On Loss, Death and Dying

As an internist with “added qualifications in geriatric medicine” I care for a great many elder individuals. In most cases these are individuals I met 20 or more years ago and have been privileged to share their lives with them as they aged.

The circle of life is relentless and unforgiving so there comes a time when these relationships end. In some cases it comes when they can no longer care for themselves and I suggest they move out of the area to be closer to a loved one who will provide support and care. In some cases the patient moves from their home into a senior assisted or skilled nursing facility out of the area.

There have been a few situations where an adult child from out of the area shows up on the scene and transfers their loved one’s care elsewhere. These are the most difficult situations because the children are stressed and put out by the responsibility and inconvenience of suddenly having to care for their loved one. They do not have the longstanding professional relationship with me that I have with the patient. They expect quick and simple answers and treatment plans in most cases when for the most part we are dealing with complex issues involving many professionals and treating one condition fully often exacerbates another.

Then of course there are the patients who pass away. As detached as you try to be, those of us who care invest a bit of our heart and soul in each patient who comes to us for care. I see that investment made in the vast majority of my colleagues across all the disciplines and specialties. When you lose someone, even an ancient senior citizen, it takes a piece of your being with it.

I too am no spring chicken. I talk about Medicare from experience now. Morning stiffness is a shared experience, not a term in a medical textbook. Male urinary problems, once something you treated in older guys is now a way of life. My older colleagues are retiring. When making hospital rounds I notice the prevalence of younger physicians.

My beloved pets age too. For the last 16 years my Pug (Pugsly) and my mixed-breed sweetie (Chloe) greeted me at the door, took long walks with me and provided fur therapy after a stressful day. Pugsly expired a year ago. His mate Chloe left this world in November. For a clinician well versed in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s book “On Death and Dying” and dealing with life and death daily, the loss of a beloved pet should be easier. The pain is palpable. The sadness recurs and the heaviness on the shoulders, eyelids and heart wears you down.

I have several younger patients valiantly battling against horrible malignant diseases. Their drive and courage to overcome illness and enjoy the time they have with family and friends is inspirational. They do not know it but they are my role models for how to deal with the adversity of losing loved ones, human and pet, and sharing the diminishing independence and health that my long time patients now experience.

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Why the Medicare System Can Not Stay Solvent

My spry 90 year old patient decided she had a urinary tract infection two weeks ago. She had difficulty urinating and the constant urge to void with no fever, no chills, no back pain, no bloody urine. She was advised to come in for an appointment the same morning but this didn’t suit her. The alternative choice was to see her urologist who made time available that same day. She decided this was not convenient either. I called her and took a history and attempted to negotiate a visit but she declined strongly. She chose to void into a sterile container she had at home, put it into the refrigerator for storage and start to take some ampicillin that had been prescribed for her last urinary tract infection weeks before. One day into the ampicillin therapy she had her full time aide drop the urine off at the office for a culture and analysis (It came back negative for an infection several days later). That night she could not void. She called the urologist and the covering doctor suggested she drink more water. She complied even after she developed nausea and vomiting which continued into the early morning hours. Her aide called 911 and EMS brought her to the emergency department.

This frail elderly woman has not been eating well for months. As her total protein drops and her activity diminishes decreasing her leg muscle tone, her lower extremity peripheral edema or swelling increases. Her veins drain less efficiently than in the past contributing to the swelling. She suffers from a chemical electrolyte regulatory abnormality with chronic low serum sodium. Vomiting electrolyte rich material and replacing it with electrolyte free water further diluted and lowered her serum sodium. Upon arrival in the Emergency Department, the ED physician noticed the swelling in her legs and reflex ordered a Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) lab panel. The government (CMS) has made such a big deal about recognizing CHF that physicians and hospitals are afraid to not recognize it and not treat it. If you don’t treat it there are financial penalties for the docs and the institutions. The CHF panel consists of expensive and sensitive heart muscle enzymes that elevate in a heart attack, a lipid profile and a BNP which elevates in CHF. The problem is that the heart enzymes and BNP elevate in a host of chronic conditions seen in the elderly unrelated to heart failure.

I was called into the hospital to evaluate and admit the patient in the middle of the night. A Foley Catheter was now inserted into her bladder and draining fluid. Steps had been taken to slowly correct her sodium abnormality. A urine culture was sent with the initial catheterized urine and the evaluation of her heart based on “indeterminate” heart enzymes was completed. She did not have a heart attack. She was not in heart failure. Her serum sodium rebounded slowly with a treatment called fluid restriction. Three days later she was voiding without the catheter, ambulating with her walker and aides assistance and ready to go home under the care of her aide and two daughters. She was scheduled to see me in 72 hours with the urologist to follow.

I called her the next day and she was doing fine. The next morning when I called she was constipated so we instituted a program which using over the counter medications corrected the problem. At 3 PM the next day she called my office and left a message that she wanted to speak to me. My nurse asked her if she was sick and she just repeated the need to talk to me. I called her when I finished with patients and she told me, “I am dying. I am very sick. I feel like I have to pee and I cannot. I have called 911 and I am on my way to the hospital.” When I tried to determine what the definition of “very sick” meant she couldn’t elaborate. She was not febrile. She had no chest discomfort or shortness of breath, she just couldn’t void. I called the ED and spoke to the head nurse and physician and reviewed her recent clinical course and findings. One hour later they called me to tell me she was in urinary retention and her bladder was overloaded. They placed a Foley Catheter in her bladder and ¾ of a liter of urine emptied relieving her discomfort and very sick feeling. The problem was that the ED physician saw her leg edema and sent off the CHF Lab Protocol again. This was a different ED physician than the week before. This time the Troponin I cardiac enzyme marker was in a higher in determinant range. “Steve,” he said, “her EKG is abnormal. I think she is evolving a myocardial infarction and needs to be readmitted.” I reminded him that we had completed this exercise last week with her long time cardiologist and her heart was fine. He told me he didn’t care. The risk medical legally was too high to send her home. The costs and hospital stay now start again.

This patient had daily 24 hour care by an experienced aide. Both her college educated adult children were with her. She had my office phone and cell phone as well as access to the very flexible urologist. She still chose to do it her way relying on EMS and Emergency Departments due to fear, anxiety and having no financial skin in the game. The urologist wondered why she didn’t just call him and he would have reinserted the catheter in his office. I wondered why she just didn’t call earlier so we could see her before my staff left for the evening. It didn’t matter if we were capitated, being paid for quality metrics or if the fee for service system was abolished. This strong willed independent complicated ancient senior citizen was determined to do it her way. The system runs on algorithms and protocols and generates information routinely that requires a common sense interpretation based on the clinical setting and issues. The risk of medical malpractice despite government funding this care plus the risk of government sanctions based on chronic disease protocols makes intelligent and compassionate care which is affordable almost impossible.

Telemedicine and Acute Stroke Treatment

My community hospital is holding its quarterly physician staff meeting and one of the items on the agenda will be a bylaw change which will permit outside physicians, not credentialed or vetted by our hospital credentials committee, to perform video consults on patients within our hospital. Hospital administration is pushing this bylaw change, and since there has been a quiet coup which has transferred medical staff power from the community’s practicing physicians to the hospital employed and paid physicians, it is a foregone conclusion that it will easily pass.

The bylaw change is being requested because the hospital would like to continue to reap the benefits of being an ischemic stroke comprehensive treatment center and offering the health benefits to the community despite not being able to meet the criteria. If a patient presents to the emergency department within four hours of developing ischemic stroke symptoms they must be offered the administration of a “clot busting “drug Alteplase (t-pa). The patient must not have any bleeding tendencies and no evidence of active bleeding or a mass or tumor on head CT scan and must be examined by a neurologist within 45 minutes of arrival.

The problem is that most community based neurologists with outpatient office practices and hospital staff privileges cannot and will not drop everything they are doing and run to the emergency department to evaluate a new patient each time a stroke protocol patient arrives. When given an ultimatum by the hospital administration, that they must take call and be available within 45 minutes, our community neurologists en masse relinquished their hospital privileges.

The hospital countered by bringing in several research oriented academic neurologists and neurosurgeons to man the beautiful new Neuroscience Institute and provide coverage of the ED for the stroke protocol. Few if any of these physicians were able to develop and maintain a practice within the community and they have since left. The Emergency Department is staffed by employed board certified emergency physicians who are well qualified to diagnose an ischemic stroke and administer t-pa. They refuse to do so citing the liability of a poor outcome as the reason. Despite data indicating the benefits of t-pa administration in these situations, the 6 out of 100 chances of a bleed in the brain plus the 1 in 6 chance of death is enough to deter their participation.

You would think that since the hospital hires these physicians the logical choice would be to fire them and hire a group that will provide the state of the art care in a timely fashion. This has not occurred. You would think that the state legislature would grant the ED physicians sovereign immunity from medical malpractice suits if the patient meets the criteria for the ischemic stroke protocol and the patient is given appropriate informed consent for the procedure but this common sense legislation has not been developed or passed.

The hospital has chosen a different pathway. They are opting to hire neurologists from a university medical center who will provide video consults on ischemic stroke patients from an offsite location. Robots will actually examine the patient and televise the data back to the telemedicine center after an emergency department physician performs a brief initial evaluation. The neurologist off site will then provide the needed neurology consult to proceed with the injection of the clot buster.

I suspect the mechanism will work like this. A patient or family member will call EMS via 911 and be taken to the Emergency Department. A triage nurse will ask all the questions to qualify the patient for the t-pa protocol; a robot will examine the patient and transmit via TV the data to an offsite neurologist while an ER physician does an exam. A CT scan of the head and brain will be performed. If no bleed is discovered or tumor or mass that could bleed, t-pa will be administered by the pharmacy and nursing staff. Further intervention by an interventional radiologist and or neurosurgeon may then occur.

At no point in this protocol does it call for the patient’s primary care doctor or cardiologist or usual neurologist to be called. We will be called once the procedure is complete because neither the ER physician or the neurosurgeon or the interventional radiologist will want to admit the patient to neurology ICU. While our surgical ICU and Medical ICU/CCU are covered 24 hours per day by an outsourced hired intensivist group, the neuro ICU does not have that type of coverage.

I can hear it now, my phone ringing and upon picking it up I hear the voice of a clerk in the Emergency Department, “Hello Dr Reznick, Dr. Whateverhisorhername wishes to speak to you about patient Just Had A Stroke.” I get put on hold for five minutes and then in a flat nasal voice, “Hello Steve your patient came in earlier by EMS with symptoms of an acute ischemic stroke. They met the t-pa ischemic stroke criteria and were treated. Unfortunately, they had a major hemispheric bleed with mass effect and edema and are now unresponsive and intubated on a ventilator. We need you to come in and admit him and care for him.”

I will vote in protest against this bylaw. I will lobby for recruiting neurologists who are hospital based who will actually see the patient and care for them. I will lobby for a new state law to provide sovereign immunity for ED physicians treating ischemic strokes according to the internationally recognized protocol. I will lobby for our medical and surgical residents on site and in the hospital to be permitted to administer t-pa after meeting the appropriate criteria. I will not support out of the area physicians making the final call and leaving our local physicians to deal with their results.

Water versus Diet Drinks for Dieting and Weight Loss

Water and many diet beverages quench your thirst and are listed as providing no energy or calories to your daily intake. With this in mind, researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom set up a definitive study to assess the effect of water on weight loss after a meal versus a diet beverage’s effect on weight loss.

Ameneh Madjid, PharmD and associates looked at 81 overweight and obese women with Type II Diabetes Mellitus. Members of the group were either asked to continue drinking diet beverages five times per week after lunch or substitute water for the diet beverages. The researchers found that over a 24 week period, the water group had greater decreases in weight, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose, fasting insulin homeostasis and two hour post-meal glucose readings compared with the diet beverage group.

A similar study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looking at 89 obese women found that after six months the water group had lost an extra three pounds compared to the diet beverage group.

As a clinician, the idea of putting water into your body as opposed to diet drink chemicals makes great sense. There have been some researchers who felt that diet beverages eliminated calories in soft drinks but that users consumed more dietary food and calories when drinking diet beverages as opposed to water.

I will suggest to my patients that they try water instead of diet beverages but remind them that an occasional diet beverage probably will not hurt their long term goals.

To Floss or Not To Floss? Making Recommendations Without Data

The U.S. Department of Health has announced that there is no data that flossing your gums has any benefit.  This has led to an Associated Press review of the paucity of randomly controlled trials with evidence that flossing is beneficial. The result is a new recommendation that flossing daily is not necessary. We are living in an era where the only justification for research and observational studies seems to be to justify saving money by not teaching patients something or encouraging them not to do something. Cost containment is the key as the US Government tries to lower the percentage of dollars spent on health care as a percentage of the Gross National Product.

Experts at the Cleveland Clinic spurred on by the “Bale and Doneen” philosophy that inflammation in arterial vessels leads to acute heart attacks and strokes have pushed for greater periodontal care and health. Flossing is part of that philosophy. Cleaning in-between your teeth with hand held pics or water pics provides cleaning of the gums and spaces between teeth as well.  There are few or any studies on this subject because the benefit is so obvious that there has been no need to perform them.  Dentists assure me that proper tooth and gum care is essential to your general health and wellbeing.  This is common sense like not crossing a busy street against the light, not drinking alcohol and driving a car or truck or not jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. It’s time for our dental schools to organize and perform these studies but I suggest you keep caring for your gums and teeth while the data is being accumulated.

Pneumococcal Vaccine in Development May Fight All Strains of the Disease

Community acquired pneumonia (CAP) plus other infections attributable to the Pneumococcus bacteria account for 15 million infections per year including pneumonia, meningitis and bronchitis. The organism is the leading cause of death in children less than five years old.  Over the last 30 years pharmaceutical companies have developed Pneumovax 23 which covers 23 unique bacteria that cause CAP in adults and Prevnair 13 which covers 13 pneumococcal bacterial strains.  Twelve of the bacteria in Prevnair 13 are identical to the Pneumovax 23 with only one unique bacterial type included.

A group at the State University of New York at Buffalo led by Blaine Pfeifer, specializing in chemical and bacterial engineering; has developed a new approach to pneumococcal vaccination. Working with computer modeling and animals to this point, they have developed a successful vaccine that attacks pathogenic pneumococcal bacteria while leaving the beneficial and non-pathogenic subtypes alone. The vaccine reads proteins on the surface of the bacterial cells and destroys only those that show aggressive activity. The vaccine has been 100% effective against the 12 most virulent pneumococcal bacterial strains existing in animal studies.    The vaccine is being prepared for human testing in the near future.  The preliminary work was discussed in the medical magazine Medical Economics

Zika Update

Zika is an infectious virus introduced to Florida by individuals who traveled to South and Central America plus the Caribbean Islands and were infected by the bite of an aegypti mosquito or a close relative of that mosquito. They then brought the infection back to the USA. The disease has an incubation period of less than two weeks and generally produces a mild illness that most adults do not even know they have. Fever, aches and pains, a fleeting rash, headache and conjunctivitis are common symptoms. Once infected the disease can be transmitted from human to human by body fluids during sexual activity. It can additionally be transmitted when an infected individual is bitten by a mosquito and then it bites a human being. Fortunately the mosquitoes have a flight range of about 100 yards. It is the mobility of infected human beings causing the geographical spread of the virus more than mosquitoes. The virus infects a male’s semen and can remain infectious for about six months. This has led to the suggestion that infected men use condoms when having sex for six months post infection.

The disease is mild in adults but the body’s response to infection has produced a neurological ascending paralysis known as Guillan Barre Syndrome (GBS) at three times the expected rate of this diseases occurrence.  GBS is painful and can affect our respiratory muscles necessitating the use of mechanical respirators and ICU care for survival. The disease is most dangerous in pregnant women causing permanent brain and developmental damage and death in developing fetuses.

At the current time treatment is supportive. There are lab tests to detect an infection using blood and urine specimens. A vaccine to prevent infection is under development with early success noted in rhesus monkeys. Prevention at this point involves practicing safe sex, avoiding mosquito bites using repellant and appropriate clothing.  The mosquito spreading Zika bites during daylight hours. Spraying to reduce the mosquito population is an ongoing strategy being hampered by poor funding. An experimental project to introduce sterile genetically engineered female mosquitoes is being hampered by lack of funding and citizen concern about potential dangers of releasing mutated mosquitoes.

President Obama asked Congress last spring for 1.9 billion dollars to fight Zika but Congress adjourned without providing any funds. The CDC used other funds to begin the research and fight against Zika but is rapidly running out of funds.