Christopher Columbus, as you may have heard, opened up the Americas to European exploration with the patronage of the Spanish monarchy at the end of the 15th century. What you probably did not know, is that on his fourth voyage in 1502, he sailed along the very coast that I look over every day from our porch.
Legend has it that after exploring the area between the bay islands and the mainland he proceeded southeastward, where the water become very deep immediately off shore. There he was caught in a tropical storm (something we are very familiar with of late). Finding refuge in a eastern cove he exclaimed “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras! [Thank God we’ve escaped these treacherous depths!]. From that exclamation, the area where he took refuge became the Departmento known as Gracias a Dios and the entire territory, later an independent country, came to be called Honduras.
Now you know how Honduras got its name. Which probably has something to do with why the name Cristofer is popular to this day in Honduras. In fact, the six year old boy currently on my inpatient service for the last week and a half is named Cristofer. And he, like his namesake is going through a harrowing time. I would like to tell you his story so you all can pray with us, help support him as you feel led, and hopefully in 3 or 4 weeks be able to say, “Gracias a Dios – Thanks be to God, he has made it out of danger!” as we send him on his way home.
Cristofer came in to our emergency room a little more than a week ago. His parents were at their wit’s end and knew with a parent’s intuition, that something was very wrong with their youngest son’s abdomen and that his time was running out.
The story of Cristofer’s abdominal problems began when he was 2 years old, Cristofer had to have an abdominal surgery due to an intussusception, a problem caused by bowel sliding back into itself and getting stuck – like a telescope collapsing down. The surgery was successful and he went on to live and grow normally till he was 4 years old. At that time, his intestines became knotted up due to the scars left by the first operation. This required another surgery, and the removal of some of his intestines. Once again, the surgery was successful and he went on to live and grow up normally for a further 2 years -until about 2 months ago.
2 months ago, he started to have belly pain, nausea, and vomiting. He was hospitalized and found to have another knot or bowel obstruction. this time the surgeon told his parents that part of his intestines had turned black. Further bowel had to be removed, and the surgeon was confident that he had removed the problem and repaired the remaining bowel. Cristofer was discharged home. But over the intervening weeks he never seemed to get better. He continued to have vomiting and belly pain, and then he started to lose weight.
When he was brought into our Emergency Room, he was still able to walk and talk, but it was clear that his body was very malnourished. His body had consumed whatever fat stores he had, and now had begun to consume his own muscles.
After talking his case over with our surgeon and other doctors, and doing several tests including sending him to the nearest large city to have a CAT scan, it became clear that Cristofer has a small bowel obstruction that almost completely blocks his food from going more than a few feet past his stomach (the small bowel typically absorbs nutrients over the course of about 20 feet of looping intestines).
All of this means that Cristofer needs yet another operation. But with an abdomen that has a proven track record of forming problematic scarring and a very recent surgery – the chances of long term or even short term success are not good. If we were to operate immediately, cut open the problem portion of bowel and stitch it back together; at his current level of nutrition he would be unable to heal the wound before the sutures dissolve, at which point he could die from a bowel leak. To improve these odds, our surgeon has asked that we buy Cristofer time (so that the abdomen can heal up and calm down from the most recent surgery), and give him the best chance to respond well and recuperate after the next surgery.
To that end we have begun the arduous process of giving Cristofer TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition- nutrition put directly into the bloodstream). This is a sterile custom mix of the basic building blocks of proteins, sugars, fats, and electrolytes recalculated every 2 days to meet Cristofers day-to-day nutrition needs. Our TPN has to be ordered from San Pedro Sula (half-way across the country), made up and shipped on ice via busses and couriers and whoever we can beg- so that it can be hung in a chilled box and pumped at a set rate through a UV proof tube.
Rather than belaboring how time intensive, detail oriented, and relatively expensive this process is- simply understand that my children and my wife think that I have adopted a fifth child named Cristofer with whom, or on whose behalf I am spending more time than I am giving any of them.
I am writing this to include you in the ministry that we do here. To ask that you pray for the upcoming surgery in 2-3 weeks. And to ask if any of you would like to help us pay for some of his care. Each bag of TPN costs a little more than $200 USD, and a bag lasts for 48 hours. So we are probably looking at around $5,000 USD just for the TPN.
Nevertheless, please don’t take this as a desperate plea for help- Cristofer will get the TPN, and our hospital will figure out how to eat whatever cost his family cannot pay. But if you feel led to give, we’ll be happy to put your money towards this or similar direct patient care projects. If you already give to support us, know that you’ve already taken a massive chunk out of all our patients’ bills – because they didn’t have to pay anything to their doctor.
In other news…
I am sorry to tell you that the little boy Alan, who I wrote to you about previously, died a few day after my last blog. We believe that his brainstem- which controls things like heart rate and breathing rate was severely damaged during one of the times when he stopped breathing, and so he continued to worsen until he finally passed away.
Axel, the 3 year old with the life-threatening kidney problems, has had mixed results. His kidneys seem to be doing better sometimes and then go back to letting protein slip through. He is on a medicine that is not good for him long-term, but cannot be decreased or stopped unless his kidneys stop letting protein slip through. Please continue to pray for him.
Today I received my first ever live chicken gift! (I have long dreamt of this day.) He was given to me by a very thankful, and very poor family of a patient that I took care of in the hospital a few weeks ago with a diabetic coma.
Hannah Faith Gilley, our little baby girl, born here in Honduras several weeks after we came here, is turning 1 year old this week!
Grace and Peace to all of you. May the Lord richly bless your upcoming Holy Week and Easter.
We are well. We are in Nashville with family for a previously scheduled vacation. We had planned to fly out today, but by the grace of God we had to move our flights a few days earlier due to hurricane Eta flooding the main airport that we use (San Pedro Sula). This was good because flights are probably grounded throughout Honduras due to the latest incoming hurricane.
Pray with us for our hospital, community, and Central America as they are faced with a second hurricane, Iota, making landfall today and tomorrow.
This year has been blow upon blow against the already tenuous Honduran economy that was largely based on tourism followed by agriculture (industries deeply affected by covid and hurricanes respectively). Our hospital has been increasingly busy as the strain of COVID, travel restrictions, and various sector shutdowns have left many Hondurans without access to healthcare for everything from diabetic management to cancer resection.
Pray for our missionaries and our national staff, who continue to model incarnational Christ-likeness by being physically present to care for and minister to our patients (despite the risk of COVID and the hardships and dangers that hurricanes bring).
Pray for our family as we rest up, and spend time with family- that we would be blessed and a blessing as we visit and rest. Our children are now 8 months, 2 years, 4 years, and 6 years old- pray for them and for the challenges that they face as our family seeks to follow God through all this.
We plan to be at Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene for Christ the King Sunday (November 22nd) for the Sunday morning service and an informal evening gathering.
We also plan to be at Judson Baptist, Nashville on the first Sunday of Advent (November 29th) for the Sunday morning service.
Bullet Prayer Request:
-For all those in the path of the incoming category 5 hurricane, Iota.
-Hospital Loma de Luz’s water, electricity and internet supply (and their respective back ups)
-Pray for our return trip, especially with all the uncertainty of hurricanes and ever changing COVID restrictions.
-The hospital’s food supply (the roads and bridges to La Ceiba)
-The safety of our patients and staff who have to come in to the hospital during this storm (think of women going into labor, children with epilepsy, and our essential nurses and lab technicians, as well as doctors who have to come in terrible weather or no).
-The long-term recovery of Honduras, especially the poor who are always hit the hardest by these types of events.
-Our family and especially our children as we seek to put God first, and rightly prioritize their formation and education.
-Thank you to all of you who have and are supporting us financially. If you would like to send aid to the hospital and surrounding community to help with hurricane relief, we would make sure that 100% of what was given goes to the local needs. See our support page or email us if you’d like more information about supporting us financially or making a one time gift (please send as an email specifying what your gift is designated for if relevant)
-Also, for those of you who might prefer a different avenue, I’ve put together a short Amazon wish list of things that are needed or would be helpful in our hospital and clinic (that we can bring back in our luggage).
Warning: The following story may prompt incredulous laughter and children to ask uncomfortable questions.
Maybe I should have followed in your footsteps and become a better baseball player, you know, to make me a better doctor.
Nevertheless, I am happy to report that the secret playroom kickball matches that Jerod and I played allowed me to develop the skills necessary to become a competent physician. You see, just a few weeks ago, as I started my morning rounds, my very unpracticed sliding-into-homeplate manuever was put to the test:
I heard a yell in the hallway leading to surgery and went to investigate.
Arriving there I saw a pregnant woman, waddling towards me. Her eyes were wide with the shock and terror of a person betrayed by their own body. And as I ran forward to assess the situation I quickly saw the reason; upon seeing my querying expression she hiked up her hospital gown to reveal her baby crowning.
Her family and a few nurses were trying desperately to help her get to our labor and delivery room. But I determined this baby was going to come before we could possibly get her to a bed.
“We’re going to need to deliver the baby here,” I said with authority.
With relief the mom stopped trying to move forward and immediately began to sink to the floor. Fortunately her family members promptly stepped up to support her as she began sitting back. Unfortunately, as soon as her knees bent and she began to squat, her baby took advantage of the more open pelvic outlet as well as the increased abdominal pressure generated by her squat.
Noting this, I dove forward, my arms reaching out to catch the slowly falling baby and mother. The amniotic fluid on the tile floor helped me to slide easily into position at the mom’s feet. With my right hand I worked to catch the baby that was slipping rapidly out for a head first dive. And with my left hand I tried to push up and away on the mom’s buttocks that was coming down to land on top of her baby.
When the proverbial dust settled, we’d managed to all land safely in a somewhat slippery and slightly bloody pile, with a joyfully screaming little baby cradled in my arm connected by his umbilical cord to his mom who was slightly shocked and somewhat on top of me.
All we needed was an umpire to stare down at our strange pile and then after a pregnant pause, dramatically yell, “Safe!”
Love, your son, Dr. Nate
Remember one New Year you asked Dad, Jerod, and I to each tell about a miracle that we’d seen. Ultimately that led to a discussion about miracles, because for you, every day was filled with miracles: from rainbows to children to happenstance meetings- you saw Divine fingerprints everywhere; for Dad, Jerod, and I the world was a significantly less miraculous place. We weren’t sure we’d ever seen God reach down and definitively perform a miracle.
Well, I’ve decided that your view of the world is the better one, and I would like to tell you about a miracle I recently witnessed.
You see, the little baby that I caught in the story above (Yes, the story above is totally true, and yes Jerod and I did secretly play kick ball in our playroom, frequently, and without ever breaking a window), that baby started to turn yellow 12 hours after he was born. Now that’s not too uncommon, he was jaundiced, and we can treat that. We put him under some blue lights that convert the yellow, problematic bilirubin to a form that can be disposed of by most any liver.
I say, “most any,” because on rare occasions the drainage system of a liver is incompletely formed or the infant’s liver cells are genetically incapable of doing some basic function that causes excess production or diminished disposal.
I say all that because, after we put the baby under lights, instead of turning a beautiful Honduran brown and going home, he turned green. He turned green because his liver had one of the two problems detailed above.
When I investigate what could be done to help this little fellow, I found myself running into dead ends (grim pun intended). In Honduras, you do not want to be a green baby. Most likely you are stuck looking for an expensive, risky surgery that only a handful of hard to get to surgeons can do (to repair your drainage system). The other, equally tragic etiology, for our low resource patients, is that this disorder could arise from a super rare genetic problem that will be almost impossible to diagnose and likely will be equally untreatable.
As I often find myself doing, I first explained the poor medical prognosis. In this case I explained to baby’s mom that from strictly a medical perspective her baby had a serious and life-threatening problem. As stated above, the most likely cause was a problem with the liver’s drainage system. Untreated, this often results in death after a few months. So we would do further investigation and begin reaching out to arrange for treatment if necessary and possible. (We would also be reaching out for help from our donors because just the trip to see the surgeon in the big city would have been cost prohibitive)
Then, I concluded with your perspective, mom. I reminded this mother that we believe in a God who is all powerful and can do miracles. So even as we do everything we can medically, we also pray. The mom and I prayed for healing multiple times, specifically for God to allow this little boy’s bilirubin to get out of his system.
I have prayed many such prayers, and most of the time God either answers those prayers through the medical care being provided or the patient dies. But, occasionally, Divine fingerprints are a little more overt. Like this time, where visit by visit the little boy’s color, weight, and labs improved with no treatment beyond earnest prayers of hope and thanksgiving. A few days ago he came in for a check up and was totally normal.
Whether this was God directly altering the baby’s physiology or not, I do not know. But one thing I do know, he was a sickly-appearing, green baby and now he is healthy and brown.
And at that visit I praised God with his mother for the miracle of her son’s life.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
These are some of the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. They capture the not infrequent juxtaposition of very good things and very bad things in our lives, without giving either more weight than the other. It reminds me to hold the two in balance – and allow myself to feel and know the bitter sweet reality of life between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ.
Case in point, we have recently had two babies who required intensive care in our hospital; one has done very well, and one did not do well. The first baby is named Estephanie, and the majority of her medical care was provided at the direction of Drs Anne and Isaac Hotz. This is also the infant that I previously mentioned for whom Bethany has supplied breast milk. She was born premature. And while that may not seem like a big deal – it is.
Imagine being in a rocket ship, and telling ground control that “All systems are not go for launch, repeat, multiple critical life-sustaining systems are not functioning.” Only to hear, “We are go for take off.”
Premature delivery shares a similar level of disaster potential as the above scenario. Our lungs, skin, eyes, brain, gut, and fat reserves, are all essential systems that don’t come fully on board till late in a pregnancy. And being born without anyone of these systems can result in a cascade failure reminiscent of Apollo 13.
With Estephanie, we knew from her mom’s first prenatal visit that she was at risk for early delivery, because Estephanie was sharing the uterus with a birth control device called an IUD.
Anyways, with advance notice that the baby might be born premature we were able to give the mom timed steroids to rush the baby’s lung development. We do this whenever we suspect preterm delivery because once a mom’s body goes into true labor, there is precious little that doctors can due to stop the process (especially in rural Honduras).
Ultimately, Estephanie was born at 29 weeks and 3 days of gestational age. At that stage of developmental, with our resources, it was a Herculean task to keep baby nourished, breathing, and avoid sepsis. Remember the brain and fat reserves that aren’t fully developed yet? That means that most premature babies don’t have the coordination or energy to consistently breath or eat independently. So we place a tube down the mouth to allow us to put food directly into the baby’s stomach, and a CPAP over their noses to augment and remind them to keep breathing
But tasks such as feeding, breathing, and keeping baby warm are easy compared to the biggest hurdle that Estephanie faced. About a week after birth, when the basic problems inherent in preemies began to seem surmountable, Estephanie suddenly started showing signs of sepsis or an abdominal emergency called neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis (nicknamed nec). The only known preventative medicine: breast milk (having had Bethany’s milk may be one the reason this baby went on to survive).
The treatment for Nec: no feeding, support the baby, try antibiotics, and wait. The treatment for sepsis: remove any possible sources of infection, give antibiotics, support the baby, and hope. In the case of Nec, if you have to wait more than a day or two you need to order a custom tailored formula called TPN that can be put directly into the baby’s blood stream (bypassing the gut completely which could rapidly necrose and kill the baby if food is put through it). This must be given through a central line (like an IV, but going through a major vessel dumping directly into the heart).
In the case of sepsis, any central line that you have in place is a potential source of infection. So we pulled the old line, ordered the TPN, and tried to put in a new central line. “Tried” being the operative word. Over two days, we tried every possible access point, multiple times, for hours at a time. We prayed, we dripped sweat, we got frustrated with each other, frustrated with ourselves, frustrated at having ordered and transported the expensive TPN from the across the country only to be unable to deliver it the final few inches.
Ultimately, we were unable to get a central line. Without a central line we had to decide when we would allow the baby to have tube feeds- the sooner we fed her, the higher the risk of complications from nec, the longer we waited, the higher the risk of complications from starvation. In the end because baby made a quick turnaround soon after we stopped feeding her we were able to compromise between the two ideal intervals and resume feeds after 48 hours We started slow and praise be to God, Estephanie was able to tolerate tube feeds.
Today, by the grace of God, Estephanie is doing well. She’s coming up on 36 weeks gestational age, and has been discharged from the hospital after almost 50 days. She is no longer needing help breathing and she is able to take a bottle. She is the youngest preemie to have survived at our hospital. Praise be to God.
Our second baby, would have been named Genesis. She was brought in late one evening when I was on call. I was already in the emergency room, monitoring a young boy I had just medicated for an ongoing seizure. I looked up to see a mother being shown in to our ER with a silent bundle in her arms. Typically I let out nurses locate a patient’s chart, get initial vitals, and ask basic questions, but something in this mother’s defeated demeanor prompted me to make the initial evaluation.
I quickly, explained to the parents of the boy with a recent seizure how to monitor their now sleeping son, and crossed the room. The baby’s mom seemed reticent to put her baby down, and when she did I saw a frail, pale, recently born baby girl who appeared dead. She was floppy and unresponsive as she laid in the bed, and I thought she might be dead. But on further evaluation she was taking shallow breaths had a weak pulse.
I urgently called for 2 other doctors to help, and tried to obtain vital signs and figure out what had happened.
The baby’s diaper was full of black and coagulated blood, and her mom said that her baby was 8 days old and had been doing well until she suddenly began vomiting and stooling blood that morning. Immediately her mother started trying to get her baby daughter to the hospital. (She does not own a vehicle or know how to drive, almost all taxis and public transport are not allowed to operate due to COVID, and road blocks are set up all throughout the country to decrease the spread of COVID)- so it took most of the day to get her baby to us.
When my colleagues arrived, and verified that the baby was still alive despite appearances we had enough information to determine that we had a baby on the brink of bleeding to death- who we might be able to save. We called ‘CQ Belfate – Rapid Response to the ER’ over the radio – signaling all available clinical staff to come in and help.
As help came pouring in, we inserted a needle into the baby’s leg bone to begin giving fluids and as soon as our lab personnel arrived we drew off some of her precious remaining blood to check her blood type. More than anything else, the baby needed blood, we later estimated that she had bled out three quarters of her blood volume, prior to arrival.
As we were waiting on blood typing, we gave the maximum amount of IV fluid, continued to give oxygen, and, as it seemed likely she was still bleeding internally with an undetectably low blood pressure, we decided to try for a central line (medicines that force the heart to increase blood pressure are called pressors and must be given through a central line).
This was only about a week after our failure to get a line on Estephanie. But miraculously, Dr. Isaac managed to get a blind subclavian line in with one of his first tries. The baby and her uncle were a blood type match so we drew a unit of whole blood from him and started giving the baby 4 teaspoon boluses of blood at a time.
Honestly, we were all a little shocked that she survived that first few hours, and not only did she survive, she awoke to start fussing and kicking soon after her transfusion! Nevertheless, that night I explained to her mother that Genesis was not yet out of the woods, and that if she did survive it would be a miracle from God.
On days 1 and 2, we continued to be amazed at Genesis’ resilience, and started to hope that God might heal her. After her first transfusion, we gave her her first vitamin k shot. We became more and more convinced that Genesis had gastrointestinal bleeding due to at least a vitamin k defeciency (pretty much all babies are born with some degree of vitamin k defeciency).
Unfortunately, Genesis had been born on the way to our hospital rather than in our hospital. As she was born precipitously in the vehicle before arrival and their family had no money to spare, they turned around and went home, never recieving the vitamin k shot.
The next morning showed that although Genesis’ brain, heart and lungs had bounced back remarkably well, her liver and kidneys were not so quick to bounce back. Those organs showed signs of severe shock and only time would tell if they would recover quick enough to allow her to live.
On day 3, Genesis had completely stopped bleeding into her belly, and her liver seemed to be making a slow recovery, but her blood pressure and oxygen were wavering and she still had not made any urine. Her mother was exhausted from staying by her baby’s side, and afraid to hold her daughter with all the tubes, lines, and devices we had afixed to monitor and respond as needed. At one point, while my colleagues and I were discussing her poor prognosis and worsening situation, baby Genesis had several very low blood pressure and oxygen saturations, her belly was swelling ominously, and I along with Dr. Isaac and Dr. Anne decided to prioritize allowing mom to comfortably hold and love on her baby who seemed to be dying.
We explained to the mom what we felt was inevitable and she was agreeable to not prolong her baby’s suffering. With heavy hearts we disconnected several lines and took off the blood pressure cuffs and pulse oximeter. We were able to comfortably put Genesis in her mom’s arms. Mom asked that we discontinue the oxygen-CPAP so she could just hold her baby and see her beautiful face. I prayed with mom while holding mom’s arms as she cried and gently rubbed Genesis’ head with my other hand. I prayed for God to be with us and baby Genesis. I prayed and cried, I had several words of comfort and hope I wanted to offer, but those words wouldn’t come out. So I swallowed down a sob and simply concluded, “Help us Lord, Amen.” And then waited in silence for a time with mom and Genesis.
But, about one hour after we moved to what we call comfort care (stopping everything that doesn’t make baby more comfortable including oxygen, fluid, and pressors), Baby Genesis went from gray back to pink, from struggling to breathe back to breathing comfortably, and started becoming more active. Genesis really liked being in her mom’s arms!
With such an improvement we talked with mom about keeping the priority of her holding her baby but at least giving some fluids and oxygen to keep Genesis confortable. Mom agreed and Genesis did much better over that night. But still Genesis did not urinate.
I remember coming home that evening to find Ruthie running around with a diaper so wet that it was sagging under its own weight. As I changed that diaper I thanked God that my babies make lots of wet diapers.
The next day I didn’t know what to do. Should I continue to pursue the goal of comfort care, or should I revert to full active treatment? I prayed for wisdom, but didn’t feel like I received any. Ultimately we felt we owed it to this baby who kept hanging in there to give her every chance to survive. Even though she still hadn’t urinated, we were approaching the limit for how long a newborn can survive without nutrition.
She agreed (with some relief), so we again needed TPN (baby probably had a gastric ulcer and was uninterested in eating). TPN takes time to custom formulate and ship, so we had to order it ASAP that morning. After ordering it we needed to change out our central line to prevent sepsis. Given our recent frustrations, Dr. Isaac and I decided to use a process that uses a guide wire to hold the old line’s position while the old line is removed and a new one is placed. In the midst of this procedure the guide wire slipped out of position because it wasn’t quiet long enough.
But mom was in favor of comfort care, mainly because she was concerned that her family would already be unable to pay for what the hospital had already done. (This is a sensitive cultural intersect- in the developed West we are blind to the cost of our healthcare, and never speak about money as part of developing a care plan, in Honduras people want to know how much a life saving surgery will be before they are rolled back). Trying to compromise between the two worldviews, we asked mom to give us one more day to give Genesis every possible chance and we promised to work with her to bring the cost of the hospitalization down to something she could afford. (Our prices are set to be manageable by most Hondurans, keep our lights on, and pay our Honduran staff – for instance a 24 hour hospital admission costs about 20 dollars.)
We were crushed, literally I felt God-forsaken. Once again we had TPN ordered and we’d lost access. We tried briefly to get another line in but in a baby who could not easily stop bleeding who already had a very low chance of survival, we did not feel it was safe or right to keep sticking her.
When I explained the situation to the mother she was incredibly gracious. Her response more than anything else that day assured that we were not forsaken by God. He was right there. In the mother who bore the roller coaster of her infant’s hospitalization with dignity and grace. Even though this was her second child and her first had died mysteriously a few days after birth; she was kind and appreciative of all our efforts, thanking us and praying with us. Shortly after, she asked us to discharge Genesis so she could take her home to die.
The day after Genesis’ mom returned to our hospital to tell us that Génesis had died and to start making payments, we celebrated the discharge of Estephanie to her home, in good health.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..
The doctors at Hospital Loma de Luz, take 24 hour call 1-2 times a week. That means that from 7am to the next morning’s 7am, any emergency or obstetric problem that comes into the hospital will be primarily the responsibility of the on call doctor. For my first 2 months here, each time I was on call I had someone assigned to back me up and show me the ropes. This is necessary because the norms of treatment, follow-up, and getting things done are so different from how things are done back in the USA that you need someone to walk you through a lot of different scenarios before you can really work independently.
For instance, if you need to give your patient a medicine through an IV at a specific rate in the US, you simply enter the order and wonder why it takes the pharmacy and nurses so long to do it. Here you go to the pharmacy, retrieve the medicine or find an adequate substitute for the medicine you wanted but don’t have, find syringes and fluid bags, then mix the medicine into solution at a concentration that will allow you to run it through a pump (A lot of moderately complicated math). Find a IV pump, place an IV if the patient doesn’t have one, hook it all up and program the pump to run at your desired rate… and then wonder what happened to the last few hours.
After about 2 months of call with back up, I recently started taking call independently. My first two independent call shifts were rough.We have an awesome team that is very supportive of one another, but we also try to take care of each other by handling anything we can independently, and only calling for help when it is absolutely necessary (especially during the night). During my first shift I had about 6 medically complex admissions topped off by a young man who came in with 4 gunshot wounds – 2 to the neck, 1 to the chest, and 1 to the abdomen – whereafter I promptly called and received help. But all of the patients did well, and were pretty clear cut from a diagnostic and treatment perspective.
My second independent call shift was not so clear cut.
Things were generally okay during the daylight hours, but as dusk settled I started getting calls.
Out of the several ER patients that I was called to come in and see, I can now only remember two. At about midnight I saw an older gentleman brought in by his son because he was having trouble breathing. I was able to determine that he was fluid overloaded due to advanced liver failure and a recent medicine change. This was based on the history that I obtained from his son and my physical exam because we do not have lab or X-ray available during the night (except for clear life or death decision points that prompt us to call staff to drive in from the surrounding community during the night). So I talked with his son about our treatment plan, his good short-term but poor long-term prognosis, and then started the treatment which I would modify based on the labs that could be done in the morning.
I went back up my house, but before falling asleep I was called again. It was about 2am…
A 21 year old girl with abdominal pain and nausea was brought into the ER in middle of the night. Her blood pressure was too low but she was conscious and it was not worsening, her abdomen was rigid, her blood sugar was too high for our machine to read and she was becoming deathly pale. She had a strange history of going to a different hospital the previous night, going home, resting, eating, then coming into our hospital for the same unbearable pain that had sent her to the other hospital.
I began to treat her identified problems individually, but was not sure of her unifying diagnosis. As I was trying to decide if I should call for help or lab, one of the nurses asked me to come quickly. I followed and she took me hastily to the room of my patient with liver failure explaining that she had just gone to check on him and found him dead. I entered the room where the patient’s son was by his bed – unaware that anything was out of order. I confirmed the patient was dead and then tried to gently but clearly explain to the son that his father had just died unexpectedly. After taking as much time as I felt I could, I went to check on my 21 year old female patient and found that her oxygen saturation was dropping. With my confidence shaken and my patient doing worse, I promptly called for help from the more experienced physcians.
Ultimately, we determined that she had a very dangerous condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) coupled with the even more deadly condition called sepsis. As we tried to treat her, we came to an impasse. The treatment for DKA is to rapidly but carefully lower the blood sugar while simultaneously addressing the acid-base and electrolyte disturbances created by both the disease and your treatment of the critically elevated sugar. To do this right, one needs to monitor and replete the electrolyte called potassium, while monitoring and correcting the acid-base status, and constantly titrating your insulin to lower the sugar (in the USA most hospitals purchase a proprietary software uses a complex computer model to anticipate the patient’s blood sugar responses and guide insulin titration).
Problem #1: Our acid-base test is so finicky it cannot be trusted.
Problem #2: Our electrolyte machine broke 2 days ago.
Problem #3: The country is shut down for COVID-19 so getting the replacement part will take at least a week.
Problem #4: Septic shock is the body’s final, unregulated and often devastating response to an overwhelming systemic infection. It’s treatment is to give copious fluids, broad-spectrum antibiotics, and start life-support measures like pressors and a ventilator while rapidly determining the source of the infection.
This is the tight rope we were walking:
If she becomes to acidotic she will die – and both DKA and sepsis create acidotic states.
If we leave her sugar that high she will die of sepsis – if we drop her sugar too fast and she goes too low – she will go into a coma and likely die.
If we do not give her adequate potassium near the time when her potassium begins to drop due to our treatment of high sugar – her heart will not be able to keep pumping – if we give her too much potassium, well, potassium is the drug of choice for lethal injection.
With these limitations, we did everything we could to help this young lady. We prayed for wisdom and healing and made our best educated guesses on what to correct – when.
For a while the patient was stable on two forms of life-support: pressors and a ventilator. I had spoken with her mother and our chaplain about the gravity of her situation (she had already required chest compressions and life saving medicines once that morning, which decreases the odds that she would survive to be discharged). I then went and saw my clinic patients. I checked on her several times throughout the day and I started to be hopeful that she might pull through. We arranged to split shifts to run her ventilator between 3 doctors who were not on general call that night (we do not have any respiratory techs or dedicated ICU nurses). I went home, explained to my girls in very basic terms why they hadn’t seen me for so long, and we said a prayer together for my patient.
That night, my patient’s blood pressure started dropping and despite chest compressions and meds, she died.
The next morning my 5 year old asked me how my patient was doing, the one for whom she was praying. I told her that she had died during the night.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I answered. And I don’t know. I don’t know why she died.
Medically, I don’t know if she died from an infection for which I wasn’t covering, an electrolyte imbalance I caused or didn’t correct, or something I had no control over. Spiritually, I don’t know why God didn’t answer our prayers for this 21 year old girl, when other times he so miraculously intervenes (like in my previous shift when the man who was shot 4 times, twice in the neck and head, walked out of our hospital after prayers and surgery).
I understand the philosophical arguments for why bad things happen. Abstract discussions of love, free-will, the effects of sin on creation. But I don’t believe there is a simple or straightforward answer to my daughter’s question. I believe the best answer is either silence or “I don’t know,” followed by an example of continued faith and prayer that mourns and wrestles with what happened while faithfully doing the next right thing. The Bible says we walk by faith and not by sight. Despite what we see or cannot see around us, we keep walking in faith.
I was hurt and saddened by the loss of two patients from the same call shift. But I keep walking by faith. I trust that God is good and faithful.
Nevertheless I went into my third call shift with some trepidation and prayer that God would give me a little more time to recover before my next medical disaster. And I am happy to report that my third call shift was rather uneventful. That morning, as I was nearing the end of my third call shift, I gave thanks to God that instead of severely ill patients I had the opportunity to be on the other side of things. I helped a mother deliver a healthy baby boy into the world in the wee hours of the morning. And as I went home, I stopped at our overlook and took in this view:
Clearly to me, God is at work in our world. I don’t always understand how He chooses to work, nor do I always know how I should pray. But I hold onto the faith of Jesus Christ and trust that He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.
Blessings on you all,
Please pray for our family as we continue to settle in, push through culture/COVID shock, and the newborn phase of sleep deprivation.
And please pray for the preemie baby in our hospital. Bethany provided breast milk for her until her mother’s milk came in, and the baby has survived almost a week now, but she has several more weeks before she’ll be out of the woods.
I come to the end of my residency very soon now (June 28th). You see, after graduating from medical school I, like most newly minted doctors, committed myself to a residency. For me it was a three year Family Medicine residency where I hoped to see numerous patients, treat diverse diseases, and learn essential procedures under the guidance and direction of more experienced doctors called attending physicians (attendings, for short). And, like the doctors that make them up, there are good and bad residencies, and I thank my God that I have had the privilege of being trained in a great residency.
I was excited but nervous when I interviewed at the Family Medicine program in Murfreesboro. It was one of my last interviews, but also one of my most eagerly anticipated. Before we even interviewed it seemed like the best place for our young family to get the support we knew our burgeoning family would need. Bethany’s parents live about thirty minutes from Murfreesboro, and my dad lived one and a half hours the other way. At that time we had a toddler Elizabeth an infant Lydia, and we knew that despite my plan to spend every spare minute with my family, the majority of my time and energy would be dedicated to my residency training.
After visiting and interviewing in Murfreesboro, Bethany and I knew we were going to rank it as our first choice. The clinic was devoted to helping the underserved and marginalized, including refugees, homeless, and uninsured persons. The hospital was run as a ministry of the Catholic church, with prayer and spiritual care offered daily for patients, and this mission statement: “Rooted in the loving ministry of Jesus as healer, we commit ourselves to serving all persons with special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable…” And the faculty were committed to a residency that maintained the breadth of family medicine training, including obstetrics, pediatrics, adult medicine, and geriatrics. Then we waited, trying to express our interest without seeming desperate.
Finally, by the grace of God, and the inscrutable match algorithm (a computer program that accepts all the ranked preferences of applicants as well as the ranked preferences of all the US residency programs – and outputs the fate of those doctors and programs) I found myself matched and moving our family to Murfreesboro.
And now, three years later, I look at it from the other side. The UT-St. Thomas Family Medicine Residency Program in Murfreesboro has been all I hoped for and more. Where many programs chew up idealistic doctors and spit out (or defecate) cynical and selfish graduates, my program has cultivated my compassion and joy in medicine. I have felt valued by our faculty, and together we have promoted the dignity of the work we do and the people we serve in our hospital and clinic. Finally, my attendings have encouraged and supported the value and priority I give my faith and family.
Although I have much to learn, I feel ready to step forth as a family physician. I have been equipped with a solid clinical framework, a repertoire of procedural skills, a healthy respect for what I don’t know, and an awareness of some of the obstacles and work-arounds for providing care to the undeserved.
Dr. Glass – for pointing out my knowledge gaps and encouraging me to always ask at least one more question of myself and my patients.
Dr. Singer – for loving us like your children, and spurring us on in research and comprehensive patient care (even if I occasionally bucked).
Dr. Banker – for being candid about life and medicine and always ready to supervise or teach any procedure.
Dr. Garg – for your keen ability to give feedback, see multiple perspectives and solutions, and help us to see them also.
Dr. Reno – for carefully placed words of encouragement and reassurance that have given me confidence and hope.
Dr. McRay – for encouraging me to take the time for existential moments with my patients, and for delivering my third child into this world with grace and peace.
Dr. Streicher – for helping me learn from my mistakes and then helping me move forward again by sharing your own mistakes and giving me a clean slate.
Dr. Dunlap – for making our residency possible by pouring yourself out, and trusting us enough to graduate us (hopefully).