Qualification, adaptations, & stories
Ann Arbor’s redbud flowers are now gone in June, Memorial Day is behind us, and summer is at hand. Redbuds appeared in April and stole the foliage show until other flowers appeared and trees leafed out. I saw the last redbud flowers in early May and by mid-May they were gone (above & below: Mike Hommel’s tree – also shown in our May posting). Redbud flowers, more of a magenta pink than red, are pollinated by long-tongued bees. Other bees are not so well-qualified, as their tongues are too short to reach redbud nectaries, the secretory structures at the base of stamens containing the food that attracts pollinators. Generalist bees forage among all flowers, but specialist bees with tongues over 5.5 mm work the deep nectaries. Since the first “Adam and Eve” bees 100 million years ago, the creatures adapted to changing environments by creating diverse successors, some of which survived better than others in their temporal milieus. A Science paper showed Colorado bumblebee tongues shrank nearly 25% in the past 40 years, adapting to changing alpine floral diversity, but putting long-tube flowers like the redbud (and foxglove, Indian paintbrush, clover, snapdragon, and bluebell) at risk. [N. Miller-Struttmann et al. Science 349:1541, 2015] The mutuality or co-dependence of bees and flowers is one of nature’s fine arts. [Consultation from beekeeper-urologist Brian Stork of West Shore Urology in Muskegon.] Qualification in the sense of fitness for a purpose, skill, or accomplishment, is at the heart of evolution, civilization, and our specialized world of healthcare.
On the human scale, we adjust graduate medical education to produce a diverse set of our own professional successors, anticipating that they will fit tomorrow’s health care milieu better than my generation could if we cloned ourselves. In the next few weeks graduating residents and fellows across North America will become “qualified” to practice medicine after completing formal training in their specialties, although ultimately they will need board certification. The faculty backup they initially required, became redundant incrementally over their 5-8 years of training, so that by now they are more like colleagues of their teachers than trainees. Medical training, most keenly focused at the GME level, has done well in preparing the next generation of doctors for careers as qualified specialists. Urology residents and fellows in Ann Arbor are well-qualified with diverse clinical, research, teaching, and leadership talents to fit the diverse healthcare environments they will enter. Above all we hope their professionalism and critical thinking skills will be at the forefront of their lives and careers as they pollinate their fields and communities.
Once qualified, health care providers face the challenge of keeping up with the changing knowledge, skills, and technology of modern healthcare. One effective way to do this is through professional meetings and for urologists the American Urological Association, this year in Boston, is center stage. The MUSIC reception and the Nesbit Society gathering were worth the trip just by themselves. Sunday’s opening plenary session featured Julian Wan, as associate editor, giving a Journal of Urology highlights presentation, our alumnus Barry Kogan (current chair at Albany) moderating three debates, and Dana Ohl leading a transgender discussion. I could mention at least 100 other presentations, posters, panel appearances, and other “visibilities” from UM to say nothing of those of our alumni, but the national convention is far too big to get to most venues.
[Nesbit reception at Moakley Courthouse. Above: Gary Faerber University of Utah, Bahaa Malaeb, Lindsey Hampson UCSF, Noah Canvasser UC Davis. Below: Mahendra Bhandari – Vatikutti Institute, Khurshid Ghani, Meidee Goh, David Fry]
Education and medical practice were quite different 100 years ago as Russian physician-author Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) relates in a story of a young doctor starting out during a cold autumn in rural Russia. The experience was likely similar in Europe, Africa, or the Americas until specialty medicine and formalized graduate medical education took hold. In a little more than 12 pages, Bulgakov tells a tale pulled from his experience in 1916 as a newly “qualified” doctor sent to a provincial town in revolutionary Russia. The young physician was terrified imagining his first medical crisis, for example, a patient might present to his clinic with an inguinal hernia, or even worse, a strangulated one. The doctor recalled observing only a single hernia repair as a student and even though surgical texts were at hand in his new office, he was well aware that he lacked any experiential knowledge: “‘I’m like Dmitry the Pretender – nothing but a sham,’ I thought stupidly and sat down at the table again.”
“The Embroidered Towel,” was one of 9 stories in Bulgakov’s collection A Country Doctor’s Notebook, written in the 1920s and translated into English by Michael Glenny in 1975. The story rings true to my experiences as a midlevel UCLA surgical resident rotating at San Bernardino Country Medical Center, pretty much on my own for general, orthopedic, and neurosurgical crises at night in the mid-1970’s. Bulgakov (above) began practice as a “qualified doctor” in a chaotic world buffeted by WWI and the Russian Civil War. His rural medical practice was cut short as successive governments drafted him as a physician, culminating with the Ukrainian People’s Army in February, 1919 sending him to the Northern Caucasus. After contracting typhus, he abandoned medicine for a writing career, as a journalist, playwright, satirist, and science fiction author. His early work was favored by Stalin, but later writing ran afoul of the Communist Party and one play, The Run, was personally banned by Stalin. Bulgakov’s satirical novel, The Master and Margarita, was published posthumously in 1966 by his widow. The author is said to have died of nephrosclerosis. The Master and Margarita has been the subject of films, mini-series, and a graphic novel rendering. A current book by physician Julie Lekstrom Himes, Mikhail and Margarita: A Novel, uses Bulgakov’s book as a platform for her own debut novel, set in 1933 Soviet Russia.
The study of history needs no justification to educated people. Knowledge of the past may not perfectly predict the future, but provides clues, data, and wisdom to help find optimal pathways to the future.
The late pediatric surgeon and scientist, Judah Folkman (above) was a man of uncommon wisdom and he had this to say when we visited his lab in Boston with a group of students and faculty from Michigan’s Victor Vaughn Society: “If you don’t understand the history and mission of the organization in which you work, at some point you will feel exploited.” Folkman was paraphrasing his chief at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Edward Delos Churchill, from an internship lecture. The point, in a larger sense, is that it is essential to job satisfaction, in addition to quality work products, that workers understand the history and mission of the place where they work. For those of us in health care, and urology most particularly, our history and mission are inspiring. If someone misses this inspiration, they are somehow stranded in left field.
It is up to all of us in medicine to study and teach our past to our colleagues, to our successors, and to the public. History, however, is no fixed thing. Stories of the past are fungible – new facts turn up and these may or may not turn out to be true. As times change, reinterpretation of the past changes the old stories. Furthermore, all history is connected and no parochial histories, such as those of urology, can omit consideration of the rest of the world – and vice versa. Ian Thompson once proposed we write a book called How Urology Changed the World. This project remains on our bucket lists. By the way, Folkman’s chief, Dr. Churchill, was Mediterranean Theatre Commander for Surgery during WWII, establishing regional blood banks and air evacuation of the wounded. [ED Churchill. Surgeon to Soldiers. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Philadelphia, 1972.] [LS King. Book review. JAMA 220:595, 1972.]
D-Day anniversary is June 6. We shouldn’t forget that day in 1944, not only the particular day, but also the forces that led up to it, its incredible stories, and the world that followed. The politics, deployments, leaders, meteorology, weaponry, heroism, cowardice, teamwork, and duplicity constitute innumerable stories, stories that will change as new facts and analyses come into play and lead to a greater truth.
The iconic photograph above (called “Into the jaws of death”) was taken by Robert F. Sargent, Chief Photographer’s Mate. It shows disembarkation at Omaha Beach of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Army Division wading onto the beach at Fox Green Section about to encounter the German 352nd Division. German forces were commanded by General Rommel, who was away from Normandy that day because of his wife’s birthday. D-Day took the Germans by surprise and early signs of the invasion were discounted by Hitler, who was certain that Calais would be Eisenhower’s Allied Operation Overlord landing site. The American 1st Army, commanded by Omar Bradley, was responsible for both the Omaha and Utah Beach invasions. Two-thirds of Omaha’s Company E became casualties and of the 39 soldiers I count in the photograph, 26 would die or be seriously injured. Overall Omaha casualties were the worst among the 5 sectors that also consisted of Gold, Juno, and Sword under Canada and Britain. Allies landed 156,000 troops at Normandy on D-Day – 34,250 at Omaha. Only Juno and Gold linked up on D-Day, and it wasn’t until June 12 that all 5 beachheads consolidated. Allied casualties on D-Day were at least 10,000 with 4,414 confirmed dead, while German casualties were estimated at 4,000-9,000. If you have not visited Normandy, you should. Bradley was the last of America’s nine 5-star generals. I knew him briefly at the end of his life when I was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Pointe du Hoc speech of Ronald Reagan at the 40-year D-Day anniversary was mentioned last month in this posting. This speech was novel for its use of personal stories of D-Day to make that moment in time poignant to the audience. Individual stories build persuasion through ethos, pathos, and logos. My daughter Emily, when she was a Ph.D. student in English, instructed me repeatedly in those three classic modes of rhetoric and I’m finally starting to appreciate them. A story is persuasive when it comes from a credible source (ethos), if it appeals to sympathetic emotion (our mirror neurons yielding pathos), and if the narrative makes sense (logos). The audience must reasonably accept the story and storyteller as believable and honest, as well as agree with its observations or conclusion. Of course not all stories are authentic, although it is expected that the stories and histories of medicine are genuine.
“The United States Army’s clinical histories of medical practice during the Second World War form a significant addition to the literature of medical history,” Quinn H. Becker, Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, wrote. Those words were the introduction to the urology volume, edited by John F. Patton, in Surgery in World War II, produced by the Medical Department of the United States Army. My friend and former fellow here at Michigan, John Norbeck, gave me this book when it came out 30 years ago. [John F. Patton, Ed. Medical Department, Unites States Army. Surgery in World War II. Urology. Office of the Surgeon General and Center of Military History Unites States Army. Washington, DC, 1987.] Becker’s predecessor as Army Surgeon General was Bernhard T. Mittemeyer, my former commander at Walter Reed, fellow urologist, and friend who most recently served as president of Texas Tech University.
Six surgeon general’s later the name Eric Schoomaker pops up for the Army Surgeon General term of 2007 – 2011. Eric was a UM undergraduate who then completed UM Medical School with an additional Ph.D. in genetics. He undertook residency and fellowship in hematology at Duke followed by a distinguished Army career. Eric was our Medical School commencement speaker in 2012, when Jim Woolliscroft presided as dean. UMMS graduation is a major milestone for students and their families and it is also a meaningful ceremony for faculty – when else do you get to recite the Hippocratic Oath in sync with your colleagues? I had to miss it this year due to concurrence with the annual meeting of the AUA and Nesbit Alumni reunion. This year Francis Collins was UMMS commencement speaker, who was also linked to UM Department of Human Genetics as a faculty member under the great Jim Neel. The Collins address featured him singing on the guitar.
Cornelius Ryan brought D-Day and urology together for me. This Irish journalist covered WWII and turned his reporting into three excellent historical accounts, The Longest Day (1959), The Last Battle (1966), and A Bridge Too Far (1974). When I was a urology resident at UCLA I helped care for a 50-year old patient with metastatic prostate cancer when Ryan’s personal and similar story with the disease was published. Ryan had been diagnosed just he was struggling to begin writing A Bridge Too Far. He had seen a NYC urologist for lower urinary tract symptoms, a prostate nodule was detected, and biopsy was performed. Ryan returned to the office on Fifth Avenue, July 24, 1970 to get the results when the urologist informed him that the biopsy showed prostate cancer and radical prostatectomy was the only hope for “cure.”
“The doctor wants me to have the prostatectomy next week. Such urgency appalls me. I cannot make that crucial decision without more time. Professionally, I have never accepted a single piece of historical data without researching it to the fullest, collecting all the opinions and interviews I could.” [A Private Battle. Published posthumously with Kathryn Morgan Ryan. New York City, 1979. p, 22. Simon & Schuster.]
Ryan wanted more of an explanation, but his questions were rebuffed. Home in Connecticut later that day he began a series of dictations that included the quote above, but never shared these with his wife. Ryan visited experts around the world and obtained more studies and advice, before returning to New York and discovering Willet Whitmore, for whom he developed great admiration and trust. Ryan began radiation therapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering that autumn, yet the cancer spread and continued to disseminate in spite of drug therapy. Kind and compassionate care was evident in interactions with Whitmore and most other physicians, but the initial condescending urologist, botched handoffs, institutional smugness, and healthcare disparities Ryan witnessed, are reported in sharp contrast. Over the next four years, as he struggled with spreading prostate cancer, Ryan completed his book.
After Ryan died in 1976 his widow, Kathryn Morgan, found the tapes in his desk. She had them transcribed, interspersed her own observations and diary notes, and then published the account in 1979 as A Private Battle. I can’t recall how I came to know of the book, but I read it around that time. Somewhere along the line between UCLA, Walter Reed, and the University of Michigan I lost my copy, but after my own radical prostatectomy in 2014 I thought of Ryan, tracked down the book, and re-read it. A Private Battle contains meaningful lessons on health care and rekindled my curiosity about WWII, leading me to Ryan’s other books, followed by Steven Ambrose’s account of Eisenhower, Soldier and President and the newer biography by Jean Smith.
The Ryan papers ended up in the libraries at Ohio University. [Above: Cornelius Ryan at his desk. Photo and copyright by Eugene Cook.]
Eisenhower, one of the great generals of history, detested war and recognized the necessity of international cooperation for peace. The deliberate restructuring of Europe after the war, management of tensions with the Soviet Union, and construction of the European Union were meant to bring stability and peace to the world. Peace, however, has been illusive in much of the rest of the planet and furthermore the postwar structures in Europe are unraveling.
Like most of us, Eisenhower had health issues. A knee injury altered his career path and turned him from a high-level football player to a remarkable coach, influencing his ascent to leadership. He began to smoke at West Point, largely as an ironic challenge to the authoritarian nature of the school and became a chain smoker throughout most of his career, particularly during WWII. After the war his doctor told him to quit smoking and he did, “cold-turkey.” Recurrent ileitis, Crohn’s disease, troubled him throughout life. Although he complained minimally, several hospitalizations and one operative procedure were necessary. As a resident I would learn about the “Eisenhower procedure,” namely a bowel resection for localized Crohn’s disease. During the White House years, Eisenhower’s physician was Howard Snyder, the grandfather of my friend and colleague Howard McCrum Snyder at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The younger Snyder recalls going to the White House swimming pool with his grandfather to swim with the president. Eisenhower’s cardiac issues were significant later in his life. A book by Clarence Lasby discusses the 1955 heart attack and makes judgments about Snyder’s management and the concealment of the illness, thoughts that rely on today’s standards of care and transparency. [CG Lasby. Eisenhower’s Heart Attack. How Ike Beat Heart Disease and Held on to the Presidency. University Press of Kansas. Lawrence KS, 1997.] But for Dr. Snyder, Nixon might have had his turn as president before JFK.
Since Eisenhower’s days medical practice has changed and tools to address heart disease are enormously different. Eisenhower had bed rest, the EKG, and digitalis. Today we have an armamentarium of medications, surgical bypass, replacement parts, stents, TAVR, electrophysiology ablations, and heart transplants. The scientific cocoon of 21st century medicine is countered by local workplace problems. These may be matters of patient access, bed capacity, EHR problems, technology constraints, and billing and coding issues.
Although painful for us on the frontline of health care, they are “first world problems” that come into perspective when considering the rest of the world. Journals such as The Lancet frame the global perspective. For example, a recent paper examined the hypothesis that better cook stoves might prevent pneumonia in children under 5 years old in rural Malawi. Unfortunately, the study (a cluster randomized controlled trial) found no benefit. What stuck in my mind, however, was the opening statement of the paper.
“Almost half the world’s population, including 700 million Africans, rely on biomass fuels for cooking (e.g. animal dung, crop residues, wood, and charcoal)… Biomass fuel is typically burned in open fires, often indoors, leading to high levels of air pollution from smoke.” [Mortimer K, Ndamala CB, Naunje AW et al. A cleaner burning biomass-fueled cookstove. The Lancet. 389:167-175, 2017.]
While we dither in our journals and at our professional meetings over trivial first world issues, such as the virtues of robotic surgery versus open surgery or HIPPA compliance in electronic health records, half the world cooks its meals on open fires using dung or other biomass fuels.
Bulgakov brings us closer to that other world. He served his patients to his technical limits, but insecurity due to the inadequate knowledge and tools of his time as well lack of good professionalism role modeling left him abrupt and authoritative to patients and families. Fifty years later the Fifth Avenue urologist of Cornelius Ryan was no kinder. Kindness and consideration of patient preferences are fundamental to the concept of the good doctor, however it seems to have taken federal regulation to drive that sensibility home as MACRA and CAHPS link professional compensation to evaluations by patients.
Case reports. Bulgakov’s stories are narratives of actual cases or extrapolated patient experiences and we may never quite know where fact ended and imagination or “artistic license” took over. It doesn’t really matter, because the stories ring true and are constructed artfully although presented as “stories” rather than clinical case reports. Imbued with experience and fact, they are intended as fiction and we judge them accordingly, but well-crafted fiction can illuminate reality, honing a story well enough to let the reader glimpse a portion of the real world and the human condition with greater acuity than before the reader encountered the story. The judgment of whether Bulgakov’s story was true or imagined is not necessarily essential to readers a century later. If the story rings true and we find meaning (and art) in it, then the author has done a good job. Other physician writers have continued this genre, artfully using clinical experiences and stories to expand consciousness and discover truths about ourselves. David Watts, our Chang Lecturer on Art and Medicine next month, is part of that tradition.
Stories intended as clinical narratives, on the other hand, demand absolute truth in the narrative. This is a bedrock expectation. Truth matters greatly in the real world of clinical medicine and in the academic reporting that surrounds it. A clinical story assumes scrupulous adherence to the facts of the matter and, if presented artfully, the report can have great meaning for the reporter and the readers. The value of a good clinical story is neither necessarily less or greater than the value of a reported clinical experiment, series, trial, or metastudy. Scientific experiments or larger clinical studies may ultimately be true or false, but clinical stories will likely remain durable narratives, unless the story was inaccurately reported or its substance misinterpreted. Some iconic scientific studies such as Mendel’s seeds or Semmelweis’s antisepsis experiment remain iconic and continue to instruct new generations of students. The clinical experiences of Morton with anesthesia, Lister with open bone fractures, or Annandale with successful orchiopexy were presented initially as stories – but they were stories that changed the world.
Truth is also an expectation in academic humanities and journalism, although it is perhaps more fungible. Political perspective matters and it can put a spin on things. In the Soviet Union, truth was expected to emanate from the political leadership and this paradigm distorted the science, economics, agriculture, and indeed all parts of the nation. For example, the political imprimatur that validated the beliefs of Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko had enormous negative consequences for the health and welfare of his nation. [Loren Graham. Lysenko’s Ghost. Epigenetics and Russia. Harvard University Press, 2016] As we approach our big national holiday next month, it’s worth reflecting that the Declaration of Independence is remarkable in human history for liberating people as individuals from governments ruled by particular ideological, religious, or political paradigms. Representational democracy, imperfect as it is, remains mankind’s best hope toward a just, peaceful, cosmopolitan, prosperous, and sustainable world. This is the world that civilized people want to leave behind – a world somewhat better than we found it, granting that sometimes the prospects for this hope seem dimmed. We can tell our stories as historians, biographers, scientists, or journalists. Or we can tell them as artists, philosophers, or fabricators. It is important to discern the difference and to teach that discernment to our successors. Whether by trachea and tongue, pen and paper, or keyboard and internet, stories knit the human fabric together and truth is the ultimate arbiter. Don’t expect data to replace stories, you can support or refute stories with data. You can build stories out of data, perhaps someday using artificial intelligence in robots. But authentic stories will most likely always come from authentic humans.
Once the redbuds faded away, the dogwoods (more easily pollinated) and other flowers stepped up their games of attraction.
[Above: dogwood. Below: Bee tongue photo from photomicrography.net, amateurmicrography.net http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeheath/5122105785/]
Thanks for reading What’s New/Matula Thoughts this June, 2017.
David A. Bloom
University of Michigan, Department of Urology, Ann Arbor