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Cardiovascular Medicine, In the News, Pediatrics, Surgery

Marathon surgery at Stanford gives 6-year-old boy a chance to thrive

Marathon surgery at Stanford gives 6-year-old boy a chance to thrive

image.img.320.highA rare chromosomal disorder called Williams syndrome left 6-year-old Jordan Ervin with a host of medical problems, including severe heart defects. But it also gave him a gregarious personality and an infectious smile, one that made the multiple medical appointments and hospitalizations much easier to handle, according to his mother, Seville Spearman.

“Jordan is such a champ,’’  Spearman said in a recent Inside Stanford Medicine article. “He’s always been just a really happy kid.”

And in December, he became a much healthier one thanks to the skillful work of Stanford cardiothoracic surgeon Frank Hanley, MD. More from the piece:

It was a complicated case. The stenotic arteries caused severe pulmonary hypertension. In less-severe cases, in which there is only one area of stenosis near or at the pulmonary valve, doctors can perform a fairly simple surgical catheter procedure that uses a tiny balloon to expand the artery. But Jordan had multiple narrowings: 12 in his left lung and 14 in the right lung. The balloon technique is much less effective in this scenario, and no other surgical techniques have been developed to treat these stenoses. So Jordan would need a different approach.

That approach was developed by Hanley, who receives referrals from all over the world. He’s the pioneer of a one-stage, fix-all-the-defects surgery called unifocalization.

“We’re definitely on the leading edge of this kind of surgery,’’ said Hanley, who holds the Lawrence Crowley, MD, Endowed Professorship in Child Health. “Jordan is going to have perfectly normal life expectancy.”

Ervin is back in school in Illinois, where his parents are delighted with the outcome. His mother said in the story, “Everything is back to normal, but I will never take anything for granted again.”

Previously: How better understanding Williams syndrome could advance autism research, Pediatric surgeon fixes “heart that can’t be fixed” and Patient is “living to live instead of living to survive,” thanks to heart repair surgery
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Pediatrics, Pregnancy, Stanford News, Surgery

A difficult decision that saved three young lives

A difficult decision that saved three young lives

Estrada-Triplets_013I first met Lily Estrada and her identical triplets almost a year ago. The three babies, who were nearly ready to go home from Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, looked pretty ordinary. In fact, that’s why I love the photo at the right, which was taken at the time. Baby Pedro, in blue, was gazing at his mom; Ayden, in orange, was wiggling; and William, in grey, was sucking contentedly on his pacifier.

But they had survived an extraordinarily complicated and rare prenatal disorder. The single placenta that connected all three boys to their mother during pregnancy developed a vascular problem called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. Blood flowing through the placenta was not being shared equally between the fetuses, straining their hearts and putting all of them at risk of dying before birth.

When Estrada was diagnosed in late 2013, she and her husband, Guillermo Luevanos, faced a difficult decision. A surgery on the placenta might help save the babies, but it was by no means a sure bet. And, at the time, no one at Stanford performed the procedure, although a new partnership between our maternal-fetal medicine experts and their counterparts at Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston, provided an opportunity for Estrada to be treated there. In the Stanford Medicine magazine story I wrote about the case, Estrada described how her family felt:

“We were saddened and sort of confused,” Estrada says, recalling the first reactions that she and her husband had to the news. “It was: We could wait and see what happened, but the likelihood was that we were going to have no baby, or we could terminate one and see what happened with the other two, or take the risk, go to Houston, have the surgery and hope it worked for all three. But they didn’t guarantee anything.”

One piece of background that helped inform the couple’s decision was the fact that when the surgery worked, research had shown it helped moms stay pregnant about four weeks longer, allowing their babies more time to develop before birth. (Because the uterus gets so crowded, twins and other multiples are almost always born early, but a less premature delivery makes a huge difference for the babies’ health.) Sealing the connecting blood vessels also seemed to protect surviving fetuses in the event that one died. “We’re separating, or attempting to separate, their fates,” [Estrada’s obstetrician] Yair Blumenfeld, MD, says.

After a lot of counseling and discussion with the Stanford team, “we decided to go for it and do surgery,” Estrada says.

Once they had made the choice, they had no second thoughts. “My husband was a little bit stronger,” Estrada recalls. “He just wanted me to go for it, and see what happened.”

triplets-medresThe surgery, performed at Texas Children’s by Michael Belfort, MD, PhD, was a success. And, as my story describes, the collaboration between the two institutions is going well, too. Stanford researcher Christopher Contag, PhD, and colleagues are studying how to make better and safer surgical tools for future maternal-fetal surgeries, while surgeons here have advanced their capabilities and now offer the surgery for twin-to-twin transfusion here in Palo Alto.

Meanwhile, William, Ayden and Pedro are doing well. My favorite moment in preparing the story was when I got to see our new photo of them, above. As their mom told me, “They’re really happy babies.”

Previously: NIH puts focus on the placenta, the “fascinating” and “least understood” organStanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with healthPlacenta: the video game and Program focuses on the treatment of placental disorders
Photo of triplets as infants by Norbert von der Groeben; photo of triplets as toddlers by Gregg Segal

In the News, Medical Education, Mental Health, Surgery

Surgeon offers his perspective on balancing life and work

Surgeon offers his perspective on balancing life and work

5136926303_a3d0bb0767_bMany of us strive to balance our life and work so we can be successful, happy and healthy. Yet, for people with unpredictable work schedules, such as doctors who must treat medical emergencies that have no regard for the nine-to-five work week, it can be hard to achieve this balanced bliss.

Much has been written about this topic, but the candor of this recent blog post from Robert Sewell, MD, a general surgeon at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital, caught my eye. In the piece, which originally appeared on the Family Physician blog and was posted on KevinMD yesterday, Sewell gives a brief account of what it’s like to be a surgeon and discusses the challenges and rewards of this career choice. He starts by providing a bit of his own back story:

I got married during medical school, and like every surgeon back in those days I told my wife, “I will always have two wives, you and medicine.” While some spouses accepted that dictum, others, including mine, resented it. Shortly after starting my practice it became clear that our relationship had been strained to the breaking point by my singular focus on achieving my life’s goal.

Sewell acknowledges that it’s desirable to balance the amount of time you devote to your work and personal life, but that as a surgeon it’s not always possible to do so:

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that a successful life and marriage requires balance. Too much emphasis on any one aspect throws both you, and those around you, out of balance. This should have been obvious, but as a surgeon, it was an extremely difficult lesson to learn, largely because of the nature of what we do. A kid with acute appendicitis, or an accident victim who is bleeding out from a ruptured spleen, simply can’t wait for a recital or soccer game to be over.

In the last two decades I’ve witnessed a significant effort by many young physicians to push back against those career pressures, as they seek more balance in their lives. While that is certainly a good ideal, being a surgeon is simply not a nine to five job. It’s a calling, and if you are truly called to the profession it’s in your blood.

Previously: Helping those in academic medicine to both “work and live well”Program for residents reflects “massive change” in surgeon mentalityNew surgeons take time out for mental healthUsing mindfulness interventions to help reduce physician burnout and A closer look at depression and distress among medical students
Photo by Colin Harris

Cardiovascular Medicine, Pediatrics, Pregnancy, Surgery

Baby with rare heart defect saved by innovative surgery

Baby with rare heart defect saved by innovative surgery

jackson-lane-stanford-childrens560

Elyse Lane was 20-weeks pregnant when she learned that her unborn son had a rare and severe heart defect. Her baby was missing his pulmonary valve and his pulmonary artery was 10 times the normal size.

The outlook was bleak. The baby’s enlarged artery hampered his blood and oxygen flow, a condition called tetralogy of Fallot, and his missing pulmonary valve made the defect worse.

Fortunately, Lane and her husband, Andy Lane, a former Major League Baseball coach with the Chicago Cubs, were referred to Frank Hanley, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford Children’s Health. Hanley had experience with this kind of heart defect and knew how to perform the delicate surgery needed to repair their baby’s heart.

The Lanes recount the story of their son’s lifesaving surgery on the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital blog:

When he was just five days old, Jackson underwent a 13-hour operation that would save his life. Hanley and his team did a complex overhaul of Jackson’s heart: they inserted a pulmonary valve, reduced the size of Jackson’s right pulmonary artery, and enlarged his small, disconnected, left pulmonary artery. Hanley also used an innovative and intricate procedure known as the LeCompte maneuver, which altered the pathway of Jackson’s right and left pulmonary arteries from the back of the heart and aorta to the front. This gave his severely compromised bronchial tubes room to grow and remodel after surgery was over.

As the story explains, Jackson’s heart will need some maintenance in the future, but he should live a normal and long life.

“He can now do anything he wants in life,” said Elyse Lane in in the blog piece. “He’s already made it through the biggest challenge.”

Previously: Patient is “living to live instead of living to survive,” thanks to heart repair surgery, A very special small package: Three-pound baby receives pacemaker, Advancing heart surgery for the most fragile babies, and Little hearts, big tools
Photo courtesy of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital

Cardiovascular Medicine, Chronic Disease, Research, Stanford News, Surgery, Transplants

Growing number of donor hearts rejected for transplantation, Stanford study finds

Growing number of donor hearts rejected for transplantation, Stanford study finds

KhushAs a health writer, I’ve interviewed and written about numerous heart patients whose lives were saved when someone else died and donated their hearts for transplantation.

Those patients expressed both the anguish of hoping and praying for a new heart — when that means someone else has to die — and the overwhelming gratefulness for those donor hearts that saved their lives.

So when I wrote a story about a new Stanford study that shows an increasing number of donor hearts being rejected for transplantation, it struck a chord.

The study, published today online in the American Journal of Transplantation, found that the number of hearts rejected for transplant by surgeons and transplant centers is on the rise despite the growing need for such organs. As cardiologist Kiran Khush, MD, the lead author of the study, said in my story on the work, “We’ve become more conservative over the past 15-20 years in terms of acceptance, which is particularly troubling because of the national shortage of donor hearts and the growing number of critically ill patients awaiting heart transplantation.”

Khush and her colleagues sought to study national trends in donor-heart use by examining data from the federal government’s Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network on all donated hearts from 1995-2010. Of 82,053 potential donor hearts, 34 percent were accepted and 48 percent were declined. The remainder were used for other purposes such as research.

The researchers found a significant decrease in donor heart acceptance, from 44 percent in 1995 to 29 percent in 2006, which rebounded slightly to 32 percent in 2010. They also found, as I wrote in the story:

Among a portion of donor hearts that are referred to as “marginal” — those with undesirable qualities, such as being small or coming from an older donor — their use in transplantation varied significantly across geographical regions depending on choices made by the surgeons and the transplant centers.

The study explored possible reasons for so few organs being accepted. Increasing scrutiny by regulatory agencies of the 140 or so transplant centers across the country may have had the unintended result of making surgeons and centers more risk averse and as a result reject more hearts. Also, an increasing us of mechanical circulatory support devices that help keep patients alive while waiting for donor hears, may cause surgeons to wait longer for “better hearts.”

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In the News, Medical Education, Stanford News, Surgery

Program for residents reflects “massive change” in surgeon mentality

Program for residents reflects "massive change" in surgeon mentality

Black Read, M.D, Cara Liebert, M.D, Micaela Esquivel, M.D, and Julia Park , M.D. all are  Stanford School of Medicine surgery resident taking part in the ropes course on Tuesday, September 9, 2014, as a  team-building exercise on the Li Ka Shing Center lawn on Stanford University campus. ( Norbert von der Groeben/ Stanford School of Medicine )

“The old-school surgeon mentality is that surgery is your life. The very existence of the program is an acknowledgment that a cultural shift is occurring.” Those are the thoughts of Lyen Huang, MD, a fourth-year resident, about Balance in Life, a Stanford Medicine program designed to offer support to its surgical residents. We’ve written about it on Scope before, and the current issue of San Francisco Magazine now also provides a look.

Explaining that surgical residents are “under enormous pressure to learn quickly and produce good patient outcomes—all while working 80-hour weeks on little sleep,” writer Elise Craig outlines Balance in Life’s offerings for residents: a fridge filled with healthy snacks, happy hours and team-building events, mentorships and friendly nudges to go to the dentist or doctor. And, she writes:

If having surgical residents take time away from the operating room for lawn games sounds a little juvenile, consider this: Recent surveys conducted by the American College of Surgeons found that 40 percent of surgeons reported burnout, 30 percent screened positive for depression, and almost half did not want their children to follow in their professional footsteps.

Some snacks and an afternoon ropes course might not sound like much, but [Ralph Greco, MD, the professor of surgery who helped build the program] and his residents argue that the unique program reflects a massive change.

Previously: New surgeons take time out for mental health, Using mindfulness interventions to help reduce physician burnout and A closer look at depression and distress among medical students
Photo, from a Fall 2014 team-building activity, by Norbert von der Groeben

Cardiovascular Medicine, Immunology, Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2014

Stanford Medicine magazine's big reads of 2014

brain attackThis year’s most-read Stanford Medicine magazine stories were all about the heart, surgery and the immune system – the themes of this year’s three issues. The top 10 (as determined by pageviews on our website):

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2013 and Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2012
Illustration, from the article “Brain attack” in the Fall 2014 magazine issue, by Jeffrey Decoster

Anesthesiology, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Surgery

Stanford anesthesiologist explores consciousness – and unconsciousness

Stanford anesthesiologist explores consciousness - and unconsciousness

face-275015_1280Anesthesiologist Divya Chander, MD, PhD, is one of a leading group of neuroscientists and anesthesiologists who are using high-tech monitoring equipment in the operating room to explore the nature of consciousness – which isn’t quite as simple as on or off, asleep or awake.

Stanford Medicine magazine profiled Chander’s work last summer, but I came across it when the title of one of Chander’s recently published papers grabbed my eye: “Electroencephalographic Variation During End Maintenance and Emergence from Surgical Anesthesia.” Okay, that might not pique your curiosity, but when I spotted the words, “for the first time” in the abstract I was hooked. I read on to learn that Chander and her team attach electrodes to the foreheads of patients during surgery, measuring the brain’s electrical signals.

After a bit of scrambling you might expect when trying to get in touch with someone who spends her days in the operating room, I managed to reach Chander on the phone. Our conversation strayed far from the bounds of her paper:

In this work, what did you do for the first time?

It’s not that no one has ever used an EEG during anesthesia. During the middle of the 20th century, several anesthesiologists attempted to record brain activity under increasing levels of anesthesia, just as many neuroscientists were using the EEG to characterize the stages of sleep. The process of recording EEG was really cumbersome back then, unlike today when you can stick a frontal set of leads on a patient’s forehead in the OR in a matter of seconds. Certain general stages of anesthesia were identified, but a formalized staging nomenclature, based on the relative contribution of dominant slow-wave oscillations in the EEG, had never been defined. Non-REM (slow-wave) and REM (rapid eye movement sleep) were staged in this way by sleep neurobiologists, but not anesthesiologists. In our study, we built upon the sleep stage classification system, to define maintenance patterns of general anesthesia. The formalized nomenclature helps us examine the stages of unconsciousness under anesthesia and communicate with other anesthesiologists.

What did you find?

We recorded the frontal EEGs (from the forehead) of 100 patients undergoing routine orthopedic surgeries. We discovered four primary electrical patterns that patients exhibit when they’re unconscious, and also as they’re waking up from anesthesia. The unconscious patterns show variety – not all patients’ brains look the same under anesthesia, despite similar drug exposure, meaning there are ‘neural phenotypes,’ or patterns of neuronal activity. The emergence patterns from anesthesia (pathways people’s brains take to reestablish conscious awareness after the anesthetic is turned off) bear some similarity to those pathways traversed when people are awakening from sleep.

When wakening from anesthesia, some people spend a relatively long time in non slow-wave anesthesia, which is similar to REM, the stage of sleep where dreams occur that usually precedes awakening. Others go straight from deep anesthesia, what we call slow-wave anesthesia (because of its dominant EEG patterns) to awakening. Interestingly, these patients were more likely to experience post-surgical pain, a situation akin to awakening from a deep sleep and experiencing confusion or discomfort; some childhood parasomnias like sleep terrors are characterized by moving abruptly from slow wave sleep to waking.

We began to see some tantalizing suggestions certain patterns of wake-ups from anesthesia might be more preferable. Could paying attention to these emergence trajectories prevent some problematic complications, like post-operative cognitive dysfunction? Could we ‘engineer’ or optimize anesthetic delivery to favor certain types of maintenance and emergence patterns? Can we monitor these patterns in a way that makes delivering anesthesia safer? Recognizing the variety of maintenance and emergence patterns under anesthesia also opens an entirely new possibility in the field of personalized medicine – imagine tailoring anesthetics to a person’s genome? I am trying to develop an initiative that addresses this in collaboration with Stanford’s new GenePool Biobank program.

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Medical Education, SMS Unplugged, Surgery

Rituals of the body – honoring the loss of bodily wholeness in medicine

Rituals of the body - honoring the loss of bodily wholeness in medicine

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

footWatching my first below-the-knee amputation on my surgery rotation, I felt a curious mix of revulsion and detachment. The woman on the operating table had a gangrenous infection that had spread across her foot. Her long history of smoking and her delay in seeking medical care meant that she had stiff, black toes by the time a surgeon first saw her. The only treatment was amputation.

In the operating room, the patient was draped such that only the leg was visible and exposed. The first incision was easy, a semicircle around the calf, and then the surgeons dissected down further until they hit bone. A bone saw sliced its way through the tibia, while the slimmer fibula was taken apart in chunks with a bone cutter. The skin and muscle were cut in a flap; the flaps were brought around over the bone and sewn together to create the stump.

The amputated leg sat on the scrub nurse’s table, next to a tray of retractors. The foot was balanced upright. The skin was smooth until the edge, where it gave way to jagged edges of flesh, remnants of blood vessels, and two cross-sections of bone. I felt unsettled with the amputated portion of the leg so close to me, a graphic reminder of what was lost.

What was it that troubled me? Maybe it had been the ordinariness of the moment when the body was divided up, its fibers severed with precision and focus, but no surprise, no significance. This patient would wake up some hours later, still groggy from the haze of anesthesia. Though she had signed a consent form, though this surgery had saved her, I wondered how she would she feel when she looked down at her leg.

Even in the absence of phantom pains or other sensory reminders of the missing part, dealing with an amputation is hard. It breaks the taken-for-grantedness of the body. It forces people to move through the world in new ways. These experiences made me think, can we imagine any ritual to mark a loss of bodily integrity? A pause to appreciate the work the body has done, and to prepare ourselves for its new form?

I witnessed many bodily transformations on my surgery rotation, as we do in medicine every day. But in our increasingly technical engagement with patients, do we forget the many social and cultural meanings of the body and its parts? Like why a patient may ask for his rib back after it is excised from his chest well to relieve obstruction, or why grieving parents of a stillborn child may want to bury the baby with her placenta? Perhaps a ritual could help physicians recover the awe and the empathy toward bodies we care for, and further connect to how our patients make sense of these changes.

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Cardiovascular Medicine, Medicine X, Patient Care, Surgery

Operation Heart: Engaging patients in caring for patients

Operation Heart: Engaging patients in caring for patients

Stanford’s Medicine X is a catalyst for new ideas about the future of medicine and health care. This new series, called The Engaged Patient, provides a forum for some of the patients who have participated in or are affiliated with the program. Our inaugural post comes from Sarah E. Kucharski.

mended heartRivulets of deep brown iodine trickled across the patient’s body as nurses swabbed with sponges and unfurled blue surgical drapes. I contemplated his bare feet. I wondered if they were cold. I wondered if he wore no socks so that the nurses might palpitate for his dorsalis pedis and posterior tibial pulses. And I thought about how many times the patient on the operating table had been me.

When given the opportunity to observe surgery, I had accepted eagerly. One hardly could have called it an exercise in learning self-care techniques — no matter how empowered I am as a patient, even I draw a line at doing by own arterial bypass. Rather I wanted to see how the other half lived. For once I entered the operating room wearing scrubs and surgical mask instead of an open-backed gown and an IV line pushing Versed through my veins.

My conscious presence meant I represented not just myself but my fellow patients who clamored for meaningful engagement. There is much talk about being able to view health care and the medical establishment from another perspective, but few truly have an opportunity to do so. It has been pointed out that doctors attend school to learn how to be doctors, yet patients do not attend school to learn how to be patients. More importantly there is no school to teach doctors how to be patients and, save for those patients whose condition manifests early enough to motivate medical school, no method of teaching patients how to be doctors. Collaborations to re-imagine health care for our joint benefit will be ineffective unless we expand medical education to regularly include the patient, which will facilitate empathy and improved health literacy through shared experiences.

As surgery preparations continued, the operating room nurses appeared apprehensive they were going to share an experience with me. I had signed on with a go big or go home philosophy — the aortic root and mitral valve replacement would be my first surgery. Each nurse’s eyes widened for two tell-tale seconds when I told them my novice status, and their voices caught as they tried to mitigate surprise, “Ooh.” Their apprehension meant I had something to prove. There would be no circumstance under which I would faint.

And with the loud whine of the sternum saw, we were underway.

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