Saturday, April 12, 2008

Can You Always Trust Your Doctor?

As I mentioned in a previous post (Out On A Limb) I was due to have leg surgery to repair some damaged tendons above the right knee. The repair was going to require cadaver tendons which the doctors assured me they were going to find.

Well, I was all prepared for the surgery on the scheduled day but it had to be cancelled due to the lack of a cooperative cadaver. I had mentioned to the doctors that I was willing to procure my own cadaver or at the very least give them a list of names but they weren’t going for it.

So while I was waiting I kept hearing story after story of questionable medical practices. Not the kind of information you want to gather just before you go under the knife. Stories, like this one:

Doctors in New Zealand lost a man’s false teeth during his back surgery but found them four days later — stuck in his throat. The 81-year-old entered the hospital and his upper dentures were removed before the operation. But somehow the false teeth got back into the heavily sedated man’s mouth, where they were lodged for four days! Didn’t anybody hear this guy whistle while he breathed?

After the operation, the patient complained of extreme pain, nurses noticed his voice was husky and he couldn’t eat very much. Doctors put a laryngoscope down his throat, found the missing denture plate and removed the teeth. Experts said a cyst in the center of the man’s spinal cord had pushed on his brain stem, damaging the parts responsible for swallowing and the feeling in the back of his mouth. It’s never good when you need a laryngoscope to see someone’s smile.

Then there was the story of the wrong kidney. Doctors at Methodist Hospital in Minnesota were taking out a cancerous kidney from a patient, but they only realised they took out the wrong kidney when a hospital pathologist examined the orphaned organ a day after the patient's surgery, and evidently found no trace of cancer.

Hospital officials would not talk about the next steps for this patient, but there are several options depending where the cancer is located in the remaining kidney. They can either treat the remaining kidney for cancer or wait for a transplant. It’s never good when you go into the hospital with two kidneys and come out with none.

According to Kathleen Harder, a University of Minnesota researcher who studies medical errors, said mistakes of this magnitude are rare but do happen. "They remove the wrong ovary, take off the wrong leg," she said. Many hospitals have stepped up efforts to catch errors in the operating room. But as in this case, she noted, the problem can occur long before the operation begins. "It's wrong in the chart ... and that sets it up for a train wreck."

So you can imagine my trepidation when I got the call and was told that someone else’s body parts were chilling in a vat waiting for me. I immediately thought of all the things that could go wrong. They could operate on the wrong knee (I covered that one by marking the right knee “you are here”); I could have an unforeseen reaction to the anaesthesia and either die or be drooling in a cup for the next 40 years (they don’t even make you count backwards anymore, it’s just plop on the mask and lights out); or everything could go smoothly but my leg would have a mind of its own like Peter Seller’s hand in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

I also thought of all the things I could do if they lopped off the leg. I could become an iguana smuggler. No, really! Just this past week a jury acquitted a man of smuggling endangered iguanas in his hollowed-out prosthetic leg but convicted him of concealing and possessing the endangered species.

The jury rejected charges that Jereme James stole Fiji Island banded iguanas while visiting the South Pacific in September 2002. The neon-green-striped iguana is an endangered species, prosecutors said.

However, James faces a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison when sentenced in July. During an undercover probe, James told investigators he had sold three iguanas for $32,000. Four iguanas were seized when a search warrant was served at his house in April. If you’re going to have a hollow leg, you might as well put it to good use, I say.

Anyway, much to my relief, I woke up from the surgery and felt sufficient pain in my right leg to know that they must have been around the correct general area. There wasn’t much time to concern myself with the pain as hospital stays aren’t what they used to be. They wanted me out of the building. When did we get to a point where your stay for major surgery became shorter than the stay your pants has at the dry cleaners?

They gave me a list of things that I can and cannot do, such as not putting any weight whatsoever on my right leg, yet they don’t supply crutches for you to leave the building. They just wheel you out of the hospital and wave at you like the Clampetts at the end of each episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Thank God that my best friend Mario had everything covered. (Okay, there are too many posts lately where I’m praising Mario. Either he’ll soon be depicted in stain glass somewhere or he’ll be running around in a cape and tights!)

Mario got me gently placed into his vehicle, stretched over two rows of seats and cleared it with the City of Montreal to fill all the potholes between the hospital and my house so the ride wouldn’t be too jarring. Isn’t he a saint? He’s also staying with me for several days while his girlfriend is at home trying to figure out how to take out the garbage. I don’t know what I did to deserve this treatment, but when all is said and done, I think I’m going to save my money and buy Mario a small Caribbean island.

So as I sit here in complete and utter pain (no painkillers for me, they are for the weak), I look forward to the day when I can tap dance, run a marathon or compete in Olympic hurdles. I didn’t do any of these things before (okay, maybe a little tap) but who knows whose tendons I have and what they were capable of doing. I’m just looking forward to the day when peeing doesn’t involve a balancing act.

That’s the Stuph – the way I see it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sniffing out Zero Tolerance

One thing that truly annoys me in a lot of the “Stuph File” stories that I share on the air is the idea of some schools, primarily in the United States, that have a zero tolerance policy so unbending, it stifles the creative juices and growth of the very students it purports to protect.

Stories like the ones dealing with first graders who are expelled because their mothers packed a plastic knife in their lunch so they could butter their bread. In this post 9/11 world I can still cut my miniscule mystery meat on an international flight with plastic utensils, but a six-year-old is about to drive his entire campus into lockdown because Mommy thought he might like to spread his peanut butter with something other than his index finger (actually, other zero tolerance laws that include potential deadly food allergies, probably rates the peanut butter more dangerous than the knife!)

Let’s not forget the little perverts who are out there; overly affectionate seven-year-olds who for life will be deemed as sexual harassers on their official files because they kissed another girl on the cheek. You think I’m making this up? Last year, a boy in North Carolina was separated from his class for a day and kept from an ice cream party as punishment for kissing a classmate (I’m guessing he won’t be dating much in the future – and is destined for extensive therapy). The case drew worldwide attention – and ridicule. So you can’t bring anything to school, you can’t kiss anyone and heaven forbid should you sniff something!

Baby boomers out there who went to school in the 60s and 70s might have fond memories of “test day” in class. This was when the teacher would bring in newly minted sheets of paper, fresh off the Gestetner machine. Oh, the aroma was infectious! You would spend the first few moments sniffing your test before getting down to business and not once did any of the students slip into hallucinogenic trances or off into a coma. If these machines were around today most students and a few teachers would have criminal records.

The zero tolerance crowd must be ecstatic that the Gestetner era has gone the way of bathtub gin and schools are safe once again, now that the aromatic monkey is off the kids’ back. But wait; there is another scourge on the horizon as witnessed in a story this week from Colorado.

A school district there is defending its decision to punish a third grader for sniffing a Sharpie marker. Eight-year-old Eathan Harris was originally suspended from Harris Park Elementary School for three days. Brain-dead principal, Chris Benisch, reduced the suspension to one day after complaints from Harris' parents.

Little Eathan used a black Sharpie marker to colour a small area on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. A teacher sent him to the principal when she noticed him smelling the marker and his clothing. "It smelled good," Harris said. "They told me that's wrong."

Eathan's father, John Harris, says the school overreacted for treating Eathan as if he was huffing, or inhaling, marker fumes. "I think it's outlandish," John Harris said. "It's ridiculous." Eathan shyly shook his head "no" when a reporter asked if he knew about "huffing."

The brain-dead principal stands by his decision to suspend Eathan, saying it sends a clear message about substance abuse. "This is really, really, seriously dangerous," Benisch said. In his letter suspending the child, Benisch wrote that smelling the marker fumes could cause the boy to "become intoxicated."

For those of you who may be on the fence with this issue, I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps there is something to this and you can get high from a magic marker. Maybe that’s where the word “magic” comes from. Well, a toxicologist with the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center says that claim is nearly impossible. Dr. Eric Lavonas says non-toxic markers like Sharpies, while pungent smelling, cannot be used to get high. "I don't know whether it would be possible for a real overachiever to figure out a way to get high off them," Lavonas said. "But in regular use, it's just not something that's going to happen. If you went to Costco and bought 50 bags of Sharpies and did something to them, maybe there's a way to get creative and make it happen."

Surely the brain-dead principal would listen to the educated words of a toxicologist, but no, the school district leaders were unfazed by the poison control center's medical opinion. "Principals make hundreds of decisions everyday based on our best judgment. And in that time, smelling that marker, I felt like, 'Wow, that's a very serious marker,'" Benisch said. It makes you wonder what this clown was sniffing!

Instead of common sense prevailing here the brain-dead principal has gone to an even further extreme, promising to draw an even clearer line on markers. He has purged every permanent marker from the building. Now, isn’t that the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard? Perhaps Eathan’s parents should sue – in a joint case with the Sharpie company.

Meanwhile, Eathan Harris says he's happy to be back in school after his suspension, but he did confide he worried the school's disciplinary action might hurt his dream of one day becoming a professional football player. Wait Eathan. When you get to that point, you’ll have a whole host of substances that you can deal with. Until then, let’s hope your mother doesn’t use dryer sheets on your clothes, or the teacher might have to put you in the corner naked with nothing to sniff.

That’s the Stuph – the way I see it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Old Soldiers Never Die . . .

There is the saying, “they don’t make them like they used to.” It usually comes up when someone from a previous generation reminisces about the good old days when a loaf of bread was just a nickel.

I never thought that I would be one of the folks to dredge up that old chestnut, but here I am. The irony, however, is I’m not even talking about something from my generation, but rather from the one that preceded me.

For the last couple of weeks my best buddy, Mario, and I have been watching the phenomenal HBO series Band of Brothers. I had seen it before when it originally aired on cable and I’ve always maintained that it is one of the classiest miniseries depicting a great story of true heroism during some of the darkest days of World War II. I had always vowed to get the DVD version and this past Christmas it was my gift to me.

Mario had never seen it but I convinced him, as I try to convince everyone, of the value of watching the full ten hours so over a period of a couple of weekends we made it a male bonding exercise as we watched the ravages of war.

When watching this story unfold, learning about the lives, training and battle scars of the men of “Easy Company,” from the 101st Airborne, one thing was painfully clear. This was a special breed of men, but not a rare breed for the times. I am reminded of the recent Tom Brokaw book entitled The Greatest Generationwhich chronicles this time period. These were guys who, hardened by the depression, were polished into the tough diamonds in the rough, ready for some of the harshest battle situations modern man had seen.

Throughout the series Mario and I concurred that our generation isn’t quite up to the task that they went through. It was a different era and these men were moulded by their times. Oh sure, we have some strong individuals today, especially in our military, but not to the numbers that once were. Today these men are the exception, not the rule. Collectively our generation is a little soft, even the tough ones like Mario, who is a police officer.

But where are these men today? Even in their old age they are still tough as nails. I am reminded of this because of a couple of stories that appeared in the news within the last month. Both stories deal with veterans – men who are perhaps slowed by age, but who still have the same sense of right and wrong. Men that you really shouldn’t mess with, but for some reason there are dolts from the younger generation who are just too slow to realize this valuable point.

For instance, there is a guy in North Texas named James Pickett. He’s 80-years-old, a World War II veteran, former fighter and a lifelong John Wayne fan. Back in February he was confronted by two armed brothers inside his home on a Saturday night.

Police believe the siblings, joined at the hip by DNA and a few shared brain cells, went to Pickett’s home with the intent to rob him and even possibly kill him, but Pickett was having none of that.

When his doorbell rang and he opened it, the two brothers, Paul and Holden Perry, barged inside. Pickett said, “He just come through that door stabbing and beating.”

However, just before he went to answer the door, Pickett had placed a pistol into his pocket. The Perry brothers stabbed and beat – Pickett simply shot. The brothers ran, but didn't get far before calling an ambulance. One of the bullets just missed Paul Perry's spine.

A neighbour of Pickett called him a hero. Pickett’s response was, “Well, I ain't got no business being a hero, by no means.” Pickett might not know a double negative but he certainly knows how to defend himself.

Both brothers face assault, burglary and robbery charges. Deputies assured Pickett they aren't likely to get out of jail anytime soon. However, he didn't seem that worried. “I think I'm a ten times better shot than he is,” he said. “... But, they best not come back.”

Like his hero John Wayne, that’s what you call true grit! Perhaps this is something the younger generation knows nothing about, but it’s a lesson the Perry brothers won’t soon forget.

Another youngster who won’t forget his valuable lesson is a lad in his mid teens in Santa Rosa, California. In late March he thought it might be a good idea to try to rob a former U.S. Army paratrooper . . . yes a former member of the 101st Airborne.

81-year old Donald Clouston was walking with a grocery bag in each arm and $100 in his pocket when the boy approached him with a large knife. The kid said, “Old man, give me your wallet or I'll cut you.”

In what has to be considered fair warning Donald told the boy he was a former paratrooper who fought in three wars and had been threatened with much bigger knives and bayonets. The former Staff Sergeant then put his bags on the ground and told the boy that if he stepped closer he would be sorry. The boy stepped closer . . . he was sorry.

Donald kicked him in the groin, knocking him to the sidewalk, then while down he also kicked him in the teeth. While the delinquent was doubled over contemplating the hard lesson he just learned Donald calmly picked up his grocery bags and walked home. He reported the attempted robbery to police 45 minutes later.

The cops are still looking for the kid, described only as 15 or 16 years old, and are asking for help from the public. I suggest they look for someone who’s not smiling and has a bag of frozen peas on his crotch.

Perhaps these kids should just stay home and watch the DVD of Band of Brothers. They’ll learn about dedication, camaraderie, battling through hardships, and yes, true grit. And they’ll also learn to respect older men who knew the meaning of freedom and fighting for their rights, who could drop them like a ton of bricks.

That’s the Stuph – the way I see it.