September 02, 2009

Pong's Postulates (II)

Pong's Postulates
1) Health is something we have until we notice we do not.
* Preventive services help people notice their health.
2) There are two types of disease: those we live with and those we do not.
3) "Docere" in latin means "to teach." Doctors primarily help people know their illnesses.

* It does not matter what doctors say; what matters is what patients hear.
4) Comprehensive Generalists see the big picture.
* Interventions happen all they way along the natural history of health to disease to complications.
5) I want to be a part of my patients' long lives through sickness AND health acting as their advocate and guide.
Therefore, I want to be a Primary Care Family Physician.

Elucidating Pong's Postulates

Health and illness:

One of my early experiences with disease is unusual. It was nothing more than a nuisance at worst but it affected me greatly. I have a condition called hyperhidrosis, characterized by excessive sweating. As a child, my palms would literally drip with sweat, sometimes for hours. I went to a dermatologist and after failed trials of topical antiperspirant and uncomfortable iontophoresis, I considered Botox or surgery. So in the midst of applying for medical school, I had a bilateral thoracic sympathectomy performed. Now I can take notes, read books and put on gloves without a struggle. I reflect upon it every time I greet a patient, now that I can shake their hands without hesitation. I am thankful for the help of my dermatologist and the skills of my cardiothoracic surgeon who have boosted my confidence as a physician.

Disease and dealing with it:

In the summer following my first year of medical school, I shadowed a few doctors at a clinic for the underserved. One patient in particular stands out in my mind. She was an obese Micronesian woman who came in with her teenage daughter complaining of fatigue, thirst and frequent urination. The resident made the diagnosis of diabetes. The plan seemed simple enough: diet, exercise and metformin. I was impressed with the way that the resident delivered the information but I noticed that she stopped listening. She broke down and started to cry. Her sobbing grew even louder as the resident started to raise his voice -- as if it would help her hear what he had to say!

"I'm sorry," I said as I handed her a tissue. "I know this is all coming as a shock to you..." I struggled with what to say next. "Are you afraid you'll be like your father and need an amputation?" Suddenly being diagnosed with the same disease that almost killed her diabetic father was too much for her. The resident apologized; "I'm sorry. Sometimes I forget that this is not as routine for you as it is for me." I have never forgotten those words -- it does not matter what doctors say; what matters is what patients hear. What can be a straightforward routine for physicians is often a life-altering alien experience for patients.

We comforted her. Diabetes was something that she could learn to live with instead of dying from it. "You need to lose weight. I do not want to say 'go on a diet.'" I said at the end of the visit. "That is temporary. We really ought to work on lifestyle changes for you AND your family... you do not want your daughter to follow in your footsteps, do you?" Both of their eyes welled with tears at that and they silently shook their heads. I was gratified to see that her daughter's half-full soda was swiftly discarded as they left the exam room.

The Big Picture and Interventions:

In my first elective as a fourth year clerk, I rounded with a cardiologist covering his partners' patients in the hospital. One of the patients we met was an elderly Hawaiian man with forty grandchildren who clotted off his stent. Three weeks ago, he was told very emphatically to gather up his family and say goodbye. Three weeks later, we found ourselves face to face with a restless grandfather. "I don't want to die here in the hospital." It was a sentiment I could understand except he had a surprising recovery. The cardiologist tried to negotiate with him to stay to make sure he was stable on the correct medications. "You may die if you leave the hospital. Do you understand?" The patient frowned and replied "Do you have grandchildren? Do YOU understand?" "No. But I understand. Do YOU?" It went back and forth until the cardiologist left abruptly.

I could see them slicing past each other trying to press their points. No doctor had given him the simple courtesy of three minutes of time in the past three weeks. He was frustrated and confused. At first, he was told that he was going to die in the hospital, then he could go home for hospice and now he was supposed to stay. I do not have any grandchildren, so I could not understand how he felt. This man cared more about his family than his own health. Perhaps it was a pervasive trend; there were many interventions that could have guided him down a different path. Yet here we were with only one thing to do: I just listened to him.

I want to be a Primary Care Family Physician:

I often wonder how the story ends for these patients. I wish I could be a guide for the mother and her daughter through health and an advocate to fight for the grandfather. I know that this is precisely what I will get to do as a family physician.

My doctors helped me prepare my HANDS for medicine. My teachers in medical school helped me prepare my HEAD as well, but it is my patients that have prepared my HEART for a lifelong commitment to medicine.

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