This may not come as a great surprise to many of you, but I’m not a great medical patient. I have spent so many years thinking about the mistakes and missteps of our healthcare system and funding companies that fix them that I sometimes forget how much good it can also create. I have all too often been on the other side of the Board room table, seeing exactly how the sausage is made at healthcare companies. Let me tell you, sausage-making ain’t pretty, whether it’s breakfast food or medical devices or any other aspect of healthcare. It’s enough to make one wish to avoid direct interaction at all costs.
You know how, when you break down and purchase one of those nasty carnival hot dogs at the Boardwalk, one of your friends always feels the need to tell you that its ingredients include rodent lips and dog toes and other delicacies? And you know how you put up your palm at them and say, “I know, I know, but don’t tell me; I just want to enjoy my revolting corn dog in peace”? That’s the way I generally feel when I think about using the healthcare system myself. Yeah, it can save your life, but god help you if you knew what went into that whole situation and how perilously close you may be to rodent lips. Cynical? Perhaps. What can I tell you? It’s a living.
But as it happens, many of you know may know from my blog post of last January called Becoming A Consumer: My Brush with Patient Experience (read it HERE), that I found myself on the patient side of the hospital gown during the 2015 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. I was there when I was, much to my surprise, ferried by an ambulance full of attractive paramedics to a hospital to find out I had some sort of weird, if generally minor, congenital heart abnormality (supraventricular tachycardia) which had waited until I was an actual grown-up to show itself. Most inconvenient and, unfortunately, it provided me with a real-life reminder why one wishes never to be a patient if it can be avoided.
I was met with some very good care in the end last January, but also a lot of very bad behavior from my local cadre of medical cast members. Frankly, the medical system I encountered was mostly disgraceful. While a few fine folks helped me greatly (especially Dr. Ethan Weiss of UCSF, who should get a medal for putting up with my clearly diagnosable insanity), the entire experience of last January reminded me why I’d rather be a highly uncoordinated rodeo clown running slowly from a bull than submit myself to another hospital visit.
But after a year of inconvenient symptoms, most notably where my heart would, without warning, accelerate to numbers that most weight scales don’t even go up to, I was getting pretty frustrated. Yes, I am sure you are thinking this to yourself: “What? She has a heart? Who knew?” But miraculously and perhaps a situation unique in modern medicine, this venture capitalist was proven to possess such an organ. The problem was that mine was in a constant state of readiness should I actually get asked out by George Clooney or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. For those are the only circumstances that I can imagine where one’s heart might hit 250 or higher; yet mine had gone beyond that a few times without even a handwritten note from either gentlemen, much less a date.
So in absolute denial of my own commitment never to enter a hospital again except to sell them things, I decided to get the problem fixed. And that required loss of control and letting actual doctors and nurses do things to me with some creepy combination of devices and energy about which I was not particularly excited. I was, of course, assured by the various folks who work in the healthcare system, that this was essentially a no-risk, almost certain cure opportunity rare in medical circles. And of course I immediately dismissed that as marketing, because that is just the kind of person I am. I made my appointment for December 30th, cancelled my meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show for the first week of January, and counted down the days to what I assumed was my certain death, saying fervent goodbyes to all my favorite shoes and making my family members, always uncertain about my true level of sanity, absolutely certain this time that I had gone off the deep end given my heightened state of anxiety.
I even called Dr. Weiss a few days before the procedure to tell him how afraid I was because, as I put it, “Things go wrong. I know too much.” He responded with a very paternal and clinically responsible answer, perfect for me: “You don’t know shit. This is not a big deal.” Now that’s the kind of doctor who knows how to give the patient a message in a language they will understand. And, because I am that kind of weird, it made me feel better. I also knew that Dr. Aenor Sawyer, a UCSF physician but, more importantly, a friend, had volunteered to hang around while I was in the hospital to be doubly sure I came to no untimely end.
So off I went to my certain doom, or so I thought, the day before New Year’s Eve, to UCSF Hospital. Certain members of my household were particularly concerned that it was, more importantly, the day of the Holiday Bowl, where Wisconsin would play USC, both represented in my home by rabid fans. I, facing the end of my bourbon-swilling days, frankly, couldn’t have cared less about the Holiday Bowl under the circumstances. Plus, Cal had already beat Air Force in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl the day prior so my football bloodlust had been satisfied. Does anyone else find it ironic that Berkeley would be victorious against the military industrial complex, coming from a town that declares itself a nuclear free zone? Go Bears!
And here’s what happened: it went fine, the nurses were amazing, the doctors did a stellar job, and I lived to tell the tale, which is the one you are now reading. I am healthy, go figure.
Were there any little glitches or moments were I worried things might go wrong? Well, a few very minor things but nothing on the order of my experience last January. Quite the contrary. It went pretty much exactly as they described, I was in and out the same day, and as I sit here, almost certainly cured of that annoying condition, I feel just freaking fine and I have been reunited with my shoes and my bourbon as if nothing ever happened. Wisconsin won the Holiday Bowl in a squeaker, if you were dying to know. I watched it the night of my procedure at home while eating Chinese food before I passed out from exhaustion in my own bed with 5 minutes to go before the end of the game. Dr. Ed Gerstenfeld at UCSF did the procedure and I guess he can add me to his long list of people on whom he operated without a glitch. I sincerely appreciate his help and am thrilled to contribute to his excellent track record.
In case you are wondering, the procedure was a catheter-based electrophysiology intervention where extra pathways in the heart are ablated (aka fried like the aforementioned corn dog) so the heart’s electrical impulses go where they are supposed to go and not where they were erroneously sent without warning by evil gnomes).
The worst parts of the procedure were being blissfully sedated with some concoction that would have made Michael Jackson’s day, only to be rudely awakened for much of the 4-hour fun-fest while they induced my to heart race and slow, race and slow, and not in the Clooney/Rock heart-racing kind of way. I tried to console myself by thinking this was burning calories well ahead of my New Year’s weight loss resolution. It pretty well sucked and my arms were tied down so I could not throw items at the doctor.
I also had to lay flat for many hours afterwards, which reminded me that I am at an age where I am legally required to exclaim, “Oy, my back!” every time I get out of bed. Honestly, the back pain from 9 hours of laying immobile and flat on my back was worse than any part of the procedure itself. The very worst part? I was super annoyed to see that the written take home instructions, printed out of UCSF’s friendly Epic EMR, did not closely match the actual post-procedure instructions that the doctor had given me face-to-face. That is an error they really need to fix, as it could have caused a real problem for someone in worse shape than I.
Aside from a somewhat embarrassing surgical tape incident, everything else was easy, painless and thankfully, unremarkable. Except for one part: they were readying to wheel me out to the car and taking a last moment to inform me of the possible awful things that could go wrong at home that would necessitate a 911 call. The vision they summoned for me of an unlikely but possible bleeding incident brought to mind that ancient Saturday Night Live Dan Ackroyd routine about Julia Childs and saving the giblets and I promptly proceeded to pass out. They were all worried that my blood pressure had dropped or that I was dehydrated or suffering from intense pain and the doctors and nurses all rushed to help me. Truth was I just have too vivid of an imagination and got a little vaso-vagal thinking about bleeding to death. Drama queen…I admit it.
My two best moments, aside from realizing that the fact that I was fretting about my back in the recovery room meant that I was actually alive, were both ice cream related. My lovely daughter asked me what I wanted to have in the house to aid in my recovery when I got home. I told her to please buy ice cream. She said, “got it.” I added, “please get something with lots of chocolate.” She said, “No shit mom.” I am such a proud mother.
My sister called me while in the car on the way home from the hospital to tell me she had gotten an ice cream maker for Christmas and was busily making stuff for a holiday party. I suggested that she consider making and shipping me some OxyCoCone flavored product, and we had a good laugh. Which reminded me again that I was alive or else I could not be laughing. Amazing how much we can freak ourselves out if we want to, eh? Turns out I didn’t even need any pain medication so I stuck with my chocolate options. My husband was lovely and helpful throughout and put up with all of my silliness in attempting to prepare him for my certain demise by instructing him who should get my belongings.
Of course I spoke to Dr. Weiss, my aforementioned cardiologist, who gave me a big fat, “I told you so.” And I was happy to get it.
So now I’m sitting on the couch, a few days into the New Year, feeling darn good and marveling at our modern medical system. What an amazing thing to think someone could be digging around frying chunks in your heart one day and you would be up and about eating Chinese food and watching football that same night. Hats off and much respect to the inventors and entrepreneurs who think up these crazy ideas and have the audacity to try to bring them to life. And a hearty New Year’s toast to the investors who believe in them and the doctors who make them real by being convinced of what is possible. Thanks to all who directly and indirectly made me better and enabled me to live to tell the tale. As for a racing heart, I’m saving that for the Rock.
This year I won’t miss the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference (though I may miss the hot paramedics). In fact I will be delighted to be moderating the big digital health panel at the conference itself at 5 pm on January 11 in the Colonial room of the St. Francis Hotel. Come and say “Hi!” if you are there
And, if you’re feeling so inclined, feel free to vote for this blog as best healthcare blog in the Healthline contest. You can vote HERE by searching in the search bar for Venture Valkyrie and clicking to vote.
Happy New Year Everyone!