The Art of Triage: What’s the Worst Thing This Could Be?

Last week I became involved in two situations of pain between the eyes that seemed to potentially be presentations of very serious medical conditions.

Autumn took a call from her sister late on Friday afternoon. Her sister had been tested for Covid the day before and told Autumn she instantly felt a severe pain between her eyes and developed a nosebleed as soon as the nasal swabbing was completed. The nosebleed stopped, but the burning pain at the bridge of her nose had continued in spite of over the counter pain medications and the passage of 24 hours.

It was obvious that whoever did the nasal swab was under the impression that human nasal passages run upward at the same angle as the nasal bone and not horizontally. It was obvious that this had caused pain and a nosebleed. But the amount of pain seemed dramatic. I don’t know Autumn’s sister very well, but she never seemed melodramatic to me. I asked to talk to her myself.

“Do you have a nasal discharge from that nostril?” I asked.

“Yes”, she answered. “Constant.”

“Is it clear?”

“Yes.”

All I could think of was a cerebrospinal fluid leak. This can happen with nasal trauma, I knew, and a quick Internet search even turned up a case of this happening from a nasal swab for the coronavirus.

“You’ve got to go to the ER, and you need a CT scan”, I told her. Autumn told her she’d meet her there. I asked her to keep me posted. By 8 pm the scan was done and reported negative by the NightOwl radiologist, working in a different time zone. Autumn texted to me that the ER doctor called it a contusion. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was supposed to mean – a contusion of what, exactly. But I had done what I could and did not feel I overreacted by telling her to go to the ER.

The very next day I saw a young man with a pain between his eyes that got worse when he leaned forward. He also had decreased libido and mild erectile dysfunction, all for about two weeks. He had no nasal discharge, no visual disturbance and nothing abnormal on ENT or neurological exam.

My thoughts went to a pituitary tumor or a brain abscess from a sinus infection, but perhaps he was just feeling under the weather from an ordinary sinusitis. On a Saturday with no option for a same day CT except if I sent him to the ER, I prescribed a strong antibiotic and cautioned him to seek care if anything got worse or if all three symptoms didn’t clear after a few days of the antibiotic. After all, I told myself, his symptoms had been stable for some time and a few days would probably not alter the course of events.

Whether we take a phone call or see a patient in the office without any availability of diagnostic tests, sometimes all we do is triage and best guessing.

I slept soundly both Friday and Saturday night.

As the old adage goes: Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.

The General Public is Meant to be Deceived: The American Food Conspiracy

Everybody knows how to operate smartphones and understands complex modern phenomena, but many Americans are frighteningly ignorant about basic human nutrition.

I am convinced this is the result of a powerful conspiracy, fueled by the (junk) food industry. Here are just a few examples:

Milk has been advertised as a healthy beverage. It is not. No other species consumes milk beyond infancy. Milk based products like ice cream and yogurt are on top of that often sweetened beyond their natural properties.

Fruit juices make it possible to consume the calories of half a dozen pieces of fruit faster than eating just one. Naturally tart juices, like cranberry, are sweetened the same way as soft drinks (high fructose corn syrup), and therefore no healthier than Coca Cola.

Things made from flour—like bread, crackers, boxed and instant cereal, pasta and snacks like pretzels or chips other than plain potato chips—raise blood glucose levels faster than eating table sugar: The breakdown of flour starts in our mouths because of enzymes in our saliva while sucrose doesn’t break down until it reaches our small intestine.

Sugary foods, even candy like Twizzlers, are advertised as “fat free”, which is a relic from the days when fat was believed to be bad for you. Many fats, like those in olive oil, salmon, tree nuts and avocado are extremely healthful.

Another example of tangential descriptions is when flour based snacks are promoted as “baked, not fried”. Flour is bad, no matter what you do with it and, in fact, the presence of fat slows down the blood glucose rise from highly processed carbohydrates.

Serving size is still used to deceive people. A small bag of chips may seem to have a modest amount of calories until you realize it is supposed to be two servings. Fortunately, some packaging now states how many calories are in the whole package. Serving size should be abandoned, since it has no basis in what people really eat.

Artificial sweeteners are still promoted as if they are a way to consume fewer calories. Unfortunately we now know that they often alter our intestinal flora which in turn can release hormones that make us hungrier and craving sugar even more.

Additives are often promoted as healthy, from probiotics to vitamins to extra protein. There is little evidence to support this.

Words like “all natural” are often used in food advertising, but mean nothing in terms of whether they are good for you or not. Poisonous plants, like hemlock, are natural but that doesn’t mean we should eat them.

So many people have trouble understanding the three types of calorie containing foods that exist: protein, fat and carbohydrates. That’s where I often have to start. And sometimes, when I ask people “walk me through your day, tell me what you eat”, I end up pointing out “it’s all carbs”.

This kind of basic information should be kindergarten stuff, not adult education.


Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

BOOKS BY HANS DUVEFELT, MD

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