Sunday, May 18, 2014

Thoughts on two weeks of rural primary care in Mexico

Update: I go to Jaltenango today enroute to Refoma, the second community that I am working in.  From what I understand, it is both more rural and yet closer to Jaltenango.  It is apparently also a community of many Jehovah's Witnesses.  

My last night in Laguna was marked by an after-dark walk to the pantheon/cemetary to try and get phone reception in order to talk to the main office about a case.  All the lights are gone, which is unsurprising after the three days of gloomy cold rain.  It also means that I haven't showered in two days because it is too cold to envision an icy bucket bath.

I've learned a tremendous amount about how I have (mostly subconsciously) learned to practice medicine by being here.  Today, we had a female patient who has a history of gallstones and who clinically seems to have progressed to pancreatitis.  As usual, the question arises of whether she is safe to stay here in the community until Monday, when her family can take her to the local hospital with surgical capabilities.  And the answer as to whether she is safe, as with so many things here, is that I haven't a clue.  I know how to risk-stratify pancreatitis in a hospital, where I can get labs and imaging.  I can fearlessly quote mortality statistics.  Here, I'm fairly certain of our diagnosis, but without the laboratory confirmation that I've learned to rely on, I feel paralyzed with doubt on how to treat people.  My pasante is so much more fearless, having gotten used to trusting her instinct without needing multiple (or any) forms of confirmation of her clinical instinct.  Somewhere in the middle is probably best for patients.

How can I tell how likely it is that our patient's chest pain is angina without ever getting an EKG, or lipids?  What is the pretest probability in a rural Mexican farmer who has never smoked but who probably inhaled tons of smoke in an indoor kitchen?  How do I treat him without access to a stress test?  How applicable is the Framingham Risk Score (or pick your favorite) to him?

I've learned that, in the absence of the screening tests that the majority of my patients get, I tend to suspect cancer at every turn.  I blame this in part on three years at BWH, with all our Dana Farber patients.  But in every abdominal pain in an older man, I see colon cancer and I fret about every woman with pelvic pain having cervical cancer.  I hadn't realized how much comfort I personally take in having an easily accessible screening panel.

In addition, so much of my practice at home is based on not missing anything.  We will get chest x-rays and labs for the lowest probability events.  So often, we use the language of 'ruling something out.'  Here, as testing is so hard to come by, you have to be pretty darn sure that you need something before you make someone travel.  

In my last day, we had two children who clinically looked like they had hepatitis A (one of whom's mom actually said, "his urine looks like coca-cola and his eyes are yellow."). How many kids in the past two weeks with diarrhea and abdominal pain actually had hepatitis?  Are we sitting on an outbreak?  Do you need the serological confirmation?  All these questions are new ground for me.

On an unrelated note, here's my pasante, myself, our neighbor's daughter and one of a thousand local dogs.

-Sarah Kimball, MD

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