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Mercy Charity Flight Programs For Our Veterans: American Airlines & Robert Gates

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Defense Secretary Gates With Dr. Val

I recently wrote about the heroic efforts of volunteer pilots involved in Mercy Medical Airlift and Air Compassion for Veterans. I met Steve Craven on a shuttle to a Red Cross event with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Steve kindly explained a little bit about what some airlines are doing to contribute to our active duty and veterans’ medical transportation needs. I was soon contacted by American Airlines to help them with awareness efforts of their own veterans initiatives.

I interviewed Captain Steve Blankenship, the Managing Director of Veterans Initiatives at American Airlines. Feel free to listen to the podcast or read a summary of our discussion below.

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Dr. Val: Tell me a little bit about yourself, Captain.

Blankenship:  Being a veteran myself (20 years with the US Cost Guard) a count it a real privilege to serve our veterans. During my first 8 years with the Coast Guard I was a helicopter rescue crewman doing search and rescue based out of Miami, Florida. I eventually went to navy flight training and retired from the military in 1991 and was hired to fly for American Airlines for the next 14 years. In 2004 I helped to launch their Veterans Initiative.

Dr. Val: Tell me about Operation Iraqi Children and Snowball Express.

Blankenship:  There are so many children who have never been in uniform, but who have paid the ultimate price of losing a mom or a dad in war as they defend our freedoms.  American Airlines is particularly proud to be supporting childrens’ initiatives. The Snowball Express program involves private flights around the country to pick up kids and their surviving parent to take them on a fun-filled trip during the difficult winter holiday season.

Actor Gary Sinise helped to co-found Operation Iraqi Children where we shipped over 25 tons of toys and educational materials to Iraq. Our troops were able to give out 10,000 individually wrapped gifts to young children in Iraq.

Dr. Val: What about American Airlines’ support of the iBot Mobility System for wounded veterans?

Blankenship: The iBot is a special kind of wheelchair (designed by the guy who created the Segway) that allows its user to sit at an eye level with someone standing next to them.  They can also climb stairs. To date we’ve raised over $700,000 to buy these iBot Mobility devices for our wounded warriors.

Dr. Val: What else is American Airlines doing for veterans?

Blankenship: We fly wounded warriors and their families on charter flights from Brooks Army base to Disney World. We have three dedicated “yellow ribbon” airplanes that we use to fly recovering service men and women to events so they can get out of their rehab centers for a period of time and have fun with their families. This kind of charity comes naturally to us because American Airlines was founded by a military veteran and over 10% of our current staff are either active duty military personnel or veterans.

Every day we go to work, we recognize that the right and privilege we have to fly our airplanes and transport our passengers was paid for by the men and women who wear the cloth of our nation. American Airlines is continually looking for ways to thank them and support the efforts of our military.

Dr. Val: How do military and their families find out more about your programs and services?

Blankenship: They can send me an email directly and I’ll make sure they’re referred to the right place.

steve.blankenship@aa.com

Nurses And The Military: A Historical Perspective From Walter Reed

In honor of National Nurses Week, the National Museum of Health and Medicine hosted a discussion about the history of nursing at Walter Reed. Debbie Cox, former Army Nurse Corps Historian, initiated the conversation by describing what nursing was like at the turn of the 20th century. Steam-driven ambulances transported patients out of “mosquito-infested” Washington, DC to fresh-aired Fort McNair. A leading controversy of the time involved the intention of the hospital administrators to place the nurse baracks near the horse stables rather than the main hospital. In a dramatic twist, Jane Delano (cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt) saved the nurses from relegation to the stables. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that nurses were given rank by the army.

Entry into nursing was through the Red Cross exclusively until the first nursing school was opened at Walter Reed in 1918. From there, nurses grew in numbers and prestige, until they became a cornerstone of medical research in the 1950s, leading the way in understanding how to reduce the spread of infections in the OR, decubitus ulcers in the hospital wards, and radiation damage related to nuclear war.

Jennifer Easley, a nurse who works in the pediatric intensive care unit at Walter Reed, described her experiences as a nurse leader for a team of soldiers in Iraq. She derived great satisfaction as an officer in her unit, and said that the team spirit and camaraderie was unlike anything she experienced in civilian nursing. She had this to say:

“I only made it 18 months as a civilian nurse. When I was called back to serve in the army, I had my paperwork in so fast you could hardly blink. I found out that in the private sector, no one ‘has your back.’ There’s no protection for those who raise safety concerns and nurses don’t have the authority to request back up in cases where units are dangerously understaffed.

I remember one day when several nurses called in sick and there weren’t enough of us to cover the children and babies in the ICU safely. I reported this to my nurse supervisor and she told me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for a challenging work environment. I was shocked, and really feared for the patients.

Another problem with private sector nursing is that there are glass ceilings. If you apply for a job as a staff nurse, you can’t work your way up to nurse manager. You’d have to leave that hospital and apply for a nurse manager position elsewhere. In the army, I had many more opportunities to contribute, grow, and lead.”

The final speaker was a nurse who returned from Iraq with head and neck cancer. He (LTC Patrick Ahearne) was an inpatient at Walter Reed for many months, losing 35 pounds and experiencing severe nausea, vomiting, and depression. At his lowest point, when he had lost hope of recovery and wanted to die, he was met with kindness by an experienced nurse who knew how to ask the right questions and reframe his perspective:

“This wonderful nurse stayed with me for 2 hours, watching me vomit and talking me through it. I remember her asking me what I’d learned about myself through my illness. I thought it was a strange, and medically irrelevant question – but it was just what I needed at the time. I realized how strong the human body can be, and the inner strength I had to endure my cancer. In those two hours nurse McLaughlin took me from wanting to die to wanting to live. She taught me that it was ok to be angry. It was ok to be sick.”

Many thanks to the unsung heroes out there who touch lives like nurse McLaughlin. We couldn’t do it without you.

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Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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