Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Anaesthesia: what we still don't know about the 'gift of oblivion' - The Age (Australia)

I am in a smallish, whitish room in a hospital in Brisbane. It is night. On the wall opposite my bed I can dimly make out a crucifix with its limp passenger. Beneath it float wide blank windows through which I watch the synapses of city light: a web of tiny illuminations and extinctions that seem, when I loosen my gaze, almost to form patterns, as if they are about to make sense. I am surprised at how calm I feel.

In the weeks leading up to this moment I have set my affairs in order. Made a will, written letters for the children, waxed my legs. Said my farewells at the airport and boarded the flight from Melbourne with my mother. It is July 2010.

Today's specialist anaesthetists train for 12 to 13 years. The death rate from general anaesthesia has dropped from about one in 20,000 in the 1970s to one or two in 200,000 this century. Photo: Fuse
Some months before this, after decades of resistance, I gave in at last to the inevitability of major surgery. My capitulation was sudden and took place in a different wing of this same hospital, where I had come to consult a respected spinal surgeon. The surgeon had a quiet, almost diffident, manner and a moustache that put me in mind of a doleful Groucho. I am not sure what made my mind up, the moustache or the way his finger traced my wayward spine quite gently on the X-ray before him. But just as he began to tell me that I would not be a candidate for the non-invasive surgery we had been talking about, I realised with a small thud of certainty that, not only was I going to have this surgery – invasive though it might be – I was going to come back to Brisbane and he was going to do it.

In the aftermath of my decision, I was buoyed in a backwash of something like relief; a giving up of hope and its attendant efforts, a yielding to forces beyond my will. But when I lay awake at night, disquiet rose around me. It was not just the surgery that was worrying me – the cutting and drilling, the inevitable risk – it was that in some blank corner of myself I felt that I would not wake up afterwards. I knew logically, and during the day could convince myself, that for an otherwise healthy 48-year-old, the likelihood of calamity was low. But at night, in my bed in Melbourne, the conviction multiplied that even if everything went according to plan, the me who woke after surgery would not be the same in some essential way as the me who had been wheeled into the operating theatre beforehand.

I developed a dread of the moment when the anaesthetic drugs would take effect and I would cease to be. I pictured myself in a stark, poorly lit room with two doors, one in, one out, neither of which I could open from within. Otherwise the room was empty. No windows, no furniture. In this darkness – which I now realise had the same sinuous quality as the shadows beneath my childhood bed – I would be trapped alone. Perhaps forever. At least until such time as someone else chose to release, not me but some other version of me who would slip soundlessly into the life that had once been mine.

Shortly after making my decision, I rang a separate Brisbane medical practice. I asked to speak to the doctor whose job it would be to render me unconscious and keep me that way during the long operation. Halting, almost apologetic, I explained to the receptionist that I had spent some years researching the process known as anaesthesia, and that I was now rather nervous about what was going to happen to me. "I think I know too much," I said.

"Oh dear," they said. "That's not good."

More ...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever - The New York Times

Drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times.

The death count is the latest consequence of an escalating public health crisis: opioid addiction, now made more deadly by an influx of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and similar drugs. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.

Although the data is preliminary, the Times's best estimate is that deaths rose 19 percent over the 52,404 recorded in 2015. And all evidence suggests the problem has continued to worsen in 2017.

Because drug deaths take a long time to certify, the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention will not be able to calculate final numbers until December. The Times compiled estimates for 2016 from hundreds of state health departments and county coroners and medical examiners. Together they represent data from states and counties that accounted for 76 percent of overdose deaths in 2015. They are a first look at the extent of the drug overdose epidemic last year, a detailed accounting of a modern plague.

The initial data points to large increases in drug overdose deaths in states along the East Coast, particularly Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine. In Ohio, which filed a lawsuit last week accusing five drug companies of abetting the opioid epidemic, we estimate overdose deaths increased by more than 25 percent in 2016.

"Heroin is the devil's drug, man. It is," Cliff Parker said, sitting on a bench in Grace Park in Akron. Mr. Parker, 24, graduated from high school not too far from here, in nearby Copley, where he was a multisport athlete. In his senior year, he was a varsity wrestler and earned a scholarship to the University of Akron. Like his friends and teammates, he started using prescription painkillers at parties. It was fun, he said. By the time it stopped being fun, it was too late. Pills soon turned to heroin, and his life began slipping away from him.

More ...

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Doctor Is In. Co-Pay? $40,000. - The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — When John Battelle's teenage son broke his leg at a suburban soccer game, naturally the first call his parents made was to 911. The second was to Dr. Jordan Shlain, the concierge doctor here who treats Mr. Battelle and his family.

"They're taking him to a local hospital," Mr. Battelle's wife, Michelle, told Dr. Shlain as the boy rode in an ambulance to a nearby emergency room in Marin County. "No, they're not," Dr. Shlain instructed them. "You don't want that leg set by an E.R. doc at a local medical center. You want it set by the head of orthopedics at a hospital in the city."

Within minutes, the ambulance was on the Golden Gate Bridge, bound for California Pacific Medical Center, one of San Francisco's top hospitals. Dr. Shlain was there to meet them when they arrived, and the boy was seen almost immediately by an orthopedist with decades of experience.

For Mr. Battelle, a veteran media entrepreneur, the experience convinced him that the annual fee he pays to have Dr. Shlain on call is worth it, despite his guilt over what he admits is very special treatment.

"I feel badly that I have the means to jump the line," he said. "But when you have kids, you jump the line. You just do. If you have the money, would you not spend it for that?"

Increasingly, it is a question being asked in hospitals and doctor's offices, especially in wealthier enclaves in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and New York. And just as a virtual velvet rope has risen between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else on airplanes, cruise ships and amusement parks, widening inequality is also transforming how health care is delivered.

More ...