Forty-eight hours after returning home, I found myself in our local fire department’s rescue squad vehicle as it sped to the nearest hospital. It had been an especially tough night for my second son. As he helped me get to the bathroom during the early morning hours, I’d lost consciousness. He thought that I’d died in his arms. It was no picnic for my wife, either.
The local hospital did a great job keeping me alive. My hemoglobin had dropped to dangerously low levels — 4-point something. Three units of blood later, the ER physicians had stabilized me and I went to the ICU.
Given my new diagnosis, the next logical step was a transport to the major medical center that had treated me previously and where specialists were already lined up to perform important diagnostic tests the following day. I had confirmed that those specialists were among the world’s leading experts in my condition. I was ready for them to start working on me.
At the end of the day, the transport service took me to the medical center where the intensive care unit had a bed waiting for me. As I began my third hospital admission in two weeks, my ICU experience was better than what I’d survived on the general medicine floor. Still, two things struck me.
First, the ICU resident assured me “with 100% certainty” that my bleeding was not the result of varicies — stressed blood vessels subject to intermittent bursts that produced rapid blood loss. Top specialists would eventually prove him wrong. Beware of youthful certainty — or misplaced certainty at any age.
Second, the resident told me that he would talk to the GI people. He thought they would probably want me to have another colonoscopy.
You have got to be kidding.
Needless to say, the colonoscopy didn’t happen. Instead, an outstanding specialist performed a diagnostic test called an EUS the following day. More significantly, he took personal charge of my situation in a way that no prior physician had. At last, I had reached the promised land of America’s vaunted medical system.
Something else became clear to me. The goal of ICU doctors is to get a patient sufficiently stable to move him or her out of intensive care. That makes sense, but in my case, the specialist who had performed the EUS stressed to my family and me that the goal was to try to “catch” the internal bleed as it was happening. Only in the ICU could that degree of attention to a patient occur.
“Over the weekend, don’t let anyone move him out the ICU,” he said.
We fulfilled his directive, but it took a herculean effort fighting the ICU hospitalist team that wanted something much different. At one point, I asked the ICU attending physician to please call the EUS specialist directly. I think she did, because the attitude of the entire ICU team changed dramatically thereafter.
In discussing my eventual move from the ICU, the attending physician suggested that I go to a floor where a resident would be available to monitor me more closely.
“It’s a resident hospitalist floor,” she said. “That seems like the best place for you.”
It sounded good, until I got there and realized I was returning to the same floor that I’d occupied for my first two admissions. Greeting me was the third-year medical student who was becoming the Forrest Gump of my medical journey.
Several days later, the final biopsy results came back. It was a mixed bag. The good news: I had relatively uncommon neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. It is slow-moving and not aggressive. Life expectancy for victims gets measured in years, rather than months. Treatment involves monthly injections, rather than debilitating chemotherapy. The bad news: The tumor had so intertwined itself into my major vascular systems that it was inoperable and probably the culprit responsible for my internal bleeding.
Perhaps the best news of all was that the diagnosis meant I would move to a designated cancer floor where the physicians making the rounds were oncology specialists. From then on, I would remain in the care of doctors who would look at me holistically — as a unitary cancer patient with complications. Maybe they were called hospitalists, too, but this would be a decidedly different experience from what had been happening to me on the general medicine floor. My new group spoke frequently with the specialists who were the reason I’d chosen the hospital in the first place. The specialists themselves made visits to my room.
I was finally in the presence of doctors who were accustomed to treating entire patients, rather than discrete conditions.