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Genetics, Pediatrics, Stanford News, Surgery, Transplants

Double kidney transplants leave Hawaii siblings raring to go

Double kidney transplants leave Hawaii siblings raring to go

kidney patients

Two kids; two cases of a rare, often fatal disease; and now, thanks to the work of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital doctors, two growing kids.

Both Julia Faisca, nearly 10, and Dominic Faisca, 8, suffer from cystinosis, a genetic disease that causes an amino acid — cystine — to build up in the kidney, eye and other places in the body.

The condition retarded the siblings’ growth, and damaged their kidneys. And by May 2013, Julia’s kidneys needed to be replaced. Fortunately, just three months later, she had a new kidney. And the Faisca family received the good news that a kidney was waiting for Dominic while they were flying to California from their home in Hawaii for a routine checkup for Julia.

“We’ve been busy — two kidney transplants in less than a year,” the kids’ mom, Natasha, said in a recent Inside Stanford Medicine story:

“Since their transplants, they aren’t picky eaters anymore,” Natasha said. “I joke with the doctors that the kids are eating me out of the house now. But it’s well worth it.”

Although they’ll always be on medication to protect their new kidneys and will need to return for twice-yearly checkups at Stanford, there’s finally a sparkle in their eyes, Natasha said.

“Dominic and Julia are growing like weeds and it’s really fun to watch them turn into regular kids,” said pediatric transplant specialist Paul Grimm, MD.

Both transplants were conducted by Waldo Concepcion, MD, a specialist in multi-organ transplantation.

Becky Bach is a science-writing intern with the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Previously: Baby born with rare, often-fatal kidney disease “doing well” at Packard Children’s Hospital, Contact sports OK for kids with one kidney, new study says and “Delivering hope” at Packard Children’s Hospital
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Medical Education, Medical Schools, Mental Health, Stanford News, Surgery

New surgeons take time out for mental health

New surgeons take time out for mental health

rope webI spent a recent morning watching about 30 Stanford surgical residents take time off from their operating rooms to participate in a series of team-building games out on the alumni lawn on campus. These are busy, dedicated professionals who are passionate about their work, so getting them to take time off is hard. “I can tell you a surgical resident would rather be in the operating room than anywhere else on earth,” Ralph Greco, MD, a professor of surgery, told me as he sat on a nearby bench watching the residents play games.

In a story I wrote about the games, I describe how the Balance in Life program, which sponsored the day’s event, was founded following the suicide of a former surgical resident, Greg Feldman, MD. Greco, who helped build the program, was committed to doing whatever he could to prevent any future tragedies like Feldman’s, as I explain in the piece:

“The residency program was just rocked to its knees,” he said, remembering back to the death in 2010 of the much-loved mentor and role model for  many of the surgical residents and medical students at the time. Feldman died after completing his surgical residency at Stanford and just four months into his vascular surgery fellowship at another medical center. “It was a very frightening time,” Greco said. “Residents were questioning whether they’d made the right choices.”

Today, the Balance in Life program includes, among other thing, a mentorship program between junior and senior residents, group therapy time with a psychologist and a well-stocked refrigerator with free healthy snacks. Residents themselves, like Arghavan Salles, MD, who participated in the ropes course, plan and coordinate activities:

“Some people think this is kind of hokie,” said Salles, who was one of a group of residents who helped found the program along with Greco following Feldman’s death. “Surgery is a super critical field,” Salles said. She paused to instruct a blind-folded colleague: “Step left! Step left!” “You face constant judgment in everything you do and say,” she added. “Everyone is working at the fringes of their abilities. They’re stressed.”

While writing this story, my co-workers suggested I read a September editorial in the New York Times that brought the issue into sharp focus. Spurred by the suicides two weeks prior of two second-year medical residents who jumped to their deaths in separate incidents in New York City, Pranay Sinha, MD, a medical resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital wrote about the unique stresses of new physicians:

As medical students, while we felt compelled to work hard and excel, our shortfalls were met with reassurances: ‘It will all come in time.’ But as soon as that MD is appended to our names in May, our self-expectations skyrocket, as if the conferral of the degree were an enchantment of infallibility. The internal pressure to excel is tremendous. After all, we are real doctors now.

Pranay’s message was similar to the one promoted by Stanford residents during the games: The key to battling new physician stress is realizing that you are not alone, that your colleagues are there to support you. “It sounds touchy feely to say that we care,” Salles told me. “But at the end of the day, if we want to have better patient care, we need to take care of each other too.”

Previously: Using mindfulness interventions to help reduce physician burnout and A closer look at depression and distress among medical students
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Behavioral Science, Evolution, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Surgery

In a human brain, knowing a face and naming it are separate worries

In a human brain, knowing a face and naming it are separate worries

Alfred E. Neuman (small)Viewed from the outside, the brain’s two hemispheres look like mirror images of one another. But they’re not. For example, two bilateral brain structures called Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are essential to language processing in the human brain – but only the ones  in the left hemisphere (at least in the great majority of right-handers’ brains; with lefties it’s a toss-up), although both sides of the brain house those structures.

Now it looks as though that right-left division of labor in our brains applies to face perception, too.

A couple of years ago I wrote and blogged about a startling study by Stanford neuroscientists Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, and Kalanit Grill-Spector, PhD. The researchers recorded brain activity in epileptic patients who, because their seizures were unresponsive to drug therapy, had undergone a procedure in which a small section of the skulls was removed and plastic packets containing electrodes placed at the surface of the exposed brain. This was done so that, when seizures inevitably occurred, their exact point of origination could be identified. While  patients waited for this to happen, they gave the scientists consent to perform  an experiment.

In that experiment, selective electrical stimulation of another structure in the human brain, the fusiform gyrus, instantly caused a distortion in an experimental subjects’ perception of Parvizi’s face. So much so, in fact, that the subject exclaimed, “You just turned into somebody else. Your face metamorphosed!”

Like Wernicke’s and Broca’s area, the fusiform gyrus is found on each side of the brain. In animal species with brains fairly similar to our own, such as monkeys, stimulation of either the left or right fusiform gyrus appears to induce distorted face perception.

Yet, in a new study of ten such patients, conducted by Parvizi and colleagues and published in the Journal of Neuroscience,  face distortion occurred only when the right fusiform gyrus was stimulated. Other behavioral studies and clinical reports on patients suffering brain damage have shown a relative right-brain advantage in face recognition as well as a predominance of right-side brain lesions in patients with prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

Apparently, the left fusiform gyrus’s job description has changed in the course of our species’ evolution. Humans’ acquisition of language over evolutionary time, the Stanford investigators note, required the redirection of some brain regions’ roles toward speech processing. It seems one piece of that co-opted real estate was the left fusiform gyrus. The scientists suggest (and other studies hint) that along with the lateralization of language processing to the brain’s left hemisphere, face-recognition sites in that hemisphere may have been reassigned to new, language-related functions that nonetheless carry a face-processing connection: for example, retrieving the name of a person whose face you’re looking at, leaving the visual perception of that face to the right hemisphere.

My own right fusiform gyrus has been doing a bang-up job all my life and continues to do so. I wish I could say the same for my left side.

Previously: Metamorphosis: At the push of a button, a familiar face becomes a strange one, Mind-reading in real life: Study shows it can be done (but they’ll have to catch you first), We’ve got your number: Exact spot in brain where numeral recognition takes place revealed and Why memory and  math don’t mix: They require opposing states of the same brain circuitry
Photo by AlienGraffiti

Cancer, Research, Stanford News, Surgery, Women's Health

Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies – but not any survival benefit

Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies - but not any survival benefit

woman looking out window2The most common cancer diagnosis you or a woman you love is likely to receive is early stage breast cancer, probably after detection by mammogram. One would think that given the regularity with which it’s diagnosed, treatment options for early stage breast cancer would be streamlined. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  There’s a staggeringly large menu of potential surgeries and treatments from which a patient and her doctor must choose, each with their own risks and benefits. Not including all of the different hormone blocking and chemotherapies, patients must pick one of three surgeries, shown here in order of escalating invasiveness and risk of complication:

  • Breast-conserving surgery (removal of the tumor only), followed by radiation
  • Single mastectomy (removal of the entire affected breast and any affected lymph nodes)
  • Bilateral mastectomy (the above plus the the unaffected breast)

One also would assume that the medical evidence base providing the benefits to the risk/benefit equations for each surgery would be large and up-to-date. Surprisingly, it is not. The randomized trials comparing lumpectomy and single mastectomy were conducted 30 years ago, and they showed similar risks of death. There has not been (and probably will never be) a randomized trial comparing bilateral mastectomy to one of the less invasive choices for healthy women. Angelina Jolie and other women positive for the breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) are in a different situation. For these women, clinical studies have observed a survival benefit after prophylactic mastectomy. For the 99 percent of women without mutations in these or other high-risk genes, existing trial data do not speak to current trends.

Even after accounting for [numerous factors], we found no evidence of lower mortality for women who had bilateral mastectomy in comparison to breast-conserving surgery

The complexity of choosing a breast cancer surgery – and how evidence should play into that choice – has been a hot topic in the last two months, after the publication of a large study calculating (based on predictive models) that bilateral mastectomy ultimately provides little to no improvement  in life expectancy as compared to a single mastectomy. Soon thereafter, on the New York Times’ opinion page, journalist Peggy Orenstein discussed the emotional reasons why women remove their remaining healthy breast, but firmly labeled bilateral mastectomy as  the wrong approach to breast cancer, saying, “It’s hard to imagine… that someone with a basal cell carcinoma on one ear would needlessly remove the other one ‘just in case’ or for the sake of ‘symmetry’.” Other journalists shared why they chose bilateral mastectomy knowing that it wouldn’t necessarily save their life.

To improve the evidence regarding outcomes after the three surgery types, our team at the Stanford Cancer Institute and the Cancer Prevention Institute of California used one of the largest cancer databases available: the cancer registry for the entire state of California. We tracked all 189,734 women diagnosed with stages 0-III breast cancer from 1998-2011 to learn which surgeries they were undergoing for breast cancer treatment and how long they survived afterwards.  These are all women who should have been eligible for breast conserving surgery with radiation. Our results were published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association today and have already received media attention.

We found that bilateral mastectomy for early stage breast cancer increased from 2 percent in 1988 to more than 12 percent in 2011.  The rate of increase was fastest among women younger than age 40 at diagnosis, among whom over one-third of those diagnosed in 2011 had a bilateral mastectomy. Bilateral mastectomy was more often chosen by non-Hispanic white women, those with private insurance, and those who received care at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center; while unilateral mastectomy was more often chosen by non-white women and those with public/Medicaid insurance. Even after accounting for characteristics of the women themselves, their tumor types, and their hospitals, we found no evidence of lower mortality for women who had bilateral mastectomy in comparison to breast-conserving surgery. Surprisingly, we found that women who underwent unilateral mastectomy had higher mortality than those who had the other two surgery types. We concluded that despite the growing popularity of bilateral mastectomy, it likely does not provide a better outcome than a less invasive procedure.

These data and the public response to them underscore the need for more updated and more personalized information regarding outcomes after common surgeries. Ideally, these would be accessible real-time by patients and their doctors in easily-understood formats.

Christina A. Clarke, PhD, is a Research Scientist and Scientific Communications Advisor for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: At Stanford event, cancer advocate Susan Love talks about “a future with no breast cancer”, Exploring the reasons behind choosing a double mastectomy and Researchers unsure why some breast cancer patients choose double mastectomies
Photo by Alex

Research, Surgery, Technology

Replicating the sensitivity of human touch in robots

Replicating the sensitivity of human touch in robots

A piece published today in the New York Times examines the importance of replicating the sensitivity of human touch in designing the next generation of robots. Noting that the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory designed the first robotic arm in the 1960s, reporter John Markoff offers a look at ongoing research around campus, and elsewhere, involving robotics:

Consider Dr. Nikolas Blevins, a head and neck surgeon at Stanford Health Care who routinely performs ear operations requiring that he shave away bone deftly enough to leave an inner surface as thin as the membrane in an eggshell.

Dr. Blevins is collaborating with the roboticists J. Kenneth Salisbury andSonny Chan on designing software that will make it possible to rehearse these operations before performing them. The program blends X-ray andmagnetic resonance imaging data to create a vivid three-dimensional model of the inner ear, allowing the surgeon to practice drilling away bone, to take a visual tour of the patient’s skull and to virtually “feel” subtle differences in cartilage, bone and soft tissue. Yet no matter how thorough or refined, the software provides only the roughest approximation of Dr. Blevins’s sensitive touch.

“Being able to do virtual surgery, you really need to have haptics,” he said, referring to the technology that makes it possible to mimic the sensations of touch in a computer simulation.

Markoff goes on to discuss advances in haptics, “a science that is playing an increasing role in connecting the computing world to humans.”

Previously: Stanford surgeon uses robot to increase precision, reduce complications of head and neck procedures, CyberKnife: From promising technique to proven tumor treatment and Stanford researchers develop flexible electronic skin

Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

A surgeon battles her own unexpected complications

A surgeon battles her own unexpected complications

I first interviewed Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, a year and a half ago for an article about a course she taught to other surgeons on global health care. Based on her personal experience from medical missions to Chad, Congo and Ivory Coast, it was obvious the course was a labor of love. Here was a surgeon who was passionate about her work, and whose goal it was to overcome any and all obstacles to save patients – from using papaya paste for wound dressing to hand drills for relieving brain bleeds. She made use of a combination of her surgical skills, her physical strength and her love for her work to accomplish her goals. “You have no idea how physically hard it is to crank a six-millimeter pin into someone’s femur with a hand drill,” she told me then. “And I’m strong.”

When Wren mentioned off-hand that she was still recovering from post-surgical paralysis after her own neck surgery, I knew there was another story waiting to be told. Almost two years later, that story about Wren’s struggle to return to surgery following the partial paralysis of one of her most important tools, her left hand, has been published in Stanford Medicine magazine. My colleague Paul Costello referenced it here earlier this month.

This is a story about a surgeon experiencing what it’s like to be on the other side of the scalpel when something goes horribly wrong. In the piece, she describes what she felt upon waking up following neck surgery:

My left hand was like a claw. I couldn’t lift my left knee. Then my surgeon came to see me, and I recognized that ‘Oh shit!’ look on his face, because I’ve had that ‘Oh shit!’ look many times.”

Wren, who injured her spine following a deep-sea diving shipwreck, also talks of her struggle to return to the demanding, 10-14 hours surgeries that she excels at despite lingering damage to her left hand and the accompanying depression that blindsided her. I wrote:

It was the correct diagnosis. The correct treatment. There was no surgical error. And yet somehow, the veteran surgeon who makes a living with her hands woke up partially paralyzed. The unexpected complications included paralysis of her left hand and her left leg, and a weakened right hand. Already she thinks, Will I still be able to operate? Already she thinks, What am I if I’m not a surgeon?

This is Wren’s very personal story, one that she tells open and honestly. The experience of being the patient has made her a better physician, she said. And it’s a story that she hopes by telling, others can learn from.

“I thought a lot about whether I wanted to share this story,” Wren said. I, for one, am appreciative that she did.

Previously: Sherry Wren, MD – a surgeon’s road home, Surgery: Up close and personal, Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery Surgery: Up close and personal and Stanford general surgeon discusses the importance of surgery in global health care

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.

Patient Care, Stanford News, Surgery

New medicine? A look at advances in wound healing

New medicine? A look at advances in wound healing

footWhen you’re located in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to catch “start-up fever.” The quest to develop something new – a technology, technique, or test – is pervasive, and the atmosphere at Stanford University is encouraging: Everyone is invited to breathe deeply and innovate. But innovation doesn’t always come in shiny, never-been-made-before packages. Sometimes novel solutions can be found discovering new uses for “old” things. I was reminded of this when I researched my article about advances in wound healing for the summer issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.

Hyperbaric chambers are one “old standby” that have a new role in helping heal patients with chronic wounds. With a history dating back to the 1600s, the first chamber was reportedly built in 1834. Inside the chamber, patients are exposed to higher-than-normal concentrations of oxygen, which allows the oxygen to dissolve directly into the bloodstream.

Under regular, room-air conditions, oxygen needs a designated driver – the hemoglobin in red blood cells ferries it around the bloodstream. So hyperbaric chambers help increase oxygen delivery to tissues, above and beyond the typical carrying capacity of red blood cells. That oxygen boost stimulates new blood vessel growth that, in turn, brings more healing factors to the aid of chronic wounds. With this healing effect, hyperbaric chambers are becoming more common in wound care centers. It’s a treatment option that offered at Stanford’s new wound care center when the doors open this fall.

Repurposing “old” drugs for new uses is also becoming more common. Geoffrey Gurtner, MD, a professor of surgery here, found a promising approach to preventing foot ulcers in diabetic patients with a drug that was originally developed to bind excessive levels of iron in the blood. When Gurtner discovered the same drug, called deferoxamine, could also promote healthier skin, he began developing a bandage that could be applied before a wound ever happened. As a bonus, drugs already labelled to treat other diseases may get into clinical trials more quickly than start-from-scratch therapies because the regulatory hurdle of safety trials have often already been cleared.

I’m still eager to see novel therapies developed, such as the stem cell treatments under investigation by Michael Longaker, MD, the director of the Stanford Program in Regenerative Medicine.

But, perhaps, one of the best uses of our technology is finding new possibilities in therapy options that have been around a while.

Freelance science writer Elizabeth Devitt lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. She draws on her first career in veterinary medicine to write about the health of people, animals and the environment. All her writing efforts at the computer are closely supervised by two cats.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery, Maggots can help quicken healing, study shows and Stanford researchers reveal how mechanical forces contribute to scarring
Illustration by Harry Campbell

Podcasts, Stanford News, Surgery

Sherry Wren, MD – a surgeon's road home

Sherry WrenWhen I first met Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, I immediately liked her. The affinity was probably due to the fact that we’re both from the south side of Chicago. She’s a powerhouse personality. Down to earth. No pretensions. A surgeon who goes in for the toughest assignments. During her downtime she takes her expert surgical skills to the African bush for Doctors Without Borders and creates make-shift ORs in the most remote of locations. It’s clear she has a passion for her profession and also for life.

I don’t see Wren that often so I was surprised to learn earlier this spring about a serious disc injury she suffered that brought about a paralysis. Tracie White, one of our gifted writers who always gets to the essence of the people she writes about, has a feature article on Wren’s injury and recovery in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine. In it, Wren speaks candidly about losing the use of her hands and the real possibility she would never be able to return to the OR. Sherry is indefatigable so I wasn’t at all surprised in the end that she was victorious. But the road to get there wasn’t easy.

This is a survivors’ story about grit and determination. You’ll learn a lot about Sherry and her journey in Tracie’s story and in my latest 1:2:1 podcast, above.

Previously: Surgery: Up close and personal, Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery and Stanford general surgeon discusses the importance of surgery in global health care
Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

In the News, Pediatrics, Stanford News, Surgery, Transplants

Parents' heroic effort help 12-year-old daughter receive a new heart and lungs

Parents' heroic effort help 12-year-old daughter receive a new heart and lungs

Fewer than 10 children received a heart-lung transplant in the United States last year. One of them was 12-year-old Katie Grace Groebner, who was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension in 2008 and given a year to live.

Determined to save their daughter’s life, Katie Gracie’s parents sold their house in Minnesota and most of their belongings and moved to the Bay Area so she could be treated by Jeffrey Feinstein, MD, director of the Center for Pulmonary Vascular Disease at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

As reported in the NBC Bay Area segment above, the Groebners understandably call Katie’s doctors and nurses “heroes,” but Feinstein says it’s the other way around. “You want to find a hero? Talk about the parents,” he says in the video. “If you look at the amount of work that I did, compared to amount of work Katie Grace’s parents did? There’s no comparison.”

Previously: Living long term with transplanted organs: One patient’s story, Stanford study in transplant patients could lead to better treatment, Anatomy of a pediatric heart transplant and ‘Genome transplant’ concept helps Stanford scientists predict organ rejection

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