My First Day on the Job …

There has been a great deal of discussion about doctors’ in training work hours and work load. In June of 1976 I reported to the Jackson Memorial Hospital complex three days in advance of my start date for orientation. I was given a tour of the facility, filled out countless forms and waivers, received my ID badge and was ultimately sent to the Department of Medicine to receive my assignment.

Sitting in the conference room and looking at the patient assignment and ward team assignment list I found myself at the bottom of the list. “Elective Rotation – Steven Reznick MD Neurology.” While all my colleagues in the internal medicine training program left to meet their new residents and meet and learn their patients I was sent to the neurology department in the next building to perform neurology consultations. When I got to the Neurology Office the Chief Resident laughed at me. “Reznick you are on elective. There is no night call. You start in three days. Go home and enjoy your last three days of freedom. Be here at this office at 9 a.m. and we will see what if any consults we have to do.”

Three days later at 7 a.m., filled with anxiety, I arrived at the neurology office which was locked and closed. At 8 a.m. a secretary arrived, showed me where to sit and I waited. At 8:50 a.m. no one had arrived yet on the medical staff and she received a phone call. “Dr. Reznick that call was from your chief resident in Internal Medicine. He needs to see you now in his office.” I asked directions on how to get there and off I went.

The Chief Resident had just completed his three years in internal medicine and was now entering an administrative and research year. He greeted me with, “Reznick I am not sure how you managed to be so unlucky but I have to reassign you from elective to Ward Team III on South Wing 8. You have eighteen patients on your service and you do not have the luxury of three days to learn them. By the way, here is the team pager and you are on call today and tonight.” “How did I get so lucky? “ I asked. “We originally had an anesthesia resident rotating through medicine but he decided after orientation that he did not want to be a doctor so he just left.”

The Chief gave me directions to SW-8, which was at least air conditioned, and off I trudged. Upon arrival I went to the nursing station, introduced myself to the charge nurse and asked if my ward team was around. “They are not back from morning report yet but we need you in 828. The priest arrived fifteen minutes ago and they are waiting for you to terminate life supports.”

My first patient was 28 years old with widespread metastatic terminal breast cancer. After multiple seizures from brain metastases and an unsuccessful CPR attempt she was “brain dead” on a ventilator. Her family had chosen to terminate life supports and my role was to walk in, disconnect the ventilator and pronounce her dead when she stopped breathing. I walked in, introduced myself, shook hands all around and listened to the family talk about my new patient. When it was time the nurse and priest walked to the ventilator and disconnected it with me holding my hands so I did not feel like I was doing this alone. The nurse adjusted the morphine drip and the patient peacefully and calmly ceased breathing. I listened for a heartbeat, felt no pulse, saw no respirations and spoke to each family member and the priest as my pager screeched, “Call 4125 MICU for a transfer.” I found a phone and called. AC, an intern said, “Hi Steve. We are transferring a 23 year old with rhabdomyolysis and acute tubular necrosis (kidney failure) just off peritoneal dialysis with calcium of 16 out to the floor because we need a bed for a younger more salvageable patient. Can you come get him please?”

The charge nurse on SW-8 gave me directions to the MICU and it took me five minutes to walk there. Out in the hallway was a large stretcher with an even larger gentleman on it with two IV lines running almost wide open and three volumes of charts each larger than the Encyclopedia Britannica. There were no transporters or orderlies to move the patients at this large public hospital so I was left to push the bed along the course I had just walked to get back to SW-8. We walked through non air conditioned East Wing which was considerably more difficult pushing a stretcher than on the original trip.

On the way I introduced myself to Frank, my new patient and began to take a history. Poor Frank was a furniture mover who developed a fever and chills while moving a piano up some stairs and, when he got home and went to bed, had terrible muscle pain. He was too weak to get up so he called 911 and was brought to the hospital three months earlier. For some reason his muscles had decomposed due to the infection, heat and bad luck. The dissolving muscle enzymes were like molasses as they passed through the filtration of the kidneys clogging them up and sending him into acute and life threatening kidney failure. He had survived dialysis and infection and was now being bumped out of the unit for a “younger more salvageable patient.”

When I got back to SW-8 and placed him on his bed I sat down with his chart, overwhelmed and considered using the same option that the anesthesia resident had exercised. I was reading and crying when I felt a hand on my shoulder, looked up and my new resident introduced himself. “You have had a tough morning. Let’s go to the blackboard and talk about hypercalcemia and how to treat it. I bet you know far more than you think you do. I have you covered, don’t worry.”

We were almost through his chalk talk and were about to examine the patient when the beeper screeched again. “Please call 4225, the ER. We have a GI bleeder and he is your admission if he doesn’t arrest before you get here.” John, my resident, jumped up and screamed, “Follow me.” He was running full speed, down the stairs and towards the ER. It was a ½ mile run if not more. When we arrived, sweaty and panting for breath we noticed a jaundiced man surrounded by doctors and nurses with blood spurting upwards from his mouth like an oil well that had just been opened wide. John pushed them aside, felt for a pulse and said to me, “Start CPR.” I got up on the stretcher and started compressions with each compression producing a geyser of blood out of his mouth and on to my white coat and clothes. There were no goggles. There was no barrier protection. “Stop compressions, “he ordered. “There is no pulse or blood pressure, let’s call it.” “Time of death 9:55 a.m.” John directed me to the chart where I wrote a brief note, called the next of kin and informed them and then changed into clean scrubs. “We have about an hour or two now before another admission so let’s go back to the floor, finish up with your surviving patient and get to learn the others.”

At 7 p.m., having rounded with me on all my new patients, John asked me if I had eaten all day and did I live alone. I told him I had not eaten anything since coffee in the neurology office and I was married. He suggested I call home and tell my wife that I wasn’t coming home that night. “Let’s get you to the cafeteria, get you some nourishment and let me introduce you to the resident covering you and Dr Homer tonight.” Since I was not assigned to patient care at orientation, I had not been issued meal tickets. I had about five dollars in my wallet so John gave me some of his meal tickets for a meal. John was a saint. My covering resident was his equal. “Pat” called me a “thoroughbred stallion who needed to be brought along slowly.” She gave me her pager number and told me to call her if I got an admission or if I had a patient care issue. The two other interns on our team were excellent. They made me a summary of their patients and wandered home at about 8 p.m.

The time from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. was a vast blur. There was an admission of an elderly gentleman with pneumonia. It required drawing all his bloods, labeling the tubes and carrying them to the lab. I had to wheel him to x-ray for a chest x-ray (there were no CT Scans yet), obtain a sputum specimen and gram stain it for Tuberculosis. There were the three blood cultures to draw, starting the IV line and antibiotics and of course writing the admission note and orders and dictating them. There were countless calls from nurses about infiltrated IV lines to be restarted, headaches, fevers requiring me to show up and draw blood cultures, family members calling to discuss their loved ones status.

At 2:30 a.m. I wandered into the ER because I was up for the next admission. “Pat” looked at me and said, “Go into the lounge, lie down and take a nap. Give me your pager. If anything comes up I will wake you. You need a nap.” That simple act of kindness and consideration and a 30 minute nap was like a shot of Café Cubano and adrenaline and, when 7 a.m. work rounds began with my ward team back on site with my resident John, I was relatively fresh to face a new day. I passed the pager to Phil, the other intern, as he asked me, “How did it go?” Somehow I mustered up a “No sweat especially with resident coverage from John and Pat.  John is covering you tonight so I expect you will be fine!”

We got very little sleep during my internship (PGY1) and residency training. We worked 100 plus hours weekly. The patients we saw were mostly severely ill and complex. We did all the lab work ourselves in the ER house staff lab. We started all the IV’s, drew all the bloods, and transported the patients ourselves. The work was physical, demanding, cerebral, emotional and exhausting. Every new patient was seen by an ER physician and attending, an intern, a medical student, a covering resident.

They were reassessed at 7 a.m. on work rounds with your resident and ward team plus often the chief resident. At 9 a.m. you presented the new admissions to a faculty member and the entire residency class at morning report. At 10 a.m. you presented the case to your team attending physician on attending physician rounds. This faculty member reviewed the case, examined the patients and wrote a note documenting agreement with the care plan. At noon your resident presented the case to the Chief of Staff at Chief of Staff Rounds. By 1:00 p.m. the problems and decision making had been reviewed and discussed by six or seven physicians. Sleep was not an issue in decision making because we had so many immediate layers of patient decision making reviews.

Our overworked supervising residents for the most part were caring and helped us out if we were exhausted or in over our heads. Our chief residents were available around the clock if we needed extra help.

I do not want today’s doctors to have to work as hard and perform the menial tasks that I was required to do for any reason let alone because I went through it and survived. I do not believe that the layers of supervision and questioning of your decisions allows for sleep deprived errors and mistakes if everyone is doing their job appropriately. I do feel fortunate that I learned to stain specimens and look at them under the microscope and run electrolytes on flame photometers and learn how to set up cultures of blood and urine on culture plates then read them. It taught me the time involved and the limitations of the test plus the margins for error.

I do believe the high volume of severely ill individuals I cared for broke me down and made me a dehumanized efficient machine. I was fortunate that caring faculty built me up and reminded me why I went into this profession to begin with.

Last week a prospective new patient came by to meet me at my office and see if he wanted to join my practice. During the discussion he lifted his shirt and showed me some scars on his abdomen. “You don’t remember me? You gave me those scars inserting catheters to do peritoneal dialysis on me on SW-8 on your first month as a doctor. I remember how frightened you were that you would hurt me or kill me. I was suffering from kidney failure and high calcium after my muscles broke down from an infection. You treated me for six weeks after I left the ICU and transferred me to an acute rehabilitation hospital where I learned to walk again. I live in this area now and I found you on line and want to be your patient again.”

It’s incredible how life always seems to come around full circle!

Pharmaceutical Adverse Effects Can Sneak Up on You

Recently at my urology appointment I complained to my doctor that the side effects of dry mouth, dry eyes and certain issues pertaining to sexual performance caused by my prescribed medications for prostatism were far worse than the actual urinary frequency and slow stream associated with a normally enlarging prostate gland. In addition to the direct effects of the medication, I was noticing minimal hygiene related issues that annoyed me greatly. I showed him an article from an ancient study done at the Veterans Administration in which seniors who had been on these medications for BPH for years and ultimately had a surgical prostatectomy at 6 months and one year post procedure were ecstatic about their outcomes and didn’t understand why they took the medications and waited so long to have the definitive surgery. He agreed with my assessment and presented surgical options and we set a date for the procedure.

He offered a second drug in advance of the surgery to shrink the prostate and make the procedure easier. He wasn’t sure if I had tried it before and I disliked it but I reviewed the pros and cons and filled the prescription. The medication works by inhibiting testosterone conversion to its active form by inhibiting enzymes called 5-alpha reductases. You do not need to be a pharmacologist or biochemist to understand that anything that inhibits male sex hormones may inhibit your sex drive, inhibit your sexual performance and or decrease your sperm count and volume of ejaculate. I warned my wife and added the medication to my regimen.

Five days later I cancelled my much anticipated trip to the gym for stretching, flexibility and core strength training. I loved these workouts but I just didn’t feel like doing it. The problem is I cancelled the next dozen scheduled workouts. I also packed up my running shoes and put them away deciding that the hip and back pain associated with my three mile trudge wasn’t worth it. I rationalized that I had gotten bored with my workout routine and needed a more senior adult program. I additionally noticed that after getting up early to walk the dog and prepare to make rounds at the hospital I was sitting down in an easy chair and falling back asleep. When I woke up I didn’t want to go out, but I did. My wife noticed the subtle change when I quietly sat in front of the TV watching my beloved Gators make their NCAA tournament run and I didn’t make a peep rather than scream at the screen, when an obvious boneheaded play was made by my team or when an obvious officiating error went against my team. This carried over to the Miami Heat’s late season attempt to make the playoffs as well.

Two weeks ago on a crisp beautiful Saturday, instead of taking the dog for a long walk and doing my run, I sat down in a patio chair and started to go through my accumulated journal articles. Yes those were stacking up too. There it was in the pile, “5 alpha reductase inhibitor use associated with depression and increased risk of suicide in men over 65” The article said that for the first 18 months after starting this medication up to 2/3 of the men became clinically depressed. The suicide rate was far higher than normal in that population. It was like a revelation. This was a new original report so this side effect was not commonly discussed.

I called my internist and discussed my article and my feelings and we decided to stop the medicine. I woke up the next morning and put on my running shoes and took my usual run after taking the dog for a long warm-up walk. It’s taken about two weeks for the cloud to be lifted. I sleep better at night. I am less fatigued during the day. I haven’t missed a workout in two weeks. I look forward to going to work and teaching my students again. I have accessed my office electronic health record and called every patient on this type of medication and we had a meaningful discussion to assess whether they were medically depressed. It snuck up on me so quickly and so insidiously. I still have a procedure coming up but I feel like my usually crazy self again.

The Artificial Sweetener Conundrum

Years ago I attended a Weight Watchers meeting in Brooklyn, NY with the lecturer being their public founder Jean Nidetch. She joked about her sugar free gum, sugar free soda and sugar free snacks contributing to “artificial diabetes.” She drew a big laugh but little did she know her comedy may have a ring of the truth to it.

Researchers have now published reputable data that drinking a diet soda daily greatly increases your chances of having a stroke or developing dementia. In an observational study, researchers using data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring cohort noticed that individuals who drank diet soda and used artificial sweeteners were at an increased risk of ischemic stroke and all cause dementia when compared to individuals of similar age and risk factor stratification that did not use artificial sweeteners. Their data was published in the neurology journal Stroke. This is an observational study which cannot show cause and effect but uses the analogy and theory “where you see smoke there is fire”.

In an unrelated study, researchers looking at how we metabolize sugars noted that consuming artificial sweeteners may lead to larger food and beverage intake and ultimate weight gain. The data was not much better when they looked at individuals who consumed real sugar in sugary drinks. They noted that sugary drinks accelerated the process of aging in cells. This was somewhat in conflict with the original study referenced in which consumption of sugary beverages did not appear to have an association with stroke or dementia.

Clearly the data is confusing as to what to do. Once again moderation with diets with controlled portion size, limited chemical and antibiotic exposure and; rich in vegetables as well as fruits and nuts with a high quality protein seems to be the direction to go. No matter who studies the Mediterranean type diet the results are favorable.

Once again I lobby for nutritional training in the elementary, middle and high schools with healthy cooking and preparation classes as a sound investment for a healthier population in the future. The classes should go as far as teaching students how to create their own gardens and grow some fruits and vegetables on their own for home consumption. We may not be able to impact the adult population in mass but at least let’s give the children a chance.

Medication Adherence in the Elderly

One of the most challenging and difficult parts of my professional day is trying to determine if my patients are actually taking their medications as prescribed. I ask my patients to bring their medications to each visit in the original pill bottles and we count pills. I ask them to bring their medication lists as well and we go through the time consuming practice of reviewing each medication against the prescribing date and amount and reviewing whether the correct amount of medication has been taken and is left in the pill bottles.

Many of our patients inadvertently make medication mistakes routinely. The toughest groups of patients to treat are elderly couples living independently with no local family member support and possessing a strong will for independence and privacy. Often one patient is moderately to severely cognitively impaired and the other partner is nowhere near as sharp as they think they are. There are frequently out of state children who try to provide support by hiring someone to assist their parents. In most cases mom and dad do not allow that hired person to work full time and terminate any strong willed but well-meaning caregiver who actually does what needs to be done.

Out of town family members usually hire an aide to help their relatives. Aides are not permitted by state law to administer medications. It is not in their job description or permitted by law. Well-meaning relatives usually then hire an agency which sends a nurse to fill up a monthly pillbox with the patient’s medications. All the patient has to do is go to the pillbox, recognize the day and date and remove and take the medications set aside in that section of the pillbox for that particular day.

Unfortunately it doesn’t happen the way it should. Unless a nurse stands there and administers the medication and then documents it, there is a strong possibility that the medication will not be taken correctly.

When bringing this up tactfully to the patient, spouse/partner or family member; they act in disbelief that you would make such an absurd statement despite the pill count in the bottles being off and extra medicine remaining in the pill box. This issue was recently studied by Niteesh K. Choudhry, MD, Ph.D. of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Ma. Working with a younger group of insured patients he showed that even with the use of a pillbox, and a digital timer to remind patients it was time to take their medication, adherence was extremely poor. He concluded that patients need additional support to adhere to their medication schedules and needs. His study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Patients, especially the elderly, need hired professionals to administer and document the administration of their medications or else they don’t get it right. This may be inconvenient and expensive but it works.

Probiotics and Mild Seasonal Allergies

I just completed the 2017 Internal Medicine Review course at Boca Regional Hospital and one of the presenters was Dr Eamon Quigley an expert on the bacteria in the gut or microbiome. He spoke about the future of analyzing the gut bacteria in disease, as well as health, and adjusting it accordingly.

When the question of probiotics came up he was extremely tepid in his views on the benefits they provide. We have routinely added a probiotic to antibiotic regimens for documented infections with the hope that by providing back bacteria for the gut destroyed as collateral damage of treating the infection, we might be preventing antibiotic related colitis and gastrointestinal distress. I left the conference uncertain about the role of probiotics

Upon getting to my desk I found an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which talked about probiotics filled with Lactobacillus gasseri KS-13, Bibidobacterium bifidum G9-1 and B. longum MM-2 had fewer allergic symptoms than allergic patients given a placebo. It was a controlled double blinded study looking at seasonal allergies. There were 173 participants all with seasonal allergies who filled out weekly MRQLQ questionnaires and had blood samples taken to measure serum immunoglobulin E and regulatory T cell activity.

The results clearly showed an improvement with the probiotics compared to the placebo. The benefit was most noticeable in those with mild symptoms.

Further studies need to be performed but as we head into spring allergy season I will make sure the probiotic I choose contains the cultures mentioned in this study. I will let you know how my allergies feel.

Ambulatory Blood Pressure Checkups versus Clinic Blood Pressures

General internists and family practitioners have very little equipment to use in diagnosing our patients other than a light, a reflex hammer, a stethoscope, an EKG machine, a spirometer (to test breathing) and a pulse oximeter. Some offices still have an x- ray suite today but that is less common in small independent practices.

The ambulatory blood pressure cuff is a device introduced as a way to test whether patients with office-based hypertension had an isolated anxiety elevation of their blood pressure because of the physician’s “white coat” or an ongoing problem that needed to be addressed. The monitor itself is a routine blood pressure cuff with a computer device and timed inflation and deflation mechanism. It was designed to take six blood pressure readings per hour while you were awake and four readings per hour during the night.

Patients are asked to bathe and groom themselves prior to arriving for an appointment and we then placed the cuff on their arm and activated the device. They returned it the next morning and we connected the recording chip to our computer. We received multiple readings per hour and the machine calculated average blood pressure readings, made graphs and answered the question of what type of blood pressure elevation we had seen in our office.

We have performed hundreds of these procedures on patients and it is extremely rare to see a report of a sustained or average elevation of the systolic or diastolic blood pressure in a range that requires the use of medication. We only use the ambulatory monitor on patients who took their blood pressures at home and said it was normal but always had a dramatic elevation while in the doctor’s office.

I was entirely surprised to read the article in Circulation which looked at employees of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Columbia who had ambulatory blood pressures compared with “clinic” blood pressures. 893 individuals wore the ambulatory monitor and were compared to 942 who had clinic blood pressures taken. These were all young healthy individuals with none taking blood pressure treatments.

They found that the ambulatory monitor readings were higher (average 123/77) compared to clinic readings which averaged 116/ 75. The average BP was 10 mm higher in young healthy adults with a normal body mass index. This elevated ambulatory blood pressure was found to be most pronounced in young healthy individuals with the difference being less apparent with increasing age.

While the result was surprising it still supports the use of the machine in our older population of individuals who come in with a story of elevated blood pressures in the doctor’s office but normal blood pressures at home. We will continue to use the machine for just that purpose.

International Panel Questions the Wisdom of Strict Sodium Guidelines

A technical paper published in the online version of the European Heart Journal suggested that individuals should strive to keep their sodium intake to less than 5 grams per day. This is in marked contrast to the recommendations of the American Heart Association of 1.5 grams per day and American College of Cardiology recommendations of 2.3 grams per day. The authors of the papers included some of the world’s experts on the topic of hypertension including Giuseppe Mancia, MD, Suzanne Oparil, MD and Paul Whelton, MD.  They agreed that consuming more than five grams per day was associated with an increased cardiovascular risk. They believe there is no firm evidence that lowering the sodium intake to below 2.3 or 1.5 grams per day reduces cardiovascular disease without putting you at risk of developing other health issues from having too little sodium.

The report triggered a firestorm of controversy in the hypertension and cardiovascular field with proponents on each side of the issue. Both sides agreed that we need more meticulous research to determine the best lower end of daily sodium intake because current information makes recommending one level or another a guess at best with little data to back you up. That leaves clinicians and patients scrambling for clarity and the media reporting this paper in a manner threatening to further erode the public’s confidence in the scientific method and physicians in general.

As a practicing physician I will continue to recommend a common sense approach to salt intake. Those patients who have a history of congestive heart failure or hypertension which is volume related will still be encouraged to read the sodium content of the foods they are purchasing and try to avoid cooking with or adding sodium chloride to their food at the table. This will be especially important for patients with cardiomyopathies and kidney disease who are following their daily weights closely. For the rest of my patient population I will ask them to use salt judiciously and in moderation only. I will suggest not adding salt at the table and if they do to please add it in moderation. I will allow more salt intake in those patients who work outside all day and are exposed to our high temperatures and humidity.

Like everyone else, I will wait for the meticulous research studies to be performed over time to determine how low and high our sodium chloride consumption should be without hurting ourselves.