Summer Reading: Island Practice, About A Rare Physician on Nantucket

Summer seems the right time for reading Island Practice, a book about a surgeon who lives and works on Nantucket. This engaging work profiles a craggy, eccentric and trusted doctor who, by circumstance and availability, takes care of many people on the island with all kinds of ailments – physical, psychological, minor and life-threatening. The story, now available in paperback, offers a window into the year-round experience of living in a small offshore community. Island Practice

The book probes the relationships formed when a doctor is immersed in his community. There are few secrets. As reported by the detail-oriented Pam Belluck, a NYT journalist, Dr. Tim Lepore arrived on Nantucket in early 1983 with his wife and children. Over time, the people who live there got to know his politics, habits, pet interests and political views. As described, the Harvard-educated, Tufts-trained Lepore is a gun-collecting libertarian. He practices medicine with old-fashioned attention to each patient, variable billing and a conscience that makes it hard for him to leave the island. Lepore takes pride in his work, knows the limits of his knowledge and surgical skills, and cares. He treats famous Democrats with summer homes, businessmen stopping by on yachts, or hermits hiding out in well-furnished holes in the island’s woods.

It’s refreshing to read a story of a physician who practices on his own terms, who manages to set his viewpoints apart from his work. That’s how I was trained to practice medicine, and to what I aspired in my practice, years back – to treat each person the same and carefully, no matter what their background and opinions. So unlike the Florida doctor who, during the health care debate was reported to have posted a sign on his door that Obama supporters should seek care elsewhere. And so much like the Palestinian surgeon portrayed in a film I saw recently, the Attack, who worked to heal wounded Israeli trauma patients. Good medical care is apolitical.

I suspect many of my readers – patients and physicians – would enjoy this worthwhile book and perspective on an unusual doctor’s life.

And on that note, I will close out this blog for summer.

Safe travels and health, to all, ES

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A New E. Coli Outbreak, Hemolytic-Uremic Syndrome, and Eating In or Out

There’s a newly-identified E. coli strain that’s causing a serious illness called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The recent cases, mainly in northern Europe, have been attributed to eating raw vegetables like cucumbers, lettuce and tomato. So far, authorities aren’t sure of the exact source.

Like any stomach bug, these bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever and other symptoms related to the gut. When people develop HUS, the kidneys fail and they may need dialysis. (Uremic Syndrome refers to uremia, when toxins normally cleared by the kidneys circulate in the bloodstream and cause problems in other body parts.)

blood smear reveals fragmented red blood cells (schistocytes), image from Wikimedia Commons

The “H” in HUS is for hemolytic, which describes how red blood cells are destroyed in the bloodstream. This occurs sometimes from effects of a bacterial toxin, such as might happen upon ingestion of a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria. This condition results in jaundice – a visible yellowing of the eyes and skin, and anemia – a paucity of red blood cells.

According to NatureNews, the culprit’s genome has been sequenced. It encodes broad-spectrum beta-lactamases. This means these toxic E. coli will, in general, resist antibiotics that exert their antiseptic powers by means of beta-lactam rings.

What’s my take-home message, as a home-maker and mom?

If I were traveling in areas affected now, I wouldn’t panic or change my plans. But I would avoid eating salad and any raw fruits or vegetables that can’t be peeled. I’d be mindful of foods like guacamole and salsa with fresh cilantro or other imperfectly-washed ingredients. Better to order cooked food, especially in restaurants where you don’t know who’s rinsing the greens.

The same rules apply at home, except that I’ll eat salad and fresh vegetables that I’ve prepared diligently.

Hand-washing after touching any part of a toilet, bathroom sink or faucet is always wise. The point is to avoid accidentally putting germs in your mouth that come from animal or human feces.

Yuck.

My next post will be on another topic, entirely.

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Return from Charleston

Dear Readers,

A few days ago I traveled with my family to Charleston, South Carolina. It was my first time in that peninsular city. The place is a hotbed of tourism – stuffed with establishments of fine cuisine, art galleries and architectural landmarks.

Church Street, Charleston NC

We enjoyed the visit. I swam laps daily. I brushed up on U.S. Revolutionary and Civil War history. I made a serious dent in a book I’m reading about Cleopatra.

What I missed was the Internet, from which I was unintentionally disconnected for a few days. Surely some might think, or even tell me directly, that a digital break is a good thing. It’s healthy to step away from it, for sure. But it didn’t feel that way –

I enjoy these bits of writing. I’m glad to be back at home, and on-line.

– ES

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The Transportation Safety Authority Screens Travelers Inside and Out

I’ll be staying near my home in Manhattan this week. But if I did have plans to travel by airplane for the holiday, I think I’d be apprehensive about the new screening procedures implemented by the Transportation Safety Authority (TSA).

My concern is not so much with the scanners. (For a detailed review of these machines, I recommend this article in Popular Mechanics.) There are two types of scanners in current use: millimeter wave machines, which use radio-frequency waves to generate 3-D images, and back-scatter units which, by design, use low doses of x-rays to visualize what’s inside a person being scanned.

Rather, I’m worried about screening errors – false positive and false negative results, and about harms – physical and/or emotional, that patients and people with disability may experience during the screening process.

In the context of travelers’ screening, a false positive occurs when an examiner thinks he or she sees or feels something abnormal – say a weird expression on a passenger’s face or when an initial, low-threshold alarm goes off somewhere in the system – but the person isn’t carrying any dangerous or contraband items. That early, false positive signal puts the traveler through extra procedures, possible embarrassment and/or stress.

A false negative happens when a screener misses an explosive device or other harmful material. A good example is the so-called Christmas bomber, who last year got through airport security and boarded a plane with explosives effectively hidden in his underwear. In that December 2009 instance, the examiners failed to identify a passenger who carried a potentially lethal weapon. The TSA’s goal should be to minimize the number of false negative screening tests. That’s because we wouldn’t want someone to get through screening and board a plane while carrying a weapon.

The problem is that it’s easy to imagine an imperfectly-trained, inexperienced or just plain tired screener missing an irregularity in someone’s 3-D or other kind of whole-body image, especially in the context of a steady stream of passengers rushing to catch flights. The operators might miss weapons despite the visual “information” available, right in front of their eyes.

So I don’t object to the new technology, which should increase the accuracy of the screeners’ function. Ultimately, though, we can’t get around the fact that TSA employees are human and some will be nearing the end of their shift; the scanners can reduce but not eliminate these kinds of errors.

My second concern is with the potential harm to patients and people with disabilities. People may be harmed physically if, for example, a screener mishandles a pump or other device. There’s been a lot of attention to one recent report, that of a 61 year old man with a history of bladder cancer whose urostomy bag ruptured during an airport pat-down. The man described his urine spilling, and his feeling humiliated.

This is a very understandable reaction; as someone who has implants after mastectomies, and who carries a lot of internal metal hardware in her spine and elsewhere, with scars galore, I know how damaging can be a stranger’s scrutiny. Unlike doctors and nurses, most TSA employees are not accustomed to seeing colostomy bags, stumps and other disfigurements usually hidden under a person’s clothing. Even an accidental, unkind expression in a look-over, or an insensitive pat-down, could make a person feel pretty bad about their ailment.

Of course we don’t have to travel on airplanes. I don’t see this as a civil rights issue; I don’t think there’s a right to board a public vehicle without full screening if the TSA deems it’s necessary for public safety. Rather, I accept that an aspect of having illnesses is that sometimes you have to put up with things other people don’t experience.

What would help, clearly, is better sensitivity and training of TSA staff, as was considered in response to the urostomy incident. But given the huge volume of travelers and enormousness of our complicated transportation system, it seems unlikely we’ll get a satisfactory solution among all staff at all airports, at least not in time for Thanksgiving.

From the patient’s perspective, there are some practical points that might help. Amy Tenderich, at Diabetes Mine, offers tips for individuals with insulin pumps. Trisha Torrey has an interesting piece on her Patient Empowerment blog (where she argues that this is not an empowerment issue) and recommends a simple, common-sense approach, which is to arrive early at the airport. As for me, I carry cards indicating the dates of my surgeries and the nature of my hardware. Now, I’ll add to those a note from my doctor.

Meanwhile I hope the screeners will use their new equipment to do a better job at detecting people carrying weapons. And that those individuals who plan to boycott the scanners with a National Opt-Out Day tomorrow, will change their minds. The TSA employees have enough on their hands already, without a demonstration; it’s in everyone’s interest that the screening be effective, hopefully 100 percent, in this holiday season.

minor rev: 11/23, 2PM

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A Visit to Suffragette City

For two days I’ve been traveling on a short road-trip with my family in Upstate New York. As far as this turning to a medical lesson, all I can say is that for the first time in my life I witnessed, first-hand, the vaguely digital, elongate and eponymous geography of the fine Finger Lakes.

morning view, by Seneca Lake

It’s beautiful around here. I’ve found it a fine place to get some reading and writing done, besides taking in some local college scenery. While here, we had the opportunity to review some New York State’s history and, in one memorable moment for yours truly, stopped briefly in the village of Seneca Falls.

There, in 1848 a group of local women, mainly Quakers, organized an early convention here on the topic of women’s rights. Some 300 progressives attended the Seneca Falls Convention. Among those pioneering lady leaders  – feminists if you will – were Jane Hunt, whose home we visited today, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Approximately 40 men attended, including  Frederick Douglass, a former slave and then-editor of an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, published in Rochester.

Which takes me back to this blog’s communication theme. We’ll be home again, in NYC, late tomorrow, and I’ve got an early class to teach on Wednesday morning.

What this means, dear readers, is that summer’s over and we’ve got to bet back to hard Medical Lessons. We’ll cover more serious stuff, for a while at least and for the most part –  journal articles, some new science and, well, learning about diseases, pathology, and how we might treat some of those.

Stay posted!

Women's History Postage Stamp

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adjusted, AM 9/8/10

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Staying Healthy in Hot Summer Travel

Hiking, or even just walking, in the hot summer heat to see ancient ruins, national monuments or spectacular vistas can sap the energy of healthy people. For someone who’s got a health issue – like chronic lung disease, reduced heart function or anemia – or anyone who’s pregnant, elderly or just frail, summer travel can knock you out in the wrong sort of way.

Slowing down is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m always eager in sightseeing and keen on keeping up with my teenage sons; learning to pace myself and insisting that they go ahead uphill or down into a cave, without me, has not been easy for any of us. But after a few episodes of stumbling, lightheadedness and exhaustion so severe that I had to cut out of museums I’d traveled across the world to see, I’ve adapted a prophylactic, healthy approach to summer visits to remote places:

1. Don’t plan too much for any one day.

This means you may have to forfeit some activities and sites you’d like to see. Just as, while vacationing, some parents plan for “down-time” for their kids by a pool or beach, adults should set aside time each day for resting in a shady place.

2. Plan visits to hot sites in the early morning or evening.

Museums can provide terrific respite from the midday heat. Theaters, shopping malls and modern hotels are all fine places to wait out the sun’s peak.

3. Drink lots of water.

Depending on where you are traveling, this may require that you buy bottled water. Fake mineral water is rare, but you have to watch carefully for it by checking that the bottle cap is properly fastened.

(The movie Slumdog Millionaire includes an instructive and unforgettable take on this tourist’s nightmare; one scene depicts children systematically sealing plastic caps onto bottles of tap water in an unnamed, Mumbai restaurant. The film’s medical lesson: try to avoid buying beverages in places that seem untrustworthy.)

Keep in mind, restaurants usually wash and rinse the glasses with tap water. So if the tap water’s no good, drink your beverage straight from the bottle. And, if that’s the situation, don’t put dirty hands or fingers at the bottle’s opening because that’s where you’ll put your mouth.

4. Skip the ice if you’re not sure the water’s safe to drink.

If water or another beverage is served with ice in a glass, send it back. At some risk of seeming pedantic, I’ll repeat what my mom taught us while traveling: tap water is not safe to drink just because a hotel or restaurant proprietor says so. Rather, trust in your good judgment and common sense.

5. Bring tissues to handle bathroom doors.

Drinking fluids may lead to increased urination, which means you may find yourself in unclean restrooms that may not even have running water. Here, the most important thing is to avoid touching the toilet or any sink-handles or knobs with your hands.

6. Take time to sit and rest periodically.

Walking and standing for long stretches can cause back pain and fatigue. So even in a museum, typically a comfortable kind of place, whenever I spot a bench I’ll sit there for a few minutes. While out in a city, I might stop and buy a cup of tea at an inexpensive restaurant just for the purpose of sitting, or get on the bus just for the opportunity to take a seat.

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I find that if I pace myself, which means admitting that I can’t necessarily do all I’d like as fast as I want, I can see the world!

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Avoiding Blood Clots During Long-Distance Travel

A few years ago my family took a trip to China. Even before we arrived, I learned something about an unfamiliar health care culture. What I observed en route was that many of the older passengers on that long flight to Beijing were getting up from their seats and stretching. Not just once, but regularly and systematically – they were doing slow motion, isometric calisthenics on the airplane.

I took notice of their behavior first because it seemed a simple and inexpensive, albeit strange example of preventive medicine. Second, as a hematologist who cared for patients with blood clots upon traveling, I pondered the risks and benefits of their on-board exercises. Third, as a patient who’s had a blood clot, or deep venous thrombosis (DVT), I thought maybe I should follow their example.

Thrombophlebitis – the old term for DVT – happens when a vein (as opposed to an artery) gets clogged with platelets and fibrous proteins. These tend to develop in people who are immobilized – after a hip or spine surgery, for example, or during long, cramped trips in airplanes with little legroom. For this reason, long-distance travel (in any sort of vehicle – it could be a car or bus or a train) is a major risk factor.

Dehydration and some medications can exacerbate the risk of developing blood clots during travel, as can having some kinds of cancer. (Pancreatic cancer, prostate, ovarian cancer and other tumors in the pelvis are particularly troublesome in this regard.) Some people inherit an increased tendency to develop clots; in general these can be evaluated by blood tests.

Most often DVTs arise in the legs but sometimes these also occur in the arms and other body parts. The condition can cause discomfort, pain, redness and swelling of an affected limb. These clots are most dangerous, and potentially lethal, if they spread to the lung – what’s called a pulmonary embolism. So there’s good reason to avoid these as best you can.

Here’s a list of some precautions to avoid blood clots when traveling:

1. Try to get an aisle seat. This strategy allows you to periodically stretch your legs into the aisle, and to get up without disturbing others.

2. While seated, move your feet and legs around as much as circumstances permit, and at least every hour or so. If you absolutely must remain seated, flex your feet 10 times, and stretch your legs as best you can, bending and extending the knees, one at a time, in any available direction, 10 times each. Another exercise is to raise each foot and swivel it, pivoting the toes from side to side while keeping the ankle relatively still.

3. Get up periodically and walk, every hour or two if permitted. (This means getting less sleep if you’re lucky enough to fall asleep, but I think the trade-off is worth it: being tired upon arrival is unpleasant; getting a blood clot is worse than that.)

If you’re on an airplane – once you’re up and out of your seat, seek out a place near the kitchen, restroom or elsewhere where you might stand. Then, hold onto the wall or the back of a chair, lift and stretch each of your legs repeatedly and then march in place: one knee up, then the next for two minutes or so, as conditions (and flight attendants) allow.

4. Stay well-hydrated by drinking ample water. Alcohol is a diuretic and should be avoided or minimized; caffeine too. Of course, for some travelers with weak bladders drinking lots of fluids can create a need for frequent bathroom trips. But this isn’t such a bad thing if you’re at risk for DVT, because this gets you up and out of your seat.

5. Dress sensibly – avoid tight clothing. (Some doctors recommend TED (thrombo-embolic Deterrent) or other compression stockings for patients with DVTs who travel, but I find these graduated compression nylons so uncomfortable that they reduce mobility, besides the capacity to bend and flex my ankles and knees.)

For women: avoid “knee-high” stockings with compression bands pressing just below the knees. These are a set-up for reduced blood flow from the lower legs to the larger, central veins.

6. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about DVT and are planning a trip. Ask about what precautions you might take in the context of your specific medical circumstances. Some people use heparin, a blood-thinner, or other medications while traveling to reduce their risk. Keep in mind that for most people, the risk of forming a significant blood clot is low.

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The trip to China was fabulous, well worth the distance.

More on travel next week –

ES

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Traveling

Information for Travelers

Dear Readers,

I’ve been on vacation for a few days, in Woods Hole and Boston, Massachusetts. I’m learning about my family.

Have a great weekend,

ES

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