A little Rx for all the awful headlines: four stories of remarkable resilience

The events of recent days ─in Texas, Louisiana, and Minnesota─ have been so tragic that it’s easy to despair. Here are four health-related people stories worth reading to remind us of humanity’s enduring better side:

  • In the horrors of Syrian combat, medical Samaritans strive to maintain some kind of care

syriaFirst, let’s stipulate that there’s almost as much barbarous conduct as can be imagined in this recent New Yorker report about the struggle to maintain medical care in combat-ravaged Syria. President Assad’s predation on his own people has become an international abomination, including his forces unleashing snipers to maim emergency medical personnel, and their dropping barrel bombs, laden with lacerating shrapnel, on hospitals or known care-giving sites (February, 2016, photo of a bombed hospital from Doctors Without Borders/Medicins san Frontieres).

What’s remarkable and heartening about writer Ben Taub’s magazine story is how, in the face of overpowering evil, a corps of international physicians generously have shared their time, talent, and expertise─often at grave risk to their own safety and at cost to their own lucrative practices─to keep a distant nation and its people from falling back into Stone Age medicine. They’re tapping modern technologies like video and the Internet to teach contemporary  medical techniques to Syrians amid the fighting, while also relying on their human basics, like compassion, courage, and resolve, to save lives and salvage bodies that have been burnt and shredded by savagery.

There’s only thing more moving than the sacrifices of the international aid docs, many of whom have sneaked in and out of the war zone to treat patients and teach colleagues: the fortitude of the Syrians themselves, many of whom are young students who know they’re more likely than not to be killed or gravely wounded for trying to help others.

  • With architecture background, ALS patient seeks to tap tech to keep independence
Steve Saling, an architect and engineer with ALS, helped design features of the Leonard Florence Center, Dapper McDonald ALS Residence, intended to preserve the independence of those with ALS, where he is a resident. Josh Reynolds for STAT (Lsamuel)

Steve Saling/ Josh Reynolds for STAT 

With blinks of his eyes and twitches of the muscles of his face, Steve Saling is trying to preserve not only his independence but the freedom of others like him, too. The onetime landscape architect has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

After his diagnosis, he decided that he would work with funders and designers so he and other ALS patients could take advantage of every available technology so they could maintain some normalcy and independence in their lives as long as possible, even as the disease progressively debilitated them, with paralysis and loss of speech.

Saling’s efforts are visible, and working, in a bright, cheery long-term care facility in Massachusetts, where, as the health information site Stat describes it, ALS patients like him can “with the barest of movements … blinks and facial twitches … open and close doors, turn on and off lights, change TV channels, and control heat and air-conditioning.” Saling can summon an elevator in the nursing facility, and let staff know his preferences for his daily meals. The various tweaks, adaptations, and high-tech uses that Saling already has worked with others on, officials at his care facility say, show promise for reducing costs because patients can do more for themselves and need a little less care; the ALS caregiving still is intensive and costly, particularly as the disease progresses.

The funders and designers hope to spread what they’ve learned and discovered to other facilities nationwide.

  • A glimpse into the daily doings of a hospice nurse as she assists the dying

hospiceIn contrast to the Syria report, Larissa MacFarquhar’s latest article in the New Yorker almost lacks drama. People die all around its protagonist, a woman named Heather Meyerend. But this is more than expected.  She’s a hospice nurse and this magazine story lovingly chronicles the grace of the simple  caregiving, and sharing that Meyerend offers to her fading patients, many of whom are elderly and sometimes alone.

The story quietly captures the hospice nurse’s great skill and compassion: When some of the dying, alienated from friends and families, need to talk a lot about their lives, she listens; when others, with their strength ebbing, are surrounded by loved ones but cannot speak, she speaks up to ensure the severely ill and exhausted get some needed peace.

The hospice nurse, having treated so many patients, has a keen sense when her charges are near their end. She, diplomatically, tries to get loved ones around, if they wish, to be with the dying for the precious last.

This story also intersperses critical context about hospice, including its cost, cost saving, increasing commercialization. But at its core, it offers insights on questions many will ask: How best to prepare for the inevitability of dying, and why would a skilled nurse, with many health care options, take on work with the dying?

  • Medical error paralyzed an X-box designer. Now he’s on the hospital’s safety panel.

de los reyesAugust de los Reyes suffered a rare disease that left his bones, including those in his spine, brittle and easily broken. That made the onetime design head for Microsoft’s X-Box game especially wary when he started suffering back pain. He sought medical attention at a hospital nearby, Bellevue Overlake Medical Center. The details of his case aren’t public. But De Los Reyes was subjected to medical errors that broke his back, nearly severed his spinal cord, and that have left him paralyzed from the chest down. He won a $20 million civil judgement from those who treated him and the medical center.

But his settlement also includes something rare: It requires Bellevue Overlake to include him in its efforts to improve patient safety and eliminate medical error. As the Seattle Times describes it: “The man injured while in Overlake’s care will serve as a visible, vocal reminder of the lasting toll of medical errors.”

I’ve written how experts estimate that medical errors now have grown to be such a problem that they may be the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., claiming as many as 685 American lives daily.

De Los Reyes met with hospital officials to start discussing his safety role. He says his experience as a leader in design at an elite company like Microsoft could help him identify process or system flaws that he says are all too common and that harm patients like himself. His colleagues say he has the smarts to help, and he won’t suffer fools while seeking improvements.

He quotes an axiom popular at his former employer to explain a little why he wants to be involved:  “At Microsoft we had a saying, ‘Think universally, but act personally,’  ” he says.

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