A Personal Response to Terrorism

I refuse to:

-read beyond the headlines or provide any “clicks” to articles that expound on the incident
-learn the name(s) of the attacker or attackers
-devote attention to any manifesto or statement from the attackers or groups affiliated
-watch any video of the incident capturing the moments before, during or after it occurred
-regard an entire people group as a threat

And I CHOOSE to:

-live and wander freely in this world, with my wits, but without fear
-show my children the stirring beauty of this planet and the glorious tapestry of people upon it
-respect the statistics showing that death by terrorism is less likely than drowning in a bathtub
-celebrate what is beautiful and criticize what is ugly about any religion, including my own
-recognize that every breath I’m given is just that, a gift

 

A Cross Necklace

Being a Christian refugee in this part of the world is a dangerous affair.

Unlike in America, where counting oneself a Christian is increasingly perceived as a designation that affords privilege, sometimes to an unfair degree (I have my doubts on that one), there is no question that the opposite is true in much of the Middle East.

It is easy to see that militant Islamists are actively focused on the eradication of Christianity in at least “Muslim” lands, if not the whole world. This is true to some degree in the refugee camps as well.

Even still, many of the refugees we worked with this week are either committed Christians, or are actively exploring the faith.

The stories of how these people came to their decisions for Christianity vary widely, but most are eye-opening. Few in the Middle East can come to Christ as easily and risk-free as nearly every American can if they wish. Apostasy from Islam is often regarded as an offense punishable by death.

One man I saw this week was openly wearing a prominent silver and gold cross around his neck. I didn’t notice it at first, but as I was listening to his heart with my stethoscope the bright golden object swinging in front of me was suddenly hard to miss.

crossRealizing I wasn’t in America, where crosses are so ubiquitous they’ve become a little trite to me, I exclaimed, “You’re wearing a cross!”

“Yes,” he nodded.

I pondered the implications of wearing that specific symbol in the Islamic world. A cross is better described as cross-hairs for a man like him. Yet he wore the symbol proudly, unapologetically. Should our roles be reversed, would I have the same courage?

“You are a Christian then.” I said, continuing in my new role of Dr. Redundant.

“Yes.” He nodded again, smiling.

Through my translator, I learned that a few months ago in Iran he was awoken in the night by the figure of a man calling him to follow Christ. He said he was convinced that the man speaking to him was Jesus, the Son of God. He knew almost nothing of the Christian faith, as he was raised a Muslim.

Still, upon waking the next day, my patient committed himself for following Christ. He felt he had to do this. It was an inner compulsion; he had been called to a new faith, a new life, no matter the cost to him.

But it was indeed a ‘costly’ decision. Read anything about the Islamic regime of Iran (I recommend the the wonderful autobiography Persepolis as a cursory intro if interested), and you will know that the government of Iran is itself a religious organization. Along with typical functions of any secular government, like providing running water, working roads, electricity and health care (which in many instances, the Iranian government does quite well), it also enforces a highly conservative interpretation of Shia Islam.

How do they enforce such a thing, you ask? How do you get a nation of 77.5 million people to follow extremely strict religious rules? How can you enforce an entire nation to put every woman in robes and headcoverings, to allow no music, no dancing and to enforce frequent observance of Islamic practices like 5x daily prayer?

With “religious police” of course!

As a kid from the suburbs of America, following a Christian faith I was always free to reject, it took some reading and imagination for me to even comprehend such a notion.

It was only in 1979 that the Iranian Revolution took place. Prior to that, Iran probably looked much more like America than it does today. But in ’78-’79, things changed dramatically, as that was the year of the Iranian Revolution. It was then that the Pahlavi dynasty, led by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by the Islamic Republic.

revolution
Supporters of the Revolution. Didn’t Turn Out Like Many Expected.

The Republic was initially a political movement, comprised of a collection of leftist thinkers, activist students and numerous Islamic movements. It was led by a powerful Islamic leader named Ruhollah Khomeini, a scholar, author, politician and political revolutionary.

After the Shah was forced from power, to the surprise of nobody, Khomeini was designated as the Supreme Leader of Iran. However, TO the surprise of many, Khomeini was given final authority on both political and religious matters.

The irony of this transformation is hard to miss. Criticism of the Shah centered around how difficult it was for the commoner to be heard. The Shah’s rulership was a dynastic monarchy, with power passing from father to child generation after generation. This meant that nobody could rise from, say, a community organizer and member of a minority comprising 13% of a nation’s population, like Barack Obama, to the highest position of power in the land (Huzzah! Huzzah! Democracy!).

Yet the solution to this problem that emerged in Iran was the Islamic Republic, which consolidated both political and religious power in one man. The power of the rulers of Iran was, effectively, broadened as a result of the revolution. The “little people” never got their say. And, I suspect, many of those who supported the Revolution experienced colossal disappointment. Power just went from one ruling class to another. To this day, a Khomeini rules Iran.

Some version of the above rushed through my mind as I stared at the cross hanging from my patient’s neck. An Iranian, 4 months in Greece, wearing a bright silver and gold cross. Wow.

As it turns out, the father of this man was a member of this religious police force. This patient had chosen to convert from Islam to Christianity as the son of a man who is tasked with enforcing and promulgating Islam in the country. More irony.

Imagine the shame on their family for such an act! Aside from endangering himself, my patient was possibly even endangering his own father (and mother).

Many immigrants come to Europe because they think it is rich, with jobs and money flowing like wine at a wedding party. Increasingly, they are finding that Europe is no utopia. Millions are unemployed. Millions are poor. Upward mobility is rare.

But one reality of Europe is that it does remain a place where you can follow a religion in nearly any any way you choose, to include no religion at all. Say what you will about the EU, but it remains a place of tremendous religious freedom, rivaled perhaps by only the U.S.

So it is understandable that this man left Iran. But it is still amazing that he was willing to do it. He left with nothing. No family, no friends. He slunk away in the night, alone. As the son of an important man, his life had no doubt been comfortable and safe. He upended all of that.

port
Pireaus Port. Lucky you if you have a tent.

My patient arrived at the Pireaus Port of Athens after crossing the Agean Sea from Turkey. He arrived nearly destitute, having given most of his money to a trafficker to get him to Greece. I think he slept on the concrete sidewalk the first night.

The next morning, he says he prayed that the God of his new faith would spare him, and shortly thereafter was approached by members of a Christian church in Athens who offered him a bottle of water. It was through this church that I met him.

ellenikoGreek authorities soon placed this man in the Elliniko refugee camp, where he made no secret of his faith, sharing it with any around him who would listen. Not long after his arrival, a riot broke out in the camp with Muslims targeting Christians.

The violence carried on for quite some time, as Greek police made no move to stop it, one even pointing out that if some of the refugees died, “there will be fewer of them for us to deal with.” My patient was beaten severely in the melee.

It is inhumane, of course, for anyone to think as these police did. But their attitude is understandable nonetheless. Would you wade into the middle of that mess?

Somewhere in this story, my patient picked up his cross. I don’t know if it was in Iran or somewhere in Athens. But he wears it daily. It is not merely jewelry to him, given at some Christmas party. It wasn’t bought from one of the ubiquitous Christian Book Stores in America, with every possible permutation of “cross trinkets” available for sale. It was bought for a price; worn for a higher one.

This isn’t necessarily a Christian story, although as a Christian I find it inspiring. But from this anyone can recognize the deep human desire to worship in freedom. This man’s life story is a reminder that people are willing to die for the right to think and act honestly in relation to their understanding of the divine.

The cross symbolizes the reality of this man’s beliefs, even if that symbol marks him for suffering or even death. Would that all Christendom be so committed. Would that all who cherish freedom be so as well.

Headed Back to Athens

 

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Athens, looking pretty. A rarity, IMHO.

For the second time in less than a year, I’m on my way back to Athens. This will be a short trip with virtually no team. My colleague organizing things in Athens has stated that she “feels sorry” for me, as the number of people signed up for the clinic appears to be quite large.

From what I can tell, the situation in Greece has only gotten worse since I was last there. Many borders and routes into Europe have closed, and migrants are being turned away at far greater numbers than they were last year. But by “turned away,” I’m not describing from Greece itself. Nope. Thousands continue to arrive on the shores of Greece every day. I’m talking about further into Europe. So, the migrant population continues to swell in Greece, especially Athens. Although authorities have begun shipping back some migrants (numbering in the hundreds) in the past few days, this is a small small number.

I say I’m bringing ‘no team’ this time, but in reality this isn’t accurate. Aside from what sounds like a great number of willing helpers in Athens, I also will bring my 14 and 16 year old daughters with me this time. I don’t know what sort of role they will be able to play in the work we do this time. It could be simply watching the children of the patients while they’re waiting the doc.

migrantsHopefully, they can learn a bit about medical care in a refugee and/or underserved situation. As their lives are largely consumed with cheerleading, skinny jeans, teen-lit, French horn, Cello, soccer and boyfriends (ex…EX boyfriends), this might be quite an eye-opening experience for them. I hope so.

My biggest concern is that we will successfully collect accurate data on the patients we see. Last time we did a fair job, under the circumstances, but in my spare time I’m STILL working through the XL spreadsheet and trying to come up with data summaries that will be of some use to the wider medical world.

This time, I hope to have time to ask better questions, and to formalize how we input the data. It is well known among those who do medical research that 80% of the study is done before the study begins. Developing a means to collect data, to college USEFUL data, and to do it in a way that is searchable and accessible at a later date is difficult. It is especially difficult when at that later date, you are dealing with hundreds, maybe thousands of data points.

I’ve had enough training in this element of the medical world to feel a gnawing sense of anxiety as I approach the issue. My medical school heavily emphasizes epidemiology and biostatistics, and I was part-way through an Master’s in Public Health degree until I ran out of money. So I have a sense for how easy it is to do this stuff badly. But I wish I had a collaborator or better skills to know I could do it well.

Still, I’ve had some help from a colleague at work who maintains a quizzical affection for XL (I can’t judge, I was once in a steady relationship with Photoshop), and he has helped me clean up our data from October. And I have a much better sense for what I need to do this time around.

14_athens_imgIt should be mentioned that most relief agencies don’t actually do any of this, even the good agencies who actually help people (lots of them are there for the photo-op and little else, it seems). I received some generous help from a professor at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine prior to my last trip, and he noted only a small number of agencies who provide care AND do good, statistical research on the populations they serve.

So, it makes sense that I’m somewhat on my own here. It’s not easy to focus on research and practical care at the same time, as one is more empathy-driven, the other much more analytical and “cold.”

Example: if someone comes in coughing up blood, you can either turn and enter “hemoptysis” into your spreadsheet (and then get the heck out of there because…ew), or you can throw on some gloves, hopefully a mask, get them on a bed and start working them up for any of the many many possible reasons for that symptom (most of those reasons being prit-TEE bad).

So, we will see how this goes. We leave tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.

 

Medical Case

image

A 44 year old man came to our clinic today with a description of chest pain, mostly on the left side. He says it’s been ongoing for about 4 months.

He arrived in Athens about two weeks ago, with plans to head to Germany in another week. He was seen last week at a Doctors of the World clinic in town for the same problem.

He says they gave him the above EKG, told him he was having a heart attack, and sent him out the door with 10 pills of Prilosec and instructions to go to “the hospital.”

Due to money restrictions, lack of transportation, minimal confidence in, and maximal confusion from, his interaction with his Greek-speaking doctor, he did not go to the hospital. He instead came to our clinic 4 days later, worried he was dying from a heart attack.

How would you handle this?

Donations

Sansum Medical Research Institute

I used to work at a non-profit medical research institute. There, we didn’t “earn” a single dollar. Everything was given to us through some version of a donation. So I suppose I shouldn’t be so amazed and slightly mystified to receive the thousands of dollars sent our way for the relief trip to Athens.

True, our costs are estimated to run in the $6-10,000 range, and we’re still around $3,000. So it would be nice to get closer to our goal. But even if all the money stopped tomorrow, this has been a humbling experience. Things went from what seemed like a good idea that aligned well with my interests and lifelong training, to something more important. Quickly.

I’ll explain:

I spent a loooottttaaa time in that building. Still miss those days!

The medical school I attended is located in Israel. Called the Medical School for International Health, the curriculum strongly emphasizes International and cross-cultural medicine. It’s a small school, but is comprised of people who love, love, global, cross-cultural experiences.  I’m one of them. These are “my” people. Aside from my wife and children, to this day, I love nothing more than being somewhere, far, far from my familiar world, surrounded by languages I don’t understand and histories and stories and traditions and beliefs I have yet to learn. Being at MSIH put me in the lives of people who love the same thing. I’m not sure I ever felt more at “home,” and I was approximately 6,940 miles from the suburbs of Colorado Springs, where I grew up.

A refugee relief clinic in Athens, thus, is a natural thing for me. I’m wired for this. It’s what I’d do full-time if I didn’t have obligations to children and student loans. But, as evidenced by my parents’ one single excursion out of the U.S. to visit me in all the years I’ve lived overseas, this international stuff isn’t for everyone. In fact, especially relief and refugee affairs isn’t really for most of ANYone. It’s a briar patch kind of thing: This is what I do. But I don’t expect it’s what you do.

So I am amazed to see that what started off as something I care about, has become something you care about too. To those of you who have sent money, and prayers, and follow this blog, thank you. It’s humbling, and a little disquieting, to know that the work we’re doing isn’t being met with ambivalence around the world.

Indeed, it has been quite the opposite.

DIE-Tunes

I believe I have just witness the beginning of the death of iTunes.  As much as I’ve tried and tried to like iTunes, I can’t express how happy I am to see a true and valid competitor emerge to thwart them.  And, I think this will DESTROY them.

Amazon, you rule.

iTunes Icon
Something Tells Me I've Just Violated A Copyright By Posting This Logo.

Now you can buy Mp3’s from Amazon.com and – here’s the sell – store your tunes to the cloud, not on your own hardware. I’ve been begging (in my head) for this for YEARS.  The cost and hassle of trying to constantly figure out where to store my songs and shows that I’ve downloaded from iTunes has been one endless headache.  This has as much to do with the fact that I’M MAKING A GENUINE EFFORT NOT TO STEAL THEN (in all honesty, this is my big mistake).  Being legit, I’m constantly plagued with copyright protections on iTunes products that makes storing and moving MY copies of digital media almost impossible.

The obvious solution (one that still supports the artists and their decadent renunciation of most human moral codes) is to simply quit making me store the songs in the first place.  Just stream them from some central server that I never even deal with.  Amazon Cloud Player (actually real, actually available, actually currently playing 1 of 100 of the top trance tunes of 2011 that I just bought as a collection for…9 bucks) does just that.  Finally.

One example:  I had a tiny netbook, with virtually zero hard drive space.  So I tried to store all my tunes (and shows) on an external hard drive.  Then I switched computers, and wanted to move that data.  Tough.  Sounds easy, but it ain’t.  To Apple, it looks like I’m stealing them, or selling them in some virtual dark alley, furtively looking over my shoulder and waiting to hear Hugo Weaving bellow, “Mr. ANDERSON!”  If I’d just legitimately STOLEN the damn songs in the first place, I could play them wherever I wanted, moving them like so many Word files.

Zeus with a laurel crown. Gold stater from Lam...
SW101: God Of Ruined Mp3 Players.

 

Another example:  If ruining ipods (usually by jogging in the rain) was a God-like attribute, I’d be warming up a U-haul for my move to Mt. Olympus.  I just sorta never believe water is actually bad for anything.  It’s a swimmer thing.  Anyway, my iTunes can only be played on 5 players unless I “de-authorize” a player.  This sounds find, but how do I de-authorize a player that has suddenly transformed into really unique thin mint?  I can’t even turn it on long enough to de-authorize the glorified aluminum can.  Same for my original computer that held the results of my first foray into iTunes psychosis.  It suffered a massive “heart” attack at some point.  That’s 1 authorized player I’ll never get back.

Six hard disk drives with cases opened showing...
Hard Drives, Hard Drives Everywhere...

 

Now it doesn’t matter.  My tunes are floating out there, in the beloved cloud.  Free from the confines of my cheap, inefficient hard drives that never seem to have enough space.  With Cloudplayer, the tunes stream, so presumably, copying them illegally is much harder.  So, I would hope that Amazon will be HELPFUL when I try to use one device or another, or when I mistakenly put my Mac Mini in the microwave, expecting a nice melty pizza in 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

Plus, it’s Seattle busts Cupertino.  Kurt Cobain vs. The Grateful Dead.  The Sound vs. The Bay.

Die.  Die Tunes.  You had your chance, Appletini.

Health Report – Mickey Mouse

Our family just returned from Disneyland Paris.  We had a great time.  As a doctor, however, I just couldn’t ignore the many health problems clearly evident in the thousands of images I saw of the world’s most famous mouse.

Fictional characters on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

I can say with confidence that this will be the first and only time that I publish the health record of a patient without his/her consent.  But then again, I’m not even sure this little rodent was my patient at all.  Furthermore, I can’t vouch for my physical exam of our storied mouse – given his rather cavalier take on the idea of ‘physical’ – but I do believe we should all be alarmed at the probable health status of our big-eared friend.

Of greatest concern is what can only be described as HUGE feet.  Unfortunately, this does not suggest enviable male endowment, as it is sometimes rumored in those with enormous paws.  Rather, these feet are swollen.  A close look at most pictures of this patient suggest that he in fact can’t wear shoes at all, but instead some sort of stretchy slipper.

The illustration shows the major signs and sym...
I Kept Seeing This Instead Of Enjoying Space Mountain

The best explanation for feet this swollen is congestive heart failure.  This is a situation where the heart has pumped against a dysfunctional circulatory vessel pressure for so long that the muscle fibers have becomes stretched out and weak.  Eventually, the heart becomes incapable of pushing blood around the body effectively, causing pooling of fluids in the extremities, especially the feet.  Judging by the thousands of pictures of him, most drawings were likely done after this patient had been on his feet all day.  Let’s face it, an 80 year old mouse can only walk around smiling waving at kids for so long before problems arise.

CHF is progressive (meaning it just gets worse over time).  Elizabeth Taylor just died from this, for example.  Mick could use any of a number of meds to lower his blood pressure, and (arguable, these days) something to strengthen the contractions of whatever functioning heart muscle fibers he still has.  He should also go with low-salt cheese, lean scraps and whatever else a billionaire mouse might eat.

The little guy also has disturbingly white hands.  Leaving aside the perplexing question of how a rodent has human hands (and feet), what we’re probably seeing here is Reynaud’s phenomenon.

In itself, this is a circulatory system peculiarity that is not medically-concerning.  However, it can be very painful.  Mickey appears to be in the early stages of the process.  Likely shortly after his portrait sittings, his hands turned bright blue, then eventually into a deep red.  Throughout the process, he would be in quite a bit of pain.

Of course, I can’t be sure if he isn’t wearing gloves (assuming that garish white color IS his skin, frequent glove use makes sense).  Gloved or not, we still have the problem of clearly HUGE hands, suggesting edema like that described above in his feet.  Assuming, however, that we do in fact have Reynaud’s here, the concern is of an autoimmune disease in the category of lupus.  “Lupus” is a reference to the facial rash often seen in the disease and how it mimics the fur-pattern of the red wolf.  Given that wolves engorge themselves on mice whenever possible, this diagnosis is insult to injury for our poor little entertainer.

Furthermore, lupus typically causes joint and connective tissue pain.  It can lead to heart problems, anemia, serious lung problems including emboli and hemorrhages, kidney damage and neurological problems.  There is no known cure, although the disease can be managed usually to good effect with oral steroids (not of the Lance Armstrong type…we’ll get to that), but the Mickster here clearly needs to get them started.

Mickey Mouse Bus
On The Way to Rehab?

Next, the rotund belly.  This is the physical sign most associated with diabetes and other metabolic diseases (or could be another sign of his CHF).  Termed by doctors as “central obesity,” this malady affects a HUGE proportion of American men, especially.  To our knowledge, little else puts a person more at risk for big metabolic problems.  Mickey lives at Disneyland, where he can expect to eat things like spun sugar, rock candy-encased apples (I presume of the sort that felled Ms. S. White) and shovel-fulls of sweetened popcorn.  So, as a nearly 90 year-old mouse, he can be forgiven the “Gaston Gut,” as it were.  Still, a strict diet is highly recommended.

Another thing:  look carefully, and you’ll realize that Mickey’s head is larger than his entire thorax (body sans legs).  Babies exhibit this phenomenon – watch a toddler reach overhead…only the hands extend beyond the giant head itself – but adults don’t.  Mickey may have been born with something called hydrocephaly that was inexplicably untreated for 80 years.  Maybe he was too busy as a child prodigy mouse, or maybe everyone thought it was “cute.”  He may also be suffering from Cushings, an overabundance of the steroid cortisol.  He has some other physical signs to support that diagnosis too.

Lance Armstrong and John Korioth in the team t...
THESE Guns Don't Come With Serial Numbers

But he also could be doping.  By doping, I specifically mean HGH, or human growth hormone.  Lots of athletes do (or did) it, like Barry Bonds (yep, I passed judgement…don’t care about some goofy trial) and probably Lance Armstrong.  Here a note to Armstrong supporters:  almost EVERY top-5 pro cyclist, and every one of Lance’s main competitors over his winning years, has been busted for doping of some sort.  Except him.  Savvy, not legitimacy, I say.

Anyway, HGH makes you huge, but it can disporportionately affect the bones, especially in the head.  Of note, HGH isn’t bad in itself, per se.  It stimulates muscle growth in a way that can be very helpful to geriatric patients, for example.  And, as with many Hollywood elites, The Mickster shows his age about as much as Dick Clark who looks 40 but was actually personal friends with Moses.  So, I think Mickey can be forgiven for taking a shot or two from the possible fountain of youth.  But, unfortunately, that HUGE noggin gives it away…to me at least.

So, let me say that DisneyLand was a great adventure for our 4 kids.  I, however, kept getting dragged into unnecessary endeavors like rides or shows even as I frantically searched high and low my latest, and sickest, patient.  Sadly, I never had a chance to warn him of his predicament.  So, the onus is now on you, dear SW101 nation.  Find him.  Tell him.  He’s sick.  He needs help.

Next Week: Goofy comes out of the closet and reveals that he has Marfan’s Disease…and everyone pretends to be surprised.

XBox – A Medical Necessity

“Dr. SW101,” Says the curly-haired assistant, “will you sign this memo.”

I don’t look up.  As usual, I don’t read the memo, reaching for the closest pen and signing as fast as possible.  I look up at him, smiling cheerfully.  “What’d I just authorize?”

This is a photo of my Xbox
Image via Wikipedia

 

“Oh, you just told General Forth that the unit has medical need for 6 additional XBoxes.”

I pause, wondering why I’m so morally opposed to all paperwork that I can’t bring myself to even look at paperwork unless I absolutely have to.

“Xbox,”  I say, brows furrowing.  “Do you get ’em at the pharmacy?”

“No!”  He says, cloyingly earnest.  “You’re SO funny, Dr. SW101.  You should write a blog!”

“I do.”  I say, feeling sardonic, looking dour.  I reach for Volume I of Harrison’s Internal Medicine.  I lick a thumb and start flipping through the thousand-page tome.  “Hmmmm, Xbox.  Nope.  Nothing here.”

Assistant waits dutifully, no doubt inwardly rolling his eyes while clutching his well-typed letterheaded memo, with my signature still drying at the bottom.

“OH!  Right.  I’m only in Volume I.  Stupid me.  I should be in Volume II, where the X’s are.”  I pause.  “Just a minute,” I say, reaching for the second book.  A few minutes of earnest searching, “Nooh.  Darn.  I just don’t see anything talking about how XBox is an accepted therapy for anything.  Not even my favorite disease of all time – mitochondrial infectitis.”

“You’re kidding, right?”  He says, now looking worried.  “We can get the Red Cross to buy XBoxes for the unit if you say they’re medically warranted.”

“So, my patients – most of whom have seizure disorders, PTSD and post-combat anxiety – can sit around all day blowing each other up and staring at flickering lights?  Maybe I should prescribe a Rave too, so we can add drugs to the strobe lights.  Or would they be used for the Xbox version of Myst or something?”

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.
Bzzzt. What I need is some rapidly blinking lights and simulated death right now.

 

Assistant gets all serious, fearing the loss of his beloved memo.  He starts reading some of the Pulitzer Prize material, “Gaming has become a central element to the Soldier’s past time.  When they return from war zones, the lifelike quality of the Xbox combat games approximate the environment they just left.  For many, this represents a “return” to their former lives, thus producing a sense of calm and reassurance.”

“I said that?!”  I exclaim, eyes wide.  “What kind of crap-pile hash was I smokin’ when I wrote that letter?”

“Oh, huh.  Um.  Well, if you didn’t notice…I wrote it.”  Says the assistant, looking dejected.

Short of tearing the letter out of his hands, and no doubt derailing an already fast-moving train with lots of passengers, I know I’m on the hook.

“Ok.  You win.  Xboxes all around!  On me.”

Relief, profusion, gagging urgency and more of that I-want-to-help-soldiers-but-won’t-listen-to-reason earnestness.  “Oh, THANK you!  Man, you have no idea what this will mean to the guys.”

“Can we just agree that you got me to sign yet another of those goofy Army things where you’re not really asking for medical opinion but if I sign the memo about 25 people will have busy stuff to do and somebody somewhere will get something to further the impression that they’re entitled to things that the average American pays for?”

“Um.  Sure.”

“Can we further agree that Xbox is not an accepted medical therapy for anything?

“Yep.”  Confidence growing…clearly the doctor is too weak to actually stop any administrative freight trains now.

“Fine.  You have your memo.”

He turns to leave.  Then turns back, “Oh, and about that memo for the massage chairs…”

But I don’t hear him.  I’ve crawled under my desk, looking for the Lost Thumbtack.  I don’t “find” the thing until I hear my door open and close.  Carefully I look up….he’s standing there, hand on the doorknob.  He’s smiling, one of those serious smiles that makes perfectly clear that nobody’s fooling anybody.  “Find your thumbtack?”

I sigh.  The sound is tired in my ears.  “Yes.  But I just tossed another one down there to go look for later.”  He doesn’t say anything.  “Yeah, the massage chairs.  Bring me the memo.  Until then, take this script-” I scribble onto a piece of paper.

He crossed the room and takes the script from my hand, smiling.

Massage Chair
1, bid.  Do not swallow.

 

RATIONal!

Yes, throwing a few words out there again.  Can’t help m’self.  Been a bit.

Living in Europe insulates the average human from goofy, over-the-top language meant to get people to do and think in ways that OTHER people want them to.  So, I haven’t been very caught up in, or all that impressed by, all the politics and steamy language coming out of my home country these past months.

Demilitarized Zone, North Korea
We have fast government. No arguing. You like. Like pizza.

Now the election is finally over, we find that Republicans have “swept” themselves into a level of “power” that assures exactly zero will happen unless they work with all the Democrats and Independents that never lost their jobs.  Some people think all the upcoming wrangling is a bad thing; I think it’s great.  A super-active government rarely doesn’t do anything well.  There IS a type of government that “gets things done” almost immediately, with little debate.  It’s called a dictatorship.  If you’re smitten with that idea, move to North Korea and try THAT speedy idea on and see how you like it.

Anyway, I received a link to a very persuasive and scary speech given by an orthopedic surgeon named Dr. David Janda, wherein he outlined the horrors and sneaky tricks piled into the Obama health care bill.  His speech was in support of Rob Steele, a cardiologist-turned-politician likely because he was mad as hell at the terrible direction of the country (*yawn*, aren’t we all?).  Presumably, said cardiologist is now back in the clinic, since he thoroughly

Republican Party Handbill, ca. 1880
Image by Cornell University Library via Flickr

lost the election of the 15th Congressional District of Michigan to John Dingell something like 83k votes to 118k votes.  Apparently, the Dingells have run that district for generations.  If you’re looking for nutty, inflammatory, manipulative language, look no further than at a political battle between a challenger losing in the polls as s/he tries to unseat a longstanding incumbent.

The gist of Dr. Janda’s speech is how Obama intends to RATION health care.  This actually sparked my interest.  I don’t really care about health care system politics; I’d rather just see patients, frankly.  But I have to just say to my fledgling SW101 crowd, I SUPPORT RATIONING.  Of every public resource.  Food. Gas. Sex (um, although I’d readily opt out of the “public” option).

New Orleans, Louisiana, 1943. Line at Rationin...
The whole idea of capitalism is so you don't have to share. Sharing sucks.

So many people take the idea of rationing to be unequivocally bad…as if it’s totally wrong and even beyond debate.  That’s the tack of Dr. Janda.  It’s something we all KNOW is wrong.  Like sticking needles in the eyes of baby squirrels or stomping on halloween pumpkins.

Incidentally, Janda is a specialist, supporting another specialist.  Primary care docs like me aren’t especially pleased with how specialists have garnered power and money for themselves in the AMS (Am. Med. System).  In particular, I’m speaking of orthopedic surgeons and cardiologists.  Specialists make fabulous money by ordering tests and procedures, none of which have ever been regulated or rationed in any way.  Echo’s and caths pay for the boat, private school and vacations to S. Pacific islands nobody can name.  Don’t tell me the only force driving clinical decisions is scientific evidence and standards of clinical care…money is money.  But even so, I’m for rationing.

President Barack Obama speaks to a joint sessi...
Hey friends! Here's a really mediocre idea!!

Let me say that I’m not happy about Obamacare. It was said well @ a recent conference, “who’s going to do a better job coming up with a fair, affordable national health care plan, 189 laywers in a room for half a year, or 10 family doctors in a room for a week? Obama went with the lawyers, he should have gone with the docs.”

That said, I FULLY AND COMPLETELY agree with rationing because it’s a necessity. In training, I followed a patient in the ICU who was costing close to 1 million dollars a day of PUBLIC MONEY for the last 4 months of her life. Somebody, somewhere needed to compassionately deny further intensive care to this woman, instead providing dignified hospice end-of-life management. Her case justified ONLY taxpayer-funded hospice care but nobody had the cajones to tell her that.

Every precious resource, if pooled for the common good, needs to be rationed. It’s where we get the term ‘rational’ and there’s a reason for it. Closer to home, my sister apparently has a University doctor telling her that she needs a thousand dollar procedure (colonoscopy). The procedure is not done by this doc’s specialty, and my sister hasn’t even had a rudimentary work-up to justify the cost of the scope.  She has not had a professional analyze of the risks vs. the benefits of doing it, either.  Yet she’s already being told that she needs this procedure.

Remember…EVERY test and procedure has significant risk associated with it. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the doc my sis sees for a scope is a specialist? And, since that specialist pays for the Benz and sailboat from scope income, wouldn’t it be nice to know that he moved in a stepwise fashion through the GI workup process, a process that is peer-reviewed and widely accepted as essential before a scope is ordered?  This is the ‘rationing’ process that Obamacare advocates.  It puts serious limits on specialists in the provision of their care when it comes to big-ticket stuff like scopes, imaging and surgery.

But remember, we’re talking about rules in effect ONLY if you intend to get your neighbor to pay for your health care. YOU are welcome to pay for your own scope any time you wish. YOU can fund your own health insurance – one that doesn’t make docs do ANYTHING before they dig into your body – if you want.  I watched it work this way in Israel, and it was a pretty good deal.

However, the fact is most Americans believe they are SO important that they have the right to be treated like kings…paid for by peasants. But ethically, Americans have no right to whatever care they want whenever they want it, if they also expect someone else to pay for it.

Hugh Owen Thomas (1834-1891), British orthoped...
Trust me, I'm a DOCTOR! We ALL are.

The AMS does too many procedures and tests. The result of both is astronomical costs and HARM TO PATIENTS (through false-positive test results and procedure errors). So, not only is care rationing ethical and less costly, it is absolutely safer for patients. Healthcare is NOT safe. There is a risk-benefit ratio that must be considered any time a patient comes in contact with the health care system. Waiting for non-urgent care (knee replacements) and rationing of tests and procedures is ethical, cheaper and flat-out safer.

Incidentally, I argued this point in a debate in med school…waay before Obamacare. I have seen nothing since that time to sway my opinion. In fact, training and practice have only solidified that opinion with real-world facts.

Obama didn’t make our health care system right, but he did make it better. The Tea Party idea of repealing the new law is lunacy. If they REALLY want a free-market system, they need to dispense with EMTALA laws which dictate that ER docs (and now other specialties too) are required to see any and every patient.  THIS IS UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE!!  It’s just the most inefficient, ineffective and expensive system in the world. We do have a social healthcare system. We just need to make it rational…starting with sensible rationing of limited resources.

Movie Review – Avatar

I enjoyed myself fully last night as I entered the world of ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic that already handily broke a 1 billion-dollar landmark record of some kind.  I’d watch the show again tonight if I could.  I’d probably watch it every night for a week like my high school buddies did for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” once upon a time.

You don’t have to care – or understand – the point of the movie to completely enjoy the stunning visual spectacle presented in wide-screen, 3D wonder.  In fact, I’d advise constraining yourself specifically to the visual effects and skip putting any real thought to the message of the movie.  In essence, just sing along with the song, but don’t think about what the words actually mean.

The story follows an ex-Marine named Jake as he becomes part of a mission to subjugate – or at least translocate – the natives on a strange new planet (a moon actually, but does it matter?).  On the n0t-so-subtly-named Pandora, the “aliens” congregate around an enormous tree set in the middle of a seemingly endless forest.  They stand about 11 feet tall, with blue skin and luminous yellow eyes and they all seem to carry bow and arrows and daggers.  These blue and tall but otherwise disappointingly human-shaped beings generally seem happiest when attending their frequent tribe-wide drum fests – with a terminally simplistic 2/4 beat rhythm that sounds like it might have been pounded out on cool Senegalese drums the Anglo orchestra bought in bulk.

These earthy aliens have a sacred, mystical, spiritual connection to the forest where they live; generally behaving like any nature-loving tribe the Europeans successfully decimated a little over a century ago in North America.  In a complete creative hiatus, at one point nature is even called a “mother”.  Why not a father, or brother, or just skip the nuclear family reference to nature entirely?  The descriptor ‘Mother Earth’ is so unoriginal, it ranks up there with Bless You and Dot Com.

Although 2 hours and something like 40 minutes, you can easily sum up the movie in one phrase: “Dances With Wolves”…but with pterodactyls you can ride.

Basically – Marine makes contact with natives through project financed by aggressive and ethics-challenged Big Business company.  Marine plans on helping his financiers destroy said natives.  Instead, he inadvertently falls in love with natives in general, and one curvaceous native in particular.  He then becomes the enemy of his former bosses, ultimately leading the meek, dumb, dark-skinned simpletons to victory over superior white man.

I haven’t decided if this REALLY tired theme of the White Male swooping down into a primitive race, seeing their genuine good, and then becoming their Great Savior is completely racist.  Some are saying it absolutely is.  I don’t really think that was the intent.  I just think it was lazy writing by a white male who deep-down believes that white men are still the best hope for the world.  That they still run it, ultimately.  But it is possible that white men really don’t have much to offer the world anymore – that we’ve had our time and made our mark.  Maybe it’s time for some non-white, non-men to run the countries, write the laws, own the companies and save fictional worlds.  Maybe the white boy has done about all he can.

Big Business takes a major hit in this movie.  It gets portrayed as the denizen of all Evil in life.  That said, it’s Big Business that has paid for every iota of scientific discovery that has occurred on Pandora.  The science taking place on this moon (and taking place on our earth) is an elevated form of existence, no question, but in both worlds it mostly exists because of Big Business, either directly or through taxes.  Scientists – and artists – need to accept the fact that to live in that enlightened world of thought and wonder and possibility depends on their benefactor’s mundane ability to sell widgets.  Big Business is rarely genuinely evil.  True, figuring out when to inject some profit-endangering humanistic principles into a business plan does takes some skill and is occasionally gotten wrong. But for the most part, if business didn’t make the poet, at least it feeds him.

The actual “avatar” is a living being made to look like the aliens, but controlled by the mind of a human.  The human links to the avatar neurologically, so it can only be controlled by one specific human.  Thus, the human lies in a coffin-like body-pod that connects him/her to their specific avatar.  Upon falling into a coma in the pod, the avatar wakes up and the mind of the comatose human controls it.

Soohh...who gets to clean this thing?

The doc in me couldn’t help but get hung up on this part of the movie.  First, all humans need to sleep.  But since the avatar wakes up as soon as the human “sleeps”, and since controlling the avatar is a conscious process, the human never actually does sleep.  For some evolutionary reason I can’t fathom, REM sleep is the foundation of all life.  This inconvenient fact defies even the mighty pen of James Cameron.  By the end of the movie, after staying awake vicariously with the characters, I felt like I’d been on call in the hospital for days on end (felt like I was back in residency again).

Also, the human lays in this coffin thing for hours and hours.  At the least, he’s gotta pee himself on a regular basis, to say nothing of the inevitable bowel movement here and there.  Plus, the main character’s avatar hooks up with the sexy female alien.  Depicted as the first consummating night of an eternal love bond – thus likely a multicoital affair – envisioning the scene (and smell) inside the pod after this particular night left me a bit squeamish.

As mentioned, the power of this movie is in the visuals.  It is a “looker” many times over.  But the general message is tired, probably slightly racist, and denigrates the U.S. Military (or at least leads the audience to exult in the widespread slaughter of American soldiers/mercenaries).  That said, perhaps our culture really should take the main theme of the story to heart.  After all, we DID decimate the Native American culture, and based on my experiences on the Crow Reservation in Montana, I’d say we continue to.  We’re also strikingly obtuse in our dealings with tribal cultures in the Middle East today.  Listening to people from a different culture – rather than melting them with daisycutters and circling drones – has some merit.

But I do wish the movie had added a little post-modernism into the mix and eschewed the evil-good idea altogether.  It didn’t have to pit the American Axis of Evil (big business + U.S. Army) against a pristine tribal culture practically perfect in every way.  Historic Native American tribes were often duplicitous, aggressive, thieving and hateful (many still are today).  They rarely trusted each other from tribe to tribe and may have been just as irresponsible had one tribe attained the raw power that the U.S. Government currently has.  The Arab tribes we’re tangling with recently have a litany of faults and cobwebby dark corners too.  But they are also a just, priceless, sacred, honorable people.  This dichotomy exists in virtually every race in our world.  Americans seem to hate this complexity in our fiction – it’s easier to hate one thing and love another and then watch them duke it out.

Yeah, YEAH! Die lame-oh Americans! Wait, didn't an American make this movie?

Thus, the conflict in the movie could have been between two parties filled with faults and frailties but ultimately imbued with genuine honor, honesty and a respect for the rights of others.  Standing between them is something they both deeply need and want (trees, mineral ore…whatever).  In life, conflicts almost always boil down to two parties who both have blood on their hands, but both are essentially good, honorable…and in the right.  e.g., Palestine wants the land, Israel wants the land, both have been evil at times, both have been angelically good at times, and each have some form of legitimate claim to the exact space of real estate.  Stick that conundrum in your avatar’s virtual peace pipe and take a deep drag, nature-brother.

Depicting this nuanced world may have weakened the sense of righteous rage as the Army went Operation Flatten Everything.  It may have lessened the gloating release when the Ultimate Bad Guy finally met his ignominious end.  But it would have made a better movie.  It would have made the written story as complex as those fantastic visuals, and created a worthy counterpart to such a sparkling, wondrous vision.