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Sometimes You Just Gotta Treat It

“Red” McDougall had terrible leg pains soon after going to bed. He did have a bad back, and some mild spinal stenosis, but I hadn’t heard much about that in the past few years. He was just dealing with the ache in his legs when he was on his feet too long.

A few months ago he saw his vascular surgeon for a routine followup. He’d had a femoral-popliteal bypass to restore circulation to his right leg a few years ago. The vascular surgeon was intrigued by the fact that both legs hurt when elevated. That is usually a sign of severe ischemia, but Red’s pulses were palpable. To play it safe, the surgeon ordered formal pulse volume recordings and a CT angiogram.

The studies were normal and the surgeon speculated that the pain could be related to Red’s bad back.

I saw him for a diabetes followup a few weeks ago. He had ever so slightly decreased monofilament sensation in both feet and his legs had normal strength, normal reflexes and no atrophy.

“Does it feel like cramps?” I asked.

“Not really, they just hurt”, Red answered. “It’s so bad I have to sit on the edge of my bed and dangle my legs or walk around a bit before it goes away. But it’s driving me crazy. I hardly get any sleep anymore.”

“Well, we know it’s not your circulation”, I began. “It could be just a form of leg cramps, even though you can’t tell if there is spasm in the muscles. Or it could be a strange way for your spinal stenosis to act up in the opposite position from the way it usually behaves. So I have an idea.”

“Anything”, he was quick to answer.

“Cyclobenzaprine. A muscle relaxer that is related to the antidepressant amitriptyline. In addition to preventing muscle spasms, it has pain relieving properties and it usually helps people sleep.”

“Gimme some”, Red held out his hand.

“I’ll send in a script. Let me see you back in two weeks, because if this doesn’t work, I’ll need to do some serious thinking.”

I thought to myself about how often specialists are in a position where they can simply declare “Not my department”, but primary care docs are then more or less obligated to pick up the ball again and do something.

Two weeks later, Red was a new man.

I’m sleeping through the night, and no pain”, he grinned.

I still don’t know exactly what this was, but it’s gone.

Sometimes you just gotta treat it.


I have published well over 500 posts on A Country Doctor Writes since I started blogging over ten years ago. Right now I am pretty much posting something new twice a week. But I thought I’d put a “rerun” of an older post up every day (or almost every day) for the next year to allow frequent visitors to see older posts that would take lots of WordPress Infinite Scrolling or scrolling down the “Archive” to get to. The one I am pinning to the front page today is called “The Power of Words“.


He seemed like his usual self, strong willed and irreverent, with his gravelly voice and nicotine stained fingers, and as always tied with clear plastic tubing to the oxygen concentrator on the back of his wheelchair.

He is a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate. But during his last hospitalization he ended up intubated and on a ventilator for several days.

His daughter gave her version of what happened and the discharge summary was less clear cut. So I turned to him and asked:

“So what happened? How did you end up on a respirator as a DNR?”

He answered “I said HELP ME, and that’s what they did”.

“I think the doctors panicked when he said that”, his daughter concluded.

“And would you want that to happen if you say HELP ME again?”


“So when somebody can’t breathe, there are sometimes only two options, sticking a tube down their throat and hooking them up to a respirator or giving them morphine to treat the agony and anxiety of the process.”

I glanced over at his daughter and then looked him straight in his eyes.

“So, let me make sure I hear you right. If you can’t breathe and say HELP ME, does it mean machine or morphine?”

“Morphine”, he said, emphatically.

I’m glad we had this talk. This very plain talk.

Distance, an American Health Disparity

Driving north in a snowstorm Tuesday of Thanksgiving week I certainly took my time. I left after our Suboxone clinic wrap-up conference, around 7:30, and arrived at my unplowed driveway in Caribou about 1 AM.

On the way up, I saw two ambulances, one from Caribou and one from Presque Isle, on their way back home from Bangor. I’ve got a large SUV with all wheel drive and studded Finnish snow tires. They don’t, but they passed me and blew up clouds of snow behind them as they did. I also met an ambulance careening south toward Bangor down I-95 with full lights on.

I had an appointment for a telephone interview with a journalist for the next evening to talk about the challenges of rural medicine.

Distance is certainly one of them.

Not long ago I met a patient who, after a routine knee surgery, developed a lot of swelling as his hemoglobin dropped precipitously. Two hours passed before it was clear he needed emergency vascular surgery. The Presque Isle hospital has sometimes had a vascular surgeon and sometimes not. This was during a “sometimes not” time.

The Bangor vascular doctors accepted the transfer. The patient was on IV fluids, received blood and drugs to keep his blood pressure up, but it was a snowy night. Neither helicopter nor fixed wing aircraft could fly, so there was no other choice besides ground transport.

Seven hours after the original injury, he was in the OR. Circulation to his lower leg was restored, but today he still has problems with it. If Presque Isle had had a vascular surgeon on staff, if the weather or time of year had been different, he would have fared better.

There is one full time neurologist north of Bangor, no full time gastroenterologist, no neurosurgeon, no endocrinologist, no nephrologist, no dermatologist and the list goes on. Some specialty services are available as once a month or so visiting doctors to each hospital’s “Specialty Clinic”.

There is a lot of talk among my kind of primary care clinics about eliminating “Health Disparities”, and I often hear about cultural and economic differences in access to care. But here, the biggest challenges are geographic, sometimes compounded by something as uncontrollable as the weather.

When I interviewed for my 1981-1984 Family Practice residency, I really liked what I saw in Bangor, but it seemed so far north. I instead chose Lewiston, 100 miles to the south.

As life played out, I now work near Bangor part of the week and 200 miles north of there the rest of the time. And I now think of Bangor as “south”.

I told the journalist some of these things on the phone the night before Thanksgiving as I drove from Van Buren to Caribou long after dark. I also told her that practicing primary care in a remote, rural area lets me use my training and my skills more than where there are specialists on every street corner.

I canceled my plans to challenge the tail end of the snowstorm by driving back “downstate” for the holiday after just three hours of sleep the night before and a full day of clinic work. I got an early start the next day instead. You can’t make exact plans during northern Maine winters.

The Elfins Return

I have known him for over thirty years. He has been legally blind for the past five.

He tends to be a practical, no nonsense man. The other day, he seemed restless and very concerned as he lowered his voice and said:

“I don’t want you to come to the conclusion that I’m crazy, but I’m seeing things…” he began, “I’m seeing children with elfin faces…”

His large, thin hands were in his lap. I put mine on his and said “I know what that is. You’re not crazy. This is something that often happens to people with very poor eyesight. It’s called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and it was actually described in 1760 by a Swiss philosopher who observed it in his grandfather who was going blind. It’s like the brain fills in the empty spaces, and for reasons we don’t understand, much of the time it tends to be with elfin like children. They’re usually friendly and jovial and there’s nothing threatening about them.”

“Right, these are. I’m so glad to hear this is not some psychosis.”

“It’s a hallucination, but not a psychosis”, I reassured him. I printed up an article and gave it to him to show his friends and the staff at the Senior Citizens Home.

A few days later I heard how appreciated the article was.

This was only the second time in my career I have seen this condition. The first time I had no idea what it was but a family member of that patient brought in a printout of an article they had googled. That was ten years ago and I wrote about it in my first year of blogging.

Apparently up to 10% of people with visual acuity under 20/60 have this syndrome, and it tends to go away when vision is completely lost.

This little incident evoked two distinct feelings for me. The first one was the comfort, confidence and gratitude that I could instantly reassure my longtime patient that what he was experiencing has happened to other people and has a name and a long history. The other feeling was equally profound and mixed with all kinds of emotions:

My patient was once my neighbor, and my soon to be 35 year old son was often hanging around his yard, checking out his motorcycle, convertible Mustang and garden tractor. My son did look like a little elfin at that time. Maybe it was him that he was “seeing”.

Medicalization and Demedicalization in US Healthcare

“Admission Diagnosis: Causa Socialis”

In my training in Sweden it was not unusual to admit patients to the hospital for social reasons: An elderly person who could no longer manage at home, a person whose social network fell apart, and so on.

“Social reasons”, Causa Socialis, was a legitimate diagnosis (Swedes used more Latin than Americans, at least back then). And it was used with only mild grumbling. There was a clear understanding that the hospital was an important part of the social safety net. And, after all, it was ultimately tax dollars that paid for both medical and social services in the community.

In this country, these two types of services have little to do with each other. That is a problem.

For issues that could be either medical or not, Americans have a Newspeak vocabulary. I write frequently about “medicalization”, where for example more or less normal aging processes (wrinkles, osteopenia, low testosterone) become diseases.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a piece about the opposite term, “demedicalization”, exampled by a homeless, mentally ill patient who came to harm because he didn’t have a medically appropriate admission diagnosis.


Demedicalization is the transformation of problems formerly understood to be medical in nature into problems understood to be nonmedical.

Like its opposite, medicalization, demedicalization occurs at multiple levels, ranging from the conceptualization of etiology to the understanding of whether interventions for problems are appropriately medical or nonmedical.

Many disadvantaged people still view modern hospitals as safe havens, like mountaintop monasteries or old fashioned charity hospitals, but they really aren’t anymore.

My thoughts often return to the unsettling, upsetting if you will, fact that societal, cultural, public health or general life problems are “medicalized” when there is money to be made and “demedicalized” when there is not. Do the megahospitals really have tighter operating margins than the two older kinds of institutions they replaced?

Will Technology Keep Us From Thinking?

The New York Times quotes Plato’s play Phaedrus to make a point about Facebook’s use of data. They make the claim that “Technology promises to make easy things that, by their intrinsic nature, have to be hard”.

In the play, a wise king, Thamus, is offered the art of writing by the god Theuth.

The art of writing, Theuth said, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”

But Thamus rebuffed him. “O most ingenious Theuth,” he said, “the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them.”

The king continued: “For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.”

It struck me how this analogy is also perfectly applicable to the new technologies entering the field of medicine, from EMRs with “Decision Support” to Artificial Intelligence.

Just like there are store clerks who can’t make change (for customers who still pay with money) or school children who can’t multiply without a calculator, will the doctors of the future be helpless if dislocated from the propping up we are now starting to expect should they ever have to practice in a natural disaster, remote area or mass computer hacking situation?

(P.S. This reminds me of something I read in The Lancet years ago. They tried to coin McCoy’s Syndrome for when Star Trek like doctors rely too much on technology.)

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”.

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