the shootout and my friend and neighbor injured.

My next experiences came when I worked in an inner city hospital. Gangs were active. There, I cared for hundreds of victims of all ages, from infancy up. But, usually, they respected those who cared for them. A colleague had his shoes stolen at gunpoint, but wasn't injured, because, "Doc, we might need you someday." A few times we were threatened that if a certain patient died, we would, too. And, once, we had a SWAT team in the hospital. We had to walk past them and their bullet proof shields to care for our patients, and worried that we might be caught in the crossfire.

Another threat was after I had been speaking out about gun violence after I cared for a young boy who had been shot on the freeway. He was one of about 20 shooting victims my hospital received on a typical Friday or Saturday in the mid-90s due to gang activity. This child was deemed different. He was middle class, from the suburbs, just driving home from a Dodger game with his cousins. So the press was interested. I spoke out, testified on the costs of gun violence to committees of city and state government. Thus, my photo was in the paper. And, a copy of my photo was sent to me with a target drawn over my face. Scary, but I knew that my activities were having an effect.

During this time, I also learned from colleagues the issues of "driving while Black," "running while Black," etc. It was something that had not been part of my experience until then. Instead, I had been told, even by Black and Hispanic colleagues, not to drive through certain neighborhoods.

Later, I had an alarm that triggered a "home invasion" alarm. I was home alone, by then middle aged, working on my computer, when the police came, with guns drawn, wanted proof that I was who I was. They looked through my home, following me, but finally left after I got my ID, showing this house as my address.

I realize that people are violent. But, guns increase the lethality of that impulse to violence. I don't have a solution, given the millions of guns in the hands of the American populace. I have worked in an area where gang violence was rampant. I have seen far too many lives destroyed by violence. I have worked to save and rebuild some of those lives.

I can understand that police may be afraid, but, I have seen reasonable control by well trained officers when we had the terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, not adding to the toll at the Inland Regional Center. I can understand that the people are afraid, especially Black men, but am impressed by the overall peaceful nature of the recent protests. I hope and pray that we can come together to end the violence. So that I don't have to try to patch up any more shattered victims.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Human experimentation

I recently saw an article on repair of vesicovaginal fistulae (http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466942135/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology). As a surgeon, I found this bit of history interesting. Surgery during the 19th century was difficult. Ether was first demonstrated in 1846. The surgeries on the slave women were between 1845 and 1849. It is also worth reading an article by LL Wall on the ethics of Dr. Sims work (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2563360/).
Since I'm not a gynecologist, I thought I needed to read up on the condition. Vesicovaginal fistulae, and rectovaginal fistulae, are a complication of childbirth and still a scourge in the third world (http://www.ics.org/publications/ici_3/v2.pdf/chap22.pdf). Most of the most dangerous countries for pregnant women are in sub-Saharan Africa, where poor women have limited access to obstetrical services, and so may suffer the consequences in terms of maternal death or fistula formation.
Anesthesia wasn't the norm for anyone in the first part of the 1800s, but became more common in the second half of the century. Only later did Dr. Sims use anesthesia, when it became standard. By that time, he had moved to New York and had a nearly all white clientele.
Throughout the south, slaves received varying levels of medical care, some reasonable for the time, some not. The owners gave consent. A friend visited one of these slave hospitals and she said that it reminded her of a veterinary hospital. But, at the time, alternatives were limited.
The standards for risk in clinical research have evolved over time, mostly since WWII, with the human experimentation on Jews, Poles, Gypsies and others by German physicians, and the Tuskegee experiment, and others, such as radiation experiments (see The Plutonium Files by Eileen Welsome). In all of these cases, the "research" had no intention of helping those subjects. I grew up knowing one of the survivors of the German experiments. She suffered from the sequelae for her entire life.
When I started my fellowship, in 1989, I remember the statement being made that an average of 1 person per year died as a result of experimental chemotherapy protocols that were being studied at my institution. Given the type of tumors we studied, without treatment, nearly all would have been dead within a year. Refining treatment has added months, or in some cases years to their average life expectancy.
I remember my patient. She was in her 20s and had a very aggressive type of tumor. She was white and middle class. But, her life was made shorter by the treatment she received. Do I feel responsible? Yes. Can I live with myself? Yes. I know she was on a protocol that was thought to possibly help her, as well as possibly helping more patients in the future. 
So, within limits, I think it reasonable to take some risk.
Certainly slavery is unacceptable. As is experimentation which has no chance to help the patient, yet has significant risk. But, there must always be a first patient or medicine can't advance. So, we try to help those for whom there is no other treatment. I would consent to a trial when I had no other option for treatment of myself or my children. It might offer us some benefit, and hopefully will help to create better treatment for future patients.


Did Dr. Sims put these slave women at risk? Yes. Might they have benefited from treatment? Maybe. There was no other option at the time, but to live with urine, and possibly feces, always dribbling out. Were these surgeries unacceptable? I don't know. Certainly, it is appropriate to acknowledge the patients.