Most of my posts recently have been rather heavy, and personal. I thought I would trot out another attempt at medical humor that (actually!) happened to me on the job.
Everyday, before a Medical Assistant begins seeing patients, there’s a litany of things to take care of. Some mornings are busy, some run smooth; but, the ducks need to be in a medical row before showtime can begin and the first patient is seen. You’ve got to meet with your provider and pow-wow the day, make sure every room is stocked, make sure you’ve got equipment set aside for any special procedures that day, and gulp down about a gallon and a half of coffee.
Nearly every hospital or facility uses what’s called an EHR, or: electronic health record. This is essentially the operating system of the clinic. You can see all sorts of nifty PHI (patient health information) here, as well as the schedule for the day. Many facilities use an EHR known as Epic, although there are others. The days of paper system providers are practically an anachronism.
In February of 2009, President Barack Obama signed the HITECH act, or the: Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act. The goal of this act was to compel ‘meaningful use’ of electronic health records; that is, to facilitate national healthcare information between different healthcare facilities, and to promote the safety of patients by digitally checking drug interactions, duplicate orders, unrecorded allergies, a current medication list, and a host of other measures.
There are, of course, drawbacks to this measure. Any electronic system of information can be hacked. If you’d rather not be discouraged, please do not read this:
To be fair, nearly all modern healthcare facilities use state-of-the-art electronic security systems for their internal network, with an army of techies constantly guarding it. The chances of someone cracking into a hospital’s system are extremely low. So please, do not follow this link:
But, by and large, your information is quite safe. Another criticism of the electronic health record system is the difficulty transmitting information from one facility to another. Within the same company, it’s not a problem. But if Epic goes to link a patient’s PHI from another healthcare company, the results can be quite variable. Sometimes, the information is linked immediately. Other times, the targeted EHR does not respond; or, in some cases, it does, but painfully slow. However, when it works, it’s a fantastic tool for healthcare practitioners.
Still another criticism is purely opinion, one I have heard from many in the industry, and not necessarily my own. The Department of Health contributed nearly $37 billion dollars to promote the adoption of EHRs. This was a worthwhile incentive for a worthy endeavor, but essentially, this all but rendered small, private practices extinct. It is extremely expensive for a small provider or a facility to convert from a paper records system to an electronic system, generally running over 6 figures per provider. Thus, the Amazon analogy applies.
Personally, I find the Epic EHR a great system, easy to use, very customizable, and a wealth of PHI. I could not imagine doing my work without it. In my opinion, the developers have done a fine job.
But, back to the matter at hand: the beginning of a Medical Assistant’s day. Within Epic, there is a schedule for the day feature, listing the patient, their pertinent information, the time and length of visit, and, at the click of a button, whatever else you need to know. Perhaps the most useful category on this list is: ‘reason for visit.’
It was early on in my healthcare career, while I was an extern at a primary care clinic, using Epic. My mentor, who had the grace and social skills of a rabid possum trying to do math, asked me what reasons patients were coming in for today. I glanced at the computer monitor showing Epic, looking under the reason for visit column. There is was.
At least 8 of the 14 or so patients coming in that day, for our provider, were listed as ‘ED follow up.’
My God, I thought. These poor patients. So many. One of them was only in his early 20’s…
Erectile dysfunction is no laughing matter. So go ahead, get it out of your system. Go ahead with your vienna sausage problem jokes. Yuck it up. But the truth is, erectile dysfunction can be a very debilitating, and alarmingly frequent condition. It affects over 30 million men in the United States. The causes can be quite varied: diets, medications, neurological disorders, psychological disorders, kidney disease, age, lifestyle habits, and many others.
Sadly, one of its main side effects, other than the ability for a male to perform during sex, is psychological. There are a myriad of of psychological reasons why this is important to men, a topic for another time. But erectile dysfunction can cause seriously debilitating psychological damage to a male. Self-esteem can take a massive hit, and depression can result. A male may feel woefully inadequate, a self-defeating thought which pervades other areas of the man’s life. It is an embarrassing condition, one which men don’t like to talk about, it sucks, it’s no fun, women laugh at you, you think you’re worthless, I hate myself, no one will ever love me again, I am only half a man, why does God hate me, I…. wait, who am I talking about, here? I wasn’t talking about me! WHAT?!? Anyway, I digress.
There are, of course, many treatments available for ED. Depending on the cause and severity, it may range from a simple medication or lifestyle change, all the way up to an unfortunate but life changing surgery. It can be fixed.
So, my mentor asked me the reasons for patient visiting that day. I really didn’t know what to say. I paused, turned to her, recalling that this is healthcare, and said to her: “It looks like we have a lot of patients coming in today for ED.”
She looked even more annoyed than usual, looked at her screen (with the same schedule pulled up), and scowled. Turning back to me, and said, with the tone and temperment of a ferret with a flamethrower: “Some of these patients are female!” Huh? I looked back at Epic. I hovered the mouse cursor over the reason for visit column. (Epic has this neat feature… hover to discover… you pull up more detailed info when hovering the cursor over the subject…) Further information was displayed in an expansion of the display.
“Emergency Department follow up for dog bite.” “Emergency Department follow up for sore lower back.” “Emergency Department follow up for transient tachycardia.”
Ah. Emergency Department follow up. E.D., not E.D. Well, egg on my silly face! I learned that day something very important: in healthcare, what is colloquially known as the ’emergency room’ or ‘ER’ is actually called the ’emergency department.’ Well, that’s good to know. Would have been nice if that had been in the classroom curriculum. Back to you, Jaimers!
So, there you have it. If you need to go to the ER, it’s just fine to call it that. Let’s say you go in for a bad bee sting or something. Then, the staff there will advise you to follow up with your regular provider. When you schedule that follow up appointment, behind the scenes, Epic will list the reason for your visit as an ED follow up. But don’t worry. You don’t have ED. Especially those of you coming in for gynecological exams.
As an aside, my mentor turned out to be a very cool person. She and I keep in touch, years later, as she was very instrumental to my success. Although, I remember more than a few times, while I was turning an exam room (cleaning it and restocking it after a patient’s visit), I overheard her say: “Having an extern rules. He has to do whatever I tell him. I love that!” Heh. She was a great mentor, and a great Medical Assistant, and very much part of my education. Thank you again, KK at Wedgewood.
Well, there you have it! Take care of yourselves! Wash your hands! Get vaccinated! Be good to each other! Bye for now.
In healthcare, there are, of course, procedures that are gender specific. That is, a woman will get a breast exam, while a male will get a prostate exam. For the most part, as patient comfort is paramount, a practitioner of the same gender as the patient will be assigned to the procedure. This is not always the case, and, in my experience, I have found that most patients, of either gender, as long as the procedure is not terribly invasive regarding sensitive areas, are perfectly okay with a practitioner of either gender carrying out the procedure or examination.
No one particularity likes going to the doctor, anyway, so many patients have ‘do what you have to do and get it over with’ kind of attitude. Fair enough. If practitioners are performing professionally, there is an air of confidence about them, of speed, that conveys to the patient that they have done this process countless times, and this is just another day at work to them.
Indeed, we’ve seen it all. Nothing shocks us. Nothing embarrasses us. It is extremely difficult to gross-out or disgust a healthcare practitioner. I helped an MD remove a cyst slightly larger than a golf ball from a patient’s leg once. She had the cyst out of the patient’s leg, grasping it tightly but delicately in a large pair of surgical grips, so that it would not burst. It was still connected to the patient by a thin strand of tissue, and she asked me to cut the connection just inside the abscess pocket in the patient’s leg. No problem. Kinda cool. Please don’t burst that cyst, doctor. These are new scrubs.
However, all of us in the industry are well aware (or damn well should be) that this is not just another day at the office for the patient. From day one, in whatever training you take, the abstract and highly important skills of empathy and compassion are drilled into your head. We may move confidently and business-like, but patient comfort, to the best the procedure allows, is always on our mind. We cannot sympathize, but we do, often heavily, empathize. There is a difference. We hate pain and suffering. We don’t show it, but it kills us when we see it in a child. That’s why I and thousands of others joined this industry. You may not be able to nauseate or embarrass a practitioner, but even the most seasoned MD can be emotionally moved by the site of suffering. But we carry on. The tears are for later, often alone.
But, back to the matter at hand. As I said, whatever procedure a patient is going through, it is often new to them, or, at best, they are somewhat familiar with it. However, an invasive, gender specific procedure can put a patient on edge if the person performing it is of the opposite gender. We are always aware of that potential.
Take, for instance, the common work a Medical Assistant will do. Give injections. Perform a lavage. Dress a wound. Take vitals. Draw blood. And: the EKG.
Allow to me to switch tracks for a moment. The human body is an amazing machine. Simply put, your body has two command systems that boss your other organs around: the endocrine system, which uses hormones to carry out instructions; and the central nervous system, which uses electricity. Both of these systems, frequently in concert with each other, tell the rest of your organs what to go do with themselves.
The tireless, all-important, paramount, primary organ known as the human heart receives it’s commands via electricity, from the CNS. This tireless, muscular organ is the centerpiece of human existence. It’s role is simple; it keeps your blood flowing through your vascular system. Sounds like an easy workload, but the movement of your blood, which, among many other things, carries needed oxygen throughout the body and removes things it does not need, gives us substance that we cannot do without. Your all-important brain can suffer severe trauma, one can become nearly brain-dead, really, and you might still live, most likely with the aid of machines. If your heart takes enough damage, and it is not tended to in time… well, head for the big light. We’ll see you in the whatever comes next.
As an embryo, the heart is the first functional organ to develop , and starts to pump blood in the developing human in about 3 weeks. However, the brain begins to slowly develop afterwards, around 7 weeks of pregnancy, so pain is not an issue, before anyone turns this fact into an abortion diatribe. That’s between a woman and her doctor.
As a human being, the heart is well protected, encased in the mediastinum, a chamber inside the thoracic cavity (upper torso), protected by the rib cage. Makes sense; it’s important, put it someplace well protected. Which is the opposite of the human brain, which is protected by a thin skull and sits, like an easy target, in the head, which sticks out prominently from the top of your body. Not the best spot for it. Just my opinion; I didn’t design the mess called the human body.
Anyhoo, the heart itself, receiving its constant instructions to contract and relax from the CNS, is about the size of an adult fist. It consists of 4 chambers, the upper atria and the lower ventricles. It will beat about 115,000 times a day, pumping roughly 2,000 gallons of blood everyday. This tireless, dedicated organ is truly the running back of the human body.
As I mentioned, the heart is controlled by electricity, from the CNS. It’s a fascinating combination: a grouping of muscular tissues, a collection of cells, really, that responds to a jolt of internal juice. Neato.
Let me run through this quickly: the vagus nerve, from the brain, carries electricity to the top of the right atrium, to a ‘node’ called the sinoatrial node (good Jeopardy fact, there), which then carries the spark through the rest of the heart, stopping briefly at other nodes to ensure that the chambers contract and relax. Contraction is known as systole. Relaxation is called diastole. So, when you get your blood pressure measured, the top number is the systolic, how hard the heart is contracting, and the bottom number is the diastolic, how well the chambers are relaxing. Now you know that.
Okie-dokie, let’s come back around to the EKG, one of the many procedures a Medical Assistant will perform. The electrocardiogram is a fascinating machine. It’s concept is simple; as the heart runs on electricity, the EKG measures this electrical process, allowing practitioners to ‘see’ how the old ticker is doing. Many of us have undergone this procedure.
That the body is manipulated by electricity was first proven in 1790 by Luigi Galvani, who made a dead frog’s legs dance by electrical stimulation. Physicians at the time were… shocked. It was an interesting trick, but Galvani was also obviously kind of warped, to conduct this experiment. Why is the poor frog always taking the brunt of medical research? Frogs are cool. Anyway.
In the mid 1880’s, two researchers named Ludwig and Waller developed their ‘capillary electrometer’ that showed the heart’s rhythmic electrical stimuli could be monitored from a patient’s skin. They were on to something, and they didn’t even have to slaughter a poor frog.
In 1901, Dr. Willem Einthoven, using magnetic poles and silver wire, and a whole lot of ‘let’s try this,’ finally invented what became known as the EKG. The device continued to develop, into the EKG that you will see in a clinic or hospital today.
Healthcare is very pompous and traditional. The device is called the electrocardiogram. However, as healthcare honors tradition more than major league baseball, Einthoven used the Greek ‘kardio’ as his invention was very, very important, and maybe now Dad might like him. Thus, the acronym ‘EKG’ is used.
Here’s a mind-bender for another time, that took me a while to figure out: the EKG uses 10 electrodes, placed across a patient’s upper body. These are the little sticky pads, connected to wires. The electricity is only measured; no current is carried to the patient. Many of us who have had the procedure often find electrodes later on in the shower that the practitioner forgot to remove. Be that as it may, these 10 little sticky electrodes give 12 ‘leads,’ or views, of the heart’s electrical activity. That’s 12 views from 10 electrodes. That explanation is for another time, but as a student, it took me a bit of time to wrap to my head around that one.
These 12 leads, interpreted by a computer, which render a wave-like display, can tell a great deal about how a patient’s heart is performing. Many, many problems with the heart can first be detected with the EKG. It is an invaluable diagnostic tool in healthcare.
There’s a little more to it, and some instruction in its use is needed. I was trained how to use the EKG when I spent a year in Medical Assistant school.
So, let’s bring it back around, to finish, with my opening: gender specific procedures. The EKG itself is not gender specific, but the procedure of using one can be.
The role of Medical Assistant is heavily female dominated. Only about 15% of Medical Assistants are male. Of our class of 9, I was the only male, other than our wise instructor, a patient, erudite veteran. To protect his anonymity, let’s use the name ‘Jaimers.’
We were trained in the EKG early on in our program. We were not quite yet a team, and the group-trust, while growing, was not there yet. As I mentioned, the EKG is not gender-specific. However, with a female patient, it does involve her removing much of her upper clothing, while lying on her back, putting her in a vulnerable and perhaps uncomfortable feeling state. Not every women getting an EKG feels this way, but I can see how one might.
Jaimers asked my fellow 8 female students if any of them would have an issue if I, the only male, practiced the EKG on them. Several of my classmates said they would. I took no offense. However, one particular classmate had absolutely no problem with this.
This classmate and I clicked early on in the program. She was intelligent, driven, and, like myself, determined to bury the program into the ground and come away with a cumulative 4.0 gpa. She has had quite an accomplished life, and I could see her determination. In school, always get a smart friend. Anyway, to protect her anonymity and dignity, let’s call her ‘Heidie.’ As an anecdote, had I been born a female, my name would have been the same, only my parents would have spelled it correctly. And even weirder, had I been born a male, my name would have been Tom. Inside joke!!!
Anyway, Heidie did not give a rat’s ass who worked on her; like me, she just wanted a 4.0. So, I had the honor. Even though she is older than I am, Heidie is quite beautiful, but that did not enter my mind at all when she was lying down on the exam table, her scrubs up, just exposing the bottom of her bra. Like I’ve mentioned, it’s just another day at the office for a practitioner.
But, I ran into trouble. The first two electrodes of the EKG go to just the right and left of the patient’s upper sternum. Heidie had decided to be Pamela Anderson that day. I hope you can see the logistical problem I was having. I needed my 4.0, but Heidie’s damn hooters were in my way. Heidie and I have gone on to be great friends, to this day, but at that moment, Dolly Parton there was annoying me. I needed to place the first two electrodes, but I did not want to molest my classmate. I was frustrated, trying to delicately place the first two electrodes at the sides of Heidie’s sternum, without touching her silicone work. Impossible.
Jaimers, our seasoned, knowledgeable instructor, noticed I was having trouble. He came over to assist me, and briefly instructed me on how to delicately and professionally, explaining what you are doing to the female patient, move her bazingas out of the way so that you can place the electrodes. His advice was spot-on, of course, but at that point, I was ready to just heave the annoying hooters out of the my way and use duct tape to hold them until I was finished. Jaimers and I got the electrodes hooked up, but, of course, Her Majesty happened to be wearing a bra with an underwire that day. This can cause AC interference in the EKG’s reading. I eventually had to move on to another willing female patient. This was the only time in our friendship that Heidie has annoyed me. Of course, she got the last laugh, when she performed an EKG on me. My family is mostly Swiss, with a fair amount of Sasquatch thrown in. That is to say, I am a hirsute man. I shed. It sucks. Whenever I have a girlfriend, the lights have to be off. So the process then, the humility reversed, is that the Medical Assistant has to shave, with a razor, the locations where the electrodes go. Actually, I probably disgusted Heidie. I hate being part Bigfoot.
After class, when everyone was leaving, Jaimers said his daily: “Andrick, may I talk to you for a moment?” I really got tired of hearing that. But that day we spent a good 20 minutes talking, staring out the window down onto Seattle’s downtown, a typical misty day. All we needed was some armchairs, soft jazz, and lower lights. He was quite informative that day. He imparted the (extremely useful) wisdom on how a male patient performs an EKG on a female. You explain what you are doing, politely and professionally, asking for permission, and use the back of your hand to briefly raise the female patient’s breast to place the electrode. It was an informative, bonding chat. So, please don’t miss the next episode of Hooter Talk, with Jaimers and Andrick, Sunday nights at 9:00 PM on your local PBS station. Won’t you donate now, to keep this quality program going? Hooter Talk with Jaimers and Andrick is brought to you by viewers like you, the Corporation for Public Silliness, and the National Endowment of Andrick Smarting Off Again.
All kidding aside, let me finish up this essay with my original opening: gender-specific procedures. I have indicated that the EKG is not gender-specific, but it can be to the patient. On my externship, my mentor tasked me with performing and EKG on a female patient. I asked her if we had checked with the patient to make sure that a male performing this procedure was comfortable with her. My mentor blew it off, saying that it shouldn’t matter. Oh well, I thought. She’s the boss. I grabbed the EKG kit, and entered the exam room.
I could tell there was a problem as soon as I entered the room. The woman looked scared and nervous. I used a soft voice, and politely introduced myself, telling her I was there to perform her EKG. She began to cry. I told her that it’s okay; what’s troubling you? She tearfully asked if a female could perform the procedure. I have no idea if I caused her concern, or something prior. Perhaps abuse, anxiety, or a troubling potential diagnosis. It did not matter. Empathy and compassion. I told her that that would be just fine, no trouble at all, and that I would find a female Medical Assistant. I excused myself.
I went back to my mentor and told her what happened. She seemed surprised. Whatever…
It can also work the opposite way. People are all unique individuals. I was working at a community clinic, and was asked to perform an EKG on a female patient. I entered the exam room and introduced myself. Bam! Off went her gown, off went her bra, she laid down flat, and said: “Okay!” Well! My kind of patient! Who gives a crap? Just do your thing, MA!
None of that EKG encounter with that patient bothered me. Her unabashed style made things quite easier. There is a little dead space in the EKG process, when the MA connects the electrodes, straightens the lines, and ensures that the computer is correctly connected. So she and I talked about Star Trek. It was quite the memorable EKG experience.
So, my final points. You never stop learning, even after school is over. When you practice on real patients, it’s a brand new world. The procedures we do in healthcare may all be similar, but each patient is unique. You never know the full story of what brought them to this place. Empathy and compassion. Most people are fighting a battle you know nothing about. The other thing I learned was: if you are a female patient, and going to the clinic or hospital, please don’t wear a bra with an underwire. We’d appreciate it.
Thanks for reading, everybody! Happy Thanksgiving!
Hey everybody! It’s been a while. I thought it would be good to post again.
I’ve got a little time; I’m on a medical leave right now to take care of a sudden and troublesome condition. I’m hoping to return to work in January. So, I’m using the time for research and writing. Good time for a new post.
My time as a Medical Assistant has not been terribly long, but I have learned a few things. The world of healthcare is full of drama, intrigue, gossip, strong emotions, and downright assault. They didn’t exactly prepare me for that in school. But, many veterans of the industry are a bit burned out these days, so I joined the ranks just in time for the rampant profanity and frayed nerves. Good times!
But, all that’s for another time. Today, I’d like to write about broken male genitalia, hearing aids, and a federal government that just continues to annoy the crap out of me.
Okay, bear with me, because this is sort of round-about.
Older males can develop a condition called Peyronie’s Disease. Simply put, this a pronounced curvature of the ding-dong when it becomes ready for the old hoo-hoo cha cha with a nice lady. Many illnesses and conditions in medicine are eponymous; that is, they are named after the scientist or physician that first identified them. I have done no research, nor do I wish to, of who Peyronie was, and why he chose this area of study. Well, I suppose someone had to do it?
Anyway, this curvature of the little fella can be quite debilitating, preventing regular sexual intercourse. Please, please, please do not follow this link:
I warned you. Anyhoo, Peyronie’s Disease is generally caused by a buildup of scar tissue and plaque in Mr. Johnson. This is typically due to a number of various medical conditions, but most often due to penile trauma. What happens is, the old timer really, really wants to do the bang-bang dance with the pretty lady friend. However, along with age can often come another unfortunate condition, erectile dysfunction. ED, as it’s known, can be varied in its severity. If it is not too bad, the gentleman will do his darnedest to guide the not-so-stiffy into the nice lady’s fun zone. This invariably does not work, and is probably not all that fun for the female partner. I’m guessing. But, this continued practice will cause physical trauma, damage, to Mr. Johnson. This often results in Peyronie’s Disease. Oh, the tragedies of man…
But wait! Hope abounds! Modern modern medicine triumphs! There is a medication known as Xiaflex (triumphant music sounds) that can cure this condition!
Xiaflex is a medication that breaks down the plaque buildup in a shlong with Peyronie’s Disease.
It is injected directly into the affected area of the penis. You are reading that correctly. A needle, made of metal, is inserted right into a crooked penis. In my practice as a Medical Assistant, I have seen Peyronie’s Disease, and I have seen it corrected by an injection of Xiaflex into the affected area of the male member. It cannot be unseen. I am different now.
Xiaflex is not inexpensive. Depending on the severity of the Peyronie’s Disease, it can take up to 12 injections of the medication. Each administration of Xiaflex costs roughly $3000.
Okay, so my 87 year old mother, who I love dearly, is nearly deaf. I know that there was no segue there, but bear with me. This all comes around. Nevertheless, I hope my Mom is not reading this.
Charlsia Schall is still very sharp mentally, and I inherited her wicked sense of humor. Physically, she’s doing okay for someone who is 87, but she needs to use a walker and she desperately needs hearing aids.
You can still speak with her, but it is usually best to speak directly in front of her, in a louder, clearer voice. Being that her cognitive acumen is still strong, it is easy to carry on a conversation with her. At her age of 87, I am truly lucky. Not many people have such a luxury. Again, I hope you’re not reading this, but I love you, Mom.
My mother and late father, through living frugally and saving as much as they could, did okay for themselves. You know, living within your means and saving as much money as you can. Like you’re supposed to do. Sheesh. Old people, wise with their money… I tell you… Anyway, though she could definitely afford it, Mom is not keen on making large purchases. On some level, I don’t blame her at all. Hearing aids are profoundly expensive, with decent ones starting at at least 4-5 thousand dollars. As my Mother is not entirely deaf, this is an economic button she is just not comfortable pushing.
Social Security was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. Again, I got no segue here, but trust me, this is all going to come together. Hopefully. If this is a good day. Anyway, Social Security was part of the rescue package intended to mitigate the Great Depression. Apparently, economies occasionally need medication and therapy as well. The Great Depression had ravaged the United States. A recap of history is not needed here.
The government, at all levels, has always taken a strong interest in the American healthcare system. This can be a good thing, as government oversight can ensure the safety of patients and the efficacy of treatments, strengthening out healthcare system. (How we go about paying for this masterpiece is another story entirely). Federal agencies exist to oversee healthcare at all levels, ostensibly to protect the American patient: the FDA, the CDC, the DEA, the Joint Commission, etc. Occasionally, these departments can become weaponized for political reasons, as we are human, all of us flawed, and humans run the government.
My education and professional experience is in medicine. I dislike talking politics, as people can easily get all yelly-shouty-pissy. I know only the basics of our political system, and I hold opinions based on what I see. There is a branch of philosophy (I have dabbled, but am not educated) known as epistemology. This school of thought seeks to differentiate between what is fact and what is opinion. In today’s era of social media, it is quite easy for anyone, from any ideological camp, to loudly shout an opinion, with scarce facts backing it up, until, in this era of blatantly partisan media, their opinions are reinforced enough to become, in their world, facts. A nice twist of logic. It is difficult to speak of politics these days, as we live in a largely binary political belief system, with inflexible, unyielding opinions (not facts), and people quickly get emotional and confrontational. You cannot have a rational discussion with someone in that state. Hence, I avoid politics.
Anyway: back to politics nonetheless, the federal government, and Social Security. Over the years, the government has changed, tweaked, and adjusted Social Security, but the basics of the original intention still stand. All taxpaying Americans pay into it, and our senior citizens can enjoy an easier way of life, as medical bills mount with age. Be that as it may, there are certain things Social Security still will not pay for.
My beloved mother could really use those hearing aids. Hearing aids are not covered by Social Security.
Xiaflex, the medication that treats Peyronie’s disease, is covered by Social Security.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Hearing aids? Up to $7,000 or $8,000 dollars.
Xiaflex? Up to $36,000 dollars.
Yup. No hearing aids, no new glasses, no covered dental work for my Mom.
Bent weener? No problem. Got you covered.
I was a little stunned when I heard about this. Surely, I thought, the powers that be in Congress would have rectified this by now. An RN I was working with at the time gave me his opinion:
RN: Andrick, who do you think makes the laws in the Senate?
Me: Uhh… Well, for the most part, mostly older white males.
RN: And who do you think they have staffing their offices?
Me: Usually insanely hot 35 year-old women.
RN: Okay then, do the math.
Me: Aw, crap!
Joe Biden and the slim majority of Democrats in Congress have recently tried to stabilize the country and give long-needed help to the working class. Again, I hate speaking politics, but two of his Republican predecessors did the same thing. But, because half the country believes Joe Biden lost (dude… people… really?), the opposition is suddenly concerned about all this money we’ve been throwing around.
Initially, Biden’s rather largish spending plan included adding hearing aids, vision, and dental to Social Security recipients. Sounds like the right thing to do. But people balked at it. Biden has scaled his ambitions back. Recently, Congress at least passed an infrastructure spending bill. There is more work to be done. Biden and the Democrats are still trying to pass legislation that would help the needy. After much yelling, the plan was scaled back, as far as Social Security benefits go. Vision and dental are out, but hearing aids would be included. At least my Mom could finally hear again.
However, the opposition is again balking at this one. Along with them are two Democratic obstructionist Senators. One is a cranky old man, with an 85 year old body and 500 year old face,a Republican dressed as a Democrat, who doesn’t like spending money at all. He wears sensible shoes. He represents the state of Virginia. I had to Google Virginia; evidently it’s a suburb of West Virginia or something. East Virginia was infamously destroyed by the Cloverfield monster. The other Democratic obstructionist Senator is a woman from Arizona, who’s really pulling off the naughty-behind-closed-doors school librarian look. I’ve been to Arizona. Head south to the deserts of SoCal, go east, and stop where all the retired people are. Anyway, this Senator is rather hard to read. She doesn’t seem to stand for anything, and dislikes speaking to reporters, her constituents, or the clerk who asks paper or plastic. Maybe she’s just there collecting a paycheck. She certainly does not need the Viaflex. So, there is a good chance that the aid package that includes hearing aids in Social Security will not pass.
So, there you have it. Penny-pinching senior citizens can’t rely on Social Security for hearing aids, but senior citizen males, no matter what their station, can afford Xiaflex to fix their bent ding-dongs. Makes perfect sense to me!
Back in early 2020, when the world began to unravel, when I had just finished my first quarter of school, the lock-downs across the country had begun. My parents, I had both at the time, were considered vulnerable (right… remember when it only infected elderly people or people with compromised immune systems? It’ll go away in April! Like a miracle! Drink bleach!) and they were living in an assisted living facility. In fact, it’s only recently that restrictions have been relaxed, and I’ve been able to regularly visit my mother.
Anyway, I was having such a great time in school; I was particularity blown away by anatomy and physiology. The human body is an amazing machine. When our instructor first started lecturing about the roles that the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems play together, I devoured his words, scribbling furiously in my notebook. I read through the relevant chapters in our massive textbook. I was fascinated.
I wanted to tell my parents what I had learned, but that’s hard to do over the phone. So, I scribbled together these following pages and mailed my attempt to understand the human body off to them. They got a real kick out of it!
Needless to say, I was a green student, and I got plenty of things wrong in my notes. I think I got the actions of the diaphragm mixed up. I left out the other semilunar valve, the aortic valve. I did my best with the white blood cells, but I’m no biochemist. I got the test tube of blood wrong; white blood cells and platelets are actually in the middle, in a thin layer called the Buffy coat (seriously). There are also plenty of spelling and grammatical errors, and a few pages have this evening’s PB&J on them. Sorry about that.
If you manage to make it through my mangled scribbles of a new student barely understanding, and get to the part where I talk about platelets, you might notice something interesting. Platelets, the cells in your blood that form a mesh to stop bleeding, use serotonin in this process. This is the same serotonin that rattles around in your brain, affecting your mood, and are the primary target of most antidepressant medications. Huh. The human body’s kinda weird like that… Anyway, enjoy!
Healthcare is more than just needles and vitals. A long time ago, I remember my first day at the clinic. I was speaking with the front desk manager, and she asked me: “Do you have thick skin?”
I had just finished a 15 year stint at Chase Bank. I assumed she meant unruly and angry customers, only in this case, patients. I had indeed gotten used to angry customers at good old Chase. You can usually tell you might have a ticking time-bomb on your hands as soon as one of these types of customers hit the front door. I became very skilled at calming them down; it’s a trait I have carried over into healthcare. Patients can be nervous or angry. I’m good, most of the time, at alleviating some of these feelings.
I have come to realize she was talking about something else. Yes, you do have to be thick-skinned, as patients are not always in the best of moods when they come to a medical clinic. That’s why they’re at a medical clinic. I’m talking about a suit of armor you must wear, maintain, and strengthen.
It’s a suit of healthcare armor that every practitioner must wear. In fact, there are two layers to it. The first layer is the blood armor. The second layer, the harder one to develop, is the emotional armor.
It’s something that they can’t really teach you in school. In our first quarter, the instructor pulled no punches when he showed us images of what we might see. And the endless education about the tragic things that can go wrong with the human body; that gives you just a slight idea of what you might see. Healthcare is not for the squeamish.
To be honest, this has never been a problem for me, blood and guts. I don’t like seeing people suffering, but gore does not bother me. It’s disgusting and unfortunate that this has become a genre in the entertainment industry, torture porn. Eli Roth can go screw himself. But in reality, in my clinic, blood and gore occurs frequently. It’s never bothered me. I remember walking into an exam room after the provider I usually work with, Susan, texted me that she needed help with a punch biopsy. I walked into the room. Apparently, the area she was working with was more infected than expected. There was a large pool of blood on the floor. Huh, I said. Dr., you’ve got the patient’s DNA all over the floor. What can I help with?
My station is right next to the lab. More that once, I have had to run over and help our lab technician, a big, good-natured fellow who works in tight quarters, help a patient to the floor after they have passed out during a blood draw. He’s very skilled at helping people lie down in a cramped area, while I grab a pillow and a blood pressure cuff. And some apple juice. Afterwards, when the patient comes to, they are usually embarrassed. I’ve written about this before. We don’t judge you for that. Metal is going into your body, and you see your blood coming out. Perfectly natural, the fight or flight reflex.
We call this vasovagal syncope; fainting at the sight of blood. It’s actually somewhat common. People hate needles. I’ve written about this as well. Perfectly natural. You will never be shamed or judged by a healthcare worker. If you feel you are, advocate for yourself, and let the clinic know.
The stronger, more important armor to develop, the thick-skin the front desk manager was referring to on day one, is the emotional armor. It is imperative in healthcare that this armor be strong. But all of us realize that we are human beings. We have emotions, and you have to feel them. Like I said, I’m still a bit of a rookie, and my emotional armor is still developing. It gets stronger every day. Last week it became even stronger.
They cannot really teach you about this in school, either, even more so. But the fact is, if you are going to work in healthcare, your emotions will be tested.
The other day, Susan had a patient who was a recent stroke survivor. As in, very recently. His friend and neighbor, Gary, had found him unconscious on his apartment floor. This patient had spent a month in the hospital, and a month in rehabilitation. In fact, he had not been home yet. Gary, at the advice of the facility, which he had left just hours beforehand, had brought him straight to a doctor. This patient had no primary physician. This patient had no one really, just his friend Gary.
Of course, it reminded me of father. My father passed away last February, just two weeks shy of birthday number 93. He had had two strokes in the last two weeks. In a way, my father was lucky, though I still miss him greatly, every day. My father was surrounded by good medical care, his wife of over 60 years, and his family. He did not suffer long. He died peacefully, in his sleep, and stepped into whatever comes next.
But this patient had no one, except for his friend Gary. He had no next of kin; indeed, he had no close family. No other close friends. He was old, but getting along fine. Gary wheeled him into the exam room. During my rooming process, I asked Gary, as the patient was having difficulty speaking, how long he had used the wheelchair. Gary told me he was walking the day before the stroke. It was clear, as I took his vitals, that this patient had suffered badly.
After Susan had spent some time with him, we were wrapping up the visit, going over the next steps for him. Susan remarked how sad it was that this man was nearly alone, except for Gary. It had been a stressful day (not all of them are in healthcare, honestly), and I began to well up. Susan knew I had lost my father a few months ago. She apologized as I excused myself.
It was heartbreaking. To have this man go down so quickly, and so nearly alone. He had been walking two months ago. He did not have the care or the support my father had. It seemed cruel. Whatever your beliefs, God may be merciful, but Mother Nature is not.
I was cleaning up the exam room after the visit. Susan came in to talk to me, to see how I was doing. I tried to explain how sad that was, through a broken voice. Susan said that we are all human. She told me that I am still new, and that this is part of my education process. And she mentioned the cliché that happens to be very true: it never gets any easier. Your armor just gets stronger.
We’ve all seen interviews with the burned out nurses and MD’s, after working 4 or 5 days straight in the Covid ward. They are broken. Our armor is strong, but the hardships of life we encounter can be stronger. We are only human.
To a degree, you have to laugh about it, as a means of coping. We never mock a patient, but we do have to make each other laugh. I told Susan that if this were TV, we’d be sitting out on the loading dock, chain smoking, tears running down my face as Susan, with the thousand-yard stare, said: “I remember when I lost my first patient. It never gets any easier. Hang in there, rookie.” Of course, using her best Sam Elliot voice.
That’s my biggest challenge, going forward. Not a technical skill, not a memorization of what type of needle you use for what, but my emotional armor. I knew things like this would happen. You’re just never ready for it when you start.
The next day, Gary called us to let us know that the patient had died overnight, in his sleep.
In early 2020, when I walked into class for the first time to train as a Medical Assistant, an obvious truth was right in front of me, so evident; but I did not notice. I had been painfully preoccupied with all the preparations required for going back to school. When you are doing it on your own at age 47, trying to also balance a life and another job, it takes all your time: the paperwork, the vaccinations you need, the textbooks you must purchase (at a very reasonable price….), the equipment you need, where you have to go, that sort of thing. But I had squared all these things away. I was ready to learn.
I was admittedly overwhelmed by my surprising mid-life crisis to enter healthcare. I had read through the aforementioned, completely reasonably priced textbook before class started. It was over 1000 pages, and that little voice in the back of my head, the one that still nags at me when I go to work, though much quieter now, was at full volume: What the hell are you doing! But on January 7th, 2020, into class I went.
I am a shy person by nature, and was still overwhelmed and nervous, so I saw a few of my classmates (we were a class of nine to begin with, and a few of us were already there), nodded my head, tried to smile, and took a seat.
The first few days were chaotic. Our program was a hybrid learning system, with in class lectures and clinical training, and at-home, online training modules. My opinion of the online training modules is still not settled. The jury is still out. More on that later. But we all had to learn how to log into the school’s system, we all had to make sure we had all the right equipment and uniforms (I had the wrong color scrubs… more on my instructor in a moment), and all of us, including myself, had endless questions. My instructor patiently addressed all of our concerns, but this chaotic orientation process took a few days.
As things settled down, and I began to learn, I was fascinated by my new decision. I knew I had made the right choice. My instructor was a seasoned Medical Assistant, impeccably dressed, with perfect hair, named Jason. I’m a confident heterosexual, and I have no problem with anyone’s orientation, but Jason was a fine looking man. Sometimes I wondered…. he must have had to get up at four in the morning to work on that hair. Perfect hair, always.
By the second week, we were splitting off into small groups. I got to know my classmates more and more, an interesting bunch. We were all older than your classic college students, all coming from careers that had driven us to make a change. There was Fairahn, a demure American Muslim woman who turned out to be smarter than she thought, gaining confidence; there was Teri, a beautiful woman who always looked like she was about to kill someone; there was Jane, who I never quite figured out; there was Joni, a busy mother who struggled at first but turned into one of our best students; there was Janet, a CNA looking to advance, and was a seriously ineffable person, that I still struggle to figure out; and there was Helen, who had a resting bitch-face that could make a honey badger back off.
Wait a minute, I thought. I’m the only male.
I had no problem with that. Perhaps that was just the way the dice rolled. I certainly did not dwell on it; I’ve always believed that women were just as capable of doing any job that a man could do, and vice-versa. The difference is when it comes to reproduction, but vocationally, I’m glad that women are slowly breaking the glass ceiling: the US military, construction, IT, and now a female Vice-President. We would have had a female President in 2016, (I imagine things would be quite different now), except for that Pact with Hell known as the Electoral College. But I digress; I don’t like to talk politics here.
Like I said, it didn’t bother me, at all, that I was the only male student. One day, after class, I asked my instructor about this, and he replied that the field of Medical Assistant is definitely a female-dominated industry.
93% of all Medical Assistants in the United States are female.
I have searched all over this unwieldy behemoth known as the internet, and I have asked professionals, as to why this is. There does not seem to be a concrete answer, other than the time-honored tradition of gender stereotyping. Which needs to stop. And in healthcare, it slowly is.
The fact that I was the only male in my class never bothered me at all. I was raised by progressive parents, and, as I mentioned, the glass ceiling needs to shatter.
But it shatters slowly. In the United States, 3.5% of firefighters are female. 39.9% of financial analysts are female. Women make up 9.9% of the construction industry. 19% of software developers are women.
When one Googles the question: What is a male nurse called? (this actually happens), the answer comes up: nurse. Among the more conservative elements of our society, labeling a job as ‘female’ can diminish its authority. There are financial dangers as well. Female Medical Assistants, on average, make about 88% of what their male colleagues do, and men are more likely to be promoted. This pay discrepancy is in no way isolated in healthcare; on average, across America, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns: https://blog.dol.gov/2021/03/19/5-facts-about-the-state-of-the-gender-pay-gap#:~:text=1.,for%20many%20women%20of%20color.
But it was never an issue in my class; we all became friends, a team, and the fact that I was male never became an issue. We all had a group text-chat, and kept in close touch when we were out of school. Remember that at-home, online learning? If one of us was stuck, no problem. Text the gang!
I became great friends with the class alpha, Helen. She was the one with the resting bitch face that could stop the blast effect of a nuclear weapon. Our gender differences were never an issue. There was no sexual tension; we were two dedicated students who wanted to do our best. As our school year went on, and we were presented with harder challenges, some quite unexpected, we backed each other up. She was the Furiosa to my Max; two people who found themselves in a difficult situation, and supported each other to get through. Fury Road. Brilliant film. Anyway…
What I have noticed in healthcare is that nearly all of the supportive roles, from CNA up to ARNP, are predominately female. However, with MD’s, the glass ceiling is breaking quickly. I have worked and met many female physicians. Each one capable, each according to their gifts.
My own feeling is this: the gender stereotyping is hard-wired into society’s heads, and has probably been around for a very long time. I know nothing of anthropology, but, at the risk of oversimplifying things, a very long time ago, men were expected to go out and hunt, and protect the tribe, while women were expected to tend to the village and care for the young. This evolution continued into the modern age; where men do the hearty, rough, dangerous things, with unnecessarily large pickup trucks, while women are expected to keep the house and raise the children. But it doesn’t work like that anymore, it can’t. To make ends meet, both partners need to work, and hell, any female can use a firearm, be an astronaut, or a member of Congress. Why, just look at Marjorie Taylor…. Eh. Very poor example.
I have never encountered it, but there can be gender discrimination against males in the Medical Assistant vocation. Many male MA’s are not taken seriously by deeply conservative patients, doctors, and the general public. Men in this role are more often perceived as effeminate or otherwise inadequately masculine (me? No on the former, definitely on the latter). This discrimination could possibly be due to the concept that men are not adequate caretakers. What a load of BS!
On the other hand, many patients can feel more comfortable with a male Medical Assistant, especially male patients. If the patient has a deeply personal problem, they may find it easier to relate to another male.
Though I have experienced no discrimination of my own, and I have never been treated differently because I am a male Medical Assistant, the problem continues in our society at large. Women are just as capable as men, and should be treated not just as equals, but simply fellow human beings. The glass ceiling has many cracks, but our society still has a long way to go.
So I’ll go to work some day, surrounded by estrogen. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m here to be the best Medical Assistant I can be. If all of my coworkers are female, so be it. As long as you’re cool and can do the job well, preferably the former, you’re okay in my book. I’ve found that it gives me a different perspective, to experience the female side of society. But that is secondary. I need to learn how to find the damn vein for venipuncture, first. And if a female Medical Assistant helps me with a blood draw, I have no problem with that at all.
I finally get to see my dying father. He and my mother have been living in an assisted living facility for several years, and when the Covid-19 lock-downs began, all visitations were suspended in March of 2020. They persist today. I haven’t been able to give either of them a hug for a very long time. As my father has had several recent strokes, and his health and cognition have declined, it has been very difficult, emotionally painful, not being able to see him. He went from the hospital back to the assisted living facility. I could not visit him. But today, as he is now officially in palliative care, the facility has made special arrangements and provisions for me and my family to see him. It was hard to knock on their apartment’s door, as I knew what was coming. But, as she greeted me, I hugged my mother today for the first time in almost a year. And then I saw my father.
In 1969, Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book called: On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross had made created a devoted career to caring for and treating the helpless. She began her career as a psychiatric resident at the Manhattan State Hospital, working with patients that modern healthcare of the time had all but cast aside; the schizophrenic and what were called ‘hopeless patients,’ a delightful little reference for those with a terminal illness. Kübler-Ross was shocked by the treatment of mentally ill patients and those that were given no hope of recovery. The compassion this instilled in her would define her professional career.
There was my father. The palliative care division of the hospital had set up a hospital bed, with the oxygen tanks and the monitors stashed in the corner. Neither were hooked up. I looked at the man lying on the bed. This powerful man, this strong yet caring, sensitive, and compassionate man, lay dying before me, withering away, one foot already in the world to come. His skin was blotchy and pale. His breathing was shallow and irregular; I knew this to be Cheyne-Stokes respiration. His hair was unkempt, his beard was a tangled mess of whiskers. At death’s door, here was my disheveled father, his body rapidly giving out.
In 1965, Kübler-Ross became an instructor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.
She continued her work with terminally ill patients. Motivated by the lack of instruction in medical schools on the subject of death and dying, her research progressed into a series of seminars with her research and interviews with terminally ill patients. In 1969, she published her famous work, On Death and Dying.
I sit on the edge of the bed, and gently grasp my father’s hand. His glassy eyes come to life for a moment, and focus on me. I ask him how he is feeling. There are words, mumbles that take great effort to come from him, but they do not make sense. I tell him that he has been a wonderful father. I tell him that all he has taught me about life; compassion, reverence for all living creatures, a calm sense of humor, and a passion to learn more. I tell him that this is the best inheritance I could have, and that I am very lucky to have been his son. His face remains expressionless, and yet a I see tear forming in his right eye. His recent strokes had caused him to have problems with his vision. Or maybe this shedding of a single tear was a goodbye.
Sadly, the history of healthcare is replete with horrific, barbarous treatment of the mentally ill. Every so often, someone like Kübler-Ross will shift the paradigm, and the mindset of not only the medical community, but society at large, will begin to change. Kübler-Ross’s work with not only the deeply mentally ill, but those who faced a terminal illness, was rather groundbreaking for the time. She was greatly motivated by the lack of instruction in medical schools on death and dying. Feelings, emotions. You can’t measure them. You can’t see them. Yet they are there, and how a person faces death is one of the most powerful challenges a person can experience.
I lean down and give my father a hug, though his arms cannot embrace me. I tell him that he has been a fantastic father. Though he already had one foot in the world to come, he strained to speak something he has always said whenever I express my love or gratitude for him. Though he labors to speak, I hear him, barely: “Oh, I’ll do in a pinch.” Perhaps part of his brain was still working and that response was purely reflex. Or perhaps some part of his soul understood me, appreciated what I had said, and was doing its best to say goodbye.
In her book, Kübler-Ross describes five terms, or steps, that a terminally ill patient may go through when faced with a deadly diagnosis. Over time, her process has grown to include not only those that are dying, but anyone who is facing loss or grief of any kind. The acronym is commonly know as ‘DABDA,’ and were originally outlined as follows:
Of course, no model of human behavior is perfect and scientifically predictable. The human brain remains a great mystery, and human psychology even more so. Some may experience part of these phases, some may go back and forth, and some may experience only one or two. Examples of such, perhaps imagining that a patient has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, may go something like this:
1) Denial: “That’s impossible. That diagnosis must be wrong. There’s no way in hell I could get cancer.”
2) Anger: “Why me? How could this happen? Who do I blame?!?”
3)Bargaining: “I know if I just change this part of my lifestyle, I could actually beat this thing!”
4) Depression: “I’m going to die soon, What’s the point?” The individual has recognized their mortality.
5) Acceptance: “I can’t fight it. I will accept it. I will prepare for it as best as I can.” A calm, stable emotional acceptance may come over the afflicted.
As I mentioned, this model can apply to anyone facing a grief or a tragic situation; the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a pet; any situation that involves loss that one has no power or control over. A fantastic example is from a book by writer David Kessler, who worked extensively with Kübler-Ross leading up to her death. Regarding this damned virus that has ravaged our world and has kept me some seeing my father wither away, Kessler writes:
“There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: Idon’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
My eyes meet my father’s for one last time. Though he may not be able to see it through my surgical mask, I am smiling a goodbye. His eyes, though glassy and crusted with rheum, blink at me. Perhaps the best goodbye he say. I turn and leave his bedroom, looking back at my father one more time, and enter the living room. I embrace my mother and cry.
Everyone grieves differently; as I indicated earlier. One might feel one or all of Kübler-Ross’s stages. Or perhaps none at all. Kübler-Ross’s work was important and seminal. Since her work, psychologists, the healthcare industry, and society at large (to a degree) have been more open to talking about, researching, and sharing their experiences on death; for it is not the end of life, but a part of it.
I sit in a chair in the living room, exhausted. My mother brings me a cup of coffee, and takes a seat herself. I have compiled what I call a ‘Dad-List,’ a listing of tasks that need to be taken care of when someone dies. There’s a long list of people, friends and distant relatives, that need to know. Social Security needs to know. Dad’s teacher’s union pension needs to know. The credit union needs to know. And through it all, you have to find some way to grieve.
Not to pile on the psychology 101, but there are many defense mechanisms a person will use when confronted with difficult circumstances or behaviors. My ‘Dad-List,’ though an important part of this process, is an example of intellectualization. With this mechanism, a person uses reasoning to avoid confronting emotional conflicts and stressful situations. A person might focus on details and logistics, important though they may be, instead of allowing themselves to feel the grief and despair.
I set my Dad-List off to the side. My mother and I share a long conversation. Both of us take turns bringing up the many wonderful memories we’ve had with my father. Though he still alive in the adjacent room, both of us speak as if he is gone. We know the time is short. But there are so many wonderful memories. It’s almost like we’re trying to keep him alive, by pushing the positive, and not talking of the decaying husk lying in the next room, struggling to breath its last.
I have a great phone conversation with my psychiatrist, Dr. Dispensapill, when I get home. We talk about grieving, and what I might expect when my father finally goes. He has been a great help to me; he has helped me overcome both a crippling anxiety and depression disorder, and, unlike too many psychiatrists who just hand you some pills and tell you to keep a journal or something, Dr. Dispensapill is also a skilled psychotherapist. And yet he tells me there is one thing he cannot fix: a broken heart. But we talk at great length about grieving.
For those of you who have lost a parent due to old age and infirmity, it can be a powerful event to witness. You grow up thinking your parents are immortal, and yet one day, there they lay in front of you, knocking on the door of the world to come. I had always seen my father as a physically, intellectually, and emotionally powerful man. And to see him as I did that day… There is a lesson to be learned there, but to be honest, the wounds are still fresh, and I have not yet had time to truly understand them.
February 13th, 2021 – 6:00 AM
My phone rings. The caller ID says that it’s my mother. My heart freezes. There is only one reason she would be calling me this early. I answer. She says; “It’s over for us. He’s gone.”
It’s been a tough few days, but I’m managing. The outpouring of support from friends and family has been a huge help. But I feel numb. Dr. Dispensapill said that this is normal, to feel numb for a while. Then, as my mind begins to process the loss, emotions will come out here and there, in many forms. If I feel anything these days, it’s a little bit of stunned, a little bit of sadness, and a whole lot of fatigue. It’s been an exhausting experience.
But, in a way, I also feel a sense of relief. I am relieved that my father is finally at peace, and I am relieved that my family no longer has to watch him decay further into such a poor physical state.
Please allow me to return to Kübler-Ross’s stage’s of grieving. Like I said, I am still numb, and emotions are slowly coming out, but much of what I feel applies to her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
1) Denial: I really don’t feel this. I know that he is gone. What helps me in this regard is knowing that his health had been deteriorating, his body withering away, for some time. There was no sense in denying it.
2) Anger: I feel none. I am very fortunate in this regard. Many times, when someone loses a parent, there be anger or bouts of acting out, particularly if the child feels that there were unresolved issues, or if the child harbored resentment over the deceased parent’s actions of some sort. My father and I had a fantastic relationship.
3) Bargaining: I must admit, I feel a bit of this. What if they had given him a little longer before they began the morphine death process? What if he had come out this decayed state? What if some physician had tried something new or novel? But I cannot hold these thoughts as rational. It was quite clear that my father was ready to go.
4) Depression: Yup. You bet. It’s not a clinical depression, like I’ve struggled with in the past, however. It is more of an emptiness. I still feel numb, yet the depression will manifest in different ways. I’ve been extremely exhausted ever since he died. It takes great effort to get things done, even trivial things like washing the dishes. I wanted to get this post written the day he died. It’s obviously taken longer.
5) Acceptance: Definitely. My father has been ready to go for quite some time. I could see it coming. I have expected it for a while now. It’s not acceptance in an “I’m okay, things will be alright, let’s move on and have fun” kind of acceptance. It is reality, and it’s what I got.
So I mainly go back and forth between depression and acceptance. But the truth is, everyone grieves differently. There is no perfect handbook that deals with the feelings of dying and death in an arithmetic style. Many things are never quite that simple.
I have a long process of grieving ahead of me. But I know that my father would want me to continue on, to keep learning, to keep trying to help others.
I must finish with one final, interesting thought. My background is in healthcare. I believe in science. I am an empiricist. I can’t quite pull the trigger on atheism, so I consider myself an agnostic. However, that does not mean I don’t have an open mind. There are many things about the world we live in that we don’t quite understand. Call it the supernatural, call it the paranormal, whatever you like. Maybe science will someday be able to measure these things, these phenomena. Or maybe they will forever remain our of our feeble human understanding of the universe. The morning my father died, I texted my oldest brother with the news. As he was replying, the power in his house went out. Later that day, my other older brother and I, who I share an apartment with, were discussing the logistics of who we needed to contact. As I moved through our living room, I knocked an old cane of the its mounting on the wall, close to our kitchen. This wooden can was hand-crafted by my great-grandfather in 1898. I watched in horror as it clashed to the ground. Yet it did not break. My brother and I agreed we should find a better place to display it. And of course, the day my father died, Seattle was covered in a beautiful blanket of pure white snow. There were no cars, and the neighborhood dogs were frolicking in the snowbound street. My father loved dogs. It seems then, that day, he was having fun discovering his newfound gifts, granted to him in the world to come.
Well, let’s take another look under the hood of healthcare.
Healthcare, the practice thereof, confuses many people. That’s understandable. I wish that I had more time to explain to my patients what I was doing, because it’s incredible stuff. Another thing that confuses many people is health insurance. In fact, it makes them quite angry. Understandably. But that leads to my next topic. Let’s confuse things even more with the riddle of modern healthcare that is billing and coding.
In a moment, we’ll take a look at the ICD. But first, some context. Just about everything that happens in healthcare has a number attached to it. It’s really more simple than it sounds, but here we go: HCPCS (Healthcare Common Procedural Coding System) was established by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 1978. Though it is in the purview of the CMS, it applies to all healthcare coding. There are three levels to it, but the first level is the most common, and it contains what are called CPT codes, or Current Procedure Terminology codes. These are the codes for what the physician does to you: evaluation, surgery, lab work, prescriptions, tells you to lay of the bacon cheeseburgers, etc. Pretty straight forward.
Then there are the ICD codes, or International Classification of Diseases. These are the codes for what exactly is wrong with you, and why you came to see the Doctor in the first place. A broken arm has a code. A flu has a code. A dog bite has a code.
Ostensibly, the ICD codes were implemented to track diseases across a population. Since illness has no respect for political boundaries, these codes are also used to communicate to physicians across the planet. Researchers and physicians who may not speak English can at least decipher the ICD code.
This concept has been around for a long time. Some medical historians place the origin of the ICD codes as far back as 1763, when a French physician named François Bossier de Sauvages de Lacroix developed a classification of 2400 diseases. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20978452/) The list continued to grow and develop, and by 1898, the United States was using the International List of Causes of Death. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9082128/). More twists and turns of the list followed, until the establishment of the United Nations and its subsequent organizations.
In 1948, the World Health Organization took over the ICD listing. The various lists used across the world were compiled, and the first official list, number 6, was published in 1949.
Again, these codes are used to track illnesses across populations and for better communication between the healthcare infrastructure of nations. However, these codes have taken on another role. These are the codes that are sent to insurance companies when a facility needs authorization for treatment, along with the CPT code mentioned above. The insurance company will plunk these codes into their computer, mull in over, and respond with how much they will cover, which 11 times out of 10 is slightly south of zero.
In my training, I was taught to look up ICD codes the old fashioned way. Our instructor handed us each a large book, the latest ICD code book, with more pages than War and Peace in large print, and we were to track down a patient’s ailment. These days, the code is simply generated when I enter it into the computer. If I enter ‘back pain,’ the code is automatically generated, with the option for further detail, should the physician think it warranted. My instructor loved to make us work for it.
Bear in mind, the ICD code book is not to be confused with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That’s a whole different list of problems. I’ve got about half of them. Work is underway to integrate the DSM with the ICD, but that will probably take some time.
In 1979, the ICD-9 was published. The codes are alphanumeric, five -seven digits long, and have the option for modifiers. There were over 13,000 different codes.
In 2015, the United States adopted the ICD-10. It was greatly expanded: there are over 70,000 different codes.
The theory was, the massive increase in entries allowed for greater specificity of the ailment, and did away with the need for modifiers. You ask me, someone had a little too much time on their hands, and probably started the day a great big bowl of amphetamine flakes. Nom nom!
Yeah, the ICD-10 may have taken it a little too far. The following are actual entries from the massive list:
W61.33:Pecked by a chicken
W5921: Bitten by turtle
R46.1:Bizarre personal appearance (Oh, I got that one, for sure…)
Z63.1: Problems in relationship with in-laws (What? When does that ever happen?)
V97.33:Sucked into jet engine
Y92.253: Injured at Opera House (Hey, it happens…. Over 6 people a year succumb to this tragedy)
Y92.241:Hurt at the library
Y92.146:Swimming-pool of prison as the place of occurrence of the external cause of injury
Y93.D1: Stabbed while crocheting
V9107XA :Burn due to water-skis on fire, subsequent encounter (I really don’t know what to say…)
V9542XA: Spacecraft collision injuring occupant (Eyes front, Major Tom!)
And my personal favorite: Y.34: Unspecified event, undetermined intent (Well, sure! That works!)
I’m making none of these up. The ICD-11 is set to published in 2022. It is said to be almost five times as large as the ICD-10.
To end on a serious note: occasionally, the ICD will need to be quickly amended. In April of 2020, a new code was added. U07.1: Covid-19.
Wash your hands! Social distance! Wear a mask! Get vaccinated! Avoid Florida! We’re not through this yet!
I work in healthcare. I am a Certified Medical Assistant. Children hate me. They can’t see my big, goofy smile through my surgical mask. That matters little. They know who I am. I am the man who keeps Mr. Pain in his pocket.
Millions and millions of Americans hate going to see the Doctor. There are a lot of valid reasons for this. One is primarily economic. American healthcare can be extremely expensive. We are the only industrialized nation that has not figured this out, and there is plenty of debate concerning this; however, that argument is for another time. Millions of Americans also hate going to see the Doctor because they refuse to believe they are sick or in need of treatment. That’s all well and good, you hardy lumberjack, you; but many diseases and illnesses have no symptoms, until the affliction decides to kill you. Millions of Americans hate going to the Doctor because they think that all Doctors are quacks, and are just going to take your money. Well, sorry you feel that way, but I’ll probably be the one taking your vitals when the cancer kicks in that could have been avoided had you seen the Doctor sooner to prevent your illness. Millions of Americans hate going to see the Doctor because they believe Western medicine is impure and inherently harmful. There is nothing wrong with yoga, meditation, or tai chi; in fact, Western medicine has embraced these practices. To a degree; I’m really not sure that chamomile tea and ginger root paste is going to cure your diabetes. Just sayin’. But I posit this: Millions of Americans are afraid to go to the Doctor for one simple reason: they are afraid of needles.
Trypanophobia is the fear of medical procedures, especially needles. This is distinguished from aichmophobia, the fear of sharp things. Also, this is not to be confused with iatrophobia, the fear of Doctors, the White Coat syndrome, why your blood pressure goes up in the exam room even though hypertension has never been a problem for you. But back to the fear of needles. There can be good reasons for this. With an injection or a blood draw, metal is entering your flesh, and you may see blood. On an instinctual level, that’s not supposed to happen; even though on a rational level, it may be necessary treatment for an illness. It’s really as simple as that. But please allow me to elaborate.
In 1995, Dr. J. G. Hamilton, a smart man with a no-nonsense name, published a paper on this topic: (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7636457/). He suggested that the fear of needles has an ancient genetic basis in evolution. Our pre-history ancestors were well aware that sharp cuts or bites could very well be a death sentence. There were no antibiotics; if the wound were to become badly infected, it could kill the injured. There was no healthcare to speak of, save the shaman or medicine man who may try to perform rituals to appease the deity the tribe believed in, as the injured had angered this god, bringing the affliction upon the wounded.
Another evolutionary theory by Stefan Bracha, MD, suggests that one might faint from an injury to demonstrate that a fallen combatant is no threat, and is taken out of the violent melee over the hunting grounds of contention at hand. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278584606000091?via%3Dihub) You know, I’m still not really sure if possums actually do that. But I digress. Possums are cool.
The truth is, however, you really don’t need to go that far back in our evolutionary history to paint a simple picture of a grown adult’s fear of needles. All of us, when we were toddlers, received several vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a schedule that healthcare providers follow:
This itinerary is only to 6 years. There are several vaccinations and inoculations after that, and many into adulthood. Many of the diseases listed in this chart have been all but eradicated due to immunizations. However, healthcare deeply respects patient autonomy. There are many parents out there who, for whatever reason, distrust vaccines (anti-vaxxers is the pejorative term) and refuse to get their children vaccinated, because there is a 0.000007% chance the vaccine will cause their child to grow a second head. On a serious note, this philosophy is why measles and mumps have not been completely eradicated, and, sadly, it is often the children who suffer and die.
But regarding a young child getting their shots: I posit a train of thought, a somewhat obvious one, that if one follows, it is quite easy to see why many of us hate needles. You are probably familiar with psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human development. Of course, unless you are a Scientologist, there is no perfect model for human psychology. Nevertheless, Erikson’s model has been studied and reworked by various schools of human development and psychology. Marysville Universtiy has a great article on this model, as well as others: (https://online.maryville.edu/online-bachelors-degrees/human-development-and-family-studies/stages-of-human-development/). In a healthy environment, trust and autonomy will foster in the growing human in the formative years. These healthy traits are directly opposed at the Doctor’s office.
When we are infants, toddlers, we are coddled, fussed over, and, in a healthy and nurturing environment, we are loved. Our needs are met. We have no responsibilities. Or course, there is discipline and punishment when we don’t get our way, but; again, in a healthy environment, this is for our protection. But. eventually, we are taken to the Doctor. Toddlers in particular, at some level, understand these visits, as much as they are places of potential pain.
When we are administered the vaccinations above, we certainly do not have the mental capacity to understand why we are being hurt by the scary man in scrubs. We are restrained, which is terror enough. Then, a sharp blast of pain appears on the body, usually, in the case of a toddler, on the thigh. This can be quite the traumatic experience for the youngster. I was holding down the legs of a 3 year-old once, while another Medical Assistant was giving him his shot. The young man was quite vocal in his opposition to all this. He really filled the room. And I tell you, a tiny human like that can really summon precocious strength. I didn’t like it, but I really had to hold him down. Generally, the parents are off to the side, although some assist in restraining the child, and all of them usually say things like: “It’s okay sweetie. You’re doing fine.” In the child’s head, nothing is okay, and nothing is fine. These are our formative years. We remember these events, at some level of consciousness. It is quite easy to see, then, why we carry this fear of Doctors, and specifically needles, well into adulthood.
There is a physiological process behind all of this. Most of us are familiar with the concept of fight or flight. This human (and animal) phenomenon is older than the theories of ancient man outlined above. It is ingrained into the very survival instinct off all human beings. It has been with us since we first banged the rocks together, and it continues today, when we go to the Doctor to get poked with a needle.
You have a nervous system, commanded by your brain. The nervous system carries out commands to different parts of your body to tell them what to go do with themselves. The main nervous system, the central nervous system, is divided into several sub-systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for resting the body when you are relaxed, resting, or feeding. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, ramps your body up when danger is perceived, kicking in the fight or flight reflex. Our ancient ancestors had to do things like run from bears (this would the ‘flight’ portion of fight or flight). When this system kicks in, blood and oxygen and sent to the lungs, and the body is filled with adrenalin, to prepare ourselves to get the hell out of there. This reflex is with us today, although it can be associated with actual, physical danger (car crash, mean dog, airplane turbulence) or societal danger (the boss wants to see you, the principal called, collections just sent you a letter). When this happens, and one is expected to hold still, sitting in the phlebotomist’s chair, blood and oxygen leave the brain, our thinking becomes clouded, and many people either have an intense reaction of fear, or, even the big tough guys, experience vasovagal syncope, a fancy term for passing out. I’ve seen it happen.
But you know, the bottom line is this: it could be a lot worse. Depending on the skill of the healthcare provider, and the type of injection, getting a shot in the shoulder or getting a needle in the arm for a blood draw is pretty low on the pain scale. Needles today are designed to cause as little pain and discomfort as possible.
This is a fantastic article: (https://medicine.uq.edu.au/blog/2018/12/history-syringes-and-needles) The first needles were used in the second century, CE, with disastrous results, and by that I mean fatal. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that modern needles began to take shape. But I don’t imagine those needles were all that easy to take, let alone sanitary.
Let me wrap it up this way: Have you ever been stung by a bee? That hurts! That’s because it’s designed to hurt. All of us have jabbed one our fingers with a staple before. That hurts! Those are things that are piercing our flesh. Modern needle design, with the hypodermic wielded by a skilled healthcare practitioner, really: Does. Not. Hurt. Sure, it stings a little, but it’s over in a few seconds, your arm may be a little sore afterwards, but trust me, you are probably going to be okay. When I am practicing in a clinic, I am forbidden from giving any kind of assurances, but here on this blog, I’m pretty sure you’re going to survive your shot.
Most of the injections I give are either in the shoulder, the thigh, or, rarely, the back of the upper arm. I occasionally give small injections on the inside of your forearm. Once in a while, the buttocks. I know what I’m doing. There are tips are tricks that I paid a lot of tuition money to learn. I’ll make it east on you. But, not to scare you, there is the occasional injection, rarely given, that are handled by Registered Nurses or Doctors: intraosseous, into the bone. Intrathecal: into the spine. Intracerebral: into the brain. These all sound fun, right? But these are rare, and are administered carefully and with anesthesia by a highly skilled practitioner. There is also, of course, an amniocentesis, which expectant mothers may be familiar with. But there is also cardiocentesis, when a needle punctures the heart. These are just a bit above my paygrade.
So the bottom line is: it’s perfectly okay to be afraid of needles, but it really doesn’t hurt too bad. On the second day of my externship, I have to give a vaccine to a 7 year-old child. She was frightened, scared, and crying. I did not patronize her; I told her it would hurt a tiny bit for just a few seconds, that it was okay to be scared, it was okay to cry, and it would be over quickly. She relaxed a bit. As soon as I injected her, she immediately perked up. “Oh!” she said. “That really doesn’t hurt too bad!” I happily affirmed her, was done in a couple seconds, and withdrew the needle. My mentor said she had never seen a reaction like that from a child. So, I know that needles are scary, and that’s perfectly okay to feel that way, but just remember that 7 year-old girl.
I’ve gotten very good at assessing what kind of patient I have, very quickly. Sometimes, if someone has a healthy outlook on life, but, I can tell, is afraid of injections, I usually try to lighten the mood with a few jokes:
“Well, let’s give this a shot.” “It’s okay not to look; I don’t either.” “I promise you, this won’t hurt me a bit.” “Present: arms!” “Oh… no wonder… that’s the wrong end of the needle…” I’ve got pages of these!
There is one final note to end on, something I neglected to mention. The Dentist. The Dentist uses needles, too. Your gums are much thicker than skin, so the Dentist uses a larger needle. The nonvaccine is very thick, so the needle must remain in gum for a longer time. The Dentist enjoys this. The Dentist is evil. The Dentist enjoys hurting you. The next time you go to the Dentist, bring your holy water, and banish the Dentist back to which they came. I kid! I’ve had some great dentists.
Remember: it doesn’t hurt that bad. Be like that 7 year-old girl! I’ll see you at the clinic!