Archive for the ‘Women’s Issues’ Category

How reporter Jan Hoffman and the New York Times manage to insult female physicians and get their facts about anesthesia so wrong all at the same time

My husband and I, both anesthesiologists, enjoy our Sunday mornings together — coffee, the New York Times, a leisurely breakfast. No rush to arrive in the operating room before many people are even awake.

Today, though, seeing reporter Jan Hoffman’s front-page article in the Times — “Staying Awake for Your Surgery?” — was enough to take the sparkle out of the sugar. Her article on how much better it is to be awake than asleep for surgery reminded me why I left a plum job as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal to go to medical school — because reporters have to do a quick, superficial job of covering complex issues. They aren’t experts, but seldom admit it.

Physician anesthesiologists across the country are likely to face patients on Monday morning who wonder if they ought to be awake for their surgery. The answer to that question may well be “no”. But according to Ms. Hoffman, that answer reflects “physician paternalism”, and makes us opponents of the “patient autonomy movement”, because a patient should have the right to choose to be awake.

It’s not that simple.

Knee scope? C-section? Being awake is nothing new

Ms. Hoffman decided to stay awake for her knee arthroscopy, which is hardly front-page news. Many people, especially athletes, are fascinated to watch their own knee surgery. But the spinal anesthetic Ms. Hoffman enjoyed is still a type of major anesthesia, and it required anesthesia expertise for its safe insertion and her smooth recovery. Cardiac arrest may occur under spinal anesthesia, even in young and otherwise healthy patients, and every patient needs to understand that “awake” isn’t the same thing as risk-free.

As recently as 20 years ago, most orthopedic surgeons wanted their patients asleep under general anesthesia for any major operation such as a total hip or knee replacement. It was physician anesthesiologists who gradually turned opinion in favor of regional anesthesia by developing spinal needles that reduced headache risk, and ultrasound-guided techniques that made nerve blocks safer, faster, and more reliable. The “patient autonomy movement” had nothing to do with it. Ms. Hoffman’s implication that anesthesiologists have been the followers rather than the leaders in regional anesthesia is especially insulting to the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ASRA), founded in 1923.

Obstetric anesthesiologists deserve credit for demonstrating that expert regional anesthesia — epidural and spinal anesthesia for cesarean section — plays a major role in today’s low rates of complications and death during childbirth. The Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology (SOAP) is about to celebrate its 50th year of advocating for the health of pregnant patients and newborns, and for safe, awake childbirth. Dr. Virginia Apgar, lest we forget, was an anesthesiologist first and the inventor of the Apgar score second.

When “awake” isn’t an option

Today’s “minimally invasive” surgical techniques, such as laparoscopy, have made surgery possible for millions of patients with less pain, smaller incisions, and faster recovery. But here’s a fact that Ms. Hoffman may not appreciate:  general anesthesia makes these techniques possible.

General anesthesia with complete muscle relaxation is often a must for minimally invasive and “robotic” surgery performed with small cameras and other instruments inserted into the chest or abdomen. I often tell my residents never to use the word “paralysis” around patients because it might alarm them unnecessarily. “Say ‘muscle relaxation’ instead,” I advise. But the fact is that the patient’s muscles must be paralyzed under anesthesia for the surgeon to work on a motionless target.

The patient’s breathing has to be precisely controlled, which means that the anesthesiologist must insert an endotracheal (breathing) tube and manage the settings on the ventilator to breathe for the patient until the operation is done. For some operations, the patient must be in a steep head-up or head-down position, with both arms snugly tucked at the sides, and must remain in that position for hours.

After the patient is safely asleep under general anesthesia, we give “muscle relaxants” to block the ability to move, breathe, or cough. The actions of these medications are reversed at the end of surgery so that the patient starts to breathe again. Then we allow the patient to wake up. This is all part of the profession and specialty of anesthesiology. Like the making of sausage and political deals, we keep this part of the work quietly behind the scenes. I can’t imagine that any patient would want to be awake for it.

Cheaper surgery without anesthesia?

Absolutely. It’s cheaper to have surgery without anesthesia. If I needed a small procedure that could be done in my doctor’s office under local anesthesia, of course that’s what I would choose. A good rule to live by is not to take any medication you don’t need, and that includes pain-killers, sedatives, and anesthesia medications.

But Ms. Hoffman is misleading patients to make them think that they can opt to have a procedure without anesthesia as a “personal budget” choice.

Even if a patient prefers local anesthesia or minimal sedation alone, the procedure might not be tolerable due to anxiety, pain, or the inability to lie still. That’s not always possible to predict. If the patient needs the option of converting to deep sedation or general anesthesia, then the services of the anesthesia department’s physicians and nurses will be involved and must be scheduled in advance. They aren’t free, any more than the services of your surgeons and operating room nurses are free. There isn’t a “bench” of anesthesiologists on stand-by just in case you need us. Either we see a patient in advance, perform a pre-anesthesia assessment, remain with the patient during the procedure, and supervise the recovery period — or we’re not involved at all, and will be busy taking care of patients elsewhere. That’s reality.

Watch who you call ‘paternalistic’

As a specialist in thoracic anesthesia, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect about the importance of my job. As I watch a surgeon do a delicate dissection to peel lung cancer away from a major artery in the chest, I sometimes think how one tiny patient movement or cough could lead to catastrophic bleeding. It’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen, and to keep the patient’s oxygen level safe while only one lung is being ventilated.

If I tell my patient in the morning that surgery has to be done under general anesthesia, I’m not being paternalistic. Nor does that decision depend on “the flexibility of the anesthesiologist”, as Ms. Hoffman would have it. Many operations — minor ones as well as major — can’t be done without general anesthesia.

Ms. Hoffman did my future patients no service by suggesting that being awake for surgery is necessarily better.(Please visit the American Society of Anesthesiologists website for accurate information about anesthesia.) Her simplistic views may mislead patients to believe that a Google search and a quick read of the New York Times will equip them to choose the anesthesia flavor of the day off a menu. If you want to push back against “authority figures”, it would be better to take that energy elsewhere and let your anesthesiologist and your surgeon — many of whom today are women — do our work.

Finally, I question the wisdom of allowing Esther Voynow, the patient featured in Ms. Hoffman’s story, to drive herself home after surgery on her right wrist. While she may have been perfectly awake, that isn’t the only skill involved in driving a car. If she had caused an accident, the surgeon and the hospital would have risked serious liability. The only good news about that questionable decision — there was no anesthesiologist involved.

It’s amazing how quickly my role switched from physician to patient, thanks to a silent assailant: osteoporosis.

I went to the gym in the morning before work 12 days ago, as I often do now that my children are all grown up and out of the house. First, a couple of light sets of leg exercises served as a warm-up, and then I started a set with a barbell on my shoulders. I’ve been doing weight training for years, since my mother suffered badly from osteoporosis and I knew I was at risk. Weight training, along with calcium and Vitamin D, can help maintain bone density.

The weight was average for me, and I was halfway through my second set of 12 repetitions when suddenly there was a loud noise, like a sharp crack or pop, that people in the gym heard 10 feet away. I felt my mid-spine collapse downward what seemed like an inch, accompanied by sharp pain. The trainer grabbed the weight, helped me lie down, and called my husband.

I did a quick self-assessment.

Can I move everything? Check.

Is anything numb? No.

Can I do a straight leg raise without more pain? Yes.

This confirmed that I didn’t have any spinal cord injury and probably didn’t have a herniated disk. The most likely diagnosis was a spinal compression fracture, which turned out to be exactly what happened.

Off to the emergency room

My husband insisted on driving immediately to the emergency room, which gave me a little time to reflect.

By coincidence, September is “Pain Awareness Month”, and I had been wanting to write a piece in support of the American Chronic Pain Association and the American Society of Anesthesiologists‘ recognition of pain as an endemic problem. Chronic pain ruins lives, and inappropriate treatment of pain with narcotics too often leads to addiction, overdose, and death.

But what to write?? I treat acute pain in my daily work as a physician anesthesiologist looking after patients in the immediate recovery timeframe, right after surgery. Sometimes I take Aleve for a headache, but that’s about it. Now, of course, it seemed much likelier that I would have a story to tell.

Luckily for me, the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center emergency room was relatively quiet at 6 a.m. The staff whisked me off to X-ray, and the technician quickly took supine and lateral films. He said, kindly, “Ma’am, I’m not a doctor, but it looks to me like you have a compression fracture.” He printed out the films for me to see, and of course he was right. A nurse gave me some morphine, which eased the pain considerably, and then it was time to consider next steps.

Conservative treatment or intervention?

My fracture was at the level of the 12th thoracic vertebra or “T12”, the commonest site for compression fractures. This is hardly a rare problem. One in four American women will have a vertebral compression fracture during her lifetime, and men can suffer them too. The most common cause is osteoporosis, a condition in which bone loss over time results in weak, brittle bones.

The emergency room physician ordered a CT scan to see the extent of the fracture in more precise detail, and to see whether or not any bone fragments were endangering the spinal cord. Then he called a neurosurgeon, Dr. Khawar Siddique, to see me.

The neurosurgeon outlined treatment options. Basically, there were three:

Conservative treatment: a back brace, pain medications, and 6-8 weeks of rest, with gradual mobilization;

Surgery: thoracic fusion;

Kyphoplasty: a less invasive procedure to stabilize the fractured vertebra.

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Did it ever occur to some of today’s physicians that many people work awfully hard and complain a lot less than they do about “burnout” and “work-life balance”?

Did it ever occur to them that “work-life balance” is the very definition of a first-world problem, unique to a very privileged class of highly educated people, most of whom are white?

Every day, I go to work and see the example of the nurses and technicians who work right alongside me in tough thoracic surgery cases. Zanetta, for instance, is the single mother of five children. She leaves her 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. and then faces a 60-mile commute to get home. She never complains, and unfailingly takes the extra moment to get a warm blanket for a patient or cheerfully help out a colleague. When I leave work, I see the gardeners who arrive in battered pickup trucks and mow lawns in the Los Angeles summer heat for slim pay and no benefits. I can’t imagine these people wasting time worrying about work-life balance. They’re too busy working.

Or look at what it’s like to work in one of the world’s top restaurants. Edward Frame, now a graduate student in social research, described his first job in a Michelin-starred kitchen for an article in the New York Times.

“I worked in a small alcove, connected to the dishwasher,” he wrote. “Glass racks came out, I wiped away any watermarks or smudges, and then, just as I finished one rack, another appeared. This went on for hours, like some kind of Sisyphean fable revised for the hospitality industry. By hour two my fingers hurt and my back ached. But I couldn’t stop. The racks kept coming. Slowing down never occurred to me. There wasn’t time. I needed to make it nice. I wanted to make it nice.”

Let’s face it—a lot of people have jobs much worse than being a physician. Apparently, they don’t expect to be coddled or to receive much sympathy about their rate of burnout, or their lack of “work-life balance”. Nor do they expect that workplace expectations will be altered just to suit them.

I can’t imagine having the gall to complain about how tough it is to be a physician when all you have to do is open your eyes and see what’s all around us:  people working incredibly hard, making far less money than we do, and then returning home to face the responsibilities of family life, child care, housework, home maintenance, and everything else.

We—physicians—thankfully can afford help with these tasks. The Medscape Physician Compensation Report for 2015 reported that the average compensation for a primary care physician was $195,000 and for a specialist $284,000.

When I was a new faculty member making an instructor’s salary right after residency, it’s true that I didn’t have a lot of take-home pay left after I made monthly payments for student loans, private pre-school for two children, housecleaning help, and a full-time nanny to provide transportation and after-school care. The full-time nanny was essential because a child with a bad cold or an upset stomach needs to stay home, and a physician can’t drop everything to stay home too. These were investments that my husband and I made because we felt that being a physician is important work.

But in medicine, the prevailing wisdom today is that the rigorous culture of the past needs to change—along with the expectation of dedication to duty, long work hours, and stoicism—because it’s all just too difficult and we risk getting burned out.

Now Stanford University has started a new “time-banking” program designed to ease pressure on faculty physicians and basic science professors. As admiringly described by reporter Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post, the program allows faculty members to “bank” hours that they spend on uncompensated activities such as committee work and earn credits to use for support services at home or work.

Dr. Gregory Gilbert, an emergency physician who was the poster child for the Post article, used his credits for delivery of meals to his home, housecleaning services, and employing a “life coach” to help him “find better balance in his life”.

Wait just a minute. I’m sure that Dr. Gilbert is a good person—a divorced father trying to be a conscientious physician and spend time with his children. He must be a smart guy if he’s on the faculty at Stanford. Do you mean to tell me that Dr. Gilbert couldn’t figure out how to order food delivery and arrange for housecleaning before Stanford came up with this program?

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Dr. Margaret Wood, who chairs the Department of Anesthesiology at Columbia University Medical Center, has published a wonderful article titled “Women in Medicine:  Then and Now“, in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia.

I think I speak for many of us in admitting that Anesthesia and Analgesia doesn’t occupy a prominent place on my bedside table. Many readers may have missed Dr. Wood’s article. That’s a shame, because it isn’t just about anesthesiology, and speaks to issues in medicine independent of specialty or gender. Here are some of my favorite passages about lessons she learned over the course of her long and successful career:

“1. It is important to have a passion for what you do if you strive for excellence. If you have that passion, then the efforts do not feel like a sacrifice and “burnout” is not an issue. I cannot imagine that Virginia Apgar spent a single moment talking, thinking, or worrying about burnout.

2. The current fashion to complain about “life balance” can be self-destructive; however, pacing oneself is critical. You can have it all, just not all at once. The Chairman of Anatomy gave the inaugural lecture to my incoming class of medical students. His thesis was that as a physician/medical student you could have (i) an active time-consuming social life, (ii) a family, and (iii) a career, but to be successful you should have no more than two of these at the same time. I believe this to be true and have followed this advice since.

3. Women should be careful not to fall into the trap of feeling entitled to special considerations or engage in special pleadings. Our patients want their physician to be the best, whatever his or her sex. There is no room for a physician of either sex who is less qualified or less committed because of outside responsibilities.

4. Women no longer need to “prove themselves” against the sea of doubters who dominated medicine 40 years ago. Fortunately, we are now past that point and such doubts, are I hope, antediluvian. Women are where they are today, however, because many of us felt that demonstrating that women really could “do it” was a moral imperative and one to which we were fully committed.

5. Parents need to manage their work and family responsibilities to ensure that both receive their full attention. This will often mean ensuring that they have excellent childcare to allow them to have the confidence to focus on work when that is required. This may be expensive, but it is a critical investment by both parents in their family’s future. Successfully raising children is a joint responsibility of both partners; what is critical to women is also critical to men, and vice versa. Women starting out on this journey can be assured that it is possible to raise well-adjusted children in a home in which both partners have challenging and successful careers, provided there is a true partnership in the family.”

Is Dr. Wood a curmudgeon, or perhaps a dinosaur? That could be, but I find her honesty refreshing.

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Of cats and termites

How an eleven-pound cat precipitated domestic chaos and delayed surgery

Termites are endemic in southern California, and we’ve had spot treatments several times over the years at various sites in our house where little piles of sawdust have appeared as evidence of termite activity. Finally it became clear that the termites were winning and more aggressive treatment was in order: tenting. This is the process of hoisting a big, brightly-colored tent over the whole house and putting an end to the termites with a poisonous gas called Vikane, or sulfuryl fluoride.

Tenting is a major project. All food and medicine has to be put in special non-porous plastic bags, sealed tightly with tape. All the people, animals and plants have to be evacuated. Natural gas must be turned off. The house is sealed in the tent for 24 hours, then aired out with big industrial fans. On the third day, you can go home.

The fumigation was scheduled to begin on Monday. Over the weekend, we put the food and medicines in bags, or most of it anyway. I arranged for our three tabby cats to be boarded at the vet. Our dog-walker agreed to board Milo, our 100 lb. Rottweiler-mix dog, at her house. My husband Steve complained continuously, as though I had bought bags of termites and sprinkled them around the house on purpose to annoy him.

On Monday morning Steve and I both went to work, to our day jobs as anesthesiologists, and I came home at 11:30 to take the cats to the vet and hand off the dog. The exterminators were expected to arrive between 1:30 and 3:30 pm. I had the presence of mind to lock all three cats in the family room before I went to work. Now my task was to get all three into their carriers and off to the vet.

Going three rounds with Tigger

I decided to tackle Tigger, the five-year-old male, first. He is strong, sinewy and sleek, and we’ve nicknamed him the “stealth cat” because he is very good at eluding capture. I thought he would be the biggest challenge to put in the carrier, and I was right.

Round 1. I caught Tigger, shoved him into his carrier, and tried to hold him down while I zipped it up. He turned into a writhing yowling clawing dervish and fought his way out.

Round 2. I think he got out even faster that time.

Round 3. Met the definition of insanity, as I hoped for a different outcome from the same sequence of actions. Same cat, same outcome.

I considered my options, and decided to get Joe and Tabitha into their carriers and drive them to the vet. This, I thought, would give Tigger time to calm down. Joe is a placid 17-year-old senior cat, and while he doesn’t like to go anywhere, he can’t be bothered to put up much fuss. Tabitha is a 10-month old kitten. It took some doing to catch her, and she was very unhappy, but she was still too small to win the contest. I drove Joe and Tabitha to the vet and came back home. As I came in the house, I caught a brief glimpse of Tigger, still locked in the family room. I put some more food in bags and waited for Krys, the dog-walker, to arrive and help me with Tigger.

1 pm: Krys arrived. We discussed the plan to put Tigger in his carrier. Only problem: we couldn’t find Tigger. We looked all over the family room and kitchen. We searched in the coat closet, under furniture, and behind the washing machine and dryer. No Tigger. It was as if he had evaporated. Milo (the dog) at this point was becoming anxious, trotting around after me and panting, sensing a disturbance in the force. I decided it would be best to let Krys and Milo leave.

1:30 pm: A fair amount of stuff still needed to be put in bags, but I couldn’t find the cat anywhere. Rising anxiety. I called my husband. A veteran of married life, he recognized the tone of desperation in my voice, and promised to come home as soon as he could arrange coverage. Cat clearly more important (for the moment) than heart surgery.

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