Posts Tagged With: orthopaedics

Difficult Discussions: Flunking Sainthood Day 24

Busy day in surgery today, as well as seeing consults between cases.  The surgeries went fine, but what was really hanging over the orthopaedic resident and I today was a discussion we needed to have with a patient and his family.  Last week, we worked hard to save the life of the man who had a terrible injury to his pelvis and leg.  You might remember a photograph of a mangled leg accompanied by warnings not to look if you would find it disturbing.

Thankfully, he has stabilized.  He has gone from the intensive care unit, to the intermediate care unit, and today was able to transfer to the regular men’s ward.  His blood pressure has stabilized, and we have been taking him to surgery every two or three days to clean out his wounds, and remove damaged tissue.

The leg is teetering on the edge of being salvageable.  The bones and muscles are so damaged that he has little hope of a well-functioning limb.  Though his hip, knee, and ankle are fine, the areas in between are mostly devoid of functioning muscle, and severely fractured.  We have had discussions with him over the last days, but wanted to have a family care conference today so everyone was on the same page.

His social situation is far more complex than I could have imagined.  He is an orphan.  Both his mother and father have died, but we did not discuss how they died.  His father had three wives, two of whom are still living, so we had the discussion with a dizzying array of uncles, in addition to his brother and older sister.  Decision making authority rests with the patient, as he is lucid and capable of making his own choices.  Kenya has a strongly family-oriented culture, however, so group discussions and consensus building are vital.

The relatives strongly recognize that they may be held accountable by other family members for medical decisions, so they made it clear that they would abide by “whatever the doctors decide.”  This puts a little too much authority in our hands, however, as the final decision needs to be up to the patient.

Thankfully, the family had outstanding English skills, and communication skills in general, and the Kenyan resident I’m working with filled in my language and cultural blind spots.  We had a long and intricate discussion, and each person voiced his perspective and concerns.  I’ve been in discussions like this a number of times, and I’m often struck by the patience, careful listening, and gentle pace of the dialogue.  It is vital for the health care providers to understand the depth and breadth of implications of decisions like this.  In the end, we met privately with the patient, who was markedly comforted by the group consensus.  We discussed his options again, prayed with him, and he expressed his decision.

The plan is to do everything we can to save his leg, regardless of cost, number of surgeries, or length of treatment.  If at any point we feel like the endeavor is hopeless, or is putting his life at risk, we will communicate this with the patient and with the family.

For this man, I think this is the best decision.  If things go well, his leg will work a little better than a prosthesis would.  Moreover, his psychological and social situation would make amputation an unusually devastating blow.  He and his extended family realize that this is a real possibility, but they would all rest easier with this decision knowing that every effort had been made.  Remarkably, one of the uncles present is on a disability awareness council, and repeated the mantra that “disability doesn’t mean no ability.”  He is encouraging his nephew that, regardless if he winds up with an amputation or not, he can continue with a productive life.

I feel privileged, if also saddened, to be part of discussions like this.  Kenya is a country with a high incidence of motor vehicle violence, and few doctors to treat the suffering.  We may or may not succeed in saving this man’s leg, but I am pleased that he knows he is cared for by his family and by the staff here at Kijabe.

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Day 4….Some days are better than others

As I sat down to write this, my phone rang.  It was the excellent resident I’m currently working with, calling with bad news.  He had brought our patient from Sunday, the one with the terrible leg infection, back to theatre to wash out the infection again.  Instead of finding the leg improving, he found toes turning black, and the muscles dying.  We got to Kamau too late.  The infection had gone too far.  This young man is going to need an amputation.

I can feel the resentment build:  why did this have to happen?  It wasn’t a complex problem: with some basic surgical care from the outset, he could be planning his recovery, this episode soon relegated to a painful memory and tales to tell his children and grandchildren.  Instead, he will be an amputee, in a country which doesn’t look kindly on disability.  Here we have no “Kenyans with Disabilities Act” to put in sidewalk ramps, require accessible public transport, or prevent employment discrimination.  Disability is sometimes viewed as a curse, creating fear, suspicion.  He will have some difficulty finding and affording a good prosthesis.  This is a huge setback for his life.

If this were an isolated instance, it would be simply frustrating.  But it is a regular occurrence, even here in Kenya, one of the more developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  I’ve been to countries where things are much worse, where there is simply no hope for patients with significant injuries.  The suffering across this continent is unimaginable.

There’s a lot of people working on this problem.  My Notre Dame classmate and roommate from medical school, John Meara, has risen to the highest echelons of the academic world, and is spearheading the Lancet Commission.  The Lancet, one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals in the world, has decided to undertake a major project, looking at the effect of this severe lack of surgical capacity in the developing world.  The governing body of the World Health Organization meets in May and will pass a resolution declaring basic surgical care a right, much like access to clean water, food, security, and vaccines.  This is a watershed moment for the billions of people suffering worldwide from lack of access to adequate surgical care.

In our lifetimes, this problem will be reversed, and severe lack of surgical capacity will go the way of smallpox and polio.  But that doesn’t help Kamau today.

Our first patient for the day, a young man in a car wreck, was due to have his hip socket reconstructed after a fracture-dislocation of his hip.  Unfortunately, due to a scheduling error, we had to re-schedule his surgery for Thursday.

Our next patient was due for wrist reconstruction after a mangling injury a year ago when his van rolled over as his arm was out the window.  As we were preparing him for surgery, I pressed gently on a little opening in his arm.   To my surprise, a 3/4 inch seed pod popped out, followed by pus.  Apparently, despite multiple surgeries at two excellent hospitals in Tanzania and Nairobi, this remnant from his roadside injury had hidden inside his arm for a year.  It decided to work its way out on the day this patient was finally scheduled for his reconstructive surgery.  We cleaned out the infection and took him to the ward for intravenous antibiotics.

The third patient today was a middle aged lady who had fallen down some stairs, shattering her wrist.  She was scheduled for a combination of plating and external fixation today.  Though she has a history of hypertension (high blood pressure), she has been well controlled by medications.  Until she got onto the operating table.  Her blood pressure shot up to a dangerous 200/100, and persisted despite intravenous anxiety and blood pressure medications.  Surgery cancelled.

Next up, a two year old boy who fell down some stairs, hyper-extending his elbow to the point where the elbow broke just above the joint.  Jane had this same injury just last November.  The treatment is a surgery where the bones are manipulated back into position, and then held there with two pins introduced through the skin into the bone using video xray.  This went flawlessly, all the equipment worked perfectly, and he should be fine.  Finally, we accomplished something for the day.

Our last patient was the disastrous Kamau, wrapping up an all-too-typical day in the battle against trauma in Africa.  When he wakes up, we’ll need to give him the bad news and obtain consent for amputation.

In the big picture, I know progress is being made, systems are being formed, surgeons are being trained, the John Meara’s of the world are pushing global organizations to wake up to this unseen epidemic.  But day to day, my picture isn’t that big.  My picture is the men, women, and children in my clinics and theatres who suffer agony and disability from lack of safe roads, safe drivers, and access to safe surgical care.  Though we’re too late for Kamau, my prayer is that his children will live in a world with less suffering.

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