A Mixed Bag of Medical Results

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Part of my personal myth is that I was a “miracle baby,” spared from a very early demise by the medical intervention of nurses and physicians, including my uncle Elam, a pediatrician, who hand pumped air into my lungs while being transported to Geisinger Medical Center.  

I had been born premature, suffered from a condition called Hyaline Membrane Disease due to my underdeveloped lungs, suffered a collapsed lung due to my hard breathing, and likely would have died without the advanced care that I received.  I was a fighter, for sure, but my survival would depend on the skilled intervention of medical professionals.

My mother would tell me that story and also use it to remind me that God had a special purpose for my life.  But what she didn’t tell me, until much later, is that my early trauma was actually caused by her doctor who induced labor. 

Oopsies.

My Medical Family

My mother had aspired to be a nurse.  Even worked in a nursing home prior to marrying my dad.  But life, including my sister and your’s truly, changed her plans. 

However, as often is the case, these dreams of parents are sometimes fulfilled by the next generation and sometimes double.  Both of my sisters are employed in the medical field and eventually even my mom found her way into a doctor’s office before eventually playing an instrumental role in the opening of Compassion Parochial Clinic.

My own role in all of this was to be my eldest sister Olivia’s first patient.  Using her Fisher Price Medical Bag, she would check and treat my various imaginary ailments, and had her mind set on being a pediatrician like her well-respected uncle.  And, after graduating high school, then acquiring a biology degree, she continued her education at Albert Einstein College of Medicine on Bronx, NY.

In fact, l feel that I may deserve a partial credit for having attended a lecture on the heart.  Although, I may have missed the second half due to a terrible bout of drowsiness and was not the only one sleeping.  Although, as a courtesy, I will not say whether or not my sister had succumbed.

Anyhow, my younger sister Lilian also picked a medical career, eventually became an RN, continued her education, and is now working on her licensing as a midwife.  Her passion is welcoming babies into the world and is someone with a personality well suited for the job.

All of that to say that this exposure causes me to have deep respect those in this profession.  One way to get on my bad list very quickly is to suggest that those in the medical field are only in it for the money and would deliberately keep people sick to cash in.  Sure, there are bad eggs in every profession, some terrible doctors, but my sisters (like many of their colleagues) are there to help people get well.

That said, having family in medicine also removes some of the aura.  My sisters are far more qualified to give opinions on medical issues than I am and yet they also are still human. 

Doctors make mistakes, they’re fallible like the rest of us, with blindspots and bias.  Plus they’re used to having totally ignorant people, who “did their own research,” challenge them on things they’ve spent years of their life studying, and can become tired of answering these inane statements—appear arrogant.

Physician: “Heal Thyself…”

People have very high expectations in regards to modern medicine.  We’re supposed to go to the doctor and be completely healed. 

But the reality is quite different from that.  Once you get past the buzzing technology and laboratory developed chemical cures, the sterile well lit halls of institutions, our actual abilities are still quite primitive.  Science may have given us better bandaid solutions than were available to our ancestors, yet there really aren’t that many miracles to be had.

My own expectations have lowered considerably after two injuries requiring expert examinations.  

The first, diagnosed as Degenerative Disc Disease, brought me to the office of the renowned neurosurgeon, Dr. Rajjoub.  I had terrible pain, loss of strength and feeling on my right side, my neck was really bad from what my family doctor saw on the MRI.  My parents, after we waited what seemed hours, finally were escorted into the examination room and were full of anticipation.

Having done our own research, knowing the seriousness of my injury, it was quite certain that I would be under the knife soon.  They would open things up, remove the bad, and fix me up better than new!  

The physician strode into the room.  He looked over the charts and images with intensity and then, without hesitation, “physical therapy” and started to turn towards the door.  Stunned, my mom, speaking for the three of us, our mouths agape, “Wait, what?!?”  It was as if he just told a blind man to rub mud in his eyes and was simply going to leave.  He explained further, telling us about the risks of the procedures, how my neck movement would be limited after, and restated his recommendation.

Dr. Rajjoub was right.  After weeks of therapy and further exercise at home, I was able to regain feeling and the use of my right arm.  Sure, I occasionally have painful flare ups and may need the surgery some day, but the doctor had given me the right answer even if it was not the one that I wanted to hear at the time.  Modern medicine has advanced, yet it is our body that still does most of the healing.

A Comical Contradiction

After tearing my ACL I met with an orthopedic surgeon to discuss the options available.  Still active, I expressed my desire to get back in the game and he responded by recommending surgery.  They grafted a part of my hamstring tendon in where the ACL had been and I spent the next few months becoming good friends with Rob and Bob at Keystone Care Physical Therapy and impressing the old folks there with my vertical leap.

Unfortunately, after a year of intense rehab, I was playing basketball and reinjured the repaired knee.  So I went back to the orthopedic surgeon for a consultation and his advice?  He suggested that maybe I slow down a bit, that I was no spring chicken anymore (a paraphrase) and should probably avoid strenuous activities.  Excuse me?!?  I had thought I went through the surgery and physical therapy so that I could actually use the limb, right???

But that’s typical of a doctor’s advice.  He was trying to minimize the risk of my reinjuring my knee, to cover his own butt, and could I really expect him to say anything otherwise?  To tell me to go full throttle again?  I can understand why he would urge my caution.  And still I can’t deny being disappointed.  My thought had been that this surgery would allow me to pick up where I had left off and instead I got a cease and desist notice.

The Undiagnosed Nightmare

I’ve reconnected with an old school friend.  I rode the bus with him for many years and we shared a first name. 

It is quite astounding, actually, how we got reconnected.  That being a story for another time.  But one thing memorable about this old classmate is how he was always complaining about pain in his feet.  At a younger age I had thought of him as being weak or a whiner.  He had been diagnosed as being flat-footed.  

However, it was a little clearer that there was something more seriously wrong when, in middle school, a fall, after a playful shove in the hall, resulted in a broken hip.

Anyhow, at our one-on-one reunion he would let me in on his the true source of his suffering and something that the medical professionals had missed.  Something that doctors had initially told him was all in his head, that the genetic department of an area research hospital refused to even test,  turned out to be Fabry’s Disease, a rare genetic disorder where the body is unable to produce a particular enzyme, which means the body is unable digest certain proteins, and is a death sentence if not properly treated.

He had gone through hell.  A breeze on his skin felt like torture.  They had treated him with addictive painkillers that basically turned him into a junkie.  And his proper diagnosis came from an uncle who read a story about someone with similar symptoms, a revelation that prompted my friend to demand the diagnostic tests for the genetic disorder and only then did he finally receive the necessary treatment.  The medical system had both failed and saved him.

The Miracle Hoped For…

Then there’s my cousin Uriah.  Nothing, not the most advanced treatment in the world, could save him.  The prognosis was never good, Synovial Sarcoma, but I held on to the hope that some new cure might come along, some miracle might happen, and he would survive.

It was hard to watch.  First after one round of him taking poison, called chemotherapy and the only thing that will keep the corrupted human cells called cancer from growing, they decided that he would need to sacrifice his leg.  This Uriah and his family did everything they could, he received top notch medical care at Walter Reed and elsewhere.  But there was not much that could be done for him.

The limitations of modern medicine is a bitter pill.  And those seeking ‘alternatives’ do not fare any better if diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  I know many strong-willed individuals, in partial denial of the graveness of their condition, who traveled to places like Mexico for some kind of breakthrough treatment and suffered the same fate.  Better technology may come along soon and yet disease and death is as natural as health and life.

There is a myth, popular in some circles, that if a person eats right and exercises they will be rewarded with long life.  Uriah was one of the most fit and disciplined people I know, there was nothing he could have done better, he was dealt a bad card.

Having Correct Expectations

We see the headlines, “The third-leading cause of death most doctors don’t want you to know about,” discussing medical mistakes, like this one:

“In 2002 James lost his 19-year-old son after he collapsed while running. He had been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia by a cardiologist a few weeks prior and was released from the hospital with instructions not to drive for 24 hours.

“His death certificate said he died of a heart arrhythmia,” he said, but my son really died as a result of “uninformed, careless, and unethical care by cardiologists.” He explained: “If you have a patient with heart arrhythmias of a certain level and low potassium, you need to replace the potassium, and they did not. And they didn’t tell him he shouldn’t go back to running.” Communication errors, he said, are “unfortunately very common.”

What is left out of this story is that a century ago he would have simply died from the arrhythmia. 

In fact, only half a century ago my great-grandfather died, a middle-aged man, of a heart attack because there were no surgeries widely available. 

So, truly, modern medicine is a victim of it’s own success, things have improved so much from the time when many people died of many diseases, even at a young age, that we now expect perfection.  Our ancestors, not too long ago, would have no treatment options, whereas we demand answers when the treatment fails.

Those who expect too much will be the most sorely disappointed.  Those who expect to be saved from suffering by science will some day be faced with a harsh reality and, likewise, those who believe that there’s a cure for cancer being withheld are equally delusional.  This idea that we have complete control, that there should somehow be a cure for everything, is a product of our success in medicine and also ignorance of what this success actually means.  

Sure, some of us, like my grandpa, may have died on multiple occasions had it not been for medical advancements like Penicillin, prostrate surgery and pacemakers.  But, even now, with the great progress we’ve made, we’re still all eventually going to wear out.  Our bodies have a shelf life and all the intervention in the world isn’t going to do much to change that.  Eat healthy, exercise enough, avoid getting hit by a truck, and you might see eighty years, maybe more if you have good genetics.  But we won’t live forever.

So, before we become too critical, rather than only dwell on the failures, we should look at the advancement and appreciate the success.  Results will always be a mixed bag, even those who have received the very best care, men like Steve Jobs, do not live forever nor will you.  Even Lazarus, brought back to life by Jesus, eventually died.  And my friend, the one with the missed diagnosis, would long ago have joined Lazarus had it not been for modern medicine.

A Community Perspective of Mass Murder

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Another well-armed angry young man goes on a murderous spree and again political ambulance chasers jockey to take advantage to win points for their pet projects.

President Obama used the recent massacre at an Oregon college as an opportunity to campaign for gun control measures that would not have prevented it.  Militant 2nd Amendment gun rights advocates responded with the tired ‘good guys with guns’ arguments and arming teachers as the solution.  Others ranted about correlations between pharmaceuticals and deranged minds.  (Well, duh?) 

Those using the issue for their various (political) causes seem to be vastly misunderstanding the actual issue.  Their response is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a careful analysis of fact and their canned solutions show the functional fixedness in their thinking.  There are too many assumptions that steer the current conversation and could be distracting us from addressing the real problem.

Many seem to assume that killers are simply incurable killers and we simply need to better secure ourselves (with more guns or gun control laws) against this inevitability of angry men.  But could a killer be stopped before they stockpile weapons and act out their violent fantasies against those who they blame for their unhappiness? 

Perhaps more guns, curbs of liberty and drugs (more or less) are not the solution to the real problem?

The root issue is that a young man made a choice to act violently.  He had reasons, rational or irrational, for the choice that should be understood.  (Note, I am not saying that the choice was justified, I believe murder is always immoral and a sin.)  We should acknowledge the choice as a choice and at least explore the possibility we can help those who are tempted by violence to choose rightly.

#1) Understand the Problem is a Person

I think often there is an urge to sanctimoniously distance ourselves from the bad actors of society.  Simply labelling the perpetrator of violence as a “thug” or “monster” or “animal” allows us to build emotional wall of separation between ourselves and evil deeds.  If we were to acknowledge the humanity of the person doing the evil act we would be tying our own humanity to the evil and in a sense making ourselves responsible.

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Fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias is an assumption that another person’s behavior is all a product of their defective character.  (And, again, I do absolutely believe in personal accountability and responsibility for choices.)  But then, what it comes to our own bad choices we always have an external excuse or justification and blame circumstance for our choices.

Killers do what we do.  Killers often feel justified in what they do like we do because they were cheated or mistreated.  They take out their jealous rage against those who they blame for their unhappiness.  It is actually their humanity, the fact that they have emotions or just desire for significance—like we all do—that they act.  The difference is that they choose to turn to acts of violence rather than grace.

The answer to the perceived offenses we endure is not hate or vengeance and love for our enemies needs to be encouraged.  We need to fight against our own urge to be consumed totally by securing our own rights and love others as we would like to be loved.  We should distance ourselves from using their evil choices to justify our own.  We must love the hurting person behind the choice before they make it.

#2) Recognizing that Social Needs are Real

The elephant in the room is the vast changes in American culture and lifestyle that correlate with the trend of mass murder.  We are linked with more and more technology, but are actually less connected (in flesh) than generations prior.  Community has been replaced with increasing individualism and isolation.  It is not a change without consequence.

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People are not good in isolation, people have social needs and can be damaged by lack of adequate human interaction.  Just a bit of research into solitary confinement or extreme cases of child neglect quickly show the psychological consequences are profound when social needs are not fully met for extended periods.

Perhaps the ideal of suburbia is not so ideal after all?  Suburban life is not extreme isolation.  But, in many cases, it is an environment deficient of social interaction—and especially in the case of single child homes.  A child without brothers or sisters and separated from regular intimate interaction with other people is probably going to feel a deficit.

The problem is exacerbated for those who are socially awkward or shy.  Some people are able to make friends everywhere, they are outgoing, easily put others at ease and popular.  Other people struggle getting past that initial barrier of first contact, they watch frustrated as others interact with ease and feel ignored.  Nobody wants to be marginalized.

We need to start recognizing that society and lifestyle do have a part to play in the choices of individuals.  We need fewer fenced in yards, fewer spiritually empty McMansions and more opportunity for inclusion for those who would otherwise be marginalized by their natural dispositions or disabilities.  We need less individualism and more community spirit.

#3 Bringing Outliers into our Community

There are some people who are probably gone beyond hope unreachable.  There are some who have a defect that makes them almost impossible to relate to and interact positively with. 

However, I do not believe that is the case in all cases or even most cases and we could do better at finding a place for those who need a place to belong.  There is no amount of entertainment or material wealth that can fill the void of purpose caused by social isolation.  We should not underestimate the role of community in shaping individual attitudes and mental health.

I see a solution in intentional community.  A friend recently posted a story about a preschool in a nursing home.  It was a beautiful example of the social needs of elderly being met by their inclusion with children.  That is the type of mindset that could be applied more broadly. 

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But intentional community doesn’t need to start with a collective managed structural change like melding elderly and child care.  It can start with how we as individuals interact with the outliers among us.  It starts with our being aware that there are those who are marginalized and suffering from social isolation.  If we look for it we can be a help.

It takes a change in perspective.  Perhaps the weirdo is weird only because they have no friends to help them assimilate?  Are you willing to be that weird person’s friend and bring them into your circle of friends?  Forget mass killers even, what if we could prevent one suicide by being more proactive and inclusive?  What if we could make one person’s day better?

#4 Know the Individual Power You Wield

I believe many of us underestimate our own influence.  We turn to solutions like guns and laws because we feel too small to fight the demons of our culture without them.  We look for ‘silver bullet’ solutions (pardon the expression) and forget that people are complex social creatures.  One-size-fits-all solutions are not the best answer.

We need to fight back against evil, but not with superior firepower which is often misused or increased enablement of governments that often ends in abuse.  We need to overcome evil with good.  We need to fight isolation with inclusion, beat social awkwardness with understanding and prevent the seeds that lead to violence from ever taking root.

It takes a community of willing individuals to solve community problems.  Violence against the community is intended as an attack on the community and must therefore be addressed as a community.  But the community is not those we elect to represent us, the community is us and the problems of community require us as individuals to take part in being the solution.

Stop looking side to side or over your shoulder waiting for someone else to save society from its own destruction.  Instead use your own unique talents and abilities, search out the needs in your own community and fill them.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and maybe even just a hug or smile can make a life changing difference.

#5 The Example of a Social Physician

Jesus was an advocate for unpopular people.  The religious people of his day criticized him for what they perceived as his lack of judgment for his inappropriate mingling with women and men who they saw as inferior.  Jesus turned the tables, he condemned the socially powerful and popular, he spoke for those marginalized by society.

There are many Gospel accounts like this…

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

We don’t like the IRS today, but tax collectors in Jesus day were traitors who had sided with the Roman occupation of Palestine and were hated by the Jews.  In the eyes of his accusers he was guilty by association.  How could a great man find company with traitors, prostitutes and other sinners?  But what is greatness without mercy to those who need it most? 

Jesus was greater because he was merciful to all people, even the least of society and we should follow the lead he offers.  We should be doctors of social ailments.  We do not excuse or offer justification for sin anymore than a doctor is an advocate for disease.  No, we, like a doctor, need to diagnose the true problem and provide the right cure.

We can exercise the same power to heal as Jesus did.  We have a choice to create a better society.  We can choose to respond to problems with love and not fear.  We need to be the solution in the same way as Jesus, by overcoming prejudice through self-sacrificial love and love for the enemies we face every day.

God bless.  Be strong.  Be a solution not a spectator.