Pandora’s Pill Bottle. (A poem about the narcotic epidemic)

Pandora’s Pill Bottle

‘Patients who suffer from painful conditions
Should always be treated by caring physicians,
Who never forget to give good medications
For problems from fractures to awful menstruation.’

‘The fifth vital sign is your bright guiding light
The pain scale will lead you to do what is right,
So doctor remember to show some compassion
Since giving narcotics is now quite the fashion!’

Thus we were told for a decade or two
As patients stopped breathing and turned rather blue.
But hospitals loved their new high survey scores
And doctors were turned into pill-writing whores.

Yet things are now changing across the whole nation.
There’s blame all around and new drug regulations.
‘What were you thinking? What were you doing?’
‘How could this happen? Someone will start suing!’

In ER’s and clinics and every location
We docs shake our heads with increasing frustration.
We did what they told us despite all our fears
And Pandora’s Pill Bottle spilled out for years.

The pain scale betrayed us and caused too much trouble
The fifth vital sign is a big popping bubble.
The statistics we’re reading have left us quite nauseous.
So we’re trying new things to save lives and be cautious.

Dear doctors it’s you that must make these decisions!
Push back against administrative derision!
And when those ‘above us’ make policy errors
Stand in for the truth to prevent further terrors.

Grandmothers as an ER Preventative Measure

This is my column in the latest edition of the Daily Yonder.  Enjoy and share as you see fit. Link followed by text.

Life & Limb: Grandmothers — An Ounce of Prevention for a Pound of ‘Freak Out’

 
I have a theory that engaged, wise grandmothers could save families a lot of money by helping avoid hospital visits. Personally, my grandmothers were very important to my well-being as a child. Not only did they feed and dote on me, they kept me healthy and safe. I remember the time I made a spear out of a sharpened stick. (OK, one of the times.) I was running with it, and as I drew back my arm to fling it across the field I must have stumbled. It ended up going through the top of my shoe and between two toes, scraping them on the way to the ground.
I limped to the big white house under the maples where Grandma Leap helped me take off my blood-soaked shoe, cleaned the wound, probably applied Merthiolate (didn’t we all spend our summers painted orange?), and said ‘don’t tell your grandpa, he worries!’ Maybe she knew he’d take my now cool, blood-stained spear away. I was none the worse for the wear.
I have seen injuries like this time and time again in the emergency room. Relatively minor affairs; scrapes, bumps, bruises, stings, nevertheless brought to the hospital by anxious mothers and fathers, new to parenthood or simply far more worried than necessary.
I also remember the smell of Vicks Vaporub, slathered across my coughing, wheezing chest. I remember cool cloths applied during fevers. My grandmothers had those simple skills down pat. Honestly, I don’t ever remember coming to the hospital for a fever as a child. And yet, fever is one of the most common complaints for which parents bring kids to the hospital.

‘He started having a fever an hour ago, so we rushed him to the hospital!’
‘Did you give him anything for the fever?’
‘Nope, we just came straight away. We freaked out and decided it was better safe than sorry!’

I hear that a lot. There was a bruise. ‘I freaked out.’ There was a tick, ‘I freaked out.’ There was a rash. ‘I freaked out.’ The baby’s nose was congested. ‘I freaked out.’ Freaking out never helps anything. And from what I can remember, it was simply something my grandmothers never did. Their job was to draw on centuries of collected cultural and family wisdom, apply personal experience, mix it all with loving attention (and food), and bring calm to all situations. Or bring switches as the situation required.
I’m not suggesting that a family member is all that’s necessary in times of medical need. And admittedly, there are plenty of grandmothers who are as ‘freaked out’ as everyone else. (I’ve met them.) Furthermore, lots of grandmothers and grandfathers are already doing this job as primary caregivers of their children’s children. God bless them.
However, it seems to me that we have an unholy confluence of problems that make people seek healthcare for things our ancestors wouldn’t, or couldn’t have. First of all, families are separated for various reasons from wise older relatives; or don’t have any. Second, people have 24/7 access to online health information that often only increases fear. Third, we have enormous numbers of young individuals and parents who never learned much about their bodies. Add that to the general increase in anxiety that mental health workers report across the land, and families are completely overwhelmed by the sorts of ailments that have afflicted mankind since well before modern medicine existed.
It seems to me that with our long history of self-sufficiency, and our deep-rooted connections to place and family, rural America should be one of those places where grandmothers could make a real difference in an era of limited medical access, coupled with enormous medical anxiety.
Maybe, in the mountains, valleys, bayous and plains that make up rural America we can be health pioneers! What we need to do first is educate young people about how to give simple medical care to themselves and others. First-responder and First-Aid/CPR courses are a great place to start. Second, those of use who are more experienced can reach out to young people and young families; neighbors, church-members, strangers at the food-bank, and offer to be there to teach them how to manage life situations. And how not to ‘freak out.’
Finally, those of us in medicine, whether nurse, physician, medic or other, can spend time educating the people we see so that they know when, and most important when not, to worry. And never to freak out.
A thing that grandmothers, in times past, taught us oh so well.

 

Introducing Social Orbit

This is a post by the good folks at Social Orbit, an excellent new social media application. Which, by the way, has been giving away signed copies of my book ‘Life in Emergistan.’  I encourage you to check it out and sign up. There’s a banner add over to the side that will take you directly to their site to learn more.

Medicine is changing.  A lot of the comradery and connection with our physician peers has been eroded because physicians are all so busy worrying about CPOE, EMR, TJC, metrics, billing, pop-up alerts, patient satisfaction surveys…the list goes on and on.  Orbit was founded to create a community where doctors can connect with each other and reconnect with what they love about medicine.  Greg Hadden, MD FACEP (co-founder of Orbit) notes, “There is an overwhelming feeling in medicine that the physician is turning in to just another cog in the medical machine.  The providers are the heart of medicine and the center of healthcare delivery. While every other company and organization is focused on trying to make medicine more efficient, they are forgetting the individuals in healthcare that actually make it all work.” Orbit wants to focus there.

 Orbit is a unique product unlike anything else out there.  By putting together a resource that has things that doctors value and by creating a fun environment of collaboration, Orbit hopes to provide something that doctors want to contribute to and engage in. The ultimate goal is to see all physicians sharing, collaborating, and supporting each other.  The app also wants to be a one-stop-shop for doctors. Orbit can keep them up-to-date with breaking medical news, help them plan their CME travel, help explore job opportunities, do HIPAA compliant chat, and learn…all while winning some really awesome prizes that focus on helping them recharge their emotional batteries.

 The future of Orbit is bright and the developers have a lot of grand plans for the app!  “In order to get there, we need doctors to give us a shot.”  More Orbiters means a bigger community, more collaboration, more sponsorship, bigger prizes, more frequent prizes, etc.  There is incredible potential with this and the developers have a lot of fun stuff they are constantly working on adding and integrating.  In addition, Orbit has big plans for expansion into other specialties in 2017 with the ultimate goal of developing additional platforms for APPs, RNs, EMS, and international healthcare providers. However, it’s important to the developers that the rollout is measured and strategic.  Says Hadden; “We need to be confident that when we get to that stage we are still able to serve our members by protecting the integrity and privacy of the group. US-based physicians are the only group that our app currently is able to verify and validate.  We want to ensure that we are not letting in attorneys, MBA/MHA hospital administrators, recruiters, etc.  Also, I think there are a lot of physicians that want to connect in a physician-only platform.  As we build out the app, our users will be able to customize the content they see and with whom they interact.  As an example, as we progress to include APPs, if a doctor wanted to participate in a physician/APP community then they would be able to do so.  On the flip side, if an APP only wanted to connect with other APPs, then they could customize their account to exclude physicians as well.”

 ACEP16 marked Orbit’s emergence out of beta testing and its introduction to a larger audience.  The Orbit booth at ACEP16 was packed the majority of the time with most of those people coming up to find out what the tagline, “Seriously Fun Medicine”, was all about.  Hadden explains, “In Orbit, medicine is a serious business…but it can also be fun!

 

www.socialorbit.com

Apple Store link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/orbit-medicine/id1120695349?mt=8

The Women and Men who Love Emergency Physicians

This is my February 2017 column in Emergency Medicine News. Now, doctor, go hug your  husband or wife.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2017/02000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Women_and_Men_Who_Love_EPs.20.aspx

When I go to work I take a lot of things with me. Everyone has their ritual, right? I take my backpack with my computer inside. I take my phone. I take charging cords, the true modern life-line. I take lunch. I carry a pen, flashlight and pocket-knife.
On a more abstract level, I take the wonderful education I received as a medical student and resident, coupled with my years of experience as a physician. I take my drug-store +2 diopter glasses, not only to read and suture but equally important, to look venerable and wise.
But I take something else. It’s certainly as important as all of the other stuff, if not more so in the long run. I take the love and support, encouragement and care of my wife Jan. Now mind you, this is not some hyper-sentimental claptrap. A spouse, for better or worse, is part and parcel, warp and woof of our lives. And in the best of circumstances (which I enjoy), my dear bride gives me encouragement, laughter, stability, passion and the not-so-rare kick in behind when I’m lazy, whiny or grumpy. (As I am so often wont to be.)
She reminds me of my priorities, reassuring me that I matter to her and the children however I may feel. She reminds me that feelings are often terrible lies. (A lesson we would all do well to remember.) In times past she has guided me through career changes because she could sense my unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is because she loves me and knows what I need; often better than I do. In short, she is my most dedicated advocate.
While I work in the ED, she works hard to manage the children (rather, the teens who require more diligence than mere children.) She looks after the family finances, a thing which is useful in keeping me out of prison for delinquent taxes and in keeping the banker away from the door so that we keep our home.
And in order to keep me moving forward through busy, difficult runs of shifts, she ensures that I have things to look forward to with family when she does our ‘master schedule.’ Even though two of our children are in college, she tries to arrange family events around my days off so that I don’t feel left out. In addition, so that I can enjoy our life together for a long time to come, she takes me to the gym. She sometimes makes me plank. I hate to plank but I do it.
This might sound, to the modern ear, as if my wife is living out some sort of domestic indentured servitude. It is not. It is teamwork. It is unity. It is covenant. We are one. We have common cause in our marriage and offspring.
The result of her remarkable effort is that when I go to work, I can focus on my job. I can carry the love and care I feel at home into the exam room, into the resuscitation room. I am secure and happy. This makes me a far more effective, calm, satisfied physician than I would otherwise be.
Thus, I make the money that we share equally as partners. Not only in our personal corporation but in our lives. I don’t get paid for me; I get paid for us and for ‘clan Leap’ as a whole.
When I come home from work, I come home to smiles, hugs and a welcome-home kiss. I come home to laughter and dinner, or date-night. To stories of her day, and the many other lives she touches, in our family and beyond it.
Sometimes I come home to strategic family planning sessions. Occasionally I come home to a tired or angry or sad wife and it’s my turn to be the one in the supporting role. My turn to fuss at teenagers or call about car insurance claims. My turn to shoo her to bed early and manage things. My turn, on days off, to send her for sanity breaks.
Those of us who are married, or in long-term committed relationships (which we in the South call a common-law marriage) must admit that without our wives or husbands, this whole gig would be much harder, and much more lonely than it is with our dear ones. Furthermore, that the patients we care for are touched and loved on, vicariously, by those who love us. Their role is not subordinate but intrinsic.
Through me, through our marriage bond, every sick child in my care has my wife’s eyes looking down on it gently. Every struggling nursing home patient has some of her kindness. Every difficult, irritable complainer has her patience and every smart-aleck teenager (or grouchy consultant) has her raised eyebrows and crossed arms gazing firmly on their behavior.
All of us owe so much of our professional lives to the women and men brave and loving enough to stay with us through all of our stupid, arrogant, surly behaviors. And to those men and women, let me just say: you are as much a part of our practices as we are. Thank you for being the other half, the silent partner, standing invisibly by us as we do the hard work of medicine.
We couldn’t do it half so well without you.

Life and Limb: the Rural ER

Welcome, readers, to my new column in the Daily Yonder!  It will concern rural emergency medicine and things I see through that particular lens.  Have a great day and feel free to share liberally!  I’m honored by the Daily Yonder to be included on their team, dedicated to all things rural.

Life & Limb: In Rural E.R., Exams Include the Obvious Questions, Like ‘Did You Get a Turkey?’

Once Upon a Time in Medicine

Gather round kids! Let Grandpa Doctor Leap tell you a few things about the old days of doctoring in the emergency room…

Back in the good old days, medicine was what we liked to call ‘fun.’  Not because it was fun to see people get sick or hurt or die, but because we were supposed to do our best and people didn’t wring their hands all the time about rules and lawyers.  Sometimes, old Grandpa Leap and his friends felt like cowboys, trying new things in the ER whether we had done them before or not.  Yessiree, it was a time.  We didn’t live by a long list of letters and rules; we knew what was important. And we were trusted to use our time well, without being tracked like Caribou through electronic badges.  Those were the salad days…

When I was a young pup of a doctor, we took notes with pen and paper and wrote orders on the same. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t always fast. But it didn’t enslave us to the clip-board.  We didn’t log-into the clip-board or spend twenty minutes trying to figure out how to write discharge instructions and a prescription. We basically learned in grade-school.  EMR has brought great things in information capture and storage, but it isn’t the same, or necessarily as safe, as the way humans conveyed information for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

Back then, kids, the hospital was a family!  Oh yes, and we took care of one another. A nurse would come to a doctor and say, ‘I fell down the other day and my ankle is killing me! Can you check it out?’  And the doctor would call the X-ray tech, and an X-ray would get done and reviewed and the doctor might put a splint on it or something, and no money changed hands.

In those days, a doctor would say to the nurse, ‘I feel terrible, I think I have a stomach bug!’  And she’d say, ‘let me get you something for that,’ and she’d go to a drawer and pull out some medicine (it wasn’t under lock and key) and say ‘why don’t you go lie down?  The patients can take a break for a few minutes.’ And she’d cover you for 30 minutes until you felt better.

We physicians?  There was a great thing called ‘professional courtesy,’ whereby we helped one another out, often for free. Nowadays, of course, everybody would get fired for that sort of thing because the people who run the show didn’t make any money on the transaction.  And when you have a lot of presidents, vice-presidents, chief this and chief thats, it gets expensive!

When medicine was fun, a nurse would go ahead and numb that wound for you at night, policy or not; and put in an order while you were busy without saying, ‘I can’t do anything until you say it’s OK or I’ll lose my license.  Do you mind if I give some Tylenol and put on an ACE?  Can you put the order in first?  And go ahead and order an IV so I won’t be accused of practicing medicine?’ Yep, we were a team.

There was a time, children, when doctors knew their patients and didn’t need $10,000 in lab work to admit them.  ‘Oh, he has chest pain all the time and he’s had a full work-up.  Send him home and I’ll see him tomorrow,’ they might say.  And it was glorious to know that.  Or I might ask, ‘hey friend, I’m really overwhelmed, can you just come and see this guy and take care of him?  He has to be admitted!’  And because they thought medicine was fun too, they came and did it.

In those sweet days of clear air and high hopes, you could look up your own labs on the computer and not be fired for violating your own privacy.  (Yes, it can happen.) You could talk to the ER doc across town about that patient seeking drugs and they would say, ‘yep, he’s here all the time.  I wouldn’t give him anything,’ and it wasn’t a HIPAA violation; it was good sense.

Once upon a time we laughed, and we worked hard. Back then, we put up holiday decorations and they weren’t considered fire hazards.  We kept food and drink at our desks and nobody said it was somehow a violation of some ridiculous joint commission rule.  Because it was often too busy to get a break, we sustained ourselves at the place we worked with snacks and endless caffeine, heedless of the apparent danger that diseases might contaminate our food; we had already been breathing diseases all day long, and wearing them on our clothes.  Thus, well fed and profoundly immune, we pressed on.

In those golden days of medicine, sick people got admitted whether or not they met particular ‘criteria,’ because we had the feeling there was something wrong.  We believed one another.  Treatment decisions didn’t trump our gut instincts.  And ‘social admissions’ were not that unusual. The 95-year-old lady who fell but didn’t have a broken bone and didn’t have family and was hurting too much to go home?  We all knew we had to keep here for a day or two and it was just the lay of the land.

I remember the time when we could see a patient in the ER and, because my partners and I were owners of our group, we could discount their bill, in part or entirely.  We would fill out a little orange slip and write the amount of the discount.  Then, of course, the insurers insisted on the same discount.  And then nobody got a discount because the hospital was in charge and everyone got a huge bill, without consideration of their situation.  The situation we knew, since we lived in their town.

Back when, drug reps left a magical thing called ‘samples.’  Do you remember them, young Jedi?  Maybe not.  Young doctors have been taught that drug companies, drug reps and all the rest are Satan’s minions, and any association with them should be cause for excommunication from the company of good doctors.  But when we had samples, poor people could get free antibiotics, or antihypertensives, or all kinds of things, to get them through in the short run.  And we got nice lunches now and then, too, and could flirt with the nice reps!  Until academia decided that it was fatal to our decision-making to take a sandwich or a pen.  Of course, big corporations and big government agencies can still do this sort of thing with political donations to representatives. But rules are for little people.

When the world was young, there was the drunk tank.  And although mistakes were made, nobody pretended that the 19-year-old who chose a) go to the ER over b) go to jail, really needed to be treated.  We understood the disruptive nature of dangerous intoxicated people. Now we have to scale their pain and pretend to take them seriously as they pretend to listen to our admonitions.  They are, after all, customers.  Right?

These days, we are perhaps more divided than ever.  Sure, back in Grandpa Doctor Leap’s time, we were divided by specialty and by practice location; a bit.  But now there’s a line between inpatient doctors and outpatient doctors, between academics and those who work in the community, between women and men, minorities and majorities (?), urban and rural, foreign and native-born and every other demographic.  As in politics, these divisions hurt medicine and make us into so many tiny tribes at work against one another.

And finally, before Grandpa has to take his evening rest, he remembers when hospitals valued groups of doctors; especially those who had been in the same community, and same hospital, for decades.  They were invested in the community and trusted by their patients and were valuable.  Now?  A better bid on a contract and any doctor is as good as any other. Make more money for the hospital?  In you go and out goes the ‘old guys,’ who were committed to their jobs for ages.

Of course, little children, everything changes.  And often for the good. We’re more careful about mistakes, and we don’t kick people to the curb who can’t pay. We don’t broadcast their information on the Internet carelessly.  We have good tools to help us make good decisions. But progress isn’t all positive.  And I just wanted to leave a little record for you of how it was, and how it could be again if we could pull together and push back against stupid rules and small-minded people.

Now, Grandpa will go to bed.  And if you other oldies out there have some thoughts on this, please send them my way!  I’d love to hear what you think we’ve lost as the times have changed in medicine.

Love,

Grandpa Doctor Leap

 

 

My column in the Winter 2017 Gray Matters, Newsletter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman University.

 

THE NEWSLETTER OF THE OSHER LIFELONG LEARNING INSTITUTE @ FURMAN

http://www.furman.edu/sites/OLLI/member-resources/Documents/GMJan2017-PDF_reduced.pdf

PAIN MANAGEMENT AND THE TIE TO ADDICTION – PART 2

Sometimes medicine offers us wonderful, almost unimaginable gifts. Heart attacks that were devastating, life-altering events a few short decades ago are now treated with an expediency and skill that our grandparents couldn’t imagine. A couple days pass, and the victim is home with stents in occluded arteries and directions to modify activity and diet. Pneumonia, once the ‘old person’s
friend’ (so called because it took the aged to eternity), is far less terrifying, thanks to both antibiotics and the pneumonia vaccine.

However, some of the things we do give benefits that are less clear. Although it could be an entire column in itself, the ‘stroke center’ movement, with the promise of miracles from ‘clot-busting drugs’, is a thing full of as many questions as answers. And what about depression and anti-depressants? When I looked up the side-effect profile of an anti-depressant a friend was taking, I was reminded that all of them have the potential side effect of increasing suicidal behavior.

But what about pain management? Thanks to improved understanding of the physiology of pain, the persistence of medical providers, and the investment and research of pharmaceutical companies, we have a wide array of pharmaceuticals available for the treatment of pain. Some are over-the-counter, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. And others, those we refer to as narcotics or opioids (because in previous times they were derived from opium), are useful, potent, and (as is increasingly evident) fraught with danger unless used very cautiously.

Of course, for a very long time, physicians were taught to be judicious in prescribing narcotics. Our venerable teachers warned young doctors in training to be frightened of the side effects. We were especially aware of the very immediate danger that patients would stop breathing and die due to excess sedation. We were also aware that over time, patients on narcotics might develop problems with addiction.

About 20 to 25 years ago, that whole paradigm shifted and physicians were suddenly accused of callous disregard of suffering for prescribing too few narcotics. I remember this because I was in my emergency medicine residency at that time. We were constantly reminded to give more narcotics and be sensitive to pain. We were taught to use the ‘pain scale,’ in which a patient-reported score of zero meant no pain and a score of ten meant ‘the worst pain of your life.’ Never mind that it was entirely subjective and that there was no objective standard, no ‘painometer’ against which to measure it. We were instructed to see pain as the ‘fifth vital sign’ after blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and temperature. Of concern to many, these initiatives coincided with the development and aggressive marketing of ever more powerful, addictive medications like Oxycontin tablets and Fentanyl patches and lozenges.

Patient satisfaction surveys included the question ‘was your pain adequately treated?’ Physicians were castigated when those satisfaction survey scores fell. Physicians were instructed, by non-clinician

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administrators, to give more pain medication to make patients more satisfied. (A satisfied customer/ patient is one that may come back!) Physicians who resisted, in the name of science or safety, were too often met with threats of reduced income or job loss if patient satisfaction scores fell. In some instances, physicians were (and still are) reported to state medical boards for alleged inadequate treatment of pain.

I sincerely believe that most of those encouraging us to write more narcotics prescriptions did so out of genuine concern and compassion. People are in pain, so why not treat the pain? In medicine, where science meets suffering humanity, it’s so easy for us to say, ‘Well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it?’ We assume that our compassion will be supported by our science. It happens with infections; sure it’s probably a head cold, but what’s the harm in an antibiotic to keep the patient happy? The child bumped her head pretty hard, so what’s the problem with a CT scan, even though she looks good? The parents are customers, after all, and want a scan!

With tragic consequences, our compassion sometimes causes harm as the Law of Unintended Consequences rears its ugly head. For instance, those antibiotics for colds? They can cause dangerous allergic reactions and life-changing intestinal infections requiring hospitalization or surgery, and resulting in death. Those CT scans everyone wants? Physicians are trying to reduce the number of scans, as many of us are concerned that they may induce malignant tumors later. And those pain medications? The evidence looks pretty damning.

Addiction to prescription narcotics is growing at a terrifying rate in the U.S. Likewise, death rates from narcotic overdoses have soared. The U.S. has seen 165,000 deaths from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html. In fact, opioid-related deaths have now surpassed deaths from firearms in the United States. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/drug- overdose-deaths-heroin-opioid-prescription-painkillers-more-than-guns/ Admittedly, some of those deaths are not due to prescription opioids but rather to injected heroin. However, many heroin addicts began their addiction issues when taking legitimately prescribed pain medication.

Sadly, seniors are not immune. Physicians don’t want to see seniors suffer, so they often give narcotics even for pain that in decades past would not have been treated with those drugs. We give them for back pain, headache, arthritis, or other less serious conditions. And we use them extensively in treatment of chronic, intractable pain. In fact, in 2015, one-third of Medicare recipients received a prescription for an opioid analgesic; some 40 million prescriptions. https://www.statnews.com/ 2016/06/22/many-opioid-prescriptions-seniors/

Furthermore, seniors not only develop addiction, not only die from accidental overdoses, their narcotic analgesics have a host of side-effects, including (but not limited to) the following: excessive sleep, impaired thinking, increased pain sensitivity, nausea, constipation, and cardiac arrhythmia. In addition, opioid drugs contribute to weakness and loss of balance and thus to falls, resulting in head and spine injury, various fractures, and other trauma. Their already impaired reflexes are dampened by their medication so that for those who still drive, it becomes an even more dangerous activity than before.

No one is immune from this devastating epidemic, not rich nor poor, not young nor old. The medical profession, the mental health community, law-enforcement, social services, churches, families, and friends all have to come together and find ways to roll back the rising tide of death and addiction, which came as an unforeseen outcome of attempting to ease suffering with compassion and science.

This problem will be highlighted this spring at an OLLI bonus event, March 31, 2017: Seniors and Opioids: Unexpected Origins of a Greenville Epidemic. I will be speaking in conjunction with James Campell of the Phoenix Center addiction and rehabilitation facility. We really hope you join us to learn more about this pressing public health crisis.

The Questions we Cannot Answer

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My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Questions_We_Can_t_Answer.13.aspx

I remember the early trials of thrombolytics; not for stroke but for MI. During my residency we were still comparing tPA with Streptokinase. It was pretty incredible stuff. Now we’ve moved beyond that positively ‘medieval’ method of treating heart attacks and have advanced to incredible interventions in coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Furthermore, we are able to rescue more and more people from the brink of death with advanced medications and with techniques, like ECMO, that our medical forebears couldn’t even imagine. These days, people can say things like: ‘I had severe sepsis last year, but I recovered,’ or ‘A few years ago I nearly died of Stage 4 cancer, but here I am!’ Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, their families would have told their stories with sadness.

What we do is amazing. The science behind our saves, coupled with our training and passion, make medicine all but miraculous. I am proud of what I know, proud of what I do. I am so impressed with my colleagues. And I am often awestruck by the scientists and engineers, without whom we would be apes poking bodies with sticks (good-looking apes in scrubs, mind you).
If we could, at the end of our lives, look back at the gifts we gave to the sick and injured, we would see that they far outweigh our errors and mistakes, our losses and failures. And yet, for all our modern innovations, we have limits. We can ask and answer a constellation of questions, and we can fix untold numbers of problems. But there are questions that defy us, and problems that leave us shaking our heads.
In spite of our pride in science, and our common dismissal of all that is ‘unscientific,’ suffering remains, and we can’t answer why. Who knows this better than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to emergency care?
For all of our miraculous saves, men and women, boys and girls, still suffer horrible injuries and have cardiac arrests, fatal pulmonary emboli. They still die at the scene of car crashes. They still develop mental illness and kill themselves. Addiction still separates families and leaves parents weeping for children, lost from life or lost in the jungle of drugs and desperate lives.
Despite the extension of life we offer so many, even the healthiest men and women will, at some point, leave one another and pass away from this life. And, knowing this fact does nothing to ease the pain of the loss. The most ancient husband or wife still shudders and weeps with the loss of a spouse the way a newlywed would; perhaps more bitterly, knowing love more deeply at 85 than ever they did at 25. And yet, for all our scientific wonders, we can’t say what lies beyond this life.
What I’m saying is that for all our medical wonders, there are just questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t fix. And it is likely that our science, however wondrous, never will have that capacity.
We know it. It’s why we cry after failed resuscitations, and why we call our children when they travel, frantic to know they have arrived. It’s why every EMS tone terrifies the parents of teens and every scan of a loved one is terrifying to those of us in medicine. We can’t control the troubles of this life nearly as much as we think.
Mankind has always known this. Ancient physicians, as limited as they were, did their best and wanted more. They saw the dangers of this life, and their own incapacity, with what was likely more immediacy than we. And sick, injured humans have always known the fear of loss, the questions of suffering, the pain of death.
Into this ‘vail of tears’ we proceed every shift. This is why I often tell young physicians that they should read and understand more than medicine. I favor religious faith, natural to mankind as it is. But if they decline religion, they must have a philosophy. Or they should read great novels, stories, poetry; or reach into the depth of music for some kind of solace in this mess of the unknown.
But let me say this, now that December is here: Christmas comes to offer hope to the hopeless and answers to the hardest of questions. There are those of us who believe its message with all our broken hearts. But even those who find it a charming myth can surely see beauty in the story of God (however you perceive God to be) become man. God suffering with men and women and rescuing them. God come to give a hope of forever to humans trapped in mortality. This is especially poignant to those whose lives have been a succession of one devastating loss after another. It is comfort beyond medicine for them to believe in a God, come to forgive their wandering ways, answering them in the midst of their cutting, suicidal, self medicating cries for rescue. No pill is as good as God come to make every loss whole, and heal every pain in eternity. No resuscitation comparable to God come to die and defeat death.
The pain of this life is enormous. We try so hard, but we can do only so much. The manger in Bethlehem is, if nothing else, a beautiful story to remind us that just maybe, there is healing for the wounds that lie beyond our science. Perhaps the very dream that there is meaning, that there is hope, is a suggestion that there is more there, more here, than meets the eye.
And maybe, the manger is even more than a distant dream, more than a quaint bedtime story, glowing as it does in the chaotic night of human suffering that darkens our ER’s and trauma centers.
Merry Christmas!