Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Posts Tagged ‘resident’

Thoughts About Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain at 28,000 Feet

As is often the case when flying I was rewarded for offering a greeting to my row mate on the plane with a bit of insight and knowledge I’d have missed had I not simply reached out a hand and said “Hi, I’m Darrell.” My momentary companion (we each moved to more spacious seats) had been a schoolmate of the recently deceased Kate Spade. He confirmed her years-long struggle with a depression that defied logic and was thus a depression that was as pathological as diabetes or heart disease or cancer. Opening my Sunday papers brings stories from the friends of Anthony Bourdain, also deceased, and his decades long struggles with the same demon disease.

Like so many others, both Mrs. Spade and Mr. Bourdain were killed by illness, cause of death: suicide.

First, a couple of statistics. Suicide is presently the 10th most frequent cause of death in the U.S. currently responsible for taking roughly 45,000 lives each year. I am a physician. Doctors die from suicide at a rate 0f 40 per 100,000, the highest rate of any profession and twice the rate of Americans in general. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers (behind accidents), having surpassed homicide for the first time in 2017. [As an aside, the U.S. loses more young lives from all causes than any other developed country. This drag on life-expectancy should always be considered when you compare the health outcomes of various countries] A very large percentage of these deaths occur in those who suffer from some kind of mental illness, of which depression is far and away the most common.

It is time for us in America to reframe our conversation about suicide for the good of those who are at risk as well as those who have lost a loved one for whom the cause of death was suicide. Let us start, as we should in all serious discussions, with the language we use. For decades at least we have used the phrase “committed suicide” when describing such deaths. It is well past time for us to retire this phrase, at least for people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. To commit is to perform a willful act while under the full control of all of your faculties. Commitment implies the performance of an action that is the culmination of rational thought. Outside of war, the act of taking a life after rational thought is the purview of the psychopath; it bespeaks the presence of evil.

People like Spade and Bourdain who are killed by suicide are not evil.

We will all come upon well-meaning entreaties from those around us offering help should one be considering suicide. We will see headlines and the like proclaiming that “Suicide can be prevented”. Can it? Can suicide be prevented by addressing suicide and the thought of suicide itself? By and large suicide is an effect, not a cause. Some suicides do, indeed, follow the rapid appearance of dismay and despair, and these may very well respond to the well-meaning aid of those who offer a phone number, an ear, or a ride to a doctor or therapist. For some, especially the young, suicide is an impulsive reaction to an overwhelming emotion. For those left behind these are the hardest for we all surely ask “what if”, and we all as surely respond “if only.”

There is suicide that kills as the consequence of illness too long in development, even with the best of care possible. Depression, Bi-polar Disease, Schizophrenia and their ilk sometimes prove untreatable in the exact same manner as cancer or heart disease. Suicide is the cause of death in the same way that liver failure might take someone with widespread cancer that began in another organ; the ultimate cause was neither the failed liver nor the suicide but the underlying disease. It is so very, very important for the family and friends and acquaintances of those who ultimately pass by suicide to understand and accept this, especially if their loved one was being actively treated. Here, in these circumstances, we the living must guard against “what if” and “if only” as if our own lives depended on it.

Because they do.

I have known you all, you who have lost and who are still here to remember. I am one of you. Friends and acquaintances, friends and family members of acquaintances–I, too, have losses. “What if” and “If only” haunt us all. For us, as it so often is, the solution lies in love and kindness extended not only to those who are suffering, but to those we have lost and most especially to ourselves. No one who loved us as we loved them would have chosen to hurt us in life; how they ultimately died was not a choice to hurt us in the passing. We will surely hurt but we must not allow ourselves to feel that we have been hurt on purpose. More so, in time we must forgive ourselves for that which we could not change as surely as we could not have saved the parent or the sibling or the friend who died from cancer. We must forgive ourselves, be kind and loving to ourselves and all of the others who share our loss, for the alternative for us is despair and dismay.

We can begin this cycle of kindness and love by choosing a different way to discuss suicide and calling it what it is: the cause of death. Do reach out to those you know who have been buried by despair and are drowning in dismay, for they might be saved. Fight for the right to do so. Do champion the recognition that mental health diseases that have no outward signs such as true depression are as real as an open fracture at the scene of an accident; they should be treated as seriously and with the same sense of urgency. Fight for the right to have these diseases treated the same way. Doing so will save lives. Love those you love as much as they will let you for as long as they are alive for the loving, and let them do the same for you.

Peace and grace be upon those who have lost loved ones who were killed by suicide. Joy and love to all who have stood with toes across the precipice and stepped back, and to those who were there to embrace them when they did.

 

The Bellevue Death Ray, Revisited

Man, what a place Bellevue Hospital must’ve been back in the day. It was crazy enough in MY day in the mid-1980′s. Bellevue is arguably the most famous hospital in the world, famous mostly for the treatment of psychiatric patients, and made all the more famous by the Christmas movie “The Miracle on 49th St.” in which Santa Claus was institutionalized in one of Bellevue’s top floors. For those of you who don’t know Bellevue Hospital, the top six floors of a 30 floor tower were (are?) reserved for psychiatric patients, at least one of them for psychiatric patients who hail from Rikers Island.

I’m not really sure why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Bellevue recently. My experiences as an ophthalmologist in private practice in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio really have exactly nothing in common with my experiences as an ophthalmology resident on the lower East Side of New York City. Nonetheless Bellevue has been on my mind. Since I’ve been thinking about it I thought I’d share some stories about Bellevue and about my time as a resident at all of the NYU hospitals. This will also give me an opportunity to introduce you to some very special, very interesting characters whose lives crossed paths with mine.

Irwin Siegel was an optometrist with multiple roles at Bellevue Hospital. His most important role for me and my fellow residents was to teach us about optics and refraction, the science and technique of prescribing glasses and contact lenses. Dr. Siegel was also a noted researcher in the diagnosis and treatment of retinal diseases, specifically diseases of the macula or center of the retina; there is actually a syndrome named after Dr. Siegel and two of his partners.

Dr. Siegel was a fascinating man, especially fascinating to a child of suburbia like me. The prototypical New Yorker, Dr. Siegel lived his entire life in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He did not own a car, and used some form of public transportation for more than 95% of his travels. You got the sense that any forays outside the island of Manhattan were viewed as akin to a ride on the “Heart of Darkness” express. The guy simply reeked of New York, and he spent his entire professional career at Bellevue Hospital.

Recall that my life’s memories are wrapped up in eyecare, optics, and the optical industry. My father’s first job was at American Optical in Southbridge Massachusetts, at the time the largest ophthalmic manufacturing company on the planet. The very first lasers were actually developed in the laboratories of AO. In the early 1960s Dr. Siegel and his partners were doing research on lasers at Bellevue. Now, as you can imagine, something as powerful as the energy of the laser light had also come to the attention of the U.S. Military. So comes the story of the Bellevue Death Ray!

Dr. Siegel and Dr. Ron Carr were doing laser work somewhere in the bowels of Bellevue. This would have been in the early 1960s, and the laser they were working on was an enormous mechanical monstrosity, a piece of equipment that took up more space than most upper East Side kitchens. Not only was it physically enormous, but the generation of a single pulse of laser took well over a minute, a minute filled with a crescendo of sound not unlike what one would experience when a jet engine is engaged . Imagine a room, half filled with this exotic piece of near–science fiction equipment, surrounded by white–coated scientists all wearing goggles that look as if they had been spirited away from a Mount Everest expedition. Add in a few very senior military officers in full dress regalia and the scene is set.

The officers visiting from the Pentagon really had no idea what to expect. They were intrigued by this new technology, interested to see if there might be some military application. Dr. Siegel noted that he and Dr. Carr were mostly bemused by the presence of the officers, although he did admit being a little bit impressed by the two-star general in their midst. The  experiment/demonstration was set up, on one end of the room the monstrous laser, on the other end of the room a rabbit in a box, his head poking through a hole, the laser aimed at his left eye. Goggles were donned and the switch was flipped.

The laser came to life, slowly building energy in the rudimentary laser tube, the whine and the clang and the clatter growing in intensity with each passing second. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Carr stood calmly to the side, ignoring the laser and concentrating on the rabbit. The officers, on the other hand, slowly crept back away from the laser, trying to melt through the wall, and failing that trying to become as small as possible. Two-dimensional, if possible. The wail of the laser grew… the sound filled the room… the wail, the clatter, a crescendo… BAM!

And then, silence. The doctors and the officers took off their goggles. They walked over to the  box and discovered that the rabbit was dead. Immediately one of the colonels started doing a jig. “We have a death ray! We have a death ray!” He began to run for the door, headed for the telephone (no cell phones or sat phones in those days). “Well, hold on a minute,” said Dr. Siegel. “Let’s just take a closer look.” It turns out that rabbits are not terribly bright creatures, and that when they are frightened they tend to forget how to move backwards. This poor bunny, the only creature in the room without Ed Hillary’s goggles, had been so frightened by the noise of the laser that he literally suffocated himself, pushing against the rim of the hole in the rabbit box in an effort to escape.

When Dr. Siegel looked inside the rabbit’s eye there was a single perfectly round burn, approximately 2 mm in size in the middle of the rabbits retina. There,  in the space of approximately 5 minutes, was born and died the Bellevue Death Ray.

The epilogue of this story is rather interesting, though. About 10 years later, after numerous refinements of both the production of laser energy and the focusing of that energy, one of the most important trials in the history of medicine took place using focused laser light to prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy. The Diabetic Retinopathy Study was the very first prospective, double–blind, randomized clinical study done on a cooperative basis across the entire country, the type of study that is now considered the ‘gold standard’ for medical research. The results of that study have saved countless individuals from a life of blindness due to diabetes.

This is where I trained, and men like Dr. Siegel who told us this tale from Bellevue Hospital as part of our optics classes, is one of the men who trained me.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: The Blue Chair

As I mentioned, I’m on call for our large semi-suburban hospital for the month of July. I was consulted for a patient who has monocular vision loss that is unexplainable, at least given the capabilities we have as ophthalmologists when we see patients at the bedside in the hospital. The consult brought back memories of Julys past as a resident on call.

Bellevue Hospital, and the Bellevue Hospital residents provide medical care for the New York City prisoners who are housed at Riker’s Island. This is actually quite an opportunity, especially for a child of suburbia like yours truly. It’s not as if I had never come across people in the criminal justice system prior to my Bellevue days, it’s just that I didn’t have such routine and regular contact.I don’t remember exactly, but there are at least three or four entire floors at Bellevue dedicated to the care of Riker’s Island inmates who have medical problems. One or two are for the criminally insane, and others who have some degree of mental illness. The remaining two floors house prisoners with problems as varied at coronary artery disease and pink eye. As disconcerting as it was for someone like me to enter a locked ward, the accommodations at Bellevue were at least a full order of magnitude nicer than those at Riker’s Island. This provided an interesting opportunity for Riker’s Island inmates to create a medical reason to leave The Rock, and created a very interesting learning opportunity for all of the residents  to discern real from not so real.

This  might have been the most fun part of my entire residency experience.

People who have something to gain from having an eye problem all seem to have the exact same complaint: “I can’t see.” Sometimes it’s “I can’t see out of my right (or left) eye,” and sometimes it’s simply “I can’t see.” The savvier the patient, the more subtle the symptom. The trick as the doctor on call is to simply demonstrate that their vision is substantially better than what they are describing. Oh yeah, it’s important to do so in such a way that you don’t make them too very angry; you don’t want to become a Bellevue Hospital “target” yourself!

Every resident develops a repertoire of tricks that he or she will use, a go–to list that tends to work for the majority of the malingering patients. To be truthful, especially when caring for children, sometimes the patient is actually convinced that he or she really CAN’T see. The kids are really pretty easy, though. I found, and frankly continue to find, that even with my limited attention span (often described as being slightly shorter than that of your average gnat) that I have more patience than almost any child under the age of 18. Most eye charts will start with a 20/10 line, and then move through 20/12, 20/15, and then several to many 20/20 lines. If you start at 20/10, by the time you get the 20/25 or 20/30 that line looks absolutely enormous! I think I’m batting about .997 in kids with 20/400 vision in the ER who “miraculously” and up with 20/25 vision in the exam room.

Folks who have something to gain from being diagnosed with visual loss weren’t always wards of the state or city. Occasionally there would be people who stood to gain from being diagnosed with profound visual loss for other, less existential reasons than wanting a ticket out of Riker’s Island. My favorite was a Hispanic woman who came with an entourage of family members, her complaint being complete and total loss of vision in both eyes from some vague and poorly defined trauma suffered at the hands of a landlord who was trying to evict the her from a rent–subsidized apartment. Her examination was totally unremarkable. Everything about her eyes was so  normal it was eerie. My suspicions were high because she just didn’t seem all that distraught over her new blindness, you know? There’s an instrument called an indirect ophthalmoscope which is used to examine the peripheral retina. The light we use can be cranked up to a level which is quite frankly rather painful. I explained to my patient through her translator that I was terribly sympathetic, and very concerned about how she would ever be able to survive if she was  evicted, what with her being totally blind and all. I just had this one last test to do, to look at her retina. With phasers set on stun I started to examine her eyes with the light cranked up. She started screaming in Spanish. What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Remember, now, this is a woman who has no light perception, everything in her world is black. Her son grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. “Turn that light off. It’s too bright. It’s hurting her eyes!” Yup, just another satisfied patient.

The prisoners really were the most fun, though. You had to be on your toes because some of them were actually quite dangerous. If the corrections officers were chatting amongst themselves in the waiting room you could be pretty sure that the patient in your exam chair was nonviolent. If, however, there was a corrections officer standing roughly 1/2 inch from each arm of the patient, well, that was one you had to worry about. But the prisoners got it, they got that this was a game. If they could beat me they got a stay at the Bellevue Hilton. On the other hand, if I got the best of them, it was back to Riker’s Island. The guys who complained of decreased vision in just one eye were actually not too difficult to fool. Again, all I had to do was prove that the vision and the supposedly “blind” I was normal. We quote discovered” all kinds of sight threatening needs for a new pair of glasses at two o’clock in the morning in the Bellevue consultation room.

The guys who complained of decreased or lost vision in both eyes were more challenging and therefore more fun. Can’t see anything at all? Piece of cake. All I have to do was prove that they had locked on to some image. There must be three dozen prisoners who complained of total loss of vision in both eyes who headed back to Riker’s Island one minute after entering my consultation room after they leaned over to pick up the $10 bill that I put on a footstool of the exam chair. Did you know that your pupils constrict when you focus on an image inside arm’s-length? You can imagine how handy that three-year-old Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue came in, and how many prisoners learned about accommodative pupillary construction after looking at THAT picture of Christie Brinkley.

There is one story out of all of my adventures with the Riker’s Island prisoners that stands apart. It was July, and I was doing my duty helping out the new first-year resident on one of his first nights on call. We got a call from the ER about this terrified patient who had lost vision in both of his eyes; he was defenseless. Dave, now a world famous pediatric ophthalmologist, was really unsure of how to proceed so I told him that we would do it together. We sat back and watched very carefully as the prisoner entered the room. He was totally on his own, not assisted in the least by the corrections officers. He managed to navigate around all of the little articles I had placed between the door and examination chair, not hitting a single one. He found the chair, turned just like you or I would, and sat down. His examination was perfect, naturally. After putting drops in his eyes to dilate his pupils this is what I said: “I can see that you are terribly frightened sir, and frankly I can’t blame you. I’m very concerned about your vision, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that you are alright. I just put some drops into your eyes so that your pupils will dilate. Dr. Granet and I will then examine your retinas once the drops have worked. We are going to talk about what we’ve seen so far. Please go back into the hallway and take a seat in the blue chair, and we’ll come and get you in just a few minutes.” The prisoner left the room, once again navigating the “mine field” without incident.

Dave bowed his head, a little tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head. “There’s only one blue chair out there, isn’t there?” He smiled as he strolled over to the door. Sure enough, there was our patient, very calmly sitting in the single blue chair, surrounded by a dozen empty red ones!

We had to invite the corrections officers into the exam room when we explained our findings.

Tales from Bellevue Hospital: On Call 4th of July

I am on call this month for the largest community hospital on the West Side of Cleveland. Covering a semi-suburban ER is quite different from covering a true big city ER, especially when the semi-suburban hospital has gutted both its trauma and eye services. My on-call role now is little more than that of foot servant, covering the loose ends of other people’s arses in the pursuit of a perfect chart. Bellevue, at least the Bellevue I knew in the 80′s, was quite a different story. Although it was July it was July in New York, pre-Guliani New York, and it was Bellevue Hospital.

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: Targets, and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

It’s the first weekend in July. For most people in America that means the 4th of July and everything that goes along with that. Barbecues. Fireworks. Festivals and ballgames of all sorts. And beer. Lots and lots of beer. But in that curious sub-culture of medical education the first weekend in July means the first time on call for newly minted interns, newly promoted residents and fellows of all sorts. Everyone and everything is new, just in time for July 4th and its aftermath.

Funny, but I ended up on call for every 4th of July in my four years of post-med school training. I’m not sure which, or how many, of the residency gods I offended, but whatever I did I apparently did in spades ’cause I hit the first weekend jackpot every year. I have no memory of my first on call as an intern, but the “Target Range” was open for business those first couple of years at Bellevue, for sure! In fact, if memory serves, the phrase “Target” was coined by yours truly that very first weekend of that very first year as an ophthalmology resident.

“Hey Eye Guy! We got a John Q. Nobody who got shot in the temple just standing on the subway platform. Says he can’t see. Whaddaya want us to do with him? By the way…welcome to Bellevue.”

Crowds and beer and heat and stuff that explodes. Welcome to Bellevue, indeed. Some poor schlub survives the bar scene after the parade, makes it through pickpocket alley intact, gingerly stepping over detritus living and otherwise, only to get shot in the head as the A Train approached the station in a random act of anonymous violence. The bullet entered through the right temple, destroyed the right eye, and wreaked havoc in the left eye socket before coming to rest against the left temple. Right eye gone and malignant glaucoma in the only remaining left eye. And there I was, all of 3 days into my opthalmology residency, backed up by a chief resident of similar vintage. Whoa…

There’s no way to avoid it. After all, med students have to graduate and residencies have to start some time. There’s just this unholy confluence of weak links in the system all coming together in time for the second (after New Year’s Eve) most difficult ER day in our big, academic hospitals. Get sick or injured on June 4th? Everyone’s on top of their game and everyone’s in town. July 4th? The fix is in, and the game is as rigged against you as any carnival game attended by a dentally challenged carnie.

As I sit here, an Attending on call for yet another 4th of July weekend, covering the ER and cowering each time the phone rings, the Tweets and Facebook posts heralding the arrival of a new crop of interns and residents send me back to Bellevue. Year 2, cursed again, covering the spanking new 1st year ophthalmology resident (was it Dave?) as he got his welcome “gift” from the ER. “Hey Eye Guy. We got a Target down here for ya. 10 year old girl. Some dumbass tossed a lit M80 to her and she caught it. Went off before she could get rid of it;  blew off her right hand and looks like her right eye is gone. You from NY? No? Welcome to Bellevue, pal.” Yup…there’s something about the 4th of July in every teaching hospital in the U.S., and just like everything else, whatever it is, there was more of it at Bellevue.

Only two kinds of people in New York, Targets and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

 

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: The Blue Chair

Bellevue Hospital, and the Bellevue Hospital residents provide medical care for the New York City prisoners who are housed at Riker’s Island. This is actually quite an opportunity, especially for a child of suburbia like yours truly. It’s not as if I had never come across people in the criminal justice system prior to my Bellevue days, it’s just that I didn’t have such routine and regular contact.I don’t remember exactly, but there are at least three or four entire floors at Bellevue dedicated to the care of Riker’s Island inmates who have medical problems. One or two are for the criminally insane, and others who have some degree of mental illness. The remaining two floors house prisoners with problems as varied at coronary artery disease and pink eye. As disconcerting as it was for someone like me to enter a locked ward, the accommodations at Bellevue were at least a full order of magnitude nicer than those at Riker’s Island. This provided an interesting opportunity for Riker’s Island inmates to create a medical reason to leave The Rock, and created a very interesting learning opportunity for all of the residents  to discern real from not so real.

This  might have been the most fun part of my entire residency experience.

People who have something to gain from having an eye problem all seem to have the exact same complaint: “I can’t see.” Sometimes it’s “I can’t see out of my right (or left) eye,” and sometimes it’s simply “I can’t see.” The savvier the patient, the more subtle the symptom. The trick as the doctor on call is to simply demonstrate that their vision is substantially better than what they are describing. Oh yeah, it’s important to do so in such a way that you don’t make them too very angry; you don’t want to become a Bellevue Hospital “target” yourself!

Every resident develops a repertoire tricks that he or she will use, a go–to list that tends to work for the majority of the malingering patients. To be truthful, especially when caring for children, sometimes the patient is actually convinced that he or she really CAN’T see. The kids are really pretty easy, though. I found, and frankly continue to find, that even with my limited attention span (often described as being slightly shorter than that of your average gnat) that I have more patience than almost any child under the age of 18. Most eye charts will start with a 20/10 line, and then move through 20/12, 20/15, and then several to many 20/20 lines. If you start at 20/10, by the time you get the 20/25 or 20/30 that line looks absolutely enormous! I think I’m batting about .997 in kids with 20/400 vision in the ER who “miraculously” and up with 20/25 vision in the exam room.

Folks who have something to gain from being diagnosed with visual loss weren’t always wards of the state or city. Occasionally there would be people who stood to gain from being diagnosed with profound visual loss for other, less existential reasons than wanting a ticket out of Riker’s Island. My favorite was a Hispanic woman who came with an entourage of family members, her complaint being complete and total loss of vision in both eyes from some vague and poorly defined trauma suffered at the hands of a landlord who was trying to evict the her from a rent–subsidized apartment. Her examination was totally unremarkable. Everything about her eyes was so  normal it was eerie. My suspicions were high because she just didn’t seem all that distraught over her new blindness, you know? There’s an instrument called an indirect ophthalmoscope which is used to examine the peripheral retina. The light we use can be cranked up to a level which is quite frankly rather painful. I explained to my patient through her translator that I was terribly sympathetic, and very concerned about how she would ever be able to survive if she was  evicted, what with her being totally blind and all. I just had this one last test to do, to look at her retina. With phasersset on stun I started to examine her eyes with the light cranked up. She started screaming in Spanish. What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Remember, now, this is a woman who has no light perception, everything in her world is black. Her son grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. “Turn that light off. It’s too bright. It’s hurting her eyes!” Yup, just another satisfied patient.

The prisoners really were the most fun, though. You had to be on your toes because some of them were actually quite dangerous. If the corrections officers were chatting amongst themselves in the waiting room you could be pretty sure that the patient in your exam chair was nonviolent. If, however, there was a corrections officer standing roughly 1/2 inch from each arm of the patient, well, that was one you had to worry about. But the prisoners got it, they got that this was a game. If they could beat me they got a stay at the Bellevue Hilton. On the other hand, if I got the best of them, it was back to Riker’s Island. The guys who complained of decreased vision in just one I were actually not too difficult to fool. Again, all I had to do was prove that the vision and the supposedly “blind” I was normal. We quote discovered” all kinds of sight threatening needs for a new pair of glasses at two o’clock in the morning in the Bellevue consultation room.

The guys who complained of decreased or lost vision in both eyes were more challenging and therefore more fun. Can’t see anything at all? Piece of cake. All I have to do was prove that they had locked on to some image. There must be three dozen prisoners who complained of total loss of vision in both eyes who headed back to Riker’s Island one minute after entering my consultation room after they leaned over to pick up the $10 bill that I put on a footstool of the exam chair. Did you know that your pupils constrict when you focus on an image inside arm’s-length? You can imagine how handy that three-year-old Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue came in, and how many prisoners learned about accommodative pupillary construction after looking at THAT picture of Christie Brinkley.

There is one story out of all of my adventures with the Riker’s Island prisoners that stands apart. It was July, and I was doing my duty helping out the new first-year resident on one of his first nights on call. We got a call from the ER about this terrified patient who had lost vision in both of his eyes; he was defenseless. Dave, now a world famous pediatric ophthalmologist, was really unsure of how to proceed so I told him that we would do it together. We sat back and watched very carefully as the prisoner entered the room. He was totally on his own, not assisted in the least by the corrections officers. He managed to navigate around all of the little articles I had placed between the door and examination chair, not hitting a single one. He found the chair, turned just like you or I would, and sat down. His examination was perfect, naturally. After putting drops in his eyes to dilate his pupils this is what I said: “I can see that you are terribly frightened sir, and frankly I can’t blame you. I’m very concerned about your vision, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that you are alright. I just put some drops into your eyes so that your pupils will dilate. Dr. Granet and I will then examine your retinas once the drops have worked. We are going to talk about what we’ve seen so far. Please go back into the hallway and take a seat in the blue chair, and we’ll come and get you in just a few minutes.” The prisoner left the room, once again navigating the “mine field” without incident.

Dave bowed his head, a little tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head. “There’s only one blue chair out there, isn’t there?” He smiled as he strolled over to the door. Sure enough, there was our patient, very calmly sitting in the single blue chair, surrounded by a dozen empty red ones!

We had to invite the corrections officers into the exam room when we explained our findings.

Tales From Bellevue Hospital: Saving a Target Part II

Little did I know how hard it was going to be to help my Bellevue target, Jean. He didn’t know he was being mugged when the gangbanger asked him for his jacket. How could he? He only spoke French. He couldn’t tell the police officer who came to the scene that it was HE who had been assaulted. How could he? He only spoke French! At Riker’s Island he had no idea that the gangbanger sharing his cell was demanding his fancy, leather sneakers. How could he? He, well, you know…

So what could I do? How could I help? What could I possibly do to help make the end of this very bad day a little bit better? Well, first off, I clearly needed to make sure that Jean did not go back to Riker’s Island any sooner than was absolutely necessary. The prison guards, who had now become quite a bit more interested in Jean knowing  his story, agreed that nothing but very bad things were likely to happen to this young, skinny, soft boy from France if he ended back at Riker’s. We decided to keep him at Bellevue as long as we could.

What else? Well, the theme that runs through John’s very bad first day in America was his total inability to tell HIS side of whatever story he was in because he spoke only French. I decided that what he really needed was to be able to tell his story, and to do so we needed someone to translate for him once he left Bellevue. No problem, right? I mean, we were in New York City, the biggest, most cosmopolitan city in all of America. Should be a snap.

It turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of France in New York. I called the French Consulate hoping to have someone from France take charge of my French target. It was pretty late at night, around midnight if I recall, and the consulate was closed. “Please leave a message…” No problem. Bellevue is on 1st Ave. at 27th St., and United Nations is only a couple dozen blocks north on the same Avenue. I rang up the French delegation to the UN. They, too were closed. “Please leave a message…”

I imagined out loud what it must be like to call France itself. You know, just ring up the country and talk with whoever answers the phone. This was back in the days of answering machines, not those ubiquitous “for thus and such press one” messages. At midnight midweek I told the guards it would certainly go something like this: “Thank you for calling France. Our business hours are Monday through Friday, nine o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon. If you would like to negotiate a trade agreement, sign a peace treaty, or seek political asylum, please call back during normal business hours.”

Okay then, plan B. Lots of other folks speak Parisian French in New York City. I thought the next logical place to look for Francophones would be at a French restaurant. Good thinking, right? At this time in the mid-1980s the most famous French restaurant in the United States was Le Cirque, so I gave them a call. A  little after midnight the restaurant was still open and still busy. I asked the woman who answered the phone if anyone there spoke French. Yes, indeed, there were lots of folks who spoke French. In fact, there were more than a dozen French citizens who worked at Le Cirque! Great, I said, I have this young man from France who has been assaulted and he needs someone to help him tell his story to the police and to the judge. (I was getting visibly psyched; the prison guards were smiling). Oh no, Monsieur, we are MUCH too busy to do any such thing. We could not POSSIBLY have anyone available to provide that type of service. Have a pleasant evening Monsieur.

Wow. Made me think of that Robin Williams routine where he describes a conversation with a Frenchman. “(Puffs on a Galoise) We are French (sneers)… we don’t care.”

Now I’m stuck. It’s almost 1 o’clock in the morning and I can’t think of any other way to get someone to translate for Jean. Think! Think… think… think. What would I do if it was ME? Who would I call if I was in a foreign country and needed a translator, needed help with the language and the authorities? And then it hit me: American Express Global Assist! Remember those commercials? Any help you could ever need any time anywhere, as long as you were a cardholder, American Express would be there. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my wallet, and took out my own American Express card (which I had never actually used). I dialed the number on the back of the card and the very helpful operator connected me to American Express Global Assist, and the equally helpful operator there put me on with the head of their French translation department, right there and then. I told her the sad story of Jean the target and then handed him the phone.

SCORE!

The only thing left to do now was to keep the Jean at Bellevue through the night so that he wouldn’t have to go back to Rikers; my friendly pair of prison guards pointed out that if we did, indeed, do this, Jean would miss the bus taking him to court, and would end up spending an extra day at Rikers. The guards were now fully into the project, however, and they agreed to ride the bus with Jean back to Rikers, and to sit with him in a duty room so that he did not have to go back into the prison population. Not only that, they personally escorted into court (off the clock, on their own time) and delivered him to a French speaking attorney whose assistance had been arranged  by American Express Global Assist. Upon hearing the story the judge threw out all charges, and the city of New York and American Express put Jean on a plane home to France that very afternoon.

There’s a very nice epilogue to this story as well. Many months later I received a letter in that same consultation room at Bellevue Hospital. There was a brief type written note from American Express. Dear Dr. White, we apologize for the delay in delivering this note. In the excitement of helping Jean we failed to obtain any of your contact information. Please accept our apologies. Please let us know if we can ever be of any assistance to you, or your patients, in the future. Sincerely. The note was wrapped around a postcard, the message written in French.

Thank you for saving my son’s life.

There are only two kinds of people in New York City, targets and people who hit targets. At Bellevue Hospital we took care of the targets.

Tales from Bellevue Hospital: The Bellevue Death Ray

Man, what a place Bellevue Hospital must’ve been back in the day. It was crazy enough in MY day in the mid-1980′s. Bellevue is arguably the most famous hospital in the world, famous mostly for the treatment of psychiatric patients, and made all the more famous by the Christmas movie “The Miracle on 49th St.” in which Santa Claus was institutionalized in one of Bellevue’s top floors. For those of you who don’t know Bellevue Hospital, the top six floors of a 30 floor tower were (are?) reserved for psychiatric patients, at least one of them for psychiatric patients who hail from Rikers Island.

I’m not really sure why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Bellevue recently. My experiences as an ophthalmologist in private practice in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio really have exactly nothing in common with my experiences as an ophthalmology resident on the lower East Side of New York City. Nonetheless Bellevue has been on my mind. I thought I’d share some stories about Bellevue and about my time as a resident at all of the NYU hospitals. This will also give me an opportunity to introduce you to some very special, very interesting characters whose lives crossed paths with mine.

Irwin Siegel was an optometrist with multiple roles at Bellevue Hospital. His most important role for me and my fellow residents was to teach us about optics and refraction, the science and technique of prescribing glasses and contact lenses. Dr. Siegel was also a noted researcher in the diagnosis and treatment of retinal diseases, specifically diseases of the macula or center of the retina; there is actually a syndrome named after Dr. Siegel and two of his partners.

Dr. Siegel was a fascinating man, especially fascinating to a child of suburbia like me. The prototypical New Yorker, Dr. Siegel lived his entire life in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He did not own a car, and used some form of public transportation for more than 95% of his travels. You got the sense that any forays outside the island of Manhattan were viewed as akin to a ride on the “Heart of Darkness” express. The guy simply reeked of New York, and he spent his entire professional career at Bellevue Hospital.

Recall that my life’s memories are wrapped up in eyecare, optics, and the optical industry. My father’s first job was at American Optical in Southbridge Massachusetts, at the time the largest ophthalmic manufacturing company on the planet. The very first lasers were actually developed in the laboratories of AO. In the early 1960s Dr. Siegel and his partners were doing research on lasers at Bellevue. Now, as you can imagine, something as powerful as the energy of the laser light had also come to the attention of the U.S. Military. So comes the story of the Bellevue Death Ray!

Dr. Siegel and Dr. Carr were doing laser work somewhere in the bowels of Bellevue. This would have been in the early 1960s, and the laser they were working on was an enormous mechanical monstrosity, a piece of equipment that took up more space than most upper East Side kitchens. Not only was it physically enormous, but the generation of a single pulse of laser took well over a minute, a minute filled with a crescendo of sound not unlike what one would experience when a jet engine is engaged . Imagine a room, half filled with this exotic piece of near–science fiction equipment, surrounded by white–coated scientists all wearing goggles that look as if they had been spirited away from a Mount Everest expedition. Add in a few very senior military officers in full dress regalia and the scene is set.

The officers visiting from the Pentagon really had no idea what to expect. They were intrigued by this new technology, interested to see if there might be some military application. Dr. Siegel noted that he and Dr. Carr were mostly bemused by the presence of the officers, although he did admit being a little bit impressed by the two-star general in their midst. The  experiment/demonstration was set up, on one end of the room the monstrous laser, on the other end of the room a rabbit in a box, his head poking through a hole, the laser aimed at his left eye. Goggles were donned and the switch was flipped.

The laser came to life, slowly building energy in the rudimentary laser tube, the whine and the clang and the clatter growing in intensity with each passing second. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Carr stood calmly to the side, ignoring the laser and concentrating on the rabbit. The officers, on the other hand, slowly crept back away from the laser, trying to melt through the wall, and failing that trying to become as small as possible. Two-dimensional, if possible. The wail of the laser grew… the sound filled the room… the wail, the clatter, a crescendo… BAM!

And then, silence. The doctors and the officers took off their goggles. They walked over to the  box and discovered that the rabbit was dead. Immediately one of the colonels started doing a jig. “We have a death ray! We have a death ray!” He began to run for the door, headed for the telephone (no cell phones or sat phones in those days). “Well, hold on a minute,” said Dr. Siegel. “Let’s just take a closer look.” It turns out that rabbits are not terribly bright creatures, and that when they are frightened they tend to forget how to move backwards. This poor bunny, the only creature in the room without Ed Hillary’s goggles, had been so frightened by the noise of the laser that he literally suffocated himself, pushing against the rim of the hole in the rabbit box in an effort to escape.

When Dr. Siegel looked inside the rabbit’s eye there was a single perfectly round burn, approximately 2 mm in size in the middle of the rabbits retina. There,  in the space of approximately 5 minutes, was born and died the Bellevue Death Ray.

The epilogue of this story is rather interesting, though. About 10 years later, after numerous refinements of both the production of laser energy and the focusing of that energy, one of the most important trials in the history of medicine took place using focused laser light to prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy. The Diabetic Retinopathy Study was the first prospective, double–blind, randomized clinical study done on a cooperative basis across the entire country, and the results of that study have saved countless individuals from a life of blindness due to diabetes.

This is where I trained, and men like Dr. Siegel who told this tale from Bellevue Hospital as part of our optics classes, is one of the men who trained me.