02 September 2008

Pre-dissection reflection

I've finally put my finger on why dissection is making me feel a little hesitant and slightly uncomfortable. It's not cutting into a body per se; I was fine while watching surgeries. It's the fact that dissection is intentionally destructive. Surgery is about health and healing, about the best interest of the patient and their future functionality and quality of life. Dissection is about complete and total deconstruction with no consideration for the future. It feels like a violation because this is invasion with no intent to heal; it's taking apart a human lego set piece by piece knowing that not only can you not put it back together, you're not even going to try.

On the one hand I want to be respectful, this was a person and even in death they deserve to be treated well. On the other hand, I want complete detachment and dehumanization because otherwise, how do I (inexpertly) flay someone's father/brother and just go home and make dinner?

In some cases, the body donor willingly gave themselves, but the family did not. How do I look those family members in the eye, knowing that what I'm doing is against their wishes? I don't really want to meet the family (now); that will only make it harder to keep cutting. Do they really want to meet me? Do they really want to see who is doing this to their father/brother? Will I look undeserving to them? Not what they imagined a future doctor will look like?

01 September 2008

Passed: Patients & Populations

I have successfully completed the first sequence in medical school: patients and populations. It was comprised of three threads: Medical decision making, pathology and genetics. If anyone ever told you there is no math in medical school, they were wrong. Bayesian probabilities anyone?

It was actually quite a nice starting sequence because we had no anatomy or histology - giving us more time to get to know each other and the town. Once a week we had patient presentations, for example, the mother of a son with Down Syndrome, a woman who has tested positive for Huntington (but is still clinically asymptomatic) and a girl who was diagnosed with colon cancer at 22.

Speaking of extra-curriculars... the first football game was Saturday! You have definitely not seen a tailgate until you've seen a big 10 tailgate. Wow.

We have met our cadavers though and dissection begins Sept 2. Histology Sept 3. Next sequence: Cells & Tissues.

(one photo is from the tailgate, the other is karaoke night)

26 August 2008

What the doctor said

a poem by Raymond Carver, for our consideration as we think about the relationships we build with patients.

He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

21 August 2008

I'm going home with the DJ...

Because she's my roommate...


16 August 2008

Medical concepts made easy: #1

According to Dr. R, it is very important that we understand the concept of diapedesis; a phenomenon observed in the inflammatory response. So important, in fact, that he acted out the apparent struggle of a neutrophil trying to squeeze through an endothelial cell to attack a microbe (played by an M2). Popping across the stage in apparent success he yelled "I have diapedesed!" Later that night I felt the very same struggle when trying to cross a packed dance floor to get a glass of water. I couldn't help it, when we finally made it to the edge of the crowd, I turned to my roommate and said "I have diapedesed!"

Scientific definition: White blood cells migrating across the endothelium due to injury or trauma.
Real world analog: Crossing a packed dance floor due to thirst or heat.

13 August 2008

Remixed: No Handlebars

[to the tune of Handlebars by the Flobots]

I do dissections with my Netters guide
My Netters guide
My Netters guide

Look at me, look at me
Hands in a guy who's so sad to be
And I'm an M1 student
Though my stethoscope's brand new you'll see
I can hear your heart go boom ba-boom
I can show you how to take blood pressure
I can take a full patient history
And I an almost tell you what it means
I watch all the lectures at double speed
And I take all my quizzes in the LRC
I know all the types of cell necrosis
And I'm proud to be at Michigan
Me and my friend saw a surgery
Me and my friend can place an IV
And guess how much we sleep
I can treat anything you got cuz, see

I can hear a murmur with no stethoscope
No stethoscope
No stethoscope

I see your MI on the EKG
on the EKG
on the EKG

Look at me, look at me
Cuz I'm on call but I'd rather be
In such a warm bed
Tired out with dictation to do
I won't make money in my residency
And I won't see my significant other
I'll be almost forty before I'm debt free
Almost a quarter million dollars
I will proscribe antibiotics
I will make your body function without your heart or lungs
I know how to check a reflex
And I can make you stick out your tongue, say ah
Doctors, surgeons and the patients
We all find insurance so frustrating
I see the slowing on your EEG
But no epileptiform activity

I can hear your problems but I'll never tell
But I'll never tell
But I'll never tell

I can thin your blood with IV heparin
IV heparin
IV heparin

Look at me, look at me
Learning and I won't stop
It feels so good to be an
MD, yeah a doc
My oath is global
My ethics secure
My profession noble
My job is to serve
I will hand out a million vaccinations
And give all my patients good explanations
And sew up so many lacerations
Perform post-surgical extubations
I can write a complete review of systems
Including your vital signs and
All of your medications in a list when
You get discharged and it's time to go

I can see your brain on the MRI
the MRI
the MRI

And I can stop the seizures with some Topamax
With some Topamax
With some Topamax

And I can fix blue babies with a full Fontan
With a full Fontan
With a full Fontan

12 August 2008

Introducing Pre-Mortem

I keep a book of things I would like to do before I die. Some are little: own a pet (not yet). Some are adventurous: skydive (done it). The book reminds me of the cool things I've done and the amazing adventures I have to look forward to.

I began this long before that horrible movie "Bucket List" (which no, I did not and never will see). Over the summer I began making the list electronic in case anyone wanted to follow along. Each post is a different goal; I will update them with photos and stories as I accomplish them.


10 August 2008

Orientation round-up

The first week of medical school is coming to a close and I thought I would run through the highlights. First, we were all coated and attended a rather awkward reception because no one knew anyone else. The chocolate-covered strawberries were delicious though. The next three days included an array of (rather boring) lectures acquainting us with the school, its policies and what was expected of us interspersed with some cool team building exercises and lots of provided food.

Thursday night was the traditional M1 bar crawl (the first day of class was also Thursday...coincidence... not exactly). We all wore pretty blue matching shirts and had drink specials at three bars in town. Pre-drinking chow at the Pizza House before shots and dancing and singing to Bon Jovi. Fun moment: asking directions from a law student. His reponse: what did you get on the MCAT?

Friday I missed the first hour of lecture (bad me) but did make it to a dinner party at a neighbor's house and a hip hop concert (6 acts!) in town. The DJ for the Blue Scholars is a phenom... I never thought I would hear Green Day turned into a hip hop beat, but it works.

Saturday we made a little mall trip, then a BBQ and a night of dancing at Live. Tonight will be Indian food for dinner... yummy!

07 August 2008


I have officially started medical school! I received my white coat and stethoscope from the Dean, stumbled my rather bewildered way through three days of orientation and am now in classes. I (already) have lectures and syllabi and assignments and quizzes... I am a medical student... weird.

School is modular, so every few weeks I will finish a module (organ system) and all its corresponding histology/pathology and anatomy. Year one is healthy organs, year two is sick ones.

First up: Patients & Populations (genetics) - 3 weeks.

23 July 2008

Advanced civics

Since my last post about DC, I returned and managed to correctly identify the white house. I even took a photo of it (left).

I also hit up the botanical gardens, air & space museum, natural history museum, art museum, aquarium (ninja turtle, right), washington monument and climbed the rocks at Great Falls.

Not of historical note, I had the best tuna and salmon sashimi I've ever eaten (including in Japan) and went to a bar called "sign of the whale." Great name. I also spent a lovely evening eating chocolate chip cookies, drinking wine and watching Sideways. In that vein, I would like to note there are some perfectly good merlots.

Oh, and I saw the Dark Knight in IMAX. Phenomenal.

12 July 2008

North, to Alaska!

Completing my North American tour (S: Mexico to N: Alaska, E: NY to W: California) was an active little jaunt through Alaska by boat. The best moment was climbing the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau, hands down, no questions. Yes, that's me to the left. We helicoptered up there (fantastic), trekked around and did a little climbing. We helicoptered back out just as the storms rolled in.

In Skagway we rode a gold rush era train up to the white pass summit and biked back down (cold!). In Icy Straight Point we drove ATVs up a mountain and ziplined back down (that's my brother and I in the photo) from an elevation of about 3000ft. In Ketchican we went salmon fishing, but somehow managed to catch two dogfish sharks. We let everything we caught go- for the karma.

05 July 2008

Medical mysteries

Now that I've left one hospital and moved to another, I find myself reflecting on how many cases were left unsolved. Not untreated or unresolved, but without the foggiest clue as to an answer. The following are some examples:

1. Spinal inflammation. Patient presented with loss of propioreception in the feet, ankles and lower legs. CSF showed inflammatory markers. Treatment with high dose steroids provided mild, temporary relief. Five months later the inflammation is still present, though propioreception is now in tact at and above the ankles. High dose steroids, IVIg and plasmaphoresis had no effect.

2. Severe, sudden onset rhabdomyolysis with no concurrent trauma. Rhabdomyolysis is a rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle and is usually seen when there is a trauma. This patient had muscle breakdown products in her blood at levels usually seen only in crush injury (ie part of a building falls on you), but had done nothing more arduous than work out. Best guess... virus?

3. Adolescent onset of type 1 diabetes with concurrent peripheral neuropathy. Usually type 1 diabetes (the autoimmune, insulin dependent one) presents in childhood, so the age of presentation is unusual, but not unheard of. The concurrent peripheral neuropathy however, is rare enough that I was going to write the case up for a journal (but never got around to it). Neuropathy usually takes years of poorly managed diabetes to emerge.

4. An infant had a hemangioma on her sacral spine so an MRI was performed. The scan revealed several round growths in her spinal column. It was unclear whether they were also hemangiomas or if they were tumors. A spinal tap was inconclusive. It was decided to monitor the growths rather than attempt a biopsy at this point.

02 July 2008


I posted a couple of months ago about my "love of the whole world." Apparently, xkcd loves the whole world too. Boom-de-adda...

01 July 2008

Straddling the Mississippi

The end of June found me down in New Orleans for a few days. Preservation Hall was probably my favorite experience - it's an old wooden room (no air conditioning) in the French Quarter where some old timers play jazz requests. Fantastic.

The strangest moment was definitely when we went inside the cathedral. First, the fire alarm went off. Shortly afterwards, a middle aged man with a cane started yelling at a man in the front pew who appeared to be praying. The middle aged man shouted "you won't speak to me in that manner, not in my cathedral" and waved his cane around. The other man just sat there. A third man approached, to mediate the situation. All three headed outside (we followed). A cop car pulled up and the cops arrested the man who had been sitting in the front pew and drove off with him.

There was no physical altercation and I can't think of anything a person can say that is egregious enough to warrant an arrest. It was all remarkably odd.

Another funny moment was when we ran under a roof overhang to hide from the sudden afternoon shower. Nearby there were several goslings and some grown swans and ducks. I guess the goslings didn't like the rain either because they came towards us. The parent geese were not so keen on that idea however, and we ended up fleeing from a large group of geese who were pooing/running/quacking at us.

24 June 2008

A civic education

I spent a few days in DC and found out just how much I don't know. First off, it turns out the building pictured to the left is, in fact, the capitol building, not the white house. Oops. Second, the Library of Congress is not a library you can just read in (like the New York public library). Bummer. Third, I can eat and really like pesto. Yum.

Fourth, Pearl Jam has lots of awesome music I haven't heard. Well, hadn't - until I went to their concert. Amazing, even from the nosebleed seats.

Also in DC: Marvins (crowded), Mini Cooper (surprisingly spacious), sushi (excellent), the Hulk (mediocre) and Guitar Hero II on Xbox (solid fun).

19 June 2008

Reverse clinical pathology conference

Today I went to my first reverse clinical pathology conference. It's reverse because rather than starting with the patient's presentation and moving forward in time, you start with the pathology slides and try to reconstruct the symptoms and diagnosis based on what you see under the microscope.

There are pathology rooms with multi-headed microscopes: 8-10 viewing stations connected to a single slide mount so everyone is viewing the same slide simultaneously. A pathologist usually "drives" and physician and fellows (and me!) sit around the other viewers. The pathologist loaded in stained, prepared slides of the brainstem, cerebellum, and cortex for examination.

Slide #1 cerebellum. The cerebellar cortex is made up of three layers: the molecular layer, granule layer, and Purkinje layer. In our slide there was no surface granule layer, indicating the cells had already completed their migration and the patient must have been at least 12 months of age. The Purkinje cells were dying, a classic hypoxia sign. We also saw evidence of infection in the meninges (membranes covering the brain) and the parenchyma (brain tissue) such as macrophages and perivascular cuffing.

In the parenchyma we noted neuronophagia: dying neurons surrounded by microglial cells. This pointed us towards considering a viral diagnosis. Bacteria can stay in the meninges surrounding the brain, but viruses are obligate cellular parasites and thus more likely to appear in the neural tissue itself. We examined the neurons for inclusion bodies, which are accumlations (not exclusive to viral infections) within either the cytoplasm (ex rabies) or nucleus (ex. herpes). Not all viral infections have inclusion bodies, but their presence, absence and type can help to identify the specific pathogen. In this patient there were no inclusion bodies.

Slide #2: pons (brainstem). We noted extensive liquefactive necrosis, leaving the tissue with a spongelike appearance. Basically, the neurons are dying and pockets of fluid-filled space are left where there used to be brain tissue (necrosis = abnormal cell death). The extent of the damage in this patient was severe, indicating a rampant infection and acute, considering the cell types present.

Slide #3: midbrain (brainstem). The substantia nigra in the midbrain was noted to be unpigmented. This area usually develops pigment between 3-5 years of age (and can be lost again in old age as part of a neurodegenerative process). This placed the patient's age between 12 months and 3 years.

Slide #4: spinal cord. Most infections have a regional preference within the nervous system; they don't invade all areas equally. Thus, looking at which regions are affected can narrow down the pathogens under consideration. In our patient, the anterior horn of the spinal cord was disproportionately infected, which led us to consider the enteroviruses (ex polio, Hep A).

Conclusion: The patient turned out to be 25 months old and died of a massive Coxsackie viral infection. Coxsackie virus (type B pictured to the right) is probably best described as a non-paralytic polio and it can affect other organ systems besides the central nervous system, most notably the heart and eyes.

Note: this case has been previously published so the details have not been altered. All photos used are from searching google images and are not the slides from the actual conference.

13 June 2008

Employee appreciation day

It was Caribbean-themed employee appreciation day at the hospital today, complete with activities, free food, and dancing. We started by donning flowered necklaces (I wore mine as an armband), moved on to decorating flip flops, ate some fried plantains and mango popsicles and the daring among us got spray-on tattoos. The award definitely goes to Alana, for tattooing Gray's name on her leg - fabulous.

10 June 2008

Wedding weekend in nyc

The weekend in New York City was punctuated by a few fun highlights, not the least of which was staying in my friend's rather fabulous apartment near Columbus circle.

The ceremony and reception had about three hours in between them, so a few of us decided to find a local pub and grab a beer. The watering hole we ended up in had no draught beer and the bartender was taking bets on the payphone for Belmont. There was, however, a pool table. James managed to clear the table in a single turn (he broke and the rest of us didn't touch a cue).

The reception involved some classic dances moves: soulja boy, the roger rabbit, etc as well as 12 courses of yummy food. The wedding cake was an ice cream cake - a choice I fully and wholeheartedly endorse.

Post wedding we headed to Manhatten for a drink. We managed to grab a bottle of champagne from the reception and brought it, and a stack of paper cups, to the bar. We tried to pop it and drink it asap so as not to get caught, but get caught we did. We smooth talked the manager into waiving the corking fee by ordering drinks and shots and stayed out into the early am.

Congrats Jeff & Joanna!

05 June 2008

You know you have a problem when...

... you coworker buys you three pints for your birthday.

31 May 2008

Another stamp in my passport

Having just spent the last 6 days in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, I have arrived back in the US with a new stamp in my passport, a blotchy sunburn and a strong desire to sleep. There were 11 of us on the trip and we snorkeled, sunbathed, kayaked, rappelled, zip-lined, swam in a cenote, played water volleyball, and visited the Mayan city of Tulum.

I got a rather impressive sunburn on day 2, which has thankfully stopped hurting and started to turn more brownish than red. Don't get me wrong, I still look white, but now I can prove this is tan for me. The only part that has started to peel is my earlobes (I really did burn all over).

There was, of course, also plenty of partying. We spent one night in the resort's disco, which was so awful it was funny. They played rock around the clock and greased lightening, not exactly the clubbing music we're accustomed to. We spent another night in Playa Del Carmen, the local town, which was a mix of fun international chains (senor frogs - yay for the swing chairs) and local places (beautiful open air bars). We collected enough plastic cups to have our own flip cup tournament, but never ended up actually playing.

All around it was a really good time on beautiful beaches with great company. It will be nicely bookended with the upcoming trip to Alaska (July 4-11).

20 May 2008

Loose joints

With relative frequency one of my PIs points out small genetic aberrations I have - apparently my pupils are unequal, I have (benign) nystagmus and my nasal openings are narrow. If I had been developmentally delayed or ill these might have been taken in aggregate to try and identify a genetic diagnosis.

The latest finding was less direct. We were meeting a new patient and Dr. __ kept pointing out to me little things this girl could do that were more flexible than average. She could bend her fingers 90 degrees (see photo, my finger - you try), her elbows rotated more than 180 degrees and she would W-sit (sit like the japanese, then put your butt on the ground between your heels). I can do all of these things. At this point I am silently panicking... whatever this little girl has, I clearly have it too. Connective tissue disease? Autoimmune? I'm really a genetics case after all?!

None of the above. Turns out, to the degree we (little girl and I) have this flexibility is unusual, but not harmful. It can cause "clumsy kid syndrome" and mildly delay fine motor development, but prognosis is: normal kid. I've never been so glad to be normal.

14 May 2008

Drumroll please...

The deposit has been paid and all other applications withdrawn. Starting August 3, I will be attending the University of Michigan Medical School. Go Blue!

For the Lost addicts: This was foreshadowed years ago... when I was 6 and lost part of my finger in the door and it grew back ala Wolverine in X-men... and the Michigan football team is the... Wolverines.

13 May 2008

Everyone else is doing it...

Apparently I'm the last person to jump on the lets-get-back-in-shape bandwagon (but at least I jumped on). I tried going for a run this evening and tried is the correct word. Since a full length run is still a bit of a struggle, I've decided I'll do a short run in the am and a short run after work. I've further decided to declare this publicly so that I am motivated (by humiliation).

And yes, those are my running shoes.

Comings and Goings

I was up in NYC this weekend and while walking around saw a cage full of kittens waiting to be adopted. I have a huge soft spot for kittens (who doesn't?) and had to stand and coo for the requisite 5 minutes.

Otherwise, my lack of posting can be attributed to finishing up classes (they're done, hallelujah!), working lots (stupid NIH Progress report), major school choice indecision (UPitt vs UMich), and my discovery of Battlestar Gallactica (is it just me or are the cylons obsessed with sex?).

I'm trying to pull together an entertaining summer... starting with a few days in Mexico, then a friend's wedding in NYC, maybe some time in Cali (Northern and Southern) and hopefully a family vacation to Alaska. If anyone wants to go to Istanbul I think I could be convinced to make time for that.

Of course, somewhere in there will be moving to medical school; white coat ceremony Aug 3. For those of you who miss the travel posts, hopefully my summer will provide adequate fodder. Past Aug 3rd though, I think the distinctly medical/academic bent will return.

08 May 2008

Good, clean fun

According to this month's issue of Women's Health magazine, who heard it from the University of Cambridge student magazine, medical students have more sex than their other graduate school counterparts.

Field of study # of partners
Medicine 8
Political science 7
History 6
Language 5
Theology 2

20 April 2008

Reading medical memoirs

It is probably not surprising that throughout my post-bacc career I have been reading a series of medical memoirs, novels, and essays. There was House of God, which everyone reads at some point (and I have been told to re-read in residency), Better and Complications, both by Atul Gwande (he's kinda famous among the medical set), The End of Medicine (by a finance guy) and the Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (pop culture famous book on neurology by Oliver Sacks).

I recently started one by a female neurosurgeon, Katrina Firlik, and I am struck by how familiar it all is. I work in neurology, not neurosurgery, but I have seen many of the conditions she talks about. She didn't have to explain holoprosencephaly or hydrancephaly; I've seen them. I certainly don't have the knowledge base of peds neuro resident or even probably a well-educated, interested medical student, but I am conversant with the best of them on a limited subset of conditions.

The other theme that strikes me is that I have already begun the personal transformation that comes with being a physician. Dr. Firlik spends time explaining the sense of humor in the OR, the detachment of the physicians, the cold practicality that contributes to efficient care in times of crisis, but these paragraphs already ring hollow. They are exactly how I would explain it to someone on the outside, but there is really no way to make it ring true unless you've been there. Patients will never quite understand how you can tell them the worst news of their life and then spend an enjoyable afternoon hiking.

There are lot of things you don't realise when you start down this road to become a doctor, but this one might be the biggest, the most subtle, and the most significant. There is no undoing the change in how you view people and sickness; in this one way you will forever be apart from your non-medical peers.

18 April 2008

Leashes on kids

I must admit that subscribe to the idea best articulated on the Simpsons, "the leash demeans us both." But last Friday I met a mom who admitted to using a leash for her toddler and if I were her I would probably use one too.

Her child has a neurologic condition that, among other things, leaves her son both developmentally delayed and non-verbal. What this means is that while her son can walk and run and jump, he does not speak and has not yet learned common social cues.

The mom is clearly an involved and attentive mother, but as any mom or even babysitter can attest it is impossible to be watching every second of every day. What happens if she's paying for the groceries or using an ATM and he runs off? He can't say his name or who his mom is. He can't say where he lives or where he last saw his mom and we're not certain he would understand to look where he last saw her or follow a command given over a PA system.

Mom has sewn his name and address into all his clothes, just in case. She can't give him an ID necklace because he could hurt himself with it. He had a bracelet but he broke it - and the one before that. She's saving up to get one in a metal he can't break. What happens when he becomes coordinated enough to undo the clasp on it himself?

I don't think leashes are appropriate for most children, but I understand the trade-off here. I would also rather be the mom who gets stared at than the mom who loses her child.

14 April 2008

Shadowing cardiac anesthesia

First thing this morning I was standing in the middle of an honest to god surgical code.

The day started at 7:15am in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for closure of a persistent ductus. The ductus arteriosus is a fetal vessel that connects the pulmonary artery to the aorta. It generally closes in the first few days of life; failure to do so can cause congestive heart failure. During the surgery, the ductus was severed from the aorta before it had been clipped, leading to massive bleeding (3-4x the infant's blood volume); the infant had no blood pressure or pulse for several minutes.

Here I should make several observations. First, the vessels in question are extraordinarily small and fragile in a newborn; looking at them wrong can cause them to tear (this was not a case of surgical malpractice). Second, it is not the surgeon who leads the resuscitation, it's the anesthesiologist. The surgeon is, of course, trying to stop the bleeding, but the person pushing blood and drugs through and controlling the chaos is the anesthesiologist. Third, codes are messy. By the time the infant was back there were empty syringes littering the floor and all available surfaces. At least 6 people had streaks of blood on them from loading or handling the syringes (they don't have needles, they are screwed into the IVs), there were towels everywhere, and there were twice as many physicians present at the end than when it all started. It's all hands on deck and I now understand why the prep beforehand is so specific and organized: everything gets labeled, unpacked, laid out in order, etc.

We went straight from the NICU to the OR, where the patient was already prepped and under for a VSD patch and interrupted arch repair. A VSD is a ventricular septal defect (hole in the wall between the two large heart chambers) and it gets covered by a small graft. An interrupted arch is a little more complicated (a gap between the ascending and descending aorta) to fix (create the missing piece of aorta out of native and other tissue) and requires bypass and deep hypothermic circulatory arrest (DHCA). The body is cooled to 18 deg. C and all blood flow is stopped while the aorta is repaired. It turns out that shadowing the anesthesiologist gives you an unparalleled view of the surgical field so I was staring straight into the chest the whole time (photo, right) and watched the heart be cut open, closed, cannulated for bypass, decannulated, and an aorta fashioned, all in less than 3 hours.

At this point we took a break to get some juice and crackers on the way back to the NICU to check on the morning baby - doing well (needs a head ultrasound to check for bleeding). We then headed up the cardiac ICU (CICU) to debrief the interrupted arch parents and meet our afternoon case.

The afternoon case was a pacemaker placement due to heart block. The parents were of the most over-zealous and anal retentive type and both the parents and the patient were all very heavy. Seriously, this kid had 20kg on me. This time I was there from the beginning and so witnessed prep and induction of anesthesia (including intubation). A sternal approach was chosen, which quickly proved difficult due to the child's weight. The surgeon was quite literally up to his wrists in adipose (fat) tissue before he could visualize any heart muscle (the leads are placed on the heart, the generator (photo, left) is placed at the lower edge of the ribcage). The first lead went on the first try. The second lead took two tries, but, success! The surgeon then hollowed out about a 1/3 cup of adipose tissue to make a pocket for the generator, which is about the size of a post-it note.

What struck me about both surgeries is now physical it is (breathing through a mask and standing still in one place for hours turns out to be harder than it looks) and how many more stitches it takes. If you think of a laceration that might bring you into the ER, you will get one layer of stitches. Closing the chest requires at least three layers of sutures; closing takes a good 15 minutes (depending on the size of the incision). I also noticed all the surgeons wore these nifty magnifiers clipped onto their glasses (no one seems to wear contacts) and headlights even with the the bright overheads. Lastly, the temperature in the OR is largely determined by the procedure - in a DHCA case the OR is cooled to help with cooling and then heated to help with rewarming. Oh - and no one played music.

Photos from google images. More about patent ductus arteriosus. More about interrupted aortic arch.

10 April 2008

Wiki project done!

I recently finished one of the cooler projects I've ever been assigned in school: to publish a fully-cited Wikipedia page on a biochemistry topic of our choice. My topic didn't end up being as biochemical as I originally thought, but my professor allowed me to finish the project anyway because I was so invested in the subject.

I chose to discuss Dentatorubral-pallidoluysian atrophy (DRPLA), a trinucleotide repeat, neurodenegerative disorder. It looks a lot like Huntington's and occurs with the same frequency in Japan, but it's extraordinarily rare in the West. Five families in the US have been identified; one of whom I met. The boy had the juvenile onset form (which presents with myoclonus - on EEG to the right) and passed away before he reached his 20th birthday.

To see my published page, type DRPLA into wikipedia or click here.

08 April 2008

Accidental photographer

Apparently a photo I took while out one sunny day in Philadelphia has been selected as a finalist for a Schmap guide. This is the second time a photo of mine on Flickr has been noticed; a newspaper asked me for permission to use a photo I took of David Blaine in the fishbowl in NYC (remember when he lived underwater for 9 days in Lincoln Center?).

I'm generally not a talented photographer, but I guess blind squirrels really do find nuts once and a while.

06 April 2008

Idiocy of air travel

I flew out to Pittsburgh this weekend to re-visit the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The flight to Pittsburgh was delayed two hours so my scheduled 7:10pm flight became a 9:10pm flight. There was another flight scheduled to leave at 9:00pm, also for Pittsburgh, which was running on time. After an announcement that the 9pm plane was not full, most of the people (including me) on the delayed 7:10pm flight rebooked onto the 9pm flight. At 9:10 they began boarding both flights simaltaneously. The delayed 7:10 flight was now practically empty, with fewer than 50 passangers booked, so I ran back to the counter and rebooked again, back onto the 7:10 flight.

I arrived in Pittsburgh at about 10:40 and headed straight to the tram that runs between the flight terminal and the baggage/ticket terminal. The tram broke down and we were stuck for about 20 minutes. Since we were in a tunnel our cell phones didn't work and no one was answering the emergency call button. Eventually the tram re-started and we made it to the baggage terminal.

I immediately headed outside to grab the bus into Oakland (a neighborhood in Pittsburgh) and watched one depart just as I got there. 30 minutes in the cold and another bus arrived (it's now a bit past 11:30pm). Who turns out to be on the bus? A former student of mine from when I was an economics TA who now hates his job in finance.

I did manage to get to my host MS1's apartment around 1am. I left my apartment at 5:10pm. That's almost eight hours and I didn't even leave the state.

31 March 2008

Clinic redux

Last Friday I shadowed an outpatient neurology clinic as I do once or twice a month; here are the highlights.

1. Childhood narcolepsy. This is diagnosed using a sleep latency test; abnormally quick decent into slow wave sleep indicated narcolepsy. Unfortunately, the normative data for children doesn't exist so it can be hard to definitively diagnose. An EEG is also a good idea to rule out seizures.

2. Autism. I've never seen autism to this degree before; the appointment was because of an increase in obstinate behavior. The child was barking intermittently and would lunge for any paper he saw (to eat it). He was pulling the threads out of his sweater and eating those too. The parents looked haggard and completely worn out; dad would jump at the slightest noise. Three clinicians saw the boy together to determine whether antipsychotics should be started or whether the current medications should simply have their doses tweaked.

3. Refractory status epilepticus. An adopted child who has failed five different kinds of anticonvulsants. In the last two weeks there have been no seizures, but the week prior there were two: 75 and 90 minutes in duration. An MRI and overnight EEG are on the table as the first step towards consideration of neurosurgery.

4. Cerebral palsy. Not usually something we see unless it's part of a larger issue, which, in this case, it was. We just don't know what the larger issue is. The part I want to bring up is that the leg muscles can get tight and force the knees to turn inwards. This realigns the hips; if left uncorrected, the hips can become painfully and permanently displaced.

5. Absence seizures with syncope. I have now met two children with this seizure type: they lose consciousness for the duration of their seizure. Invariably they are worked up by cardiology first and when they don't find anything, they send them to us and we hook them up to an EEG.


They evoke the strongest memory of school in England.

29 March 2008

Why so popular?

It mystifies me that the hands-down most often keyword-searched page on my blog is this post from July 26, 2006. It is far and away the most frequently visited page of my blog.

It turns out that if you google the words "screwdriver" and "chest," my blog comes up first. Cool.

Choosing a School

I am sitting in the law library (view from my chair, right) working on my biochemistry term paper on dentatorubral-pallidoluysian atrophy (DRPLA), but my mind keeps wandering. I have now heard from all my medical schools and must begin choosing where I want to spend the next four years. I have narrowed it down to three at which I have been accepted: Michigan, Mt. Sinai or UPitt or two at which I have been waitlisted: WashU or UPenn.

I am content to live in any of the above cities and they will all cost me about the same amount of money, so how do I choose? I am so paralysed by the decision that I have actually asked several of the attendings I know at the hospital to rank them for me (which they did: Upenn got 3 votes and WashU got 1 for the top spot).

I think what makes it so difficult is that I would be happy at any of these schools. All of them set me up well for the future; there is no wrong choice. I am extremely fortunate to be in this position and I recognize that. But I still have to choose. And I am still stuck.

In the meantime, this paper still needs to be written. Back to biochem.

25 March 2008

Neonatal pre-op MRIs

One of the research studies I am involved in at the hospital includes performing an MRI immediately prior to the heart repair surgery of TGA and HLHS babies*. The baby we studied yesterday was oversized (due to mom's diabetes), but otherwise stable. The MRI revealed PVL,** which we have seen in 20% of patients prior to their surgery, and also a temporal lobe hemorrhage. We immediately called the surgeon to the MRI suite and a discussion ensued: what is the bigger danger - delaying the heart repair or potentially enlarging the bleed (the surgery would involved heparin, a blood thinner)?

We decided to delay the surgery and re-image the child in a few days to re-evaluate.

Sitting in on that discussion reminded me why I want to be a doctor. I've been losing the faith a bit with all the paperwork that is my job recently and this year long illogical waiting game of frustration that is applying. It was nice to have a reminder; hopefully I will get another one this Friday in clinic.

- - -
*TGA = Transposition of the great arteries. The aorta is connected to the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery is connected to the left ventricle, creating two independent circulations.
HLHS = Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The left ventricle fails to form and the aorta is small and insufficient. Once the ductus closes, there is no systemic circulation.
**PVL = Periventricular leukomalacia, a white matter injury that occurs in pre-mature babies and is thought to be associated with mild cognitive problems.

24 March 2008

23 March 2008

When I grow up

Now that I am settled on becoming a physician, the next logical decision is what kind of physician I want to be? Granted, there are rotations in third year to help me decide. I can shadow practitioners to make an informed choice and then, of course, I must match in the specialty I hope for. But what am I hoping for? Surgery? Emergency medicine? Pediatrics?

My colleagues that the hospital have their opinion: surgeon. My friends in their internships have theirs: neonatal intensive care.

But the best way to solve this problem is clearly to take some form of internet quiz. So I took the Medical Specialty Aptitude test on the University of Virginia Health System website. Apparently, my top 5 specialties are:
1. Nephrology
2. Thoracic surgery
3. Aerospace medicine
4. Plastic surgery
5. Pathology

I no longer put any faith in internet quizzes.

17 March 2008

Postscript to Mr. Jobs

My computer was returned to me, however it was not fixed. Additionally, there were four notches on the optical drive that were not there when I brought the computer in for servicing. While the return invoice lists two "parts or services used," the optical drive needed three attempts to eject the first disc I put in.

I must now send my MacBook back in. Since I cannot do this at the moment (I need it for school and work), I have opened a case with AppleCare and will send it in April. How many times I must I send it in before you either a) successfully fix it or b) replace it?


13 March 2008

Dear Mr. Jobs

I have owned a series of Apple products over the years, but my most recent purchase (A MacBook) has caused me more headache than any PC I ever owned.

Shortly after buying it, it began leaking battery acid. There is no Apple store in Philadelphia and the Support team did not want to mail a toxic product so I had to ask someone to drive it into New Jersey for me to swap it for a new computer. No one at Apple transferred the Applecare to the new serial number so several months later when the hard drive spontaneously failed I had to spend a day on the phone proving that the policy covered this new machine.

The hard drive was replaced and Apple thoughtfully replaced several of the case panels as well. However, the panel that includes the optical drive was warped so when I got the computer back, it no longer ejected discs. I was in the midst of exams (and there is no Apple store in Philadelphia) so I waited three weeks until I could get to NYC to take it to a genius bar. Ruth (the genius) couldn't fix it in the store but she assured me that as a bounce-back repair it would be covered and I should have my computer back in 7 days.

It's day 5 and I just checked my status online. Apparently the repair has been on hold (since March 11, it's now the 13th) and no one called me, so I called Applecare. I spoke with Dan and Kendra and neither could tell me anything other than "wait for the depot to call you, they might not cover this repair."

I'm flabbergasted. Apple took it upon themselves to repair a part that was not broken and now, after a botched repair, won't fix their mistake. This is the third time this computer has needed repair! I need my computer to do my schoolwork and pay my bills - if there was a problem or delay, why did no one at Apple contact me?

I am purchasing a new computer this summer for medical school and the experience with this latest MacBook (less than 2 years old!) has forced me to seriously reconsider my stance on PCs. They might be equally much trouble, but they are much cheaper. If the product and service are going to be this poor either way, I might as well save my money.

Mr Jobs, I'm very disappointed. I think Apple makes innovative products, usually worth their higher prices. But apparently the quality and service are inverse to your company growth.

Please, fix my MacBook and send it back!

12 March 2008

Medical School Update

Because no, the process is still not over.

Applied: 23
Interviews: 13

Of the schools who gave me interviews:
Withdrawn: 2
Waitlisted: 2
Accepted: 5

Of the schools who have accepted me, I have declined 2.

As you can tell, I'm still waiting for 4 replies. I will be rejected by the 10 schools that didn't interview me (I received 6 of those letters already).

Deadline for the final decision: May 15th.

11 March 2008


We were talking about oatmeal chocolate chip cookies all day so when I got home I just had to make some. I didn't have any brown sugar so I used white sugar and maple syrup instead (and added a little extra flour) - they came out very moist and chewy... yum!

12 February 2008

Different and unequal

Nicholas Kristof took a break from the third world to write a column on the public perception of women leaders.

This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy braggarts. The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.... Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes. Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. Professor Duflo asked villagers to listen to a speech, identical except that it was given by a man in some cases and by a woman in others. Villagers gave the speech much lower marks when it was given by a woman.

In response there were the expected anti-Clinton posts, the sexism-is-dead posts, and the not-feminism-again posts, but the one that pissed me off enough that I had to write was this one (by Nathan N):

To think that gender or race is even remotely relevant and anything other than a complete “red herring” is an intellectual confusion. To illustrate my point, it may be interesting to wonder whether horses or oxes as a group run faster. But when you have one actual horse and one actual ox and want to know which one runs faster, all the statistics and knowledge about how fast or slow the members of the two classes of animals generally run become completely useless. All we need to do would be to let them race and see which one runs faster.
Actually, Nathan, I believe you are intellectually confused. And to boot, you totally missed the point. In your horse and ox example, Kristof's point would most closely be translated to the observation that even if the horse and ox raced with the same time, the ox would be thought of as the faster animal. In fact, your argument is negated by the example in Kristof's article - in an objective measure of governing fitness women did better but were kicked out more often.

Not to mention the fact that in a timed race there is an objective standard whereas a public election is not only subjective, but filtered by the media. The effects of this subjectivity are seen for both genders; some of the most qualified candidates lost early in the primary season due to a lack of media exposure and having more substantive credibility than stylish panache.

And to all the people who responded to his column, Kristof wasn't making a case for Hilary. He was making a statement about how in some situations democracies can empower the very prejudices the system is trying to protect against. If you're going to respond to an article, at least read it first.

28 January 2008

It's not all in my head

In medicine, we call it emesis. The other research assistants favoured the term "booting." Whatever you call it, I was holding the sides of a toilet and vomiting neon yellow bile yesterday one hour after watching a neonatal autopsy.

The baby in question was about one week old and died shortly after surgery to embolize a vein of Galen malformation. Basically, the baby was born with an extremely large vein in the brain -- this causes low blood pressures in the arterial system and high venous pressure (reversal of normal, also termed persistent fetal circulation). One potential repair is to fill the vessels feeding the oversized vein with glue (yes, literally glue) to lessen the amount of blood flowing through the malformation and restore normal blood pressures. This baby died shortly after surgery after two mysterious distended abdomen complications and difficulty ventilating.

An autopsy is not an elegant or a respectful procedure. The body is handled roughly, like an object, and no care is made to preserve the features that viscerally remind us of the corpse's humanity. The first part of the autopsy was an excision of the brain done with incisions from each ear to the center top of the head. The face is then peeled down and the skull cut into 4-5 triangles, which are peeled open like a flower to provide unhindered access to the entire brain. Unlike television, the baby bled when it was cut; this is not CSI, the bodies are not embalmed prior to examination.

Upon opening the skull it was immediately evident that there had been a substantial subdural and subarachoid hemorrhage (bleeding in the space between the brain and it's covering layers, the meninges). Thus, there was a lot of blood and it lots of gauze was required to visualize the venous system within the brain (you can see the vein of Galen by pushing apart the two hemispheres, gently). The spinal cord was then severed and the brain extracted and placed in diluted formalin to "set" for two weeks before the brain cutting (serial sectioning of the entire brain and spinal cord).

Once the brain is removed the face is pulled back up, but the skull is left open. The next question was what substance was filling the belly. To see whether it was air, the baby was submerged in a basin of water and a hole poked in the abdomen to see if bubbles would result. No bubbles. The body was removed from the basin and held upside down to let the (empty) skull drain (it filled with water when submerged: no brain, remember).

A Y incision was made, which is really more of a U from nipple to nipple and then a line down past, but around, the belly button. Care has to be taken not to cut to deeply, only skin and fat, not the organs beneath. Once you cut into the body, yellow liquid runs off - I think it's the water mixing with the fat (adipose) tissue.

A probe was used to spread the skin around the abdomen and below - the baby had no testicles in the scrotum so, where were they? Gently the intestines were pulled out (not all the way, just a bit) and nudged sideways so that there was a view of the interior of the body cavity. One of the intestines was brown (my guess: large) and the other more greenish (my guess: small), but both smooth and slimy. The testes looked like miniature pearl onions and they were floating off on the left side, not in the track they descend down so something was wrong there.

I didn't get to see then crack the chest because at that point we had to go see another (living) patient. Frankly, I think this was about as much as I could handle... I mean, this was a newborn and it didn't look dead.

While I was in there, watching, I felt mostly fine. I had a low level of queasiness, but I was interested in what I was learning about anatomy and pathology. My brain was on board, but my body was apparently not. I think there is something primal within that rejects the desecration of your own species and produces a visceral reaction. I was told you learn to control it, but that it never really goes away and to be honest, I'm glad. I'm even a little proud that I got sick (especially that I held it together until later, when none of the doctors could see) because it proved that despite my ability to be detached, I have not lost my empathy.

You're probably thinking... but you're going to do this in gross anatomy. Well, yes and no. One, those bodies are preserved (less blood). Two, they are skinned (much less human looking). Three, the faces are draped (again, less human looking). Four, they are adults, not babies. But, yes, I will have to touch dead bodies again.
And if I "boot" when I do it, I promise to tell you all.

20 January 2008

Why I sometimes don't like people

While waiting for the trolley this afternoon, I found myself standing near two young men and one older gentleman. In the five ish minutes we were waiting, all three of them spat at least twice. Which begs the question, when did it become kosher to spit in public? And not into a trash can, but onto sidewalks and public platforms. No one enjoys the spectacle of watching someone hock a lugie and I'm fairly sure no one wants to step on said mucus so why, oh why, do people spit in public? This is not the wild west - we are not all chewing tobacco and furnishing our living rooms with spitoons; I mean, come on, use a tissue, please?

15 January 2008

Bill Gates never took chemistry

Microsoft Word spell check suggestion for a-l-d-e-h-y-d-e: b-a-l-d-h-e-a-d-e-d.

14 January 2008

Get in the boat, fishes, jump in the boat!

First, 10 points to whomever gets the reference that is the post title. Not that the points are good for anything, but you can say you have them. Second, before I even describe the picture to the left: yes, I am aware that whales, even gray ones, are not fish. They are, in fact, mammals. Of the Baylean variety to be specific.

As you may have guessed by now the photo is of gray whales migrating off of the coast of California. The island shown is Anna Cappa, one of the Channel islands. This is about 15 minutes from where my parents live (well, the dock on the mainland anyway, it's another 40 by boat) so while visiting them we took a little romp on the ocean. Only one person on the boat got seasick, which is amazing, because it was so calm. Who gets seasick in calm waters on a sunny day?

The other photo is of sea lions (you can tell they aren't seals because they have ears): one male and one female. If you guessed the fat one is the male, you're right. I could insert a snarky comment here about why men are fat but in seals the women are the fat ones so it's a bit of a wash.

Next planned adventure in California: summer 2008: golf.

03 January 2008

Oh, the things we loathe

Tomorrow morning, first thing, I will go to the dentist. I would rather walk naked through the freezing streets of Philadelphia, but no, I will go to the dentist. I would rather receive ten tetanus shots, but no, I will go to the dentist. I would rather give up ice cream for a month, but no... I will go to the dentist.

They will pick and scrape and drill and I will squeeze my eyes and fists shut. I will repeat (to myself) over and over: it's a few hours, it's only a few hours.

Freshly numb, yet somehow still in pain, I will walk the six blocks west and lie down again. My mouth will stay shut, but my legs will spread as another doctor will poke and prod inside.

Sore on two ends and probably still drooling, I will go to work.