Why do so many women feel guilty for getting epidurals?

This post is unrelated to writing, but I couldn’t resist when this headline came through…”Why do so many women feel guilty for getting epidurals?” It gave no real answer regarding epidural-induced guilt, only mentioned there was a push in the UK to have women use midwives, which they credit with reducing the epidural rate from 69% to 59% over a 10-year period. Which revives the interesting argument of “natural” childbirth and the impression forced on many women that they are somehow less if they request an epidural for their delivery.

Labor is natural, so the argument goes, and the pain of labor is ordained by God (Genesis 3:16 “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” – so we can blame Eve). However, kidney stones, so MY argument goes, are just as natural, if not specifically mentioned in the Bible. And who would argue that someone who suffers a kidney stone should go without pain relief? What about an abscessed tooth? Or an amputated digit? Just because thousands have lost digits over the millenia, no one would argue you should grin and bear it like Adam.

I have a theory, grounded in absolutely no facts, about the modern perception of pain. In the thousands of years women had babies without analgesia, they suffered pain frequently…headaches, broken limbs, saber-tooth tiger bites…so their innate mechanisms were honed to internalize (or externalize) their pain in such a way they remained functional. Now we take Tylenol/Motrin/Advil for the slightest ache. Perhaps, my theory goes, our brains have lost the ability to ignore pain, our natural endorphin mechanism no longer kicks in.

Despite being an obstetric anesthesiologist, I marveled at the intensity of my own labor pain with baby #1. (“Marveled” may not be the right word, but let’s go with it.) Believe it or not my labor nurse, apparently unaware of my career, told me an epidural would cause a cesarean delivery. I was shocked, appalled, outraged. Well aware of the risks, and cesarean delivery is not one of them by the way, I went around Nurse Ratched and called my friendly neighborhood anesthesiologist directly.  When I received said epidural (at 8 frickin’ centimeters dilation), I realized what an incredibly wonderful thing I do for a living. Baby #2 came too fast, so I did get the full-tilt blessing of natural childbirth. And for #3? Epidural when she decided not to come out after less than an hour of labor like her impatient big brother.

And the moral from my experience both as a laboring mother, and as an obstetric anesthesiologist with twenty years’ experience? It’s YOUR delivery. Do whatever you want. Epidural, no epidural, breathing, no breathing…okay, not that last one – BREATHE!  It is my considered opinion that some women must have fewer nerve endings in their cervix/uterus. Occasionally someone will come in saying they’ve had minor back pain for hours, and are 9cm dilated. Others come in screaming “F— the birth plan, I want my epidural!” at 2cm. It is not all toughness, willpower and intestinal fortitude. And it is no one’s business what any woman chooses for her labor. Grin and bear it, say every swear word under the sun while shrieking the virtues of vasectomy to your spouse, or relax and enjoy (assuming you have an awesome, attentive anesthesia provider). Either way, you’ll have an amazing gift afterward.



Allied Health Personnel: Who are they?

EMTs vs paramedicsstethoscope-294378_1280

Optometrists vs ophthalmologists

Anesthetists vs anesthesiologists

In your novel, which term should you use when?

Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

The most common providers riding ambulances, fire trucks, etc are EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians). They complete about 150 hours of training and can provide CPR, oxygen, glucose for diabetics, but they can’t start IV’s or give many medications. Paramedics, on the other hand, complete 10x the hours of education and can administer medications, start IVs, manage airways, and more. So if your victim needs a breathing tube, an IV, or major resuscitation, be sure you call the main provider a paramedic and not an EMT.


NPs (nurse practitioners) are nurses with additional graduate school training. Many subspecialize in critical care, pediatrics, etc. CRNA (certified registered nurse anesthetists) practice anesthesia, generally under the supervision of a physician anesthesiologist. Nurse midwives practice usually with an obstetrician medical director.

PAs (physician assistant) are not necessarily nurses first, but must have some direct patient care experience to gain acceptance. They generally work under the authority of a physician, and many subspecialize.

There are many other physician extenders:

Optometrists check general eye health and prescribe glasses, ophthalmologists are physicians who also prescribe medications and perform surgery.

Midwives can do prenatal checks and deliver babies, but an obstetrician is required for cesarean delivery.  Interestingly, there are two different kinds of midwives with very different skill sets.

Any questions about physicians, extenders or allied health personnel skill sets?


Head Injury and Medically Induced Coma


My victim was deliberately run over by a mountain biker. Skull fracture, internal injuries broken bones. Would the victim be put into a medically induced coma and what drugs are used. How do doctors determine when to bring someone out of a coma?


The short answer is…maybe (if necessary to control intracranial pressure (ICP)), propofol or pentobarbital, and it depends (probably ICP coming under control).  (helpful, right?) Scroll to the bottom for the short summary, or read on to understand what’s going on.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) might occur with a skull fracture, with outcome ranging from complete recovery to death, and everything in between. Best if they are managed at a Trauma Center or at least a hospital with neurosurgical services.

Patients with TBI frequently have other injuries that complicate care, but here I’ll focus on TBI itself.


Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS): This would be performed early on and is a measure of brain function. It includes three areas:

  • Eye opening (spontaneous (4) down to none (1))
  • Best verbal response (not looking for a great pun, but oriented (5) down to no response (1))
  • Best motor response (obeys commands (6) down to no movement (1))
    • Yes, teenagers can still get a 6. They just have to squeeze your hand…but preferably not pull your finger.

GCS 15 is max; 13 is mild brain injury, <9 is severe. This is something the paramedics would report over the radio to the receiving hospital.

If the score is <9, the victim would be intubated (breathing tube in the windpipe) and the paramedic would be squeezing a breathing bag. They would also place an IV (intravenous) catheter and give fluids to maintain blood pressure. The GCS would be determined every few minutes to look for deterioration.

Emergency Room

They would follow the Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) protocol (ask if you want more info), and scan the head (CT scan) to assess the brain. The big fear is “elevated ICP.”icp

Intracranial pressure (ICP) is the pressure inside the cranium (skull). In adults, the skull is solid, with just a few holes (e.g., eyes, and where the spinal cord departs for points south). Inside that solid skull is the brain, blood vessels, and another fluid (CSF: cerebrospinal fluid).

When something else takes up space (e.g. blood that has escaped), the skull can’t swell. Instead, the pressure inside the skull rises which can (1) reduce blood flow and (2) cause the brain to get squeezed toward the hole for the spinal cord. Unfortunately, the part of the brain most likely to get squished (herniate) through the hole is in charge of the most basic life functions (like breathing). So herniation is quite lethal. Incidentally, we look at pupils because the nerves that control them are in that same area.

So…if the CT showed a “hematoma” or blood collection, beneath the skull, it would likely be surgically drained immediately. For a skull fracture, as in your case, surgical treatment would depend on whether it was open (scalp open as well) and how deeply depressed the skull was.

So you could get away without surgery if you want. But they would at least have “minor” surgery with the placement of a pressure catheter into the brain to monitor ICP. The patient would be on a ventilator with a breathing tube, and would be receiving medications to maintain his blood pressure and try to minimize his ICP. He would be sedated, potentially to the point of a medically induced coma.

Medically Induced Coma

(you thought I’d never get there)

When nothing else works, the brain might be put to sleep. The goal is to minimize the oxygen needs of the brain, and thus the need for blood flow. Either pentobarbital or propofol would be used. The latter had become more popular, then a “new” disorder cropped up called “propofol infusion syndrome” which can be lethal and has reduced enthusiasm for long term use of the drug.

These patients have continuous EEG monitoring (electrodes on the head) to make sure we are sufficiently depressing their brain activity.

When to wake them up depends on why they were placed in the coma in the first place, but usually it’s based on the ICP, so when the ICP stays down, it’s time to stop the sedation and see how the patient wakes up.


Of course much more could be said. From a fiction standpoint, realism would come from the initial evaluation, the GCS, intubation and ventilation. A CT scan with results, the choice to induce a coma, with plenty of discussion from the physician to the family about the low likelihood of a return to prior functioning, but that it wasn’t time yet to talk about withdrawing care. Then a GRADUAL awakening when the sedation is discontinued – much faster with propofol than with pentobarbital. By the way, more realism, the propofol is a white milky liquid going into their IV.

Also plenty of opportunity for additional tension with complications like infections, other injuries, discussion of a “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate) since the outcome if the victim’s heart stops is truly dismal. Oh the possibilities….

Let me know if you’d like more information about any of this!

Residency Training

Residency is largely a paid apprenticeship. The new MD works under the direction of licensed physicians termed “attendings,” whose job it is to supervise, teach, and evaluate the residents, while also ensuring the safety of the patient.

Residents rotate through various areas of their chosen specialty in a relatively strict curriculum set out by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). As they progress through training they earn more autonomy and responsibility, but are always under the direction of an attending who is ultimately responsible for the patient.

Duration of residency varies by specialty. Most primary care fields (Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics) are 3 years, Neurosurgery is 7, everything else falls somewhere in between. Some fields (anesthesiology, dermatology, radiology, etc) require a year of internship prior to starting in on specialty rotations. Residents are labeled by their Post-Graduate Year in training (PGY1, PGY2,…)

A physician can obtain a medical license after completing an internship and passing USMLE Step 3.

Residency, so called because in the old days one actually lived in the hospital to be amply available, has continually decreased in required hours.  When I was a resident (residents love it when you start a conversation like that), there were no hours’ limits (and the hospital was uphill in the snow). A pediatric surgery colleague was on call for 14 days straight (never left the hospital), though that was certainly the extreme.  In our Critical Care rotations we took in-house call at least every 3rd night, and occasionally every other if someone went on vacation or fell ill (can’t imagine why that would happen).  That means we worked 36 hours, went home for maybe 12, and returned to do it again, including weekends. Calling in sick is frowned upon for obvious (if illogical) reasons.

In July 2003 the ACGME implemented a new set of rules. Dubbed the “80-houImage result for 80 hour rule ACGMEr rule,” it put specific limits on resident work hours for the first time :

  • 80 hours per week, averaged over 4 weeks
  • at least 10 hours off between duty periods
  • no more than 30 straight hours of work
  • 1 day off in 7, averaged over 4 weeks

So, if in your story you want the resident to work ungodly hours, it would be more appropriate to put them in residency pre-2003. That said, violations continue to occur and some specialties pay lip-service to work rules, with residents still working 100+ hours per week.


After residency, many graduates choose to pursue sub-specialty training, termed fellowship. Some of these are regulated by the ACGME, but many others are not, and have more flexibility in their design and accreditation (and salary).  After Internal Medicine residency, one might spend another 3 years to become a Cardiologist; after 5 years of General Surgery, one might spend 2 more years in Pediatric Surgery; after my own 4 years of Anesthesiology, I did a 1-year Obstetric Anesthesia fellowship.

These can be stacked…after becoming a cardiologist, one might complete another 1-2 years to become an Interventional Cardiologist (putting in coronary artery stents, etc). One could become a career trainee if one were so inclined (and crazy).


Then, on June 30, residents and fellows around the country graduate and start a new job, probably in private practice, and 24-hours later they have no supervision, no duty hours, no back-up. Hmmmm, what could possibly go wrong?

Board Certification

Graduates must complete a national specialty-specific exam, written +/- oral to become Board-certified. Board-eligible means they are eligible for board certification (d’uh) …which might mean they have not yet been out long to enough to complete the examinations (it takes at least a year in some specialties), or they chose not to take them (suspicious), or they already failed once or twice but not the fatal third time that would require additional training.

Moral of the story?

Look for Board-CERTIFIED physicians; don’t get sick in July, don’t choose physicians right out of training, and if in doubt, academic medical centers can actually be a great place for superb, if not efficient, care. There are always more brains involved…you’ll have to decide if that’s good or bad…

Medical Education

The latest question I received was about what a second year medical student would know if they happened upon an accident victim, which brings up the question of the medical education process in the US. Quick overview: 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 3-9 years of residency (the first year of which is called internship), +/- 1-3 years of fellowship.


Except for a few specialized programs, medical school requires an undergraduate degree in anything really. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is quite rigorous (understatement) and covers biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, statistics, and so on, so a major that requires those courses makes some sense. But we look for students with a wide range of backgrounds, and most important, at least at UF, is evidence of “other-centeredness.”

Many students now take a gap year. Graduate, then spend a year doing something before matriculating to medical school. For some it’s financial, for others it’s a break, but for many it’s to enhance their application and odds of getting in. Regardless, the age at matriculation then is at least 22-24.

Medical School


Usually begins in July/August. The first two years are generally still in the classroom, though they’ll have some patient contact while shadowing other physicians.  At the end of the second year, students must pass Step 1 of the US Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). It largely covers the basic sciences they learned the previous two years.

Third year consists of 4-8 week rotations in various fields:

  • Internal Medicine (adults, outpatient clinics and inpatient wards; often includes some time on sub-specialties – e.g., cardiology, pulmonology, gastroenterology)
  • Pediatrics (kids, but same as above, including time in the newborn nursery)
  • Family Medicine (outpatient clinics, might include children)
  • Surgery (mostly inpatient, seeing patients before and after surgery, and observing during operations, rarely suturing the wound at the end of an operation); often involves some sub-specialty experience
  • Obstetrics & Gynecology (inpatient and outpatient clinics, deliver a few babies, otherwise similar to surgery, except with MUCH nicer docs)
  • Psychiatry (inpatient and outpatient)
  • Neurology (inpatient and outpatient)

By the end of third year or early fourth year, students should know what field of medicine they wish to pursue.

Fourth year is mostly elective. Students spend more time in fields they think they might wish to pursue, and do “audition rotations” at institutions where they might wish to complete their residency. Rotations are four-weeks long, usually with a few required courses: Emergency Medicine, Anesthesiology, Critical Care Medicine (Intensive care unit). During fourth year students must pass USMLE Step 2, both a written and a practical exam. The scores on this exam weigh heavily on residency applications because it is the only available national comparator.

From October to February of fourth year, students interview for residency positions.

The Match


Despite legal challenges, the match process remains. Using ERAS (Electronic Residency Application Service), senior medical students are “matched” with residency programs. Students fill out an application, then direct it to the programs in which they are interested (all general surgical residencies in the southeast US, for example). Students are advised to apply to 20 programs or more, depending on their class standing/MCAT scores and the competitiveness of their chosen specialty (dermatology vs family medicine).

Admission committees at residency programs review the applications and invite for an interview those they consider competitive. After, the students rank the programs in order of their preference, programs do the same for the applicants, and a computer matches them up. The process is binding on both sides.

Should a student fail to match, there is a “scramble” afterward to find them a spot somewhere, perhaps in a different field, or just a one-year internship somewhere, with a plan to reapply the following year. Meanwhile the programs that didn’t “fill” are scrambling to find unmatched graduates to fill their openings. Though it’s becoming much less true, the cogs of an academic medical center still run to great extent on the work of residents, and a hole in a residency class means more work for everyone.



My graduation in 1991, with my awesome parents

Students graduate with an MD in May/June of their senior year, but cannot obtain a medical license to practice until they complete an internship (one year of training) and pass Step 3 of the USMLE.

Matriculation to residency is July 1 – a really bad time to be in the hospital!!

In the next blog, I’ll cover residency.

QUESTION: Kidney Transplant Shenanigans

QUESTION from a writer:

I’d love your thoughts on a story line:
Wealthy mom pays young man to find a living donor for her teenage daughter, who needs a kidney (they have no living relatives and mom doesn’t match). I’ve done some research on this and I am still amazed at the altruistic people who will donate a kidney to someone they don’t even know. However, in the story, the donor is a gullible young woman living on the edge who simply needs money and pretends to be a “friend” donating a kidney. Of course, blackmail and murder will follow when the donor discovers that the middleman took most of the money.

How grueling is the matching process?
Depends on what you mean by grueling 🙂  The person must undergo the following:
  • Blood typing (twice)
  • Medical evaluation – looking into medical problems that could be transferred (e.g. prior kidney disease, cancers that run in the family, blood pressure, etc) but also any risk factors for diseases like HIV, Hepatitis C, and even foreign travel.  It’s quite thorough, but lying is always a possibility I guess.  Labs are tested, ECG, Chest X-ray, imaging of the kidneys, etc.
  • Psychosocial evaluation – includes risky behaviors again, alcohol, drugs, they ask whether the decision to donate is free of undue pressure (ask reasons for donating), assess their ability to consent
  • Assignment of a ILDA (independent living donor advocate) to advocate for them through the process. This is provided by the hospital, but can’t be associated with the recipient.
If a person was a drug user in the past but was not using any more, could that person be a donor?
Yes, but it does put them at higher risk of HIV, hepatitis, etc.
Is it possible that mom wouldn’t match? (I could always make her a daughter by adoption.)
Absolutely possible that mom wouldn’t match
What would the recovery be like for the donor? and the recipient? what would the scars look like?
This depends on how they do the surgery. We do most (90+%) donor nephrectomies (removal of kidney) laparoscopically now, so the scars are just a few 1 inch lines on the abdomen and side and one larger one to pull the kidney out.
The scar for the recipient will be on the lower abdomen. Almost always on the right.
Stay in the hospital is a few days, then 4-6 weeks off work on pain meds. The pain is actually worse for the donor than the recipient.
Follow up clinic visits after that.
 How long does this living donor surgery take?
1-4 or more hours depending on the experience of the team, the weight of the patient, scar tissue, etc. – whether they’re at a teaching institution and it’s July when all the residents advance.  NOTE: Avoid teaching hospitals in July – says the none-too-brilliant obstetric anesthesiologist who delivered a baby on July 3!
How many people would be on the medical team for this procedure?
Anesthesia provider (anesthesiologist possibly with a nurse anesthetist, though only one would stay in the room), scrub tech, circulating nurse, surgeons x 2 (+medical student if in an academic center).  There would be a team in each OR.
Note that often the donation is done in one hospital, and the organ flown to another. The person to transport the organ would be in addition.
 I’ve read about young people damaging their kidneys by excessive drinking. Is this true or just the Internet talking?
True! The kidneys have to filter the alcohol, this filtration function can be affected. Also, dehydration, as can be caused by alcohol, is bad for kidneys. Alcohol can also cause high blood pressure which is bad for kidneys as well. Finally, liver disease is common with alcohol and it causes problems for the kidneys.  According to the National Kidney Foundation, “most patients in the United States who have both liver disease and associated kidney dysfunction are alcohol dependent.”
I’d like the operation/recovery to take place at a private clinic or even in a medical suite in the wealthy woman’s home (we are talking exceptionally wealthy). Is this WAY out of the range of possibility?
Wow, that would be impressive. Not completely out of the realm of possibility, but definitely in the fiction world. Not many docs would be willing to work outside their own hospital, so you may end up needing to use disreputable docs, in which case all the donor/recipient safeguards may be moot and you can do whatever you want 🙂  An awful lot can go wrong that would require other resources…blood bank, other surgical equipment, stat laboratory results, an X-Ray…I certainly don’t know anyone willing to do something like that.  You might be able to envision a super-fancy hospital with a separate suite for big wigs, but still in a hospital – but then, we make the world as we want, right??




The Nightingale – Antibiotics in World War II

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of The Nightingale by Kristinnightingale Hannah, read by Polly Stone, whose French accents (and American for that  matter) are fun to hear. It is beautifully written and a wonderful story about two sisters during the French resistance to German occupation in the 1940s.

One moment caught my attention, though. Vianne’s daughter, Sophie is sick with a fever. The German officer billeted in their home saves her with antibiotics. Yet few were available in 1940. The forerunner of the modern sulfa drugs (Septra, Bactrim, etc) had been developed only 5 years before, and American soldiers were given the drug to carry with them later in the war. It’s possible Vianne’s German officer (he’s not MY officer, she would say) had some as well. But the real reason this line caught my attention was the experience of my mentor in WWII.

J.S. ‘Nik’ Gravenstein, MD (1925-2009) was orphaned as a teenager in Germany during the war. His half brother helped him become a medic in the German navy, despite his age. At work in a Belgian hospital at the end of the war, he observed Americans coming in with a “wonder drug” called penicillin. At that time, soldiers with penetrating chest wounds were treated only with morphine, as they died of infection. These Americans treated them with a single unit of penicillin (we now use at least 1 MILLION units per dose), and they were cured! He considered it nothing short of a miracle at the time, and it contributed to his subsequent career as a physician – in fact one of the foremost anesthesiologists in the world. I was incredibly blessed to have him as a mentor. For his 80th birthday I created a video of his life.