“Doctor! Heal thyself!”
Those were the words of the orthopedist as he entered my room in the Emergency Department.
Two weeks ago, while taking a break from working on residency applications, I decided to go ride one of my horses. Alas, as I was leading him and his pasture-mate to the barn they spooked and one of them literally jumped on my foot. I’ve been around horses for decades (eek!), and have had my toes crunched many times, but I immediately knew this time was different, not least because he had landed on the side of my foot not my toes. The pain was instantaneous and overwhelming, I was doubled over and hyperventilating within seconds (at which point I realized that the horses hoof had actually torn my leather boots- let this be a lesson to ALWAYS wear boots around horses, a lesson I’ll admit that I haven’t always followed). After taking a couple of minutes to catch my breath I hobbled to the barn, optimistically hoping I’d still be able to go for a ride.
Once in the barn, with the horses secured, I pulled my boot off and had a quick palpate. One good squeeze and I knew I needed to make a trip to the hospital for some X-rays. *Sigh* This was NOT how I had planned to spend my evening!
A little later, at the community hospital, the X-ray tech snapped a few angles. I asked if I could see the films before hobbling back the waiting area and immediately spotted two, slim, hypodensities in my 4th and 5th metatarsals. With an expletive, I pointed to one of the lucencies. The tech tried to reassure me that it wasn’t anything significant: “just an artifact” because there was a similar line in the adjacent bone…
After the Physician’s Assistant examined me in fast track, he went to go check out the X-rays. I asked if I could take another look, admitting that I was a med student (and currently on rotation in this community hospital for my sub-internship!). When he came back to pull the images up on the computer, he let me know that he and the ED doc agreed that I did, indeed, have non-displaced fractures of the 4th and 5th metatarsals. There wasn’t really much they could do, but the orthopedist was coming into the hospital to see a couple other patients and if I was willing to hang out for half an hour he’d take a look at my images as well.
Half an hour later, the cheery orthopedist came in, chatted with me about my future plans in medicine, and told me to follow up with him if things got worse instead of better. I headed home with a walking cast, crutches, and a few Percocet.
This was two weeks ago, and while my foot is by no means “fixed” it is certainly getting better. Hobbling around to take a shower the first morning was rather excruciating, but the walking cast was my saving grace in the hospital and I’ve been able to do more normal activities without the boot with time (though I think I may have pushed my limits last night heading into the city for a book release party and am paying for it today- on that note, definitely check out John Durant’s book The Paleo Manifesto).
So why am I writing this, other than catharsis? (It’s perfect fall hiking weather and I’m out of commission- boo.)
Healing takes time.
With things like a fractured bone people know this, but sometimes we (“we” the public, and “we” the medical community) seem to forget that healing takes time.
There’s no denying that I am “into” preventative medicine. However, as much as we can try and prevent injury and illness- something is bound to happen. In that vein, I don’t think preventative medicine is only about avoiding problems, but encouraging a physiology where healing is promoted.
I’ll admit that I’ve been frustrated at times in the hospital when my stable patients have complained to me on morning pre-rounds that they had a horrible nights sleep because someone was taking vital signs every couple hours, and the phlebotomist came for morning labs before 5. Vital signs are vital for the management of some patients, but others would benefit much more from a good nights sleep. Of course, making the decision that your patient needs sleep more than monitoring is not an easy one- no one wants to find that their patient is hypotensive on morning rounds and not know when the problem occurred, but for some patients the risk seems quite low. On my neurology clerkship I remember thinking that what many of our stroke patients needed most was a good night’s sleep.
I recently read, at the recommendation of my favorite cardiologist, the book Cutting for Stone. It is amazing, in many ways. I particularly loved a short passage that talked about the success one person had in improving women’s recovery from fistula surgery.
Hema shared with us that she and Shiva had operated on fifteen successive fistula patients with not one recurrence. ‘I owe this to Shiva,” she said. ‘He convinced me to take more time preparing the women for surgery. So now, we admit the patients and feed them eggs, meat, milk, and vitamins for two weeks…. We work on strengthening their legs, getting them moving.’…
‘Can’t get them to walk after surgery if they won’t walk before.’ Shiva said.
When I was on my anesthesia clerkship I saw how hard it is to manage a “sick” patient, and how easy it is to intubate and anesthetize a healthy one (a complicated cardiac patient vs a young ortho patient, for example). On surgery, you see how well some people tolerate surgery and how poorly other do- how some heal quickly while other seem incapable of healing. One’s underlying “health” certainly affects one’s ability to heal.
This is one of the many reasons I like primary care. A good primary care doc makes everybody else’s job easier. They can keep their patients healthy and out of the OR and specialist’s office, and if misfortune strikes, a patient in the best of health is almost always set up to fair better (the only example that I can think of where this is not the case is the pandemic flu of 1918, where the robust immune systems of young, healthy, adults was actually their demise).
Injury and illness, at some level, are inevitable. A healthy lifestyle and good genetics can go a long way to keeping you out of the hospital, and they can also go a long way towards helping you heal if you do find yourself in harms way. As the Dos Equis man might say “Stay healthy my friends.”.