Monochromatic is Problematic

Boy looking out from a bridge at a world of black and white.
I hit print on the office visit summary.

“Doc, where do your kids go to school?” she asked casually.

I told her where and then explained that I was looking for a new place as they were outgrowing their current school. She mentioned where her kids attended, saying I should look into it.

“It’s strong academically and it is a multicultural place: Indian, Muslim, white, black…”

Yes.

That is what I want. I want my kids to grow up understanding other cultures, not being afraid of them. 

I come from a long long of white trash, the kind of people the US government once wanted to keep out. My grandmother was a Polish immigrant. The rest of me is comprised of little bits from all over the world. Read American history. Over the years it has been the Chinese, the Irish, Polish, the Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Japanese, Catholics, among others, who have been feared, blocked, and vilified. They were stealing jobs, destroying the language and culture, threatening Protestantism…. it was always something. Who among any of us can say we do not have any immigrant blood running through our veins? 

It is the height of arrogance. 

We are too good for the likes of you. 

This is what the Third Reich said about Jews and gypsies and homosexuals. Keeping them out was not good enough. No. Why stop there? Kill them all.

We are forgetting, aren’t we? The survivors are dying and their voices are lost. 

So here I am. Just one little voice but I am telling you and everyone who will listen that I cannot be forced to fear or hate and as such, I do NOT support the current immigration ban. It does not make me feel safer. It makes me more afraid. 

Afraid for our future.

Take Me Higher

Entrance to St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
The young woman glanced down at the distinguished, gray haired gentleman propped up on pillows as she hung the bag of potassium from the IV pole at the head of the bed. 

He was more handsome in person than he appeared on TV, she decided.

“This might burn going in,” she murmured. “The computer says your level was a smidge too low.” They were piloting a new AI program that made treatment decisions instead of doctors. It was said to be more effective and more reliable, better outcomes.

The patient looked up at her from his newspaper and nodded, winking. “Thanks for the heads up.” A great wracking cough rattled through his chest at that moment, leaving him gasping for breath. He sat down the paper. There was his face on the front page in an article talking about his admission to this very hospital for pneumonia.

“That sounds… better?” It was a statement and a question. She looked at him hopefully.

“Oh, believe me, I do feel better than I did yesterday.” He spit out the great glob of yellow phlegm that had caught in his throat, then wiped his mouth.

“On the mend, then!” She smiled down at her VIP patient. Her shift was approaching its end and she felt some degree of melancholia about that. Rubbing elbows with the rich and famous was quite fun.

Illness was the great leveler, after all.

She couldn’t wait to tell her fianc√©! 

And her mom. 

And her best friend. 

Technically she was not supposed to tell anyone about this fellow, privacy laws and all that, but how could she be expected to keep a secret like this? She had really met him, spoken to him, touched him. The part she would not tell anyone about was the number in her pocket. He had slipped it to her after telling her she was beautiful and that he would like to hook up sometime. She patted her scrubs absently to make sure the paper was still there. Not that she would ever take him up on it, mind you.

Power was sexy…. but phlegm? Not so much.

She walked out of the room and back to the nurses station where she charted her activities of the past hour or so in the EHR. She caught sight of the man’s wife getting off an elevator and she found herself watching with envy. The woman was beautiful in a way she herself could never hope to be. His wife walked purposefully, a blue coat draped elegantly over her arm, a slight smile curled on her lips. No one at the hospital had ever seen her smile before. They were all warned to stay out of her way.

He must have called to tell her he was feeling better.

The nurse glanced back at the computer screen. There was a new order for another six bags of potassium for the fellow in room 432. 

How odd.

A quick check of the blood test results reassured her. His potassium level was indeed very low.

She checked her watch. It would be another 30 minutes before she could hang the next one. The next shift would be kept busy, that was for sure.

*********************************

The papers and news stations all shouted about his death. Across every front page. Leading every news program.

He was dead.

She couldn’t believe it. How? He was getting better.

Then fear. 

Did she do something wrong?

*********************************

The voice on the other line spoke a greeting in Russian. 

“It is done?” she asked.

“Da,” the voice said gruffly then hung up.

She smiled to herself as she dropped the burner phone into the crackling fire and poured herself a glass of champagne.

Yes. Of course it was done. A simple hacking right under their noses and no one would ever know. Cardiac arrest from a potassium overdose. In the hospital. They would do everything possible to keep it hidden if it were discovered. No one wants to be the hospital that killed someone like him…

It was a beautiful, elegant thing.

There would be no other women. 

Veracity


He chuckled to himself. Potassium level?

Let’s make this one 6.5….

He hit enter then scanned down the list. 

Ahhh… a 90 year old woman. Perfect!

This time he picked the sodium level. 

126

In thirty minutes he had changed the results on over three dozen patients. Just one or two per provider, not enough to cause much of a stir…. Since none of the docs at the various system clinics spoke to each other.

*******************************

Potassium level 6.5? No eveidence of hemolysis noted. Damn.

She sighed and dialed the patient’s number, hoping he would pick up.

“Hello?” a male voice said

“Mr. James?”

“That’s me…”

“This is Dr. Stephens. I was calling to discuss your lab results. Do you have a second?”

“Sure, Doc!”

“Your potassium is showing as rather elevated. Most of the time this ends up being an error but at this level, if it is true, it can kill you. We need to get it rechecked. The best place to do that is the ER. They will recheck the levels and do an EKG and if it is really elevated they can bring it down.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir. I know going to the ER is not a cheap proposition but I don’t feel like at this level we have much of a choice.”

He sighed audibly. “Ok, Doc. If you say so. Should I go right now?”

“Yes. I’ll call ahead and let them know you are coming and why.”

She had alerted the lab to these abnormal results several times. Each and every time it seemed they were proven false. It had been occurring since the mandate that all providers had to use the system laboratory instead of sending their samples to an outside place. Invariably she was told it must be a problem with the way staff was drawing the blood. 

Only it wasn’t… She knew that was not possible.

*********************************

The board gave a standing ovation. Revenue for the system had reached an all time high. It had been a banner quarter. Things had been looking grim for so long….

A nondescript figure in a dark suit with a light blue silk tie sat silently in the corner, arms crossed, smiling to himself. 

Marching and Madness

Statue covered in dozens of breasts
“I like how he responds to the media. I voted for him because of that. I hate the media…” she was watching video of the inauguration on her phone when I entered the room.

I moved to listen to her heart and then her lungs. 

“That sort of thing is how he won the election,” I murmured, careful to keep the judgement out of my voice. I quickly changed the subject back to her persistent nausea. 

My clinic is not the place for political debate. It is for healing.

At the end of the visit I picked up my computer from the counter across the room and caught his face leering back at me from the magazine rack again. I always moved him to the back of the stack but somehow, just like a bad penny, he kept turning up again at the front. How many pelvic exams had I done in this room with him looking on? I have tried to remain neutral publicly but I just could not take it anymore. I snatched up the magazine and threw it into the biohazard bin while the patient walked out of the exam room.

I wish he would shut up.

Does he even hear himself? The things he says? How he appears to others through his tweets?

“Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Donald Trump

I imagine there were women out there marching who did vote for him. That does not mean that they cannot stand up and protest. That march was not just about Donald Trump, even if he wanted to think it was.

I did not march yesterday but oh how I wish I had. Do I agree with everything the Women’s March was said to represent? Maybe. Maybe not. But I do stand as a woman who is more than a pussy, a woman who believes she deserves more respect and equal pay and better rights. A woman who believes that people have the right to kindness, love, safety, and respect regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, or country of origin.

This was how he should have responded from the first instead of as an after thought:

“Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.” Donald Trump

Yes. That.

So I say this:

Unite us. Stop dividing and provoking. Be someone we can respect, even if we do not agree with you. 

Act like a president.

The Cost of Protection

Carved flowers on a Victorian tombstone.
There have been several times over my career that I have had to step in to protect a patient from their family. Each and every time it gets nasty. It takes a certain kind of person to abuse their child or to molest a mentally challenged adult or neglect an elderly person to the point they have maggots in their wounds. Those kinds of people fight and they fight dirty.

I marvel at how some attorneys can look at the facts of a situation and defend it by attacking and terrorizing the physician who had to make the call. It is exhausting and terrifying and can leave you questioning yourself and your judgement throughout the process:

Surprise subpoenas summoning you to appear in court in 60 minutes, requiring you to cancel all of your afternoon clinic appointments at the last minute.

Threats of lawsuits.

Antagonist depositions. 

Lies and accusations made publically.  

Nothing in medical school prepares you for this sort of thing. Physicians have malpractice insurance but this is not malpractice. There is no one to walk you through it unless you hire your own expensive attorney.

Eventually you are vindicated but not before your life is made a holy living hell. It takes a toll on your family and friends as well, as you cannot discuss it with anyone else. The process can drag on for months or even years.

You are isolated and alone.

Fortunately, all of my experiences have been before social media. I have seen, of late, some unbelievably ugly online attacks made on physicians who are only doing their duty and trying to protect the vulnerable. It appalls me how quick the rest of the world is to jump onto the hate the doctor bandwagon when they do not know the whole story. Physicians are not allowed to defend themselves due to privacy laws. The rest of the world will never know the whole story.

What some people seem to forget is that our role as physicians is to assess the situation and make a recommendation. We are required by law to report suspected abuse. We are not omniscient super humans and maybe we don’t always get it right. All we can do is our best. In the end is up to the courts to decide guilt or innocence. 

The price we pay to do so is often very, very high….

Founders Keepers

There is a term in population genetics called the founder’s effect and I have caught myself thinking about it a lot lately.

Basically, in a founder’s effect a small subset of a population is isolated from the larger population. For instance, maybe seven people went on a three hour boat tour but instead ended up stranded on a deserted island. The Professor and Mary Ann mate and reproduce, as people are wont to do, and several generations later the resulting population on that island looks very different from the larger population that it originated from. There is a loss of genetic variation and certain traits get reproduced at a greater rate than you would find elsewhere. Sometimes this is benign, like with a greater proportion of blue eyes or brown hair. Sometimes it is bad, like when you have a higher predisposition to develop colon cancer or maybe a higher rate of growing an extra leg out of your backside…

EPIC is one of the largest electronic health record in the US. It is highly customizable. Therein lies its power AND its weakness.

Keep in mind that I have only a small part of the picture and I am making certain assumptions, but here is what I have gathered:

When a healthcare system decides to go with EPIC there is a build out, or personalization, that occurs. The EHR that I see is very different from the one used by a physician in another healthcare system across town or in one across the country even though they are all called EPIC. 

From that initial build out, there are changes made as the product is tweaked. For instance, when we went live, we had to enter our password to log in but then had to enter it again with each and every note we signed, every single order we placed. Hundreds of times a day I was typing in my password. Now? I only type it in to log on. Good thing, too, as I was at risk of destroying expensive equipment.

I have staff in my clinic who have worked for three other major hospital systems in the area who also use EPIC. What they describe is much, much easier to use than what we have currently. In fact, they regularly threaten to leave and go back to those other organizations so they can feel at peace again.

How does that happen? 

How do they have such different products? 

Because they are all starting with a basic product. It is thrown out onto a deserted island with a few people making decisions and then everyone waits to see what you get down the road. 

The founder’s effect.

No one from the other hospital systems is sharing what works for them from what I can tell. There is no collaboration. So each one has parts that work well and other areas not so much. Why can’t we help each other?

THEN you have smaller islands. We are a small clinic in a huge system. We did not get support staff who came out to help us after going live until the following week and then only for two days. The bigger clinics? They had trainers there on day one. Some clinics never got anyone. Training classes done before had very little to do with the reality of the EPIC we were presented with on day one. So we have muddled through figuring out our own work arounds. Some good. Some bad. We need an infusion of fresh genetic material to correct our problems. 

That only works well when you have someone visiting your island to add to your gene pool and that only works if that person is genetically diverse themselves. Getting people to leave their islands is difficult. Distance to travel, time constraints, don’t know how to swim, etc… 

So we get this perpetuation of problems and errors… fractured systems. It has been really interesting to watch from my vantage point at the bottom, looking up. I wonder what this will look like in six months.

Wavering

Boy making ripples in water of pond with a stick

Last week a physician shadowed me to see if there is anything I or my staff can do differently with my work flow with this new EHR. I was looking forward to having a forum to vent my complaints with the system and hopefully to have a way to fix it but nervous at the same time, not knowing what to expect, worried that they would have suggestions that would make me look a fool.

The physician who happened to come was one that had a hand in writing some of the new EHR templates. I was so disappointed in those templates that between you and me I actually cried in frustration in the first few weeks of our changeover. How could we be expected to do what we needed to do when these were the tools we were given to do it with? I told him that I did not like the templates, that I thought they S-U-C-K-E-D. 

Yes, I used the word sucked and I cringe even now at the recollection. With that one word I dismissed all of the considerable time and effort he had poured into those templates. 

Have you ever been so frustrated and nervous that unreasonable things just flow out of your mouth? 

Of course you have. 

Ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s frustration, as they vented like that? 

Sure you have…

At times, when I feel passionately about something, my filter just ups and disappears. After listening to him tell me that I should hire a staff member to approve or reject all of my refills instead of doing it myself, after having him say that my desire to take and enter my own past medical and surgical histories was a waste of time, after being lectured that writing a narrative history of present illness was silly that I should be clicking buttons instead… I was no longer really hearing his words to me or my own responses back to him. 

But I LIKE doing those things! Interacting with my patients is what makes medicine fun and rewarding for me.

It was not until days later that a realization hit me. He believes this stuff just as passionately as I believe that he is wrong. My response was not just unprofessional, it was mean. I try to have compassion and respect for all of my patients, even the difficult ones, but where was my compassion for him?

You need to be flexible. Medicine isn’t what it used to be. You have to adapt.

I don’t want him to be right. 

I hate that he might be right. 

And so I have spent this past week after reading his write up of our interaction licking my wounds, pondering the next step. What do I do from here?

The first thing, I believe, is to apologize. I don’t know that it will matter to him, but I need to apologize for me. I don’t want to be *that* person, the one who believes their rude behavior is justified.

And then? What then?

There is the question.