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Baking cookies, part 1

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When the president of a country dies suddenly, they say that
the citizens forever remember where they were, and what they were doing, when
they first heard the news. I’ve heard people
discuss their personal circumstances when they received word that President
Kennedy was shot. For some reason, that sort
of news is a memory fixative, preserving individual experience along with
national tragedy.

For me, 9/11 was one of those events. I was getting off a night shift rotation at a
hospital in lower Manhattan, sitting in morning report, dozing off as usual –
my eye lids sticking to dry corneas, my head feeling vaguely gummy, thoughts
cluttered with worries about whether or not the incoming shift of residents
would remember to perform all the tasks I’d listed for them at sign out.

And as I dozed off, suddenly our chief resident marched up
to the front of the room, brushing aside the trembling intern who was
presenting a case at the podium at the front of the dingy room. “How rude of him” I thought hazily, as I
shifted in my seat to hear what he had to say.

“Guys, there’s been a big accident. An airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

Of all the things he could have said, that was the last
thing I was expecting. I shook my head,
wondering if I was awake or asleep.

“We don’t know how many casualties to expect, but it could
be hundreds. You need to get ready, and
ALL of you report back to the ER in 30 minutes.”

I thought to myself, “surely some Cessna-flying fool fell
asleep at the controls, and this is just an exaggeration.” But worried and exhausted, I went back to my
hospital-subsidized studio apartment and turned on the TV as I searched for a
fresh pair of scrubs. All the channels
were showing the north tower on fire, and as I was listening to the news
commentary and watching the flames, whammo, the second plane hit the south
tower. I stared in disbelief as the “accident”
turned into something intentional. I
remembered having dinner at Windows on the World the week before. I knew what it must have looked like inside
the buildings.

I was in shock as I hurried back to the hospital, trying to
think of where we kept all our supplies, what sort of injuries I’d be seeing,
if there was anything I could stuff in my pockets that could help…

I joined a gathering crowd of white coats at the hospital
entrance. There was a nervous energy,
without a particular plan. We thought
maybe that ambulances filled with casualties were going to show up any second.

The chief told me, “Get everybody you can out of the
hospital – anyone who’s well enough for discharge home needs to leave. Go
prepare beds for the incoming.”

So I went back to my floor, recalling the patients who were
lingering mostly because of social dispo issues, and I quickly explained the
situation – that we needed their beds and that I was sorry but they had to
leave. They were actually very
understanding, made calls to friends and family, and packed their bags to
go.

And hours passed without a single ambulance turning up with
injuries. I could smell burning plastic
in the air, and a cloud of soot was hanging over the buildings to the south of
us. We eventually left the ER and sat
down in the chairs surrounding a TV in the room where we had gathered for
morning report. We watched the plane hit
the Pentagon, the crash in Pennsylvania…
I thought it was the beginning of World War 3.

The silence on the streets of New York was deafening. Huddling inside buildings, people were
calling one another via cell phone to see if they were ok. My friend Cindy called me to say that she had
received a call from her close friend who was working as a manager at Windows on
the World. There was a big executive
brunch scheduled that morning. Cindy
used to be a manager there too… the woman’s last words were, “the ceiling has
just collapsed, what’s the emergency evacuation route? I can’t see in here…
please help…”

That night as I reported for my shift in the cardiac ICU, I
was informed by the nursing staff that there were no patients to care for, the
few that were there yesterday were either discharged or moved to the MICU. They were shutting down the CICU for the
night. I wasn’t sure what to do… so I
went back to my apartment and baked chocolate chip cookies and brought in a warm,
gooey plate of them for the nurses. We
ate them together quietly considering the craziness of our circumstance.

“Dr. Jones, you look like crap” one of them said to me
affectionately. “Why don’t you go home
and get some rest. We’ll page you if
there’s an admission.”

So I went home, crawled into my bed with scrubs on, and
slept through the entire night without a page.
The
disaster had only 2 outcomes – people were either dead, or alive and unharmed –
with almost nothing in between. All we
docs could do was mourn… or bake cookies.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

The scream

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An elderly woman had had a
cardiac arrest and was resuscitated long
after a lack of oxygen had permanently damaged her brain. Her daughter remained at her side day in and
day out in the Medical ICU, keeping watch on a hopeless situation.
Many staff had encouraged her to go out and get some fresh air, to take
care of herself… but she was compelled to stay with her mom 24-7 for reasons I will
never know.

I spent some time gazing at the patient’s face – it was delicate
and quite beautiful, with flowing white hair framing fair, soft skin. I wondered what she was like when she was
herself, if she had a gentle disposition, or a fiery wit. I wondered if she had loved her husband, and
if she had had a happy life… I wondered why her daughter was clinging to her,
barely able to leave her for bathroom breaks.

The situation continued for a few weeks – I was a medical
student, and wrote some very bland and unenlightening notes about the patient
each day, describing her unchanging condition.
I felt sad as I watched the daughter slowly come to realize that her mom
was already gone.

One day the daughter looked at me and said, “I think I’ll go
out for a bite.” I smiled, knowing that
this was a turning point for her, and gave her a hug. “I’ll watch her for you,” I said.

As it happened, the patient was on the “house service” –
assigned to the teaching attending of the month. She didn’t have her own doctor, so she was
followed by a team of rotating residents and attendings. The new team started this day, and were
somewhat unfamiliar with her case. I
dutifully updated them on the history and events over the past few weeks.

As I stood there with the team, rounding on the patient –
they noted that her lungs were becoming harder and harder to ventilate. ARDS,” they said. “She’s going to code any time now.”

And then the unthinkable happened. The new attending, who was a bit of a cowboy,
said “let’s just end this madness. Turn
off the ventilator, it’s done.” The
residents looked at one another – one protested, “I don’t think we should do
that.”

“She’s already gone – look at her! Her oxygen is dropping, she has no pupillary reflexes,
she’s on maximum pressors…”

“But wait,” I said, “Her daughter would want to be here.”

“It’s better for her not to have to go through this,” he
said. And he turned off the machine.

I gasped. “What will
we tell her daughter when she comes back from lunch?”

Annoyed by my persistence he snapped, “Tell her she coded
when she was out.”

Thirty minutes later the daughter came back to the ICU. As she walked towards her mom’s bed, the
residents scattered. Frightened, I
approached her. She could see from the
look on my face that something bad had happened.

“She’s gone,” I stumbled… “it just happened after you left.”

She looked at me as if I had convicted her of the crime of
abandonment. At that moment, her
greatest fear of leaving her mom’s side had come true – she wasn’t with her
when she died. She ran into the room,
saw that the machines were off and all was quiet. She fell to the floor and screamed.

That scream still haunts me to this day.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

The case of a predator in the hospital

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Several years ago I was taking care of a pleasant elderly woman with a heart condition on an inpatient unit. One morning I went into her room to check on her and I found her sitting up in bed, clutching her purse and crying.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Johnson?” I asked, perplexed.

She blew her nose in a Kleenex and replied, “Someone stole my insurance cards, my money, and my credit cards! They were in my wallet just yesterday evening – and this morning they’re gone.”

I paused for a moment, considering the order of priority in which she reported the missing items, glanced at her telemetry monitor (her rhythm was regular though her heart rate was elevated from crying), and asked if she knew how this might have happened.

She told me that she suspected that a certain patient had sneaked into her room in the middle of the night and removed the items from her wallet.

“How do you know it was that patient?” I asked, growing suspicious.

“I’ve seen her sneaking around at night in other people’s rooms – a couple of nights ago she was in here digging through my roommate’s dresser drawers.”

The suspect was a 38 year old woman with a known history of heroine abuse, who was admitted to the General Surgery service (conveniently boarded on our Internal Medicine floor) from the Emergency Department to complete an acute abdominal pain work up. This woman had already terrorized the surgical intern assigned to her case (as I had heard on rounds the day before) by chasing her around the hospital room with a hypodermic needle. Security had come to restore order and had found a stash of heroine and some needles in her bathroom that had been brought in by her visitors the night before. The team decided not to discharge her because they had discovered a large abscess on her ovary (from an advanced and untreated sexually transmitted disease) that they felt obligated to drain and treat her with antibiotics. Of course, on the morning of her scheduled surgery she ate breakfast, making it unsafe to put her under general anesthesia. These games continued (sneaking food before surgery, refusing surgery or medications, then changing her mind, then claiming to be homeless with no safe discharge plan, etc.) so that her length of stay grew from days to weeks.

“And now,” I thought to myself, “she’s using our hospital as a flop house, victimizing MY patients on the same floor – stealing their belongings in the middle of the night?!” This was the last straw. I told Mrs. Johnson that I would get to the bottom of the matter.

And so I waited for the victimizer to leave her hospital room for a scheduled test – I sneaked into her room and went through her bedside table drawers. Lo and behold, my patient’s ID and credit cards were stashed in a box with a bunch of other IDs that clearly didn’t belong to the woman.

I called hospital security, and we reviewed all the items that she had stolen. As it turned out, she was admitted to the hospital under a stolen Medicare card (the woman had claimed to be on disability). Her name matched with our records of a 67 year old woman, so we knew that she had been admitted under another’s name – and the admitting clerk had not noticed the age discrepancy. A careful record search turned up the drug user’s previous admissions under this alias. This predator had been gaming the system for years, eluding detection!

I asked the security guards to help me interview other patients on the inpatient unit to see if they had experienced anything out of the ordinary over the past few weeks. What we found was astounding. Several frail elderly patients described similar night terrors (being unable to stop the woman from going through their personal items at night) and one gentleman with advanced AIDS, who was admitted for treatment of severe pneumonia, reported that the woman had attempted to molest him in the middle of the night when she was high and in a hypersexual state.

Thanks to our investigation, many patients had their belongings returned to them (though some of their jewelry was not recovered – the woman probably sold it for heroine to her visiting dealer), and I heard that the predator was caught by the city police after choosing to leave the hospital against medical advice.

I don’t know what happened to this woman after that, and I doubt that the police were able to detain her for very long. I felt horrible for the patients who had been victimized in their ill and vulnerable states, and I wondered what kind of lasting psychological damage that this woman had inflicted upon them, especially poor Mrs. Johnson. I also felt frustrated and vulnerable – unable to really protect my hospital from future assaults. What could I do, stand in the Emergency Department each night to identify her if she chose to return? I can only imagine that this woman is still up to her old tricks at a neighboring inner city hospital near you…

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Healthcare barriers

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I worked in a hospital that was so old that the bathroom doors in the patient rooms were not wide enough to accommodate a walker or certain kinds of wheelchairs. The hospital had resisted any upgrades, because the building codes stipulated that if any improvement was made, all of the necessary upgrades were required. The cost to fully comply with the new codes was enormous, and so in some twist of bureaucratic irony – nothing changed for decades upon decades.

One morning I entered one of my patient’s rooms to check on her. There she was, 4’11”, 85 years old, with a white bob and a thin frame, wearing nothing but a hospital gown tied only at the neck. She smiled brightly as she caught my eye. She was clutching her walker, attempting to exit her bathroom straight on. I watched her as she slowly inched towards the narrow door, bumped into it and then backed up to try again. She made several valiant efforts to get out of the bathroom, holding onto her walker for stability. (Though none of the attempts involved turning the walker sideways to fit through the door.) Trapped and befuddled she smiled at me good naturedly and concluded, “I think this hospital gown is too heavy.”

When I remember this patient, I imagine how so many people are trapped in the healthcare system that is old and poorly designed. They want to get through barriers to care, have inadequate resources, and a limited understanding of what’s actually blocking them from the help they need. If you feel that “your gown is too heavy,” I hope that Revolution Health can make things better for you… we want to empower you to understand the problem and get the help you need. Let us know how we can help!

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Easter exercises

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My parents are strong believers in the idea of purposeful exercise. They couldn’t imagine working out in a gym, laboring on a treadmill with nothing accomplished at the end beyond sweating. No, for them, activity is critical – but it has to result in a tangible, quantifiable product.

And so it may come as no surprise that they left Manhattan in the early 70’s to raise their kids on a farm in Canada, where we were kept very busy herding cows, lifting milk crates, feeding pigs, fishing on the nearby ocean, and weeding our very large organic garden.

But as Manhattanites, my parents made sure that I read the New Yorker (we grew up with Calvin Trillin’s children), attended summer school in Paris and ski camp in Switzerland. We took a family vacation each winter to some tropical island, where I played with vacationing city kids.

But this strange combination of “country mouse, town mouse” occasionally produced some rather bizarre traditions – my favorite of which is the annual, December “Easter egg hunt.”

My parents would take us to a rather exclusive golf course on one of our vacation islands, sign up for a round in the late afternoon when most golfers were finishing up, then find us an empty bucket for golf balls. Then we’d walk off in the direction of the 9th hole, and my mom would tell us that there were golf ball “Easter eggs” hidden in the rough patches around the golf course, and that it was our job to fill up the bucket with as many balls as we could find. For young kids, I can tell you, such a challenging and large Easter egg hunt was really exciting.

So I searched fairly systematically through all the patches of rough, proudly announcing each new egg that I had uncovered: “Mom, I found one!” I’d beam, “and this one is bright orange!”

My younger sister wasn’t as successful at locating golf ball eggs. She tended to try to pick them off the fairway, where they were sitting targets. Of course my parents would have to reel her back in, explaining that the Easter eggs were only hidden in the deeper grass.

And we would spend hours and hours on our Easter egg hunts, until the sun set and the crickets drowned out the sound of the ocean waves. We often found an annoyed golf course crew waiting for us to return so they could close their pro-shop. My sister would hand them a bucket brimming with golf balls, saying “we found all these Easter eggs!” And the cuteness of her innocent glee would melt their annoyance as they put the bucket behind the counter, eyeing my parents suspiciously.

But those were good times – where exercise was effortless and fun. Where a common goal drove an entire family to activity, and kids maintained interest in something beyond the TV set.

Now as the real Easter approaches, I imagine what it would be like to return to my childhood activities at a local golf course. I suspect that my physician colleagues would frown upon me collecting stray golf balls at their respective courses. But to tell you the truth, I think that would be more fun than actually playing a round, don’t you?

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

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