On Precious

This is my first film review, if it is that.

I was tempted to write about Ethan Hawke, hematologist among vampires in Daybreakers, but gore’s not my favorite genre. A mainstream choice would have been Harrison Ford solving the enzyme deficiency of Pompe disease in Extraordinary Measures, but I didn’t get sucked in. I chose Precious, instead.

Poster for Precious, the film based on the novel “Push,” by Sapphire

This luminous movie relates to the practice of medicine everyday, big-time. Directed by Lee Daniels and based on the novel Push by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), the film follows a very obese Harlem teenager who’s pregnant with a second child by her abusive father. She’s humiliated daily by her welfare-dependant mother who forces her to cook greasy food and perform sexual acts all-the-while telling her she’s worthless. She’s 17 years old and can’t read. Things can get worse, and do.

What’s relevant to medical lessons?

For doctors –

The message of Precious, that every human life has value, should be obvious to every person employed in the health care system. But I know too well that’s not true.

When I was a medical student in 1985, working with a team of surgery residents, we cared for an obese young woman from Harlem who came in with a life-threatening case of pancreatitis. Her internal insulin-manufacturing organ was so inflamed that her entire gigantic abdominal cavity was tender and bloody. During what seemed like an endless operation in the middle of the night I stood and held firmly a retractor as best I could. The next morning and thereafter, when we made rounds, the residents called her “the whale.”

I learned a lot about pancreatitis and surgery that month. But I couldn’t understand how she, my patient, tolerated the team’s attitude. She didn’t seem to mind, perhaps because we saved her life and the care we provided was free. In retrospect, I wonder if maybe, like Precious, she was too-accustomed to disrespect.

Of course, this is an extreme example from 25 years ago. And I know from my experience working for years in a hospital, and in my years as a patient, that most doctors treat most patients with appropriate dignity. But those residents I worked with then are senior practicing physicians now, likely some on the faculty of medical schools. The disposition to disparage patients, more often subtly – in keeping them waiting without good reason, in dismissing their long lists of real concerns, in somehow putting ourselves above them and even, still, occasionally expressing frank contempt for some unfortunate souls still permeates the hospital culture.

For patients –

When Precious is abused, her mind runs elsewhere. She imagines herself, huge body and all, cast glamorously among television stars or dancing with popular singers. She pretends that she’s all right even when she’s not, really. Finally she speaks up for herself, telling a social worker about her predicament.

Ultimately that’s what makes the difference – her confidence in the value of her own bruised life. She recognizes that, despite everything, she’s a full-fledged human deserving better and has the guts to ask for help. By insisting, by knowing, that her life matters, she pushes herself out, if only partly, from the bleakest of circumstances.

If you’re disabled, hurt, wounded, damaged – ask for help when you need it. Respect yourself, as Precious did. That sends a signal to doctors that you value your life, and they should treat you accordingly.

Hopefully they’ll be paying attention.

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Henrietta’s Cells Speak

“One of the ways that I gained the trust of the family is that I gave them information.”

(R. Skloot, a journalist, speaking about her interactions with Henrietta Lacks’ family, Columbia University, Feb 2, 2010)

This week I had the opportunity to hear a terrific talk by Rebecca Skloot, author of a new, flying-off-the-shelves book –The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Mrs. Henrietta Lacks died of metastatic cervical cancer in the colored ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD in September 1951. She lived no more than 31 years and left behind a husband, five children and an infinite supply of self-replicating cancer cells for research scientists to study in years to come.

HeLa cells with fluorescent nuclear stain (Wikimedia Commons)

Like many doctors, I first encountered HeLa cells in a research laboratory. Investigators use these famous cells to study how cancer cells grow, divide and respond to treatments. I learned about Mrs. Lacks, patient and mother, just the other day.

Skloot chronicles her short life in fascinating detail. She contrasts the long-lasting fate and productivity of her cells with that of the woman who bore them. She connects those, and her human descendants’ unfortunate financial disposition, to current controversies in bioethics.

In the years following their mother’s death, scientists repeatedly approached her husband and asked her young children for blood samples to check the genetic material, to see if their DNA matched that of cell batches, or clones, growing in research labs.

The issue is this: her husband had but a third-grade education. The children didn’t know what is a “cell,” “HLA-testing” or “clone.”

The family had essentially no idea what the doctors who’d taken, manipulated and cloned their mothers’ cells were talking about, Skloot recounts. They thought the doctors were testing them for cancer.

Years later, when they learned that their mother’s cells were bought, sold and used at research institutions throughout the world, they became angry and distrustful. The problem was essentially one of poor communication, she considered.

“Even a basic education in science would have helped,” Skloot said. “Patients, they want to be asked, and they want to be told what’s going on.”

Well said!

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How to Avoid Death in the ICU

Something I learned as a medical intern is that there are worse things than dying.

As I recall, it was sometime in April, 1988. I was putting a line in an old man with end-stage kidney disease, cancer (maybe), heart failure, bacteria in his blood and no consciousness. Prince was on the radio, loud, by his bedside. If you could call it that – the uncomfortable, curtained compartment didn’t seem like a good place for resting.

An attending physician, a smart guy I respected, approached me as I completed the procedure.

“It’s kind of like Dante’s seventh circle,” he noted.

Indeed. A clear, flexible tube drained greenish fluid from the man’s stomach through his nose. Gauze covered his eyes, just partially. His head, hands and feet swelled with fluid. A semi-opaque hard-plastic instrument linked the man’s trachea, through his paper-taped mouth, to a noisy breathing machine. His skin, barely covered by a stained hospital gown, was pale but blotchy from bleeding beneath. An arterial catheter inserted by his wrist, just where I might have taken his pulse had he been healthier. A fresh adhesive covered the cotton gauze and brownish anti-bacterial solution I’d placed over his lower right neck.

“Yeah,” I said as we walked out of the room to review another patient’s chart.

I wondered if the ICU staff would mind my changing the radio station, just in case the patient could hear but not tell us he preferred WQXR.

“There’s no way I would let this happen to me,” I remember thinking.

—–

This month, a report in the ACS journal Cancer indicates that most U.S. physicians don’t talk with their patients about end-of-life issues until death is imminent, if they do so at all.

The study, based on canvassing over 4000 doctors who care for cancer patients in California, North Carolina, Iowa and Alabama revealed that only a minority of physicians would raise the subject of a DNR (do not resuscitate) order or the possibility of hospice care for a patient with metastatic cancer with a life expectancy of 4-6 months. The article has generated considerable, appropriate attention in the press and for good reason – it bears on health care costs, patients’ rights, doctors’ communication and time constraints and a host of points relevant to the practice of medicine in 2010.

For purposes of this post, today, what I’ll say is this much:

Don’t wait for your doctor to talk to you about death and dying. Be proactive about your wishes and the kind of care you wish to receive, especially if you’re sick with a serious medical condition. Take the initiative – document your end-of-life preferences as best you can, according to the law of your state, and tell your physicians about any limits you’d like to set on the care you might receive.

It’s a conversation worth having, early.

——-

Here’s a very-partial list of resources for people who’d like to learn more about advance directives, living wills, DNR orders, hospice care and other end-of-life concerns:

MedlinePlus on Advanced Directives;

New York State: information on Health Care Proxy forms and DNR orders

Family Caregiver Alliance on End-of-Life Choices

Hastings Center on End of Life Issues

American Hospice Foundation

Cisely Saunders Foundation

Hospice Foundation of America

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

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Why Medical Lessons?

One of the things I liked best about practicing medicine is that I was constantly learning.

Making rounds at seven in the morning on an oncology floor would be a chore if you didn’t get to examine and think and figure out what’s happening to a man with leukemia whose platelets are dangerously low, or whose lymphoma is responding to treatment but can’t take anymore medicine because of an intense, burn-like rash. You’d have to look stuff up, sort among clues and discuss the case with the team and other physicians.

And then you’d get to talk to the patients and their families. In the teaching hospital where I worked as a clinical oncologist, you’d encounter a mix of folks from my east side neighborhood, Russian and Chinese and Spanish-speaking immigrants with homes in all parts of New York City, and a spectrum of visitors from countries like Cambodia, Pakistan and Ecuador. Each case offered a window into another family’s values and concerns.

Being a patient is an entirely different sort of experience except that, like being a doctor, it involves learning about medicine, problem-solving and meeting all kinds of individuals.

As a child with scoliosis – a curved spine – I discovered early that some therapies don’t work as you might hope or expect. I wore a back brace for 4 years, 23 hours each day, and it didn’t do the job. Then, my parents took me to consult with most of a dozen male orthopedists. Their crassness, frankness and sometimes kindness impressed me. I realized that like any other humans – whether they’re dictators or shopkeepers – doctors vary in their personalities.

Today I recall one young doctor who helped me, a resident at the Hospital for Joint Diseases. He came by my room early in the evening of December 31, 1974 because I needed a new intravenous (IV) catheter. By then I’d been in the hospital for weeks after spine surgery; there was hardly a vein left for heparin, a blood-thinner. It turned out the resident came from a town on Long Island not far from where I lived. He spoke openly, about his experiences in high school, as he calmly and patiently patted down my arms and hands and legs and feet until he found a spot for the IV. He got the line in, and I got my medication.

Just before midnight, Dick Clark was on TV for a “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” The resident, whose name I don’t recall, came by to see how I was doing. He stayed for perhaps 15 minutes, for what seemed like no reason other than to keep me company. We counted the seconds and watched the ball drop on a small black-and-white TV suspended by a hinged-metal arm over my hospital bed.

He was compassionate, and that made me feel better. What a difference he, one essentially unnamable young physician, made in my experience of that New Year’s eve in the hospital, and in my life and work.

Today, December 31, I think of him as I navigate my path as a patient and as a doctor. I’m still learning about medicine, every day in each new year.

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Getting the Math on Mammograms

The latest news’ focus on the breast cancer screening madness is about money.

So let’s do the math:

First, for argument’s sake, let’s say the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is right – that to save the life of one woman between the ages of 40 and 49, on average, you’d have to screen some 1903 additional women every year or so for a period of 10 years.

This is, admittedly, a huge assumption; the panel analyzed two decades’ worth of data, some unpublished, involving complex models applied to millions of data points (humans) amassed in imperfectly-collected data sets that vary in size, scope and accuracy.

Next, let’s say the cost of a mammogram is $150, around what Medicare pays (yet another assumption, but we need to keep this simple or we’ll never get a sense of what’s really at stake here).

So if 2000 women (I’m rounding up) undergo annual screening for 10 years, the bill would come to $300 thousand per year, for a total cost of $3 million over a decade.  If those same middle-aged women were to get their mammograms biannually (every other year), the cost would be roughly $1.5 million per life saved.

This, the so-called cost of screening mammography for women between the ages of 40 and 49 (let’s call it “X”), is all over the news in various calculations, some that get closer to the right answer than others.

But what’s the cost of caring for one 45 year old woman with metastatic breast cancer?

Let’s call that amount “Y.”

Even the heartless among us would admit that we need to subtract, X-Y, to determine the financial cost of breast cancer screening to save one middle-aged woman’s life.

An insurance executive might say it’s in the range of $400 thousand, or a million dollars, or maybe even two million, if the woman lives long enough to go in and out of the hospital over the course of five years, undergo multiple surgical procedures, have semi-permanent intravenous catheters inserted and removed, suffer infections from those requiring at-home multi-week courses of intravenous antibiotics, all of this besides, of course, receiving chemotherapy, radiation, hormone treatments, incalculably expensive antibody infusions and newer, targeted therapies, followed by hospice (hopefully) or ICU care in the end.

Quick answer: maybe it’s cost-effective, or nearly so, to do screening mammograms on asymptomatic women in their forties.

But consider –  if the expert panel’s numbers are off just a bit, by as little as one or two more lives saved per 1904 women screened, the insurers could make a profit!

By my calculation, if one additional woman at a cost of, say, $1 million, is saved among the screening group, the provider might break even.  And if three women in the group are saved by the procedure, the decision gets easier…

Now, imagine the technology has advanced, ever so slightly, that another four or five women are saved among the screening lot.

How could anyone, even with a profit motive, elect not to screen those 2000 women?

The truest answer, of course, is that the value of any one person’s life is inconceivably huge.  And that doesn’t even enter into the equation.

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