Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (6 page)

BOOK: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
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“Who cuts your nails?” he asked.

“I do,” Gavrilles replied.

I tried to think what could be accomplished in this visit. She was in good condition for her age, but she faced everything from advancing arthritis and incontinence to what might be metastatic colon cancer. It seemed to me that, with just a forty-minute visit, Bludau needed to triage by zeroing in on either the most potentially life-threatening problem (the possible metastasis) or the problem that bothered her the most (the back pain). But this was evidently not what he thought. He asked almost nothing about either issue. Instead, he spent much of the exam looking at her feet.

“Is that really necessary?” she asked, when he instructed her to take off her shoes and socks.

“Yes,” he said. After she’d left, he told me, “You must always examine the feet.” He described a bow-tied gentleman who seemed dapper and fit, until his feet revealed the truth: he couldn’t bend down to reach them, and they turned out not to have been cleaned in weeks, suggesting neglect and real danger.

Gavrilles had difficulty taking her shoes off, and, after watching her struggle a bit, Bludau leaned in to help. When he got her socks off, he took her feet in his hands, one at a time. He inspected them inch by inch—the soles, the toes, the web spaces. Then he helped her get her socks and shoes back on and gave her and her daughter his assessment.

She was doing impressively well, he said. She was mentally sharp and physically strong. The danger for her was losing what she had. The single most serious threat she faced was not the lung nodule or the back pain. It was falling. Each year, about 350,000 Americans fall and break a hip. Of those, 40 percent end up in a nursing home, and 20 percent are never able to walk again. The three primary risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications, and muscle weakness. Elderly people without these risk factors have a 12 percent chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a 100 percent chance. Jean Gavrilles had at least two. Her balance was poor. Though she didn’t need a walker, he had noticed her splay-footed gait as she came in. Her feet were swollen. The toenails were unclipped. There were sores between the toes. And the balls of her feet had thick, rounded calluses.

She was also on five medications. Each was undoubtedly useful, but together the usual side effects would include dizziness. In addition, one of the blood pressure medications was a diuretic, and she seemed to drink few liquids, risking dehydration and a worsening of the dizziness. Her tongue was bone-dry when Bludau examined it.

She did not have significant muscle weakness, and that was good. When she got out of her chair, he said, he noted that she had not used her arms to push herself up. She simply stood up—a sign of well-preserved muscle strength. From the details of the day she described, however, she did not seem to be eating nearly enough calories to maintain that strength. Bludau asked her whether her weight had changed recently. She admitted that she had lost about seven pounds in the previous six months.

The job of any doctor, Bludau later told me, is to support quality of life, by which he meant two things: as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible and the retention of enough function for active engagement in the world. Most doctors treat disease and figure that the rest will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t—if a patient is becoming infirm and heading toward a nursing home—well, that isn’t really a
medical
problem, is it?

To a geriatrician, though, it
is
a medical problem. People can’t stop the aging of their bodies and minds, but there are ways to make it more manageable and to avert at least some of the worst effects. So Bludau referred Gavrilles to a podiatrist, whom he wanted her to visit once every four weeks, for better care of her feet. He didn’t see medications that he could eliminate, but he switched her diuretic to a blood pressure medicine that wouldn’t cause dehydration. He recommended that she eat a snack during the day, get all the low-calorie and low-cholesterol food out of the house, and see whether family or friends could join her for more meals. “Eating alone is not very stimulating,” he said. And he asked her to see him again in three months, so that he could make sure the plan was working.

Almost a year later, I checked in with Gavrilles and her daughter. She’d turned eighty-six. She was eating better and had even gained a pound or two. She still lived comfortably and independently in her own home. And she had not had a single fall.

*   *   *

ALICE BEGAN FALLING
long before I met Juergen Bludau or Jean Gavrilles and grasped the possibilities that might have been. Neither I nor anyone else in the family understood that her falls were a loud alarm bell or that a few simple changes might have preserved, for at least some time longer, her independence and the life she wanted. Her doctors never understood this either. Matters just kept getting worse.

Next came not a fall but a car accident. Backing her Chevy Impala out of her driveway, she shot across the street, over the curb, and through a yard, and could not stop the car until it ended up in some bushes against her neighbor’s house. The family speculated that she’d stomped on the accelerator instead of the brake. Alice insisted the accelerator had got stuck. She thought of herself as a good driver and hated the idea that anyone would think that the problem was her age.

The body’s decline creeps like a vine. Day to day, the changes can be imperceptible. You adapt. Then something happens that finally makes it clear that things are no longer the same. The falls didn’t do it. The car accident didn’t do it. Instead, it was a scam that did.

Not long after the car accident, Alice hired two men to perform tree and yard work. They set a reasonable price with her but clearly saw her as a mark. When they finished the job, they told her that she owed nearly a thousand dollars. She balked. She was very careful and organized about money. But they got angry and threatening, and, cornered, she wrote the check. She was shaken but also embarrassed and told no one about it, hoping she could put it behind her. A day later, the men returned late in the evening and demanded she pay more. She argued with them, but in the end she wrote that check, too. The ultimate total was more than seven thousand dollars. Again, she wasn’t going to say anything. Neighbors, however, heard the raised voices at Alice’s doorstep and called the police.

The men were gone by the time the police arrived. A policeman took a statement from Alice and promised to investigate further. She still didn’t want to tell the family about what had happened. But she knew this was trouble and after a while finally told my father-in-law, Jim.

He spoke to the neighbors who’d reported the crime. They mentioned that they had become worried for her. She no longer seemed safe living on her own. There was this incident and the Impala in the bushes. There was also what they observed of how difficult managing matters as ordinary as getting her trash to the curb had become.

The police caught the scam artists and arrested them for grand larceny. The men were convicted and sentenced to prison, which should have been satisfying for Alice. But instead the whole process kept the events, and the reminders of her growing vulnerability, alive and lingering when she would have dearly loved to have set them behind her.

Soon after the scammers were caught, Jim suggested that he and Alice go together to look at retirement homes. It was just to see what they were like, he said. But they both knew where this was going.

*   *   *

DECLINE REMAINS OUR
fate; death will someday come. But until that last backup system inside each of us fails, medical care can influence whether the path is steep and precipitate or more gradual, allowing longer preservation of the abilities that matter most in your life. Most of us in medicine don’t think about this. We’re good at addressing specific, individual problems: colon cancer, high blood pressure, arthritic knees. Give us a disease, and we can do something about it. But give us an elderly woman with high blood pressure, arthritic knees, and various other ailments besides—an elderly woman at risk of losing the life she enjoys—and we hardly know what to do and often only make matters worse.

Several years ago, researchers at the University of Minnesota identified 568 men and women over the age of seventy who were living independently but were at high risk of becoming disabled because of chronic health problems, recent illness, or cognitive changes. With their permission, the researchers randomly assigned half of them to see a team of geriatric nurses and doctors—a team dedicated to the art and science of managing old age. The others were asked to see their usual physician, who was notified of their high-risk status. Within eighteen months, 10 percent of the patients in both groups had died. But the patients who had seen a geriatrics team were a quarter less likely to become disabled and half as likely to develop depression. They were 40 percent less likely to require home health services.

These were stunning results. If scientists came up with a device—call it an automatic defrailer—that wouldn’t extend your life but would slash the likelihood you’d end up in a nursing home or miserable with depression, we’d be clamoring for it. We wouldn’t care if doctors had to open up your chest and plug the thing into your heart. We’d have pink-ribbon campaigns to get one for every person over seventy-five. Congress would be holding hearings demanding to know why forty-year-olds couldn’t get them installed. Medical students would be jockeying to become defrailulation specialists, and Wall Street would be bidding up company stock prices.

Instead, it was just geriatrics. The geriatric teams weren’t doing lung biopsies or back surgery or insertion of automatic defrailers. What they did was to simplify medications. They saw that arthritis was controlled. They made sure toenails were trimmed and meals were square. They looked for worrisome signs of isolation and had a social worker check that the patient’s home was safe.

How do we reward this kind of work? Chad Boult, the geriatrician who was the lead investigator of the University of Minnesota study, can tell you. A few months after he published the results, demonstrating how much better people’s lives were with specialized geriatric care, the university closed the division of geriatrics.

“The university said that it simply could not sustain the financial losses,” Boult said from Baltimore, where he had moved to join the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. On average, in Boult’s study, the geriatric services cost the hospital $1,350 more per person than the savings they produced, and Medicare, the insurer for the elderly, does not cover that cost. It’s a strange double standard. No one insists that a $25,000 pacemaker or a coronary-artery stent save money for insurers. It just has to
maybe
do people some good. Meanwhile, the twenty-plus members of the proven geriatrics team at the University of Minnesota had to find new jobs. Scores of medical centers across the country have shrunk or closed their geriatrics units. Many of Boult’s colleagues no longer advertise their geriatric training for fear that they’ll get too many elderly patients. “Economically, it has become too difficult,” Boult said.

But the dismal finances of geriatrics are only a symptom of a deeper reality: people have not insisted on a change in priorities. We all like new medical gizmos and demand that policy makers ensure they are paid for. We want doctors who promise to fix things. But geriatricians? Who clamors for geriatricians? What geriatricians do—bolster our resilience in old age, our capacity to weather what comes—is both difficult and unappealingly limited. It requires attention to the body and its alterations. It requires vigilance over nutrition, medications, and living situations. And it requires each of us to contemplate the unfixables in our life, the decline we will unavoidably face, in order to make the small changes necessary to reshape it. When the prevailing fantasy is that we can be ageless, the geriatrician’s uncomfortable demand is that we accept we are not.

*   *   *

FOR FELIX SILVERSTONE
, managing aging and its distressing realities was the work of a lifetime. He was a national leader in geriatrics for five decades. But when I met him he was himself eighty-seven years old. He could feel his own mind and body wearing down, and much of what he spent his career studying was no longer at a remove from him.

Felix had been fortunate. He didn’t have to stop working, even after he suffered a heart attack in his sixties that cost him half his heart function; nor was he stopped by a near cardiac arrest at the age of seventy-nine.

“One evening, sitting at home, I suddenly became aware of palpitations,” he told me. “I was just reading, and a few minutes later I became short of breath. A little bit after that, I began to feel heavy in the chest. I took my pulse, and it was over two hundred.”

He is the sort of person who, in the midst of chest pain, would take the opportunity to examine his own pulse.

“My wife and I had a little discussion about whether or not to call an ambulance. We decided to call.”

When Felix got to the hospital, the doctors had to shock him to bring his heart back. He’d had ventricular tachycardia, and an automatic defibrillator was implanted in his chest. Within a few weeks, he felt well again, and his doctor cleared him to return to work full time. He stayed in medical practice after the attack, multiple hernia repairs, gallbladder surgery, arthritis that all but ended his avid piano playing, compression fractures of his aging spine that stole three full inches of his five-foot-seven-inch height, and hearing loss.

“I switched to an electronic stethoscope,” he said. “They’re a nuisance, but they’re very good.”

Finally, at eighty-two, he had to retire. The problem wasn’t his health; it was that of his wife, Bella. They’d been married for more than sixty years. Felix had met Bella when he was an intern and she was a dietitian at Kings County Hospital, in Brooklyn. They brought up two sons in Flatbush. When the boys left home, Bella got her teaching certificate and began working with children who had learning disabilities. In her seventies, however, retinal disease diminished her vision, and she had to stop working. A decade later, she’d become almost completely blind. Felix no longer felt safe leaving her at home alone, and in 2001 he gave up his practice. They moved to Orchard Cove, a retirement community in Canton, Massachusetts, outside Boston, where they could be closer to their sons.

BOOK: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
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