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Autism, Events, Stanford News

A conversation with autism activist and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin

A conversation with autism activist and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin

Grandin Temple - 560

In the inspiring film, “Temple Grandin,” we learn the remarkable story of a woman born with autism who, as a young child, communicates through screaming and humming, and is given to fist-pumping outbursts of frustration. But Grandin, played brilliantly in the film by Claire Danes, has a rare affinity with animals and a keen sense of their needs. She ultimately becomes a renowned expert in animal behavior, a university professor and a consultant to major U.S. companies.

Grandin, PhD, one of the world’s most famous people with autism, will visit Stanford’s medical school next Wednesday to deliver a talk entitled, “Animals Make us Human.” In anticipation of her presentation, we asked her to answer five questions about the link between autism and animals. Her answers – like this one – offer a window into the world of autism, while providing a sense of Grandin’s character and thought process:

Animal cognition has similarities to autism cognition. Animals are very aware of small, sensory details in the environment. People on the autism spectrum excel at work involving details. SAP, a large computer company, is hiring people on the mild end of the autism spectrum to debug and correct computer programs.

Concepts are formed from specific examples. To train a dog to always obey the “sit” command, it must be taught in many different locations. If all the dog’s training is done in the living room, the dog may only obey the commands in the living room. To teach a child with autism about road safety, he needs to be taught in many different locations. These similarities between animals and autism apply only to cognition. They do not apply to the emotions. Animals are highly social and emotional creatures.

Her presentation begins at noon in the Clark Center on the medical school campus and will be followed by a book signing at the bookstore at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. The talk, sponsored by Stanford’s Department of Comparative Medicine, is free and open to the public. If you’re local and able to attend, I would get there early, as I believe this is going to be one very popular event.

Photo by Rosalie Winard

Global Health, Infectious Disease, Stanford News

Stanford physician shares his story of treating Ebola patients in Liberia

Stanford physician shares his story of treating Ebola patients in Liberia

P1030655For a month, emergency physician Colin Bucks, MD, found himself in the remote, dense jungle of northeast Liberia in the heat of the battle against Ebola. A clinical assistant professor of surgery at Stanford, Bucks was a volunteer with the International Medical Corps at a new tent-like unit hastily built to accept the continuing stream of Ebola patients in the hard-hit West African country.

The facility, a series of low, tin-roofed, concrete buildings, were primitive in design but had very effective methods for controlling infection, including spigots everywhere that dispensed virus-killing doses of chlorine and protective gear for covering the body head to toe. Aside from providing basic care, such as fluid and electrolyte replacement, Bucks said much of his time was spent comforting patients, who were physically isolated from family members because of the threat of infection.

P1030673“In this setting (in West Africa), there is an additional barrier because you have one physical degree of separation, as your head, your hands, your face are completely covered. But that doesn’t preclude the same level of connection to the patient and the same sense of responsibility and care,” said Bucks, who left Liberia Oct. 22 and is now isolated at his home in Redwood City, Calif. “There may be a higher percentage of sad cases because Ebola has a high-case fatality rate, so there is an added burden there. But there is a similarity to working a tough case in rural Liberia to working a tough case in a U.S. critical care unit.”

He said the unit received patients from a nearby hospital, as well as those brought in by makeshift ambulances that might travel as much as eight hours to retrieve ailing victims. “We would get these reports everyday from the ambulance – we have four cases and three flat tires. The roads would be blocked with trees. They would have to drive through dense jungles. The ambulance stories were by far the most riveting.”

Colin Trish PPEBucks said the caregivers at the unit, which included 125 Liberians, were able to save just under half the patients who came in, with each survivor serving as an important ambassador to the community.

“The public health message was blanketing the country, but there was still a lot of fear and misunderstanding,” he said. “People are scared to come to the hospital. People are scared to undergo treatment. It helped every time we had patients discharged as cured.”

Bucks, who is now following recommendations and Stanford requirements to remain in isolation for 21 days, says there is a desperate need for other U.S. volunteers like himself to help contain the spread of the virus. “There needs to be a rational policy that facilitates health-care workers going to and from the U.S. Policy should help this – not impede this. But you need an organized response on West Africa. Otherwise we will be fighting a much bigger battle in the U.S. and around the globe.”

Previously: How to keep safe while operating on Ebola patients, Experience from the trenches in the first Ebola outbreak, Ebola: A look at what happened and what can be done and Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients
Photos courtesy of Colin Bucks

Patient Care, Research, Stanford News

Fewer transfusions means better patient outcomes, lower mortality

Fewer transfusions means better patient outcomes, lower mortality

blood transfusionBlood transfusion has been cited by the American Medical Association as one of the top five most overused therapies in the United States. Moreover, studies have shown that when there are fewer transfusions in a hospital setting, patients generally do better, as they’re not exposed to potential transfusion risks.

With that in mind, Stanford Health Care has made a concerted effort since 2009 to effectively reduce the number of patients who receive transfusions. Since that time, patient outcomes have improved, including lower mortality rates and length of stay in the hospital. Moreover, blood costs have been markedly reduced, a new study finds.

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of red blood cell units transfused annually at Stanford Health Care fell almost 24 percent – from 29,472 to 22,991. At the same time, mortality rates and length of stays decreased overall among hospital patients. The decline occurred despite the fact that the volume of patients receiving treatment was higher and patients came in with more complex medical problems, according to the researchers, led by Lawrence Goodnough, MD, a professor of pathology and medicine and director of the hospital’s transfusion service.

Goodnough helped implement a program that uses the hospital’s electronic medical record system to alert clinicians to blood-use guidelines and relevant medical literature whenever they request a transfusion. The physician is asked to explain the reason for the transfusion, prompting him or her to reconsider whether it is also needed. As a result, the overall percentage of patients transfused dropped from 21.9 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2013, the researchers reported.

The researchers more closely analyzed outcomes for 3,622 patients transfused before implementation of the system and some 10,500 patients who received transfusions after the change. In this group, mortality rates fell from 5.5 percent to 3.3 percent. Patients also spent less time in the hospital (down from 10 to 6.2 days) and were less likely to be readmitted within 30 days.

In the process, the hospital has saved some $1.62 million annually in costs over each of the four years, not including indirect costs, such as patient testing and administration of blood, the researchers calculated.

A similar 2011 study conducted at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford found that the automated alerts saved the children’s hospital 460 unnecessary red blood cell transfusions and $165,000 in one year, while patients who needed transfusions still received them.

“For health care institutions, improved blood utilization is accompanied by improved quality of care as measured by decreased patient exposure to unnecessary red blood cell transfusions, decreased blood transfusion-related costs and improved patient outcomes,” authors of the latest study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Transfusion, concluded.

Previously: Stanford Hospital trims use of blood supplies and New issue of Stanford Medicine magazine asks, What do we know about blood?
Related: Against the flow: What’s behind the decline in blood transfusions?
Illustration by Jonathon Rosen

Ebola, Events, Global Health, Infectious Disease

Experience from the trenches in the first Ebola outbreak

Experience from the trenches in the first Ebola outbreak

512px-Ebola_virus_emNoted infectious disease expert Donald Francis, MD, PhD, was “a quiet doctoral student” at Harvard when he was called in to fly into the remote bush of southern Sudan in 1976 to help with one of the world’s first documented outbreaks of Ebola. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dispatched him for a two-week assignment that stretched into two months, as he saw villages demolished by the virus and helped bury some 274 bodies, he told a group of 70 science writers earlier this week in San Francisco.

Like today’s epidemic in West Africa, most people who contracted the disease were caregivers, either at home or at the make-shift tent hospital, or people assisting at funerals, where bodies were literally dripping with blood, he said. A single drop contains many thousands of viral particles, so all it took was a simple scratch of the nose with a contaminated finger to become infected.

Remarkably, none of his team members became infected, though they took risks, including storing viral samples in unsafe vials, and flying in and out of the treatment area when they were supposed to be in quarantine, he said.

Unlike today’s epidemic, the outbreak burned itself out because it took place in the remotest of areas.

“This was a very good place to control an outbreak – very rural, very isolated,” said Francis, co-founder and executive director of Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases.

Francis is the former director of the CDC’s AIDS Laboratory Activities and was among the first to suggest that AIDS was caused by an infectious agent. He has worked in epidemics around the world and helped eradicate smallpox from Sudan, India and Bangladesh before he became involved in the AIDS epidemic.

But his early work was in Ebola. During that first outbreak in Sudan, his five-member team worked with local nurses, some of whom were sickened by the virus but recovered. “I had patients who were so sick that the whole skin of their feet would slough off,” he said. And though the survivors were in a weakened state, losing as much as 20 percent of their body weight, they were determined to continue caring for their fellow villagers, he said.

He said today’s epidemic in West Africa presents a number of “worrisome challenges,” as it is occurring in a part of the world beset by political and social chaos.

“You have social chaos, socio-economic lack of resources, and hospitals that are just set up for transmission of the virus,” he said.

He said Ebola “can be controlled, but once it becomes so broad (as is currently the case), you lose that capability.” He expressed little hope that the current epidemic could be contained anytime soon: “I expect it will play out very badly for at least a year.”

Previously: Ebola: A look at what happened and what can be done,  Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients, Ebola panel says 1.4 million cases possible, building trust key to containmentShould we worry? Stanford’s global health chief weighs in on Ebola and Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications
Photo by CDC/ Dr. Frederick A. Murphy

Ebola, Events, HIV/AIDS, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Stanford News

Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients

Dr. Paul Farmer: We should be saving Ebola patients

The photo says it all: A very slender, ailing man sits on the floor with his head bent, completely alone in the dark in what used to be an Ebola treatment center in West Africa.

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, the brilliant physician and humanitarian, flashed the photo on a screen to a rapt Stanford audience last Friday to show the emaciated state of health care systems in West Africa, incapable now of treating the most basic ailments.

Every time someone dies, it’s a failure to diagnose and deliver the imperfect tools we have

“The primary determinant of outcomes is the strength of health care systems. And if this is what ETU’s (Ebola Treatment Units) look like, there are going to be a lot of fatalities,” he told the crowd of some 400 people at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “We should be saving most of these patients. Every time someone dies, it’s a failure to diagnose and deliver the imperfect tools we have.”

But this vast inequity in care need not exist, said Farmer, MD, PhD, a Harvard professor. He pointed to examples from his own experience, in which he and the group he co-founded, Partners in Health, helped build robust health systems in Haiti and more recently, Rwanda, saving thousands of lives.

Farmer started working in Haiti while he was a student at Harvard Medical School nearly 30 years ago. In 1998, during the peak of the AIDS epidemic there, he established the HIV Equity Initiative, which relied on community health workers to visit the homes of patients daily to check on their status and ensure that they took their antiretroviral and/or tuberculosis medications. The approach proved remarkably successful, as people rose from their deathbeds to return to normal, functioning lives.

More recently, after the 2010 quake in Haiti, his group helped to build a medical center and teaching hospital in rural Haiti; he showed a photo of the modern, expansive new facility to the Stanford audience, which applauded the work.

“This is what I think of for rural Liberia, rural Sierra Leone,” he said. “This is not rocket science. Just think what we could do if we had a lot of help with systems and partners. It just requires sticking with some of these problems for a long time.”

Previously: Ebola panel says 1.4 million cases possible, building trust key to containmentExpert panel discusses challenges of controlling Ebola in West Africa, Should we worry? Stanford’s global health chief weighs in on Ebola and Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications

Medical Education, Medical Schools, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford students design “enrichments” for lions, giraffe and kinkajou at the San Francisco Zoo

Stanford students design "enrichments" for lions, giraffe and kinkajou at the San Francisco Zoo

My job took me to the zoo.

It was a rather unorthodox assignment for a medical writer, but one of our faculty at Stanford medical school was teaching a rather unorthodox class at the San Francisco Zoo. A dozen Stanford sophomores signed up to spend two intensive weeks there learning about animal welfare and behavior and designing “enrichments” to make life more interesting for the lions, a giraffe and a kinkajou at the zoo.

These included a “Poop Shooter” to lob animal poop into the lion’s cage, a urine-soaked scratcher for a lone giraffe and a “Robo-Flower” to automatically dispense smoothies to the kinkajou, a tree-dwelling rainforest mammal that looks like a cross between a squirrel and a raccoon.

“Zoo animals have pretty good welfare already,” said Stanford’s Joseph Garner, PhD, an associate professor of comparative medicine who helped design and lead the class. “So it’s not about fixing things. It’s about how we can turn this animal on a little. How can we help the keepers manage the animal and improve the experience for guests.”

“It’s like if you lived in the same room your whole life. We want to change it up, keep it fresh and interesting – something novel,” said student Jennifer Ren.

For Floyd the giraffe, the students shook things up a bit by building a scratcher soaked in female giraffe urine to make it appealing to him. Instead of lurking in a corner of his paddock near the female enclosure, Floyd ventured out into his large pad to explore his new toy, where he was a lot more visible to zoo-goers.

“The giraffe is one of the largest and strongest animals on the planet, so building something that he is not going destroy in 30 seconds is a real challenge,” Garner said.

For the lions, the students adapted a conveyor-belt system to periodically shoot giraffe poop into the lion’s cage, where the male lion in particular found the aromatic pellets extremely interesting.

“Lions lie around all day watching and waiting. But when the zoo put the enrichment in, it was like somebody just flipped a switch,” Garner said. “The male lion was up and about and smelling and searching for the giraffe droppings, and performing all of this wonderful lion behavior.”

The students took their assignments very seriously, videotaping the animals’ responses and designing charts and graphs to measure the results, which they presented at a zoo ceremony last Friday in which they were celebrated for their contributions.

The students said they came away with a whole new perspective on zoos and wildlife behavior, as well as a gratifying sense of having designed something to improve the animals’ lives.

Previously: How horsemanship techniques can help doctors improve their art
Photo in featured entry box by Norbert von der Groeben

Behavioral Science, In the News, Sleep, Stanford News

“Sleep drunkenness” more prevalent than previously thought

"Sleep drunkenness" more prevalent than previously thought

sleep_drunkennessA phenomenon known as “sleep drunkenness” may be more prevalent than previously thought, affecting as many as 1 in 7 adults, Stanford researchers report in a new study. That means as many as 36 million Americans experience this potentially problematic sleep condition, in which they are awakened suddenly in a confused state and may be prone to inappropriate behavior, poor decision-making, or even violence.

In interviews with nearly 16,000 adults aged 18 to 102, the researchers found that within the previous year, 15.2 percent had experienced the condition, also known as confusional arousal, with more than half saying they had at least one episode a week.

Stanford psychiatrist and sleep expert Maurice Ohayon, MD, DSc, PhD, said he was surprised at the extent of the problem and particularly the length of time that people reported feeling confused and disoriented following a sudden awakening, whether at night or from a daytime nap.

“I was thinking maybe 30 seconds, a minute or two minutes,” Ohayon told me. “When you ask people, 60 percent said it lasted more than 5 minutes. And one third said it was 15 minutes or more. A lot of things can happen in that time.

“The concern is that people in a job of security, such as engineer, may misjudge the situation because their memory is impaired. Their judgment is not taking into account the environment around them, so they will probably have a bad response. The response will not be adapted to the environment,” said Ohayon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study’s first author.

He noted that the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the worst nuclear incident in U.S. history, was exacerbated in part by poor decision-making on the part of an engineer who had been awakened suddenly from a nap. He also cautioned that airline pilots, who may nap during a break, may not be efficient for 5 or 10 minutes after being awakened and should take their time before resuming control of an aircraft.

Among those who are most prone to the condition are those with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or those who sleep less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours a night, as well as people with certain psychiatric disorders, such as major depression, anxiety and alcohol dependence, the researchers found. Ohayon said he was surprised to discover a strong link between the condition and the use of antidepressants, which likely modify sleep architecture and may contribute to a greater incidence of the condition. Though there is a common perception that people who take sleep medications to help them fall asleep may be confused when they wake up, that was not found to be the case, he said.

More than a third of the people in the study who experienced confusional arousal also said they had hallucinations, and 14.8 percent reported sleep-walking, sometimes accompanied by violent behavior.

“People during confusional arousal can become violent because they are awakened suddenly,” Ohayon said. “They are not happy. They are confused. They may feel aggression toward their partner or the people who have awakened them.”

He said people who experience frequent episodes of confusional arousal should consult with a physician for evaluation and possible treatment. And he urged further study of the problem, which has received little scientific attention.

The study appears in the August 26 issue of the journal Neurology.

Photo by katiecooperx

History, In the News, Stanford News

Remembering Kenyan statesman and Stanford medical school alumnus Njoroge Mungai

Remembering Kenyan statesman and Stanford medical school alumnus Njoroge Mungai

MungaiOn a visit to Kenya in 2005, I spent an extraordinary afternoon with Njoroge Mungai, MD, one of the country’s elder statesmen and a 1957 graduate of Stanford medical school. It was one of the most memorable experiences of that trip, so it was with bittersweet sentiment that I learned over the weekend that Mungai had passed on at the age of 88.

Mungai was one of the founders of modern Kenya and served the young East African country in many leadership capacities, including ministers of defense, foreign affairs, health and environment and natural resources. He helped establish the nation’s regional health care system, as well as its first medical school, which is based at the University of Nairobi.

I met Mungai on a trip to Kenya with my longtime friend and documentary photographer Karen Ande, in which we were interviewing families and children affected by AIDS. We had just spent several days with orphaned teens who were taking care of young siblings in a gritty slum neighborhood of Nairobi.

We then headed to the outskirts of the capital city to Mungai’s 45-acre estate, where he was growing roses for export. We were greeted in the expansive foyer by a stuffed lion as Mungai, a slim dapper man in a grey suit, arrived from a side door, his cane quietly tapping the floor.

We had expected perhaps an hour of his time for an interview for Stanford Medicine magazine, but it stretched well into the afternoon. After drinks on the patio, he invited us to a sumptuous buffet in a room peppered with photos of him with some of the world’s great leaders of the time.

With the air and caution of a diplomat, he told us stories of his life – from his humble beginnings as the son of a cook to his schooling in South Africa and the United States and his leadership in the revolution that led to the establishment of the Kenyan nation in 1963.

A cousin of the first Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, Mungai was particularly proud of his role in helping Kenya maintain a neutral stance while the world powers were creating chaos in neighboring countries in their eagerness to carve out their positions in Africa. He was also proud of his work in bringing the United Nations Environment Program to Kenya, the only country outside the West where the world organization has a presence.

We left him in the fading light of day with four dozen beautiful roses, a gift from a very gracious man.

Photo by Karen Ande

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

The operating room: long a woman’s domain

The operating room: long a woman’s domain

In my recent story for Stanford Medicine magazine on the transformational changes in surgery, I reported that “women were once personae non gratae in the operating room.” An alumna of the medical school, Judith Murphy, MD, took me to task for my choice of words, for as she points out, women have long been the backbone of the OR.

“In fact, for decades, women outnumbered men in the OR – circulating nurse, scrub nurse, overseeing nurse, etc.,” she wrote to me. “So it is not that there were no women in the OR, but there were no women surgeons. No Women Who Count, although everyone knows these nurses are essential to successful surgery.”

When she was a medical student at Stanford in the early 1970s, she says female students and faculty had to use bathrooms and lockers that were labeled “Nurses,” whereas the men’s room was labeled, “Doctors.”

“We all laughed about it, but it did reflect the unconscious assumptions that your language still perpetuates, all these years later and after so much progress,” she shared with me. “The women who came after us were a bit more empowered and did not think it was funny; they complained, and the doors were changed to Men and Women.”

Murphy, a practicing pediatrician in Palo Alto for decades, says she might not have made note of the issue were it not for a recent encounter with a male acquaintance who, on learning she was connected to Stanford Hospital, said, “I never knew you were a nurse.”

“When he said that, I thought, ‘Darn, I can’t believe this is still happening.’ I gave him my usual response: ‘I have great respect for nurses and could never have done as good a job without them, but in fact, I’m a doctor,’” said Murphy, who is now retired.

“The power of the cultural unconscious assumption remains strong, even here where we have come so far,” she wrote. “This has been happening to me occasionally for 40 years, less so lately. I had hoped it would become archaic.”

Murphy says her response may have been a bit testier than in the past. But she can be excused, for it is always good to be reminded of our unconscious biases about the role of women in health care, reflected both in our language and behavior.

Previously: Surgery: Up close and personal and Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Ebola, Global Health, Infectious Disease, Stanford News

Stanford global health chief launches campaign to help contain Ebola outbreak in Liberia

Stanford global health chief launches campaign to help contain Ebola outbreak in Liberia

A Medical Officer at Lacor hospital in Gulu, 360 kilometers (224 miles) north of the Ugandan capital, Kampala examines a child suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus Tuesday, Oct.17, 2000. Only days after it was announced that an outbreak of Ebola, the world's most feared virus, had struck in northern Uganda the death toll rose to 35 and according to health officials 38 other people have been affected by the virus. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim)Michele Barry, MD, director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, has launched a fundraising campaign to help combat the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which has claimed the life of a colleague who mentored residents in the Yale/Stanford Johnson & Johnson Scholars Program.

Samuel Brisbane, MD, was the first Liberian doctor to die in the outbreak, which the World Health Organization says is responsible for more than 700 deaths in West Africa and is by far the largest outbreak in the history of the disease. Brisbane was an internist who treated patients at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in the capital city of Monrovia, the country’s largest hospital. A second medical officer has become ill at the hospital, one of the sites for the scholars’ program, Barry told me.

Through the program, Brisbane mentored physicians from Stanford and other institutions who volunteer for six-week stints in resource-limited countries. He quarantined himself after showing signs of illness but died on July 26 after being transferred to a treatment center, Barry said.

Like HIV, the Ebola virus is spread through direct contact with blood or body fluids from an infected individual. Barry said Liberia is in desperate need of personal protective equipment for health care workers, such as masks, gowns and gloves, as well as trained personnel who can do contact tracing and isolation of infected individuals. The Ebola virus has a 21-day incubation period, during which time an infected individual can transmit the virus.

Barry joined an informal fundraising campaign with her colleagues on Tuesday to help Liberian health-care workers contain the spread of the disease, raising $11,000 in 48 hours. Today, she broadened the appeal in an e-mail sent to all Stanford medical school faculty.

Barry has had experience fighting Ebola in Uganda, where she said outbreaks have been limited by isolating patients in outdoor, tented hospitals and where physicians and nurses have had access to good protective gear. In the past, she said the disease typically has had “hot spots” that last a month and then subside.

But the latest epidemic, which has affected patients in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, as well as Liberia, has followed a somewhat different path.

“I think we are doing a better job of taking care of patients and keeping them alive longer, so they become more viremic — meaning the virus has spread through their bloodstream — and more infectious,” she said. “And with globalization, there is more traffic across borders so spillover to other countries occurs.”

She said she does not see the disease as a major threat to the United States, where effective infection control methods are widespread.

“I think we need to be vigilant, but I don’t think there needs to be any true concern that this is going to spread to the United States,” she said. “There’s always a risk of a patient coming in unknown to the hospital, but we practice good universal precautions because we have the equipment and we’ve been trained to treat HIV.”

Donations to the health-care project can be made online here.

Photo, from 2000 outbreak in Uganda, by ASSOCIATED PRESS

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