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.