April facts

DAB Matula Thoughts April 7, 2017


April facts – mischievous & urological

3687 words



            April, the first 30-day month of the year, opens up the northern hemisphere spring with welcome visibility of diverse flora and fauna. It should surprise no one that the diversity of life sustains all life on the planet and loss of that diversity imperils everything. A multitude of critters share our space and today it is the wombat that comes to my mind. Australian newspapers The Sydney Herald and The Age reported a wombat attack this day in 2010 when a man named Bruce Kringle ended up in the hospital after mauling by the marsupial. The worldwide British Broadcasting Corporation quickly picked up the news. These sizable animals average over 3 feet and 60 pounds as adults. [Photo by JJ Johnson. 29 November 2009. Taken at Maria Island National Park, Tasmania.] Territorial infringement was likely in play in this instance, as the victim was living in a camper when he stepped out the door and encountered the angry wombat, unusual behavior for the animal and ultimately self-destructive after Kringle found an ax and made short work of it on this summertime February day in Australia.

The Wombat coincidence this day on this April day piqued my interest, because in a previous April, 1998, the British Journal of Urology (BJU) published an article on wombat uroflowmetry. [D. Johnson. Case report. Observations on the uninhibited bladder of the common wombat. BJUI. 81:641-642, 1998.] For those readers uninitiated regarding matters of scientific micturition, uroflowmetry is the measurement of the flow rate of urine during the process of emptying the bladder. Mankind is naturally curious about its personal byproducts and inspection of sputum, urine, feces, etc. has offered clues to understanding disease since the times of the earliest healers. Of course most mammals have olfactory interest in their own urine and that of others, as evidenced in the canine world. Uroflowmetry provides true facts about urination, thanks to our ability to measure time and volume, as well as understand velocity.

My interest in uroflowmetry preceded the wombat stories and goes back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where my chief, Ray Stutzman, introduced me to the concept of timed uroflowmetry and we wrote a paper comparing it to instrumental uroflowmetry. [J. Urol. 133:421, 1985] I then wondered about uroflowmetry in other species and the elephant seemed a good place to start. Discussion with the elephant-keeper at the Washington National Zoo taught me something about pachyderm urologic habits, but we never completed the project, mainly because of a difference of opinion on the distribution of the tasks required by the methodology. Timed uroflowmetry requires a collection device and a stopwatch to measure the volume during 5 seconds of mid-flow. All of the elephants at the Washington Zoo at the time were female and their streams therefore required a collection device both large in volume and wide in aperture– basically a big bucket. The unpredictability of elephant micturition required someone standing in place with the bucket. Since the uroflowmetry idea was mine and the elephant-keeper was on better terms with the pachyderm than I was, it seemed reasonable for me to hold the watch while the other guy held the bucket. The elephant-keeper disagreed with that assignment and claimed the stopwatch. Given that stalemate, the study has yet to be performed and awaits an ambitious medical student or resident, or a more flexible elephant trainer.

Another elephant crossed my path around this time of year after Ed McGuire brought me to Michigan. A child with gross hematuria presented to clinic with her grandparents and we diagnosed urologic malignancy. After surgery she remained in hospital for further treatment and by this point the parents had come to town. They were circus people and owned a number of animals including a young female elephant. Domino’s Farms graciously allowed the family to camp out on their property for the weeks of therapy, and one spring afternoon the child’s family invited our pediatric urology team and kids for elephant rides.



            Planarial detour. Scientists crave facts and know their job is to ferret out true facts. Bill McRoberts, colleague in Kentucky, friend, and our third Duckett Lecturer at Michigan used to tell his residents “a little fact trumps a lot of myth,” an idea parallel to Coffey’s advice to trainees:  “you have to understand the difference between facts and true facts.” Evidence, analysis, and experiment are the ways we come to verifiable truths and enduring realities that constitute true facts. While all biological creatures deal with facts of their environment, many facts are only transient realities. A planarium, for example, may sense that its world is 20°C and that food is available straight ahead of its momentary motion, but those facts may change quickly. We humans can examine myths, discover momentary facts, create hypotheses, and perform experiments in search of something we call the truth, an aspiration we think is unique to our species.

Planaria, by the way, are among the simplest animals to manage their waste with a dedicated excretory system.  Paired flame and tube cells ending in a pore assemble as protonephridial tubules along the length of the flatworm. These are capable of regeneration. [JC Rink, HT-K Vu, AS Alvarado. The maintenance and regeneration of the planarian excretory system are regulated by EGFR signaling. Development. 138:3769, 2011] Planarial flow rates could be a topic for a future study. More practically, the mechanism of planarian excretory regeneration could be turned to human renal replacement therapy, thus proving the point that today’s obscure fact may be tomorrow’s revolutionary insight.

[Above: planarian Dugesia subtentaculata. From Santa Fe, Montseny, Catalonia. Wikimedia Commons. Eduard Solà.]

[Above and below: reproductive and excretory systems of flatworm. Source – Wikimedia Commons, Putaringonit.]

            When the wombat uroflowmetry paper in the BJU caught my attention in 1998, I suspected a prank, something not unknown in British medical publications, particularly around the month of April. Thinking a clever reply might be appreciated by the journal, I resorted to limerick form in a letter to the editor, Jeff Chisholm. Surprisingly, my letter was published and now constitutes the only “poetry” of any sort to find its way into my CV. [DA Bloom. Re: Wombat uroflowmetry. BJU 83:365, 1999.] Chisholm annotated my reply: “Edited versions – apologies to the author!” The annotation was in this limerick:

“Lo, the wombat – it all must be true

So free when it’s not in the zoo

Pees lots when it poops

By well-used neural loops

As told in the new BJU”



          Pranks, myths, and propaganda veer from the true facts attended to so carefully in our professions. Last spring, sitting in on the class my daughter Emily, assistant professor in English, was teaching at Columbia University I heard her challenge a familiar myth with data from a paper in Science. [Mehl. Science. 317 (5834): 82, 2007.] The myth was that women spoke more than men, and observation of my children and grandchildren still supports that idea. The thing about myths, however, is that they usually short-circuit our best efforts to think critically. Appealing to the lazy tendencies of our brains, they get an easy pass for “truth.” Although I subscribe to Science, I had missed that particular article (and likely hundreds of other important ones since then). Matthias Mehl, associate professor of psychology and author of the paper, studied 210 women and 186 men with a voice-activated device that captured 30 seconds of conversation every 12.5 minutes (5% of the day) and found that women used 16,215 words and men 15,669 words daily – no significant difference. One might argue that possibly women used longer words for more complex conversations, and inspire another study. Another question, also heavily dependent on educational, socio-economic, and occupational levels of  subjects tested would be how many words does “an average person” hear every day? It is likely that fewer words are actually comprehended than spoken.

Word count interests me in relation to this monthly column, What’s New/Matula Thoughts. Approaching 4000 words it offers a substantial amount to read, a quarter of what most people speak every day. It is surely vain on my part to think that the general readership consumes all these words critically, although a few friends read this more carefully than I write it. My point in writing, however, is that it fills some fundamental personal need to communicate beyond the simple necessities of survival and daily work, the need that our distant ancestors (Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and their hybrids) fulfilled some 30,000 years ago on the walls of their cave dwellings. These particular electronic postings you now read are hardly so novel, artistic, or durable.



            More on words. Considering a career in urology a medical student at Pritzker Medical School in Chicago, Logan Galansky, recently contacted me for advice and as she explained her previous work in hearing and learning she described the 30 million words idea – the hypothesis that children who heard that many words by age 3 years had a lifetime advantage over those who were exposed to much less. [B Hart & T Risley. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator, 27(1): 4 – 9.] Complicating any easy assumptions, however, is the fact that the study compared children from “professional families” to children from “impoverished families” in Kansas City, KS in the 1960’s where other confounders beyond experiential words were at play. The pivotal study involved  42 families that were divided into 4 socioeconomic groups. Although scrutiny detracts from the easy conclusion it certainly is plausible, if not likely, that richer vocabulary experiences build more robust vocabulary inventories, and those inventories are an advantage in life.

Our Department of Urology Faculty Retreat next week is a sort of spring training for the next decade of urology at the University of Michigan. Each clinical division and key domain, such as education or the Dow Health Research Division, will present strategic visions. Individual faculty have updated their web profiles and we should get a pretty good sense of ourselves as an organization today and what we hope for in the intermediate future. How many words will be spoken at this retreat? Given pauses, breaks, and other interruptions, and assuming a leisurely rate of 100 words per minute (130-150 wpm may be more typical of conversational speech) over 5 hours we may hear 30,000 words. Who knows what will stick or what people will take away, but I hope we will align around our mission and that we will understand our divisional strategies and visions of the future.



            Disparities. Important lessons from Star Wars, observed by The Economist and mentioned here last month, bear repetition. First, economic disparities are inevitable in the galaxy, in spite of advancing technology. Second, although free trade advances economic growth, free trade will never benefit everyone equally; some “humans will still labor at dangerous and unpleasant tasks” because of inequities within political systems.

Society benefits substantially by mitigating disparities that, while inevitable in humanity, impede the common good. Society gains when its entire human capital is educated, productive, healthy, and kind. If only certain privileged subsets of its potential workforce have opportunity for education, employment, and productivity, then the potential of that society is diminished. A generation ago, scientific investigation of healthcare disparities was not high on the ladder of interest in academia, federal funding, or industry. This has changed greatly, and our Urology Department Dow Health Services Research Division reflects the new attention. An important paper in JAMA earlier this year looked at trends and patterns of disparities in cancer mortality by counties in the USA from 1980-2014 and the results relevant to urology are riveting. [AH Mokdad et al, corresponding author CJL Murray JAMA. 317:388-406; 2017.]

Prostate cancer:

Kidney cancer:

Testicular cancer:

The United States is a large and diverse country, but why people with specific diseases should have different regional disease frequencies, expectations of care, and survival is a complex question with many answers. Regional variations of disease frequency and survival can depend upon environmental factors such as air or water safety, occupational hazards, poverty, food safety, public safety, weather conditions, and many other factors that vary according to geography and socio-economic conditions. Looking at the maps we have to agree with Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, that the center of the country is a good place to call home.



           Centrism. A cornerstone aspiration of American representational democracy is justice, opportunity, and dignity for all participants. This must be balanced against the centrist tendency inherent in majority rule of the electorate. Cosmopolitanism must be respected and those who are disadvantaged require a humane safety net. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are those basic Jeffersonian beliefs articulated in the Declaration of Independence, but even after more than 200 years they remain work-in-progress, complicated by a world that is rapidly changing in terms of socio-economic, geo-political, environmental, demographic, and technology factors.

The political center of the United States will always be a matter of debate, however the geographic center of the contiguous United States according to the US National Geodetic Survey is 39°50′N 98°35′W. This spot happens to be in Kansas, approximately 12 miles south of the mid KansasNebraska border and 2.6 miles northwest of the center of the city of Lebanon.  Not too far south and east of that point is Abilene, Kansas where Dwight David Eisenhower was raised.

Health care is unquestionably wrapped up in the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and healthcare politics concerned most presidents even before the mid-20th century. Around that point in time the AMA position was that the federal government should not be involved in healthcare, while Truman favored national health insurance and Eisenhower sought legislation to support the healthcare insurance industry.

On April 16, 1953, twelve weeks into his presidency Eisenhower delivered one of his greatest speeches. This was just a month and a half after the death of Stalin and, as the president then knew, the first hydrogen bomb would be tested within a year (code-named Castle Bravo it was detonated March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands). Eisenhower saw an opportunity to reset the increasingly costly escalation of the cold war. The occasion was a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, DC. Eisenhower worried about the disparity between military spending and the spending of a nation on the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its people.

“In this spring of 1953 the free world weighs one question above all others: the chances for a just peace for all peoples… “

No one dared remind Eisenhower that liberty required a robust and costly position of defense, but he was convinced that the escalating costs were not only excessive, but also realistically unnecessary. He believed that the nations of the world had reached a point where the worst that could be expected by the escalation was terminal nuclear war while the best hope was

“… a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for all the peoples of this earth. Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

He noted that the cost of one heavy bomber equated to modern brick schools in more than 30 cities, a single destroyer equalled a new home for 8,000 people, or a fighter plane cost a half million bushels of wheat. Inflation and technology have pushed the costs much higher.



            The Nesbit Society and the AUA come to mind as spring approaches. The AUA originated in 1902 in New York City when urologist Ramon Guiteras felt the need to congregate with other urologists. Barely 17 years later his colleague Hugh Cabot in Boston, returning from WWI, began preparations to move to Ann Arbor attracted by the opportunity to organize a medical school and hospital system to suit the changing times of health care. Cabot’s successor, Reed Nesbit, became the first head of urology at Michigan, presiding for nearly 40 years, followed by Jack Lapides. The Nesbit Society was formed in 1972 under the leadership of the Nesbit/Lapides trainee John Konnak, who by then had become a faculty member. The legacy of these great teachers and urologists is the Nesbit Society, now with 324 members. To a large extent, it is the Nesbit Society to whom this monthly electronic posting is directed (although a few members prefer a hard copy and Sandra Heskett graciously obliges). It is always a delight for me to hear from our Nesbit alumni and friends. John Hall (Nesbit 1970), for example, sent me this phrase that has informed his practice throughout his excellent career in Traverse City:  “We don’t practice medicine until we get it right, we keep on practicing until we will never get it wrong.” Hall’s Theory of Medical Education, like the Hippocratic aphorisms, distills wisdom into a phrase that you can carry around and re-inspire yourself when the going gets rough on a given day in clinic or operating room. This is one of the ways good professionals inoculate themselves against burn-out.

The Nesbit Society meets twice a year: once during the AUA national meeting in Boston this year on Sunday May 14 and all Nesbit members and friends of the department are welcome. The second occasion is our alumni weekend here in Ann Arbor September 14-16.




           Most species congregate and the chairs of our academic departments do this with some regularity. I came across this picture of such a congregation 3 years ago in April when Mike Johns was interim EVPMA. This particular dinner was at The Earl, and the picture was taken before everyone had arrived, but it turned out to be my best picture of the evening. [From left: Karin Muraszko, Valerie Opipari, John Voorhees, Mike Johns, Carol Bradford, Reed Dunnick.]

The clinical departments are where the rubber meets the road in carrying out the missions of our UM Health System mission. Departments have been the building blocks of universities for hundreds of years, and academic medicine departments have effectively educated their successors, expanded the conceptual basis of their fields, and performed the essential transactions of clinical care over the past century. The clinical mission is the milieu for education and research as well as the financial engine for academic medicine. The changing economic, regulatory, and technological environments threaten the delicate balance of that mission. At Michigan our ambulatory care unit (ACU) model of delivering care has been successful, with the healthcare providers in central roles of making local operational general strategic decisions more effectively than management by managerial accounting methodology. This is largely the concept of lean process management. Clinical departments bring a third dimension of the academic mission to ambulatory clinics of providers and patients.



          April, the cruelest month in the view of TS Eliot, can be mischievous and its first day, April Fool’s, sets the tone. The origin of April Fools Day, may well have to do with April being the first calendar month of the year in medieval European towns when March 25 marked New Year’s Day. April in Ann Arbor often brings mischief since a given day may be spring-like while the next might be wintry. That shouldn’t be surprising, as nature routinely throws curve balls to test our fitness. Actually, yesterday afternoon I saw snow flurries from my office window and more snow last blustery evening.

[Above: April 2, 2016 at home. Below: April 13, 2016 Old Mott on left, Main Hospital center, and Taubman on left.]




              Biology’s astonishing diversity sustains our particular human biologic niche, yet ironically our very presence as a species chips away at biologic diversity and erodes our niche. This erosion has been going on for a long time and the angry wombat is only one tiny example. Its likely ancestor, the Diprotodon (meaning two forward teeth), was the largest known marsupial and a member of the Australian megafauna that existed from 1.6 million years ago until extinction around 46,000 years ago. That latter date coincides with the time our human ancestors were making their first cave dwelling paintings as they were eating the megafauna. Koalas and wombats are, perhaps, miniaturized surviving versions of the rhinoceros-sized Diprotodon. The wombat’s dental plan facilitates its Darwinian niche, allowing it to tunnel forward vigorously. Cleverly, its marsupial pouch opens retrograde, to avoid collecting dirt as it burrows. After 3-week gestations, the young live in the pouches for 6-7 months, but still do not wean until 15 months of age. Wombats have no tails and their tough rear hide is cartilaginous most posteriorly, making it resistant to predators. Wombat scat (below) is oddly a nearly perfect cubic form, somehow resulting from its peculiar physiology. Wombat groups are variously called wisdoms, mobs, or colonies. [Wikipedia facts, Photo JJ Harrison]

As the environment changes, you never quite know what to expect each day going forward. One value of knowing some history is that it gives you a little confidence of what to expect. For example, if you know the earthquake history of your location has a frequency of once in a millennium, with the last recorded 100 years ago, you might reasonably conclude that it is safe to live there. More immediately, if the sidewalk you are about to traverse is riddled with pigeon droppings, you might cross the street to walk on more auspicious pavement. When Bruce Kringle woke up 7 years ago in Australia, he certainly had no idea that an angry wombat was going to take him on when he stepped out of his mobile home, although had he examined the ground he might have recognized its unique cubic scat.

[Wikimedia Commons: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html.]


Postscript.   John Barry, in response to the picture of the Olds 88 last month wrote: “Looks like a 1951 Oldsmobile 88 K-body 2 door sedan with a V-8 engine and a Hydramatic transmission. I had one when I was a senior in high school. Great car. I used to buy cars, fix them up and resell them from my parent’s driveway.

Thank you for reading Matula Thoughts this April, 2017.

David A. Bloom

University of Michigan, Department of Urology, Ann Arbor

April First, 2016

DAB What’s New April 1, 2016

Hearts & hoaxes, questions & bells


(4073 words)


One.  Noteworthy births.


The first of April  has a small share of notable birthdays for physicians, scientists, and others who impacted the human condition. A name that rings a bell is William Harvey (1578) shown above. This English physician produced the first accurate description of the function of the heart and  circulation of the blood in his book, Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus [Painting attributed to Daniel Mytens, 1627. National Portrait Gallery London] Predecessors back to the time of Galen had gotten the physiology wrong, but Harvey was forgiving in his discovery, telling students: “Not to praise or dispraise other anatomists, for all did well, and there was some excuse even for those who are in error.” French mathematician Marie-Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776) produced pioneering work in elasticity theory and Fermat’s Last Theorem. Bismarck (1815) and Rachmaninoff (1873) came along as April firsters in the 19th century. Joseph Murray (April 1, 1919 – November 26, 2012) was a plastic surgeon and close friend of my old professor at UCLA, Willard Goodwin. When I was a resident I naively thought Joe was somewhat out of his league in his yearly travel group of old friends that included Goodwin and Robert McNamara, until Joe got the Nobel Prize for his work with renal transplantation.

DAB Murray copy

[Above: Joe Murray visiting UM & young faculty member out of his league. Below: 2 legendary Michigan coaches – Steve Fisher & Bo Schembechler]

Bo & Fish copy

Bo Schembechler (April 1, 1929 – November 17, 2006) is, of course, legendary for us at the University of Michigan. More controversial is Abdul Qadeer Khan (April 1, 1936), a Pakistani physicist who disseminated nuclear weaponry to rogue nations of the world.

Unlisted so far in the Wikipedia tallies for April first birthdays is Paul Kalanithi (April 1, 1977 – March 9, 2015), author of a current best-seller When Breath Becomes Air. Finishing residency in neurosurgery at Stanford the author discovered he had metastatic lung cancer. The book has a simple structure: a prologue, Part One In perfect health I began, Part II Cease not till death, and then an epilogue by his wife Lucy.

We each quietly contemplate deeply personal questions related to what might be described as the meaning of life, but circumstances gave Kalanithi urgency to come to some resolution. He exposes his thoughts with literacy and without self-pity. The meaning of life he discovered for himself lay in what he called human relationality. The context of one’s life is what matters, he believed, and it is from relationships with others that we derive meaning. Physicians and other health care providers should have a head start in the personal search for meaning, if you accept Kalanithi’s view, although many don’t understand that advantage. A spiritual person at the end of life may derive comfort from a religious faith or from a faith in the order of the universe and, perhaps, a reassuring sense of the circle of life as the Lion King said. On the other hand a cynical person might claim that faith is only a hoax we play upon ourselves and that each of us should grab whatever we can before our individual turns at life are over. No one can genuinely tell anyone else what the truth actually might be, we each must figure it out for ourselves. That individual worldview is what makes each of us what we are, each of our presidential candidates what he or she is, what the pope is, what El Chapo is, and it made Paul Kalanithi what he was.


Two.              Happy New Year.

For reasons lost in the deep recesses of history, the first of April has become a day for harmless pranks and hoaxes. April was the first full month of the new calendar year until only a few centuries ago. In Europe and during the Middle Ages March 25 was considered New Year’s Day. Possibly the natural human bent for trickery consolidated around that yearly transition. Japan begins its new year on the first of April and for this reason Dr. Takahiro Osawa and his family now return to Sapporo after 2 productive years with us in Michigan. We will miss him.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 10.48.00 PM

Taka tells me that April pranks are also a tradition in his country. April foolery has endured around the world since first alleged references in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1392.

Exactly 40 years ago (1 April 1976) during a BBC broadcast English Astronomer Patrick Moore predicted that a “Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect” would cause a noticeable short-term reduction on Earth’s gravity. At 9:47 AM on that day (GMT), he announced, a momentary alignment of Pluto and Jupiter would decrease Earth’s gravity such that those who jumped into the air at that moment would experience a floating sensation. Soon thereafter, BBC received hundreds of calls from people who claimed to have had felt the effect. The story was revealed to be a hoax, but Moore was a believable prankster and 4 years later he co-authored a totally factual book on Pluto with Clyde Tombaugh, who had discovered the dwarf planet in 1930.


[Pluto, NASA image. North polar region at top. Notice the large bright Tombaugh Regio, nicknamed The Heart, lower right of center.]

The idea of fluctuating gravitational fields was prominent in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slapstick (published in 1976, the same year as Moore’s hoax) and if you notice cyclic patterns in human behavior you might find some validity in Vonnegut’s satirical hypothesis. A prediction 100 years ago along a similar line was made by Albert Einstein. Stemming from his theory of general relativity he predicted the idea of gravitational waves that could transport energy in the form of gravitational radiation. Hypothesis rather than hoax, it took a full century to prove this idea. On February 11, 2016 the LIGO and VIRGO Collaboratives announced discovery of a gravitational wave from a pair of black holes that spun into each other 1.3 billion light years away. The wave passed by the Earth this past September 14 when it was noticed initially by Marco Drago, a 33-year old Italian Physicist in his office at the Max Planck Institute in Hanover, Germany. [A. Cho. Science. 351:797, 2016] Teams and collaborations of thousands of people spent over 100 years seeking a gravitational wave, although Drago was the first to notice the anomalous signal, and even then his first thought was that it was a glitch or a trick.

Our ability to sort out truth from myth, stories, hypotheses, hoaxes, science fiction, propaganda, and blatant deceit is constantly being tested. April Fools’ Day offers a playful “reset button.”


Three.           The heavy human footprint.


[USGS Water Science School]

Winter is officially over and while we did have some cold days, it wasn’t quite as cold or snowy as my memory tells me it used to be. Of course all things change and many of them cycle, whether sunspots, seasons, or climate. It is no hoax, though, that the Earth is in a warming spell and that anthropomorphic effects on the planet are driving that and other detrimental changes. Curiously, large swaths of the population, including many elected leaders in our nation, deny the fact of significant environmental change due to human influence.

Earth, with a volume of 2.6 x 1011 cubic miles and a mass of 1.3 x 1025 pounds, is the densest planet in the Solar System with a mean density of 0.2 pounds/cubic inch (5.5 grams per cubic centimeter). While the origin of planetary water is still unknown and it seems so vast, its 3.3 x 109 cubic miles represents only 0.0013% of the earth’s volume, merely a thin wet veneer over part of Earth’s surface. (1 cubic mile = 1.1 trillion gallons)


The image above comes from the USGS website (Water Science School). The big blue sphere represents all of earth’s water, the smaller sphere over Kentucky represents total fresh water, and the tiny bubble over Atlanta estimates the fresh surface water in lakes and rivers – this being what most of us 7 billion earthlings have available for drinking or washing. [Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution © Adam Nieman.] Ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow account for 5,773,000 cubic miles or a little less than 5.8 x 107 m3, or 17.6% of the earth’s total water.

During the last ice age, when Michigan was a mile deep below the Laurentide Ice Sheet, sea level was about 400 feet lower than it is today. At the other extreme, if all land and sea ice melted the ocean level would rise 70 meters or 230 feet. However you choose to describe it, the environment is changing rapidly and dangerously due to the heavy human footprint. This is no hoax or conspiracy.

A fragment of a speech from John F. Kennedy has resonated with me throughout my adult life: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” I recently asked my colleague and Kennedy scholar Kevin Loughlin for the origin of the quote and he immediately referenced Kennedy’s American University speech (titled A Strategy of Peace) on June 10, 1963. The president at the time had only a little more than 5 months to live. Flawed no more or less than most presidents or the rest of us, JFK did have inspiring intellect, clarity, and a way with words.


Four.             Ann Arbor notes.

In April 1985 my family and I had been in Ann Arbor for less than a year. Having accepted the job here as an associate professor (without tenure) I was still getting over the sting of finding myself demoted to assistant professor by the Medical School Executive Committee after arrival, but that’s another story. The Section of Urology was a terrific environment, Ed McGuire was a great boss, pediatric urology at Michigan was going well, and I loved my colleagues here in the medical school. The community was an excellent fit for Martha and our children, and we quickly found great friends. I distinctly remember the hoopla about a local restaurant, the Pretzel Bell, closing that April. This picture below from the old Ann Arbor News (used recently in Michigan Today) shows people lined up for an auction of Pretzel Bell memorabilia, necessitated by the IRS because of fraud related to employee withholding taxes. The article in Michigan Today by James Tobin explains that the original proprietors, John and Ralph Neelands, hung an old bell, said to have dated back to Civil War times, in the tavern. The story went that Fielding Yost had come to own the bell and gave it to the Neelands, after ringing it at Ferry Field. Ann Arbor has a rich German history and German university beer gardens traditionally featured two signs of hospitality – a bell to call in neighbors and a basket of pretzels.

pretzel bell Apr 1985

New ownership and management is resurrecting the Pretzel Bell and it should reopen soon to delight a new era of aficionados as well as old timers, for whom the name will ring a bell.

The University of Michigan has two bell towers (the original and the one on North Campus). The Bell Tower Hotel, across from the original, was the first place I stayed in Ann Arbor, when Ed McGuire invited me in 1983 to look at a pediatric urology job. A key predecessor of mine in the job had been Ed Tank, and his next-door neighbor back then, Dennis Dahlmann, now owns the hotel and has turned it into quite a gem. Ed Tank has retired in Portland, Oregon after a great career in our field. His excellent surgical results, the trainees he inspired, his academic productivity, and his organizational leadership constituted an extraordinary and admirable career. Ed’s successor in Portland, Steve Skoog, had been my resident at Walter Reed and is now a close friend and colleague. The coincidences in life are often beautiful.


[Above: Bloom & Tank. Below: Skoog and Dennis Peppas, former student of mine at USUHS, now pediatric urologist University of Texas, San Antonio]

Skoog copy 2


[Below: Dennis Dahlmann & Bill Martin 2015]

Martin & Dahlmann


Five.              Metrics & mission.

A flawed general assumption in the business world is that an organization can be run, optimally, by cost-based accounting. If, in fact, all decisions could be based on numbers (metrics, as it is often said) then a good computer could replace all managers. Businesses, however, run based on people, relationships, and their stories at least as much as any numbers. Alon Weizer referred with irony to his excellent efforts at managing the Cancer Center ambulatory care unit (the largest in the UM Health System.): “it is easier to manage by metrics, rather than digging down into the stories behind them.” Of course we cannot ignore numbers and have to pay attention to them, they are a key part of our information intake, but they are hardly the only form of our intelligence. The idea of running a business from the central organizing principle of managerial cost-based accounting, rather than managing it according to mission, customer-based deliverables, and lean-centric employee engagement has been a damaging conceit of 20th century industry. Yet, paradoxically, just as managerial accounting is phasing out of forward-thinking businesses as the central operational paradigm, it has been colonizing the brains of health care system managers.

At our Urology Department Retreat 2 days ago, we grappled a bit with the importance of financial margin and the need to defend and expand our markets on one hand, but with the central values of mission and essential deliverable (kind and excellent patient-centered care) on the other hand.

David Spahlinger got us started at noon with an overview of our health system reorganization and urgent strategies. Marschall Runge closed the program around 6:30 with a lively Q & A session. Our health system and medical school are fortunate to have great top leadership at this point in time.

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[Retreat at Michigan Union]


Six.                 Bellmen.

We need leadership but too often find odd characters coming forward offering their services to take charge of our governments and more immediate organizations. Having studied and experienced great and poor leadership I’ve become somewhat cynical of those who have a pressing need to lead me. The cautionary tale of the Bellman is fitting. He was the captain of a ship’s crew in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. His map of ocean (a blank paper) and contradictory navigational orders did not inspire his crew, but his rule of three (“What I tell you three times is true.”) helped lead them into strange territory. Sometimes it feels like this for those of us taking care of patients in large health care systems.


[Cover of first edition Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll 1876. Hendry Holiday, the illustrator born in 1839, died 15 April 1927]

Lewis Carroll, a mathematician, delighted in nonsense and intellectual pranks and he no doubt relished that irony. The beauty of math and science is their pursuit of verifiable truth. Bellmanism may work well in primitive societies, but it fails in free, just, and scientifically-educated societies. A modern bellman can say whatever he or she wants, as many times as they want, but for the rest of us to accept a claim, verification or proof is necessary. Trust but verify, is the adage we often hear. Scientists are rigorous about this way of thinking.

Thinking about statements and proofs, a long time ago Pythagoras proved that a2 + b2 = c2 for any right-angled triangle and most of us not only remember this is true, but we can actually prove it by a few examples or tests. A French lawyer and mathematician, Pierre de Fermat (1601-1655), asked himself: if a2 + b2 = c2 then can this be true for higher integers; in other words does a3 + b3 = c3  and is this equation generalizable for all powers? Fermat thought not and his conjecture was written in the margin note of a book in 1637, but his proof was apparently not recorded although he must have convinced himself that Pythagoras’s hypothesis only holds for special cases (like the number 2). For more than 350 years other mathematicians, including Marie-Sophie Germain, tried to figure it out, but failed until Andrew Wiles successfully proved Fermat’s conjecture in 1994.

Medical practice aspires to evidence and logic over Bellmanism. Nevertheless, much of what we do has to find a balance within a Pythagorean triangle of decision choices. On one side we rely upon our personal training and individual experiences. Another side (with far fewer options) offers evidence-proven therapeutic choices. The third side entices us with cutting-edge innovations. In the fast action of clinical practice we will usually default to the hypotenuse of our training and experience. The reality of clinical practice today falls short of the math; that is present-day clinical evidence plus cutting edge innovative technology does not equate to individual training, experience, and reason. Yet while this larger side may be our first resort, we need to condition ourselves and our students to remain self-critical and vigilant for old faulty dogma and new ideas that are better.


[a= cutting edge innovation, b= verifiable high level evidence, c= training & experience]


Seven.          Health care questions.

What are the big questions in health care? As health care in this country undergoes significant changes, dictated by a variety of forces, it may be useful for us to consider health care not in the context of metrics (e.g. RVUs, length of stay, and cost per case), but rather in terms of our basic expectations and values. If most citizens and practitioners can understand and agree upon the larger questions of health care, the answers and the structures to provide them may come to us more readily.

I don’t think it should be up to any one subset of “the experts” to tell us the questions, for after all, that’s a sort of Bellmanism. The key questions should be derived more broadly, they do not belong solely to universities, medical schools, or schools of public health. They do not belong to state or governmental legislative or regulatory agencies. They do not belong to the AMA, the ACS, the AUA. They belong to the public – to citizens, patients, health care providers. My first loyalty lies within the last broad categories as a citizen, patient, and physician – memberships that convey measures of authority in offering, just now, a set of basic questions for our collective consideration. Whether these are the right questions is a matter for you to consider. What among them is right, what is wrong, and what is missing?

  • What is health care?
  • How should it be provided?
  • How is it improved and how does innovation occur?
  • How is it taught?
  • How is it funded and how are escalating costs managed?


Eight.            Choices.

While there may be no simple solutions for these questions, and whereas the “devil is in the details” clarity can be found in their deliberate articulation and informed public discussion. The first question is deceptively simple, but what of “health care” is a public good and in the public interest? Certainly vaccination for dangerous diseases, TB surveillance and therapy, mosquito control, and Ebola management should be public goods. When is health care screening – screening for TB, hypertension, or malignancies (which malignancies) – in the public interest? What basic commodities of health care must be assured to the public (to assure the public health) and what are the discretionary choices that should be paid for by the responsible recipients of those services? And what about recipients who are incapable of such responsibility? Is not antenatal, obstetric, and well-child care in the public interest? Who should make these decisions?

The time-worn bogeyman of “socialized medicine” has seen its day; socialized medical care has a heavy footprint in today’s USA and its called Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, and the Veterans Administration. Pressing questions are related to funding, equity, and scope of each of these systems. The present binary argument between a single payer system or an insurance-based model, in my opinion, is wrong.

A single payer system, while convenient from the point of funding and health policy, is fraught with many problems, among them being loss of personal choice, dependence on politically-set budgets, restriction of innovation, and lack of competition. On the other hand, the idea of building an entire national health-care system on an insurance-based paradigm is faulty since basic health care (this first question, after all) is a complex life-long responsibility extending from antenatal months to the last days of life. Insurance for rare and unexpected catastrophes like liver transplantation, motor vehicle accidents, ALS, renal failure, and serious malignancy makes sense, but not “insurance” for expected life events such as childbirth, vaccinations, dental care, routine checkups, and screening for certain diseases. The bipolar choice could be compared to asking us to choose between the Post Office or Federal Express as the single national mail delivery service. Neither one alone would be a good provider. The competition between them and other delivery services makes each one leaner, more innovative, and more customer-centric. Health care of our population needs many avenues to be universal, fair, excellent, efficient, and innovative.


Nine.            An epilogue.

The epilogue to Kalanithi’s book, written by his wife Lucy, included one phrase that struck me: “Although Paul accepted his limited life expectancy, neurologic decline was a new devastation, the prospect of losing meaning and agency devastating.” [p.203] Ultimately, for most of us, those two things are what life boils down to – the meaning we find in life and our agency to do things that are meaningful to us and to others. Meaning is our ability to make sense of things. Sense-making may be a matter of simple practicality, knowing for example that 1+1=2, or it may be the more existential making-sense of our lives. Kalanithi made fine sense of his shortened existence. Lucy Kalanithi ends her epilogue in the book powerfully enough to make your eyes well up: “Paul’s decision to look death in the eye was a testament not just to who he was but who he had always been. For much of his life, Paul wondered about death – and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes. I was his wife and a witness.” [p.225]

The content, style, and literacy of Kalanithi’s book makes it compelling and readable. Coincidentally, the book is visually accessible because of its typeface, which is called Bell, after John Bell (1745-1831) who produced the original design, described as: “a delicate and refined rendering of Scotch Roman” at the book’s conclusion (above quotation is bold Bell MT font on my computer, although via email or the WordPress blog site, deformation is expected).


Ten.              Tolling bells.

Cancer, sectarian violence, motor vehicle trauma, and heart disease remain high on the list of the Grim Reaper’s tools. Nearly 400 years ago last month (March 31, 1631) the cleric and poet John Donne died, from stomach cancer it is believed. Born in 1572, 6 years before Harvey, Donne grew up and lived his 59 years through difficult times amidst terrible sectarian conflict that makes our recent western paradigm of separation of church and state so praiseworthy. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 -1603) the Recusancy Acts, beginning in 1593, imposed punishment on those who didn’t participate in Anglican religious activity, extending to imprisonment and capital punishment. (These laws were ultimately repealed in 1650, although restrictions against Roman Catholics lasted in England and Wales until full Catholic Emancipation in 1829.) Donne’s parents were Roman Catholics, but the father died when he was four and John’s mother married a wealthy widower, Dr. John Syminges. Donne studied in Oxford and Cambridge but never graduated with a degree as he was unwilling to take the Anglican Oath of Supremacy. He then studied law in London. Donne’s brother Henry, a university student, was arrested in 1593 for harboring Catholic priest William Harrington. Under torture Henry betrayed Harrington who was tortured, hanged, and disemboweled in 1594. Henry Donne died in Newgate Prison of bubonic plague.


[Lots on his mind. John Donne c. 1595. National Portrait Gallery, London]

John Donne became an Anglican minister, Dean of St. Paul’s, and a poet. (His interesting later years were chronicled by Izaak Walton, author of the first book on fly fishing.) What’s relevant from Donne is Meditation XVII in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions that included this familiar phrase that is linked to Kalanithi’s idea of human relationality: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


Thank you for reading What’s New and Matula Thoughts for this April 1, 2016