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When Great Healthcare Is Served With A Large Helping Of Unnecessary Mental Anguish

A wrist graft similar to what my friend's husband required.

I watched helplessly as a dear friend went through the emotional meat grinder of a new cancer diagnosis. Her  husband was found to have melanoma on a recent skin biopsy, and she knew that this was a dangerous disease. Because she is exceptionally intelligent and diligent, she set out to optimize his outcome with good information and the best care possible. Without much help from me, she located the finest specialists for her husband, and ultimately he received appropriate and state-of-the-art treatment. But along with his excellent care came substantial (and avoidable) emotional turmoil. The art of medicine was abandoned as the science marched on.

First came the pathology report, detailed and nuanced, but largely uninterpretable for the lay person. She received a copy of it at her request, but without any attempt at translation by her physician. In his view, she shouldn’t be looking at it at all, since it was up to him to decide next steps. She brought the report to me, wondering if I could make heads or tails out of it. Although I am not trained in pathology, I did know enough to be able to translate it, line-by-line, into normal speak. This was of great comfort to her as the ambiguity of prognosis (rather than certainty of metastasis and or mortality, etc.) was clearly outlined for the trained eye.

Then came the genetic testing and node biopsy. She was told that the tests could identify variants that would portend poorer outcomes, though it would take 6 weeks to find out if he had “the bad kind of melanoma.” Those 6 weeks were excruciating for her, as she planned out how they would manage financially if he needed treatment for metastatic disease, and if his life were shortened by various numbers of years. At week 6 they received no word from the physician, and so she called the office to inquire about how much longer it would take for the genetic testing to come back. She was rebuffed by office staff and was instructed to be patient because the lab was “processing an unusual number of samples” at this time.

Another week of anguish passed and she decided to contact the lab directly. As it turned out, they were eagerly awaiting the arrival of her husband’s sample, but it had been “lost” in hospital processing somehow. She called the hospital’s facility and someone found the tissue under a pile of other samples and tagged it appropriately and sent it on to the genetics lab. The hospital apologized for the delay via email – and she forwarded the note to her oncologist, so that he could sort out the potential processing bottleneck for other patients going forward.

The result was reported to the oncologist within a week’s time and in turn, the physician called (at 6:30am on a Monday morning) to discuss the result with my friend’s husband. He missed the call as he was in the shower getting ready for work, and wound up playing phone tag with the physician’s office for 3 more days. My friend had her heart in her mouth the entire time. She continued to imagine a world without her husband. If the disease stole him from her, how would she manage? What about the children? Could she make enough money alone to support her family?

“Why didn’t the physician leave any hint of the result in the phone message? If it was good news, surely he would have mentioned that.” She presumed. The physician required his patient to come into the office to discuss the results. And so they booked the next available time slot, another couple of days later. My friend was certain this was a bad sign.

As they arrived at the oncologist’s office, the staff forbade my friend to accompany her husband to the meeting. “Clinic policy” they stated. My friend’s mind was now spinning out of control – maybe my husband needs to be alone with the doctor because the results are so devastating that he must hear it by himself?

She insisted, nonetheless, to accompany him – and the staff felt obligated to clear it with the oncologist before they allowed her to enter the examining room with her husband. They whispered to him in another room before giving her the irritated nod that she could proceed. You could have cut the tension with a knife… she was certain that a death sentence was about to be handed down.

Once the oncologist entered the room, he spent the first 10 minutes making excuses for the delay in genetic tissue results. He argued that the hospital lab was actually not at fault for the delay and listed all the various reasons why nothing had been done incorrectly. His was so single-mindedly focused on the email he received weeks prior (simply describing the delay — as if it were some kind of assault on his own competency) that he almost left the room without telling them the results of the genetic test and biopsy sample.

As an afterthought at the end of the meeting, he announced: “Oh, and the tests suggest that you have a melanoma that is extremely unlikely to metastasize. The wide excisional biopsy is likely curative.”

And off he swished, white coat flowing behind him as he flung wide the door and moved on to the next patient.

The irony is that my friend’s husband got “great” medical care with a large helping of unnecessary suffering. His initial biopsy, wide excision and skin grafting, lymph node testing, and genetic lab studies were all appropriate and helpful in his diagnosis and treatment. But the way in which the information was presented (or not presented) was what made the entire process so painful. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time as physicians focused on the technicalities of what we do, rather than the emotional consequences they have on our patients and their families.

As we continue to “deliver healthcare” to our patients, let’s remember not to serve up any sides of unnecessary mental anguish. Clear and timely communication makes a world of difference in patient anxiety levels. And reducing those is part of the art of medicine that is so desperately needed, and disturbingly rare these days.

Head And Neck Cancer Surgeon Steps Out Of His Comfort Zone And Into Kenya

Traveling makes one modest – you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
-Gustave Flaubert

Tumor ImageWe have come to Kenya, expecting to work outside of our “comfort zones.”

Our patient has arrived from miles away, riding on the back of her husband’s bicycle. She has an enlarging, bleeding mass growing off of the side of her neck. There are no pathologists available, so we are uncertain what kind of tumor it is, although it appears to be a cancer. She has been wearing a scarf to hide the mass for the past year; her head covering is speckled with blood.

We are anxious. Unexpected things can happen in an operating room this far from home. We expect Read more »

The Calming Effect Of A Touch

So, Megen wrote this post recently about “Therapeutic Presence.”  The following passage really caught my attention:

Question is: are there more things in nursing, Horatio, than science can explain? Can we touch patients and zap them with calmness or take away their pain? Can we, by our mindset during our provision of care, substantially affect our patients’ outcomes? Can any of this be taught? Can we do it on purpose? I don’t know. That situation has captured my attention, though, because the flip side must also be true—if I despise my patient, she can probably tell that too, regardless of how tightly I’m controlling my behavior.

Little backstory:  A few weeks ago I had a laparoscopic cholecystectomy.  Basically, a very nice surgeon made a few incisions into my abdomen, inserted a camera and some wrenches or something, and took my gall bladder out.  I had never had surgery before.  Never been intubated.  I have been on “the bed side” quitefew times, but never for surgery.

A week elapsed between the time we decided to do surgery and the time the surgery actually happened.  It was a really hard week for me as I was very anxious about the whole thing.  I’m not even sure what exactly it was that I was nervous about.  I Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at code blog - tales of a nurse*

The Mind’s Tremendous Influence Over The Body

24 years old female presents with several week history of progressive stomach pains, substernal chest discomfort, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, headache, insomnia, and growing lump sensation in her throat. Physical exam was essentially normal.

Can this previously healthy female have suddenly developed reflux, globus, paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, brain tumor, and throat cancer with possible overlying thyroid disorder? Or perhaps has she contracted some other horrific mystery disease?


But maybe none of the above…

What if I told you she will be giving a doctoral dissertation for her Master’s next week for which she is ill-prepared given a recent breakup with her boyfriend of 5 years and a growing distaste of her school classmates who have been less than supportive.

In other words, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Fauquier ENT Blog*

Cultivate Mindfulness: It Can Be A Powerful Therapeutic Tool

The hectic pace of daily life and the stresses that accompany it may make you want to tune out. A healthier approach may be to tune in.

I know that sounds counterintuitive. But paying more attention to what is going on around you, not less, is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness, an excellent technique to help you cope with a range of mental and physical problems, including stress.

The practice of mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, teaches people to be present in each moment. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening now and accepting it without judgment.

Although it sounds simple, and even simplistic, mindfulness is Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

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