Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hospital hell: No way to get well

I spent most of last weekend at the hospital with a friend.

Although there were bright spots – involving nurses, aides and doctors who went out of their way to be kind and caring – it was a completely exasperating experience.

My friend’s medical history is long and complicated. So orthopedic doctors in the emergency room Saturday agreed she should be evaluated closely before they recommended surgery to repair a hip fracture. She was admitted after six hours in the ER. I went home assuming she could get a little rest before Monday when the tests would start.

Then Sunday morning, my friend called to say she was being prepped for surgery that afternoon.

We were both astonished. I scrambled to get a shower and drive to the hospital. By the time I arrived, she'd already told the nurse she would not give consent for surgery until she saw her heart specialists.

On Monday, her cardiologists OK’d her for surgery. But then some new-to-the-scene orthopedic specialists decided surgery wasn’t the right course after all. They recommended weeks of physical therapy.

The outcome is OK. But the process was abusive.

The inconsistency of advice from rotating doctors drove us crazy. Over four days, she was repeatedly offered medicines that were not appropriate and failed to receive medicines she normally takes. After a day or so in the hospital, my friend began twitching so badly she couldn’t sleep. When she asked about this symptom, no one could explain it. She finally figured out on her own that it was because she hadn't been receiving an anti-anxiety drug she usually takes daily.

She was also alert enough to decline the drugs that were inappropriate. But I have to ask: Why do hospitals ask for a list of your medicines and then choose to ignore it? What happens to patients who aren’t so capable or don’t have advocates to help watch out for them?

I’m not naming the hospital here because it doesn’t matter. It could happen in any hospital – and does every day. And it’s no way to care for sick people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Exercise your brain

Here's a way to exercise your brain and maybe win some money.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has launched the first National Brain Game Challenge, a competition for adults with a $5,000 grand prize.

The games were created by Merl Reagle, whose Sunday crossword puzzle is syndicated in 50 newspapers across the country.

Registration costs $25 and provides online access to the puzzles on Sept. 25 at 3 p.m. Eastern time. The contest ends Sept. 27, and winners will be announced the next day.

Players must electronically submit solutions to each puzzle plus a final answer. The foundation will determine winners based on accuracy and speed. In addition to the $5,000 grand prize, there will be a $1,000 second prize, a $500 third prize and more than a dozen $100 prizes to other winners, including the 5,000th person with the correct response.

To register:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Get flu shots early

It's still so hot outside, who's thinking about flu season? Kerr Drug and CVS are.

Two months ahead of the usual schedule, the two national pharmacy chains have announced they are offering flu vaccine starting this month.

This year's vaccine will be similar to last year's, and like last year's, it will include protection against H1N1, the swine flu strain that started the recent pandemic. Now, swine flu is one of the annual circulating viruses included in the flu vaccine.

There's a new product this year. Fluzone High-Dose is a vaccine designed specifically for people 65 years and older. It's made with the same ingredients as the standard flu shot, but is designed to provide stronger protection from influenza for this age group, which has a greater risk of developing a severe illness from influenza. CVS will be offering Fluzone, but Kerr Drug will not.

Just like last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine.

No appointments are necessary, and vaccinations are available at CVS and Kerr Drug stores during regular hours. "It’s never been easier to get a flu shot and it offers the best protection against the flu,” said Kerr Drug CEO Anthony Civello.

The vaccine is $30 at Kerr Drug, which accepts most insurance plans. CVS charges $29.99, but also accepts most insurance plans; customers whose insurance does not pay for the vaccine will receive a $5 CVS/pharmacy gift card.

And by the way, health experts say the vaccine will last through the entire season even if you get it early. "If you get you flu shot now, you will be protected well through flu season which is generally late Jan through the end of March," said Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Think positively

When something went wrong, no matter how big or small, my dad would often conclude: "That's the trouble."

Today, my brothers, sister and I often laugh when we remember our Dad's worry-wart personality and his sometimes pessimistic view of life. Unfortunately, it rubbed off on me, and I've had to consciously work not to worry so much and to be more optimistic in the face of even minor challenges and change.

One thing that helped is cognitive behavioral therapy. It's the practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive, affirming statements. It means choosing to focus on what you can change instead of things you can't control. It's about choosing to see what is "good" instead of focusing on the "bad" and avoiding assumptions about what will happen before it does.

As Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened."

Here's a link from the Mayo Clinic with more about cognitive behavioral therapy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stressed out? Slow down and breathe.

Even before the stock market plunge, I was feeling anxious about life. Things are changing in my workplace, as they may be in yours -- if you still have a job. This week, when I joined a few colleagues for our weekly yoga class, we needed relaxation more than ever.

Our yoga instructor, Nancy Nicholson, read a passage about the power of mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts.

One of his most popular books is "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness." But Nancy read from another book, "Everyday Blessings," that he wrote with his wife, Myla.

Here's an excerpt: "Mindfulness means moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by refining our capacity to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time, as best we can. In the process we become more in touch with our life as it is unfolding. Ordinarily, we live much of the time in an automatic pilot mode paying attention only selectively and haphazardly, taking many important things completely for granted or not noticing them at all, and judging everything we do experience by forming rapid and often unexamined opinions based on what we like or dislike, what we want or don't want...Mindfulness is a meditative discipline... It is a systematic and sustained observing of the whole field of our experience, or of some specific element of it."

Along similar lines, Dr. Andrew Weil, the renowned advocate of integrative medicine, has said that if he could give only one tip for better health, it would be to breathe properly. Here's a link to that discussion on his website.

Do you have other tips for staying calm in the face of uncertainty and change?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Optimistic about health care reform?

At a Chamber of Commerce forum last week on "Health Care: The Changing Landscape of Cost & Quality," representatives of insurance companies, hospital systems and large employers seemed pessimistic about the future.

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will not control costs, they said, and will require that millions more people purchase health insurance (either on their own or with federal subsidies). That will result in a shortage of primary care doctors to handle the onslaught of newly insured patients.

"You can get really depressed talking about it," said Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield North Carolina.

One audience member asked whether, given these drawbacks, some speakers might wish the United States had followed the European example and chosen to "go in the direction of a single payer plan" or a public option.

Bob Ihrie, a senior vice president for employee rewards and services at Lowe's, said his company has stores in Canada, where the government is also trying to shift costs to the provinces, and "waiting lines (for care) are going up."

"I've gone back and forth on the issue," he said. "I'm deathly afraid that a single payer system would get us into one that is not very creative...You see various combinations (of health plans around the world) , and all of them have the same problem."

Tell me what you think.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Missing our parents

In recent years, when I've written about the deaths of my parents and my grief over losing them, I have heard from many readers who shared some of the same feelings.

Last month, I met one of them. Judi Wax (pictured above) sent me an e-mail after Mother's Day when I wrote about missing my mom's long wave goodbye as I drove away at the end of a visit back home in Indiana. Judi and I found we had a lot in common. She also grew up in the Midwest --she lived in Illinois before moving to Charlotte -- and we both were present at the deaths of our parents.

I agree with her that those experiences were among the most powerful in my life. Here's how Judi describes it: "It's awful to have a parent die. But to be able to have the time to really say everything you want to say, and for them to have the time to say everything they want to say. It's a gift."

Judi's story has been the subject of three articles in the Chicago Tribune -- two written by former columnist Bob Greene and a third written by Judi herself under her maiden name Silverman.

Here's a link to the first Bob Greene article in 1985. He doesn't name Judi, but the story is based on her letters and interviews.

Here's a link to the followup Greene wrote 17 years later.

And here's a link to the article Judi wrote about her father.

Here's the link to my Mother's Day story from May 2011.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Support breastfeeding now

Because breastfeeding is a key to improving infant mortality rates and child health, N.C. health officials have created a special designation to recognize hospitals and birthing centers that do a good job of supporting mothers who breastfeed their infants.

Don't they all do that, I asked. Apparently not.

The state's Nutrition Services website lists 10 steps each maternity center should follow to win the five-star "breastfeeding-friendly designation."

The steps include giving newborns no food or drink other than breastmilk (unless medically indicated) and allowing mothers and infants to remain together (rooming-in) all day long.

“We know that infants who are breastfed benefit in many ways – through improved immunity to disease, reduced likelihood of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and in lower rates of childhood obesity,” said State Health Director Dr. Jeff Engel. “Our goal is to create a climate where nursing mothers are supported in their choice to breastfeed their children.”

State policy requires all government agencies to provide space, privacy and time for nursing mothers to pump breast milk. For example, at the N.C. Division of Public Health’s main Raleigh campus, a room has been furnished specifically for nursing mother’ use.

For ideas on becoming a breastfeeding friendly workplace or applying for the breastfeeding-friendly designation, see

Monday, August 1, 2011

Honduras hospital transplanted from CMC-Lincoln

In 1986, Dr. Francis Robicsek led the team of surgeons who performed the first heart transplant in Charlotte.
This month, he’s celebrating a “hospital transplant.”

Through Robicsek’s widespread connections in Central America, equipment from the old Lincoln Medical Center in Lincolnton is now furnishing a new burn hospital for children in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Robicsek will be sitting with the president of Honduras at the dedication Aug. 15. He has nicknamed the new hospital “Lincoln Memorial Honduras.”
The Lincolnton hospital’s used equipment – beds and stretchers, operating room lamps and tables, scrub sinks (see above) – would be worth about $800,000 if purchased new.

In the United States it was worth nothing, Robicsek said. "New hospitals won’t take used equipment.” But in Honduras, he said, “It was worth it’s weight in gold.”

The idea for the donation took shape in 2009 after Carolinas HealthCare System announced plans to replace the Lincolnton hospital, now called Carolinas Medical Center-Lincoln, with a new $90 million building that opened in 2010.

When Robicsek learned the old equipment was going into storage, he offered a better idea.

For years, he has arranged donations of used equipment to hospitals in Central America through organizations supported by Carolinas HealthCare. In the last 20 months, about $5 million in used equipment has furnished cardiac catheterization laboratories and other hospital units in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Belize and Haiti.

Robicsek and Theresa Johnson, coordinator of the international outreach project, met with Pete Acker, chief executive officer at CMC-Lincoln. With Acker’s support, Johnson visited the old Lincolnton hospital before it was demolished and measured everything. The Hondurans built their new hospital based on her specifications, months before their donated equipment arrived. (See photo of delivery day below.)

“Rather than sitting in a warehouse, this equipment now has a second, extremely useful life,” Acker said. “To be able to serve children in such great need, it’s really an incredible story.”