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A lucky few seem ‘resistant’ to Covid-19. Scientists want to know why

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Her husband collapsed just before reaching the top of the stairs in their small one-bedroom house in São Paulo, Brazil. Frantic, Thais Andrade grabbed the portable pulse oximeter she had purchased after hearing that a low oxygen reading could be the first sign of the novel coronavirus. Erik’s reading was hovering eight points lower than it had that morning. He also looked feverish.

“When he hit 90% [on the oximeter], I said we can’t wait anymore,” Andrade recalled. “I called an ambulance.”

At the hospital that day in June 2020, a CT scan showed multiple lesions in her husband’s lungs — an indication of severe Covid-19 infection – which was later confirmed via a blood test. Erik, 44, had likely contracted the virus up to a week earlier, from a friend who had visited their home.

He spent the next several weeks on oxygen in the ICU, a stay that was complicated by blood clots before he was discharged. But it wasn’t his sudden decline and subsequent recovery that is notable: It’s that Andrade had been sharing the same close quarters with her husband while he was infected and able to transmit the virus. She never wore a mask in the home with him. They shared the same bed. They were physically intimate. Yet when tested for an active or past infection — twice — her bloodwork came up negative.

And that wasn’t the only time she was potentially exposed. As part of her research work as a veterinary neurologist, she went to a meeting at the University of São Paulo where an infected attendee set off a chain reaction of positivity – but Andrade dodged it. Her tests were again negative.

Both experiences suggest that Andrade may have won a sort of biological lottery — that she’s one of a lucky few “resistant” to the virus that has killed more than 4 million people. But how? That’s the mystery researchers around the world have set out to unravel.

The question of viral resistance has perplexed Mayana Zatz, a University of São Paulo genetics professor, for years, beginning with exploring the clinical variability of genetic diseases in patients who carried the same pathogenic mutation. She began with neuromuscular disorders like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and then expanded to exploring why the Zika virus caused severe brain damage in some newborns while others were healthy.

In 2018, she published a study of nine sets of twins — seven fraternal and two identical — born to Zika-infected mothers; in each pair, one twin was born with microcephaly and developmental delay while the other was spared. Zatz suspected the answer to Zika resistance lay in their genes. To test this hypothesis, she collected blood from three of the pairs and reprogrammed their cells in the lab to generate induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and immature brain cells called neuroprogenitor cells (NPCs) that had genomes identical to those of the resistant and non-resistant infants. Then, her team infected the NPCs with Zika and found that the virus destroyed the NPCs of only those who were not resistant — supporting the idea that resistance is genetic.

It was a serendipitous moment in early February 2020, on her daily walk, that caused Zatz to turn her interest to exploring resistance to the Covid-19 virus.

When Recovery Requires Rest

By backing away from major sports tournaments, three high profile athletes have prioritized their healing above all else

 

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Indeed, all three high-ranking athletes have set a precedent for professional athletes to speak up about the need to take a break as part of their healing, placing their mental and physical health above the push to perform. They also offer a chance to revisit the science of why it’s crucial to promote rest for recovery — not just for sports but for all of us.

In 2019, Michael Grandner, a sleep researcher who directors the Sleep and Health Research Program at University of Arizona, found that athletes rated as having clinically moderate to severe insomnia were at a higher concussion risk.

**Originally published in Elemental July 2021**

Changing Minds About Why Doctors Change Their Minds

After Covid, being open with patients about uncertainty may be the surest way to build trust in medicine.

IN 2001, when the pediatric allergist Gideon Lack asked a group of some 80 parents in Tel Aviv if their kids were allergic to peanuts, only two or three hands went up. Lack was puzzled. Back home in the UK, peanut allergy had fast become one of the most common allergies among children. When he compared the peanut allergy rates among Israeli children with the rate among Jewish children in the UK, the UK rate was 10 times higher. Was there something in the Israeli environment—a healthier diet, more time in the sun—preventing peanut allergies from developing?

He later realized that many Israeli kids started eating Bamba, a peanut-based snack cookie, as soon as they could handle solid foods. Could early peanut exposure explain it? The idea had never occurred to anyone because it seemed so obviously wrong. For years, pediatricians in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the United States had been telling parents to avoid giving children peanuts until after they’d turned 1, because they thought early exposure could increase the risk of developing an allergy. The American Academy of Pediatrics even included this advice in its infant feeding guidelines.

Lack and his colleagues began planning a randomized clinical trial that would take until 2015 to complete. In the study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, some children were given peanut protein early in infancy while others waited until after the first year. Children in the first group had an 81 percent lower risk of peanut allergy by age 5. All the past guidelines, developed by expert committees, may have inadvertently contributed to a slow increase in peanut allergies.

As a doctor, I found the results unsettling. Before the findings were released, I had counseled a new parent that her baby girl should avoid allergenic foods such as peanut protein. Looking back, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. What if she now had a peanut allergy?

The fact that medical knowledge is always shifting is a challenge for doctors and patients. It can seem as though medical knowledge comes with a disclaimer: “True … for now.”

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MEDICAL SCHOOL PROFESSORS sometimes joke that half of what students learn will be outdated by the time they graduate. That half often applies to clinical practice guidelines (CPGs), and it has real-life consequences.

A CPG, usually drawn up by expert committees from specialized organizations, exists for almost any ailment with which a patient can be diagnosed. While the guidelines aren’t rules, they are widely referred to and can be cited in medical malpractice cases.

When medical knowledge shifts, guidelines shift. Hormone replacement therapy, for example, used to be the gold-standard treatment for menopausal women struggling with symptoms such as hot flashes and mood changes. Then, in 2013, a trial by the Women’s Health Initiative demonstrated that the therapy may have been riskier than previously thought, and many guidelines were revised.

Also, for many years, women over 40 were urged to get annual mammograms—until new data in 2009 showed that early, routine screenings were resulting in unnecessary biopsies without reducing breast cancer mortality. Regular mammograms are now suggested mainly for women over 50, every other year.

Medical reversals usually happen slowly, after multiple studies shift old recommendations. Covid-19 has accelerated them, and made them both more visible and more unsettling. Early on, even some medical professionals presented the coronavirus as no more severe than the flu, before its true severity was widely described. For a time, people were told not to bother with masks, but then they were advised to try double-masking. Some countries are extending the intervals between the first and second vaccine doses. Of course the state of the pandemic, and of our knowledge about it, has been shifting constantly. Still, throughout the past year and a half, we’ve all experienced medical whiplash.

It’s too early to say how these reversals will affect the way patients perceive the medical profession. On the one hand, seeing debate among medical experts conducted openly could give people a heightened understanding of how medical knowledge evolves. It could also inculcate a lasting skepticism. In 2018, researchers analyzed 50 years’ worth of polling data on trust in medicine. In 1966, 73 percent of Americans reported having confidence in “the leaders of the medical profession.” By 2012 that number had dropped to 34 percent—in part, the authors surmised, because of the continued lack of a universal health care system.

 

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THE ANCIENT GREEK sea god Proteus was able to see the future, but he was forbidden from sharing his prophecies unless he was captured. This was challenging, because he was a shape-shifter: He could become a young man, a tree, a bull, a flame. No one has explored the protean nature of science more prominently than the Viennese scientist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in the early 1960s, he proposed that science shape-shifts, or advances, through five sequential phases.

The first involves accepting “normal science,” the prevailing theory or “paradigm,” and conducting experiments that merely verify and reinforce the paradigm. During this phase, skepticism is often suppressed. Phase 2 involves finding an “anomaly” that doesn’t fit with the paradigm, but treating it as an outlier. In phase 3, a critical mass of threatening “anomalies” lead to a “crisis”—which prompts phase 4: “revolution,” by way of a series of new experiments to test alternative theories. Finally, a new worldview emerges, a “mature science.” The phases then repeat.

Remarkably, Kuhn didn’t argue that science is in search of “truth,” but rather that it “moves away from” an outdated, problematic, and “primitive” worldview. Also key is that what scientists and non-scientists understand in the new paradigm is reflective of what they see, as well as what they have been taught to see from experience. A switch in gestalt may be “I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite”—referring to points in time and assuming that the initial observation may have been true. A paradigm shift, on the other hand, may word it as “I used to see a planet, but I was wrong, as it’s actually a satellite.”

Kuhn based his phases primarily on physics. What happens when we apply them to medicine and health care? When we deal with human lives and preventing illness, “advancement” can look a lot like “flip-flopping.” Is a changed recommendation an admission of harm? And where does that leave us with large public health efforts? Medical reversals place doctors in a bind. Improved medical knowledge represents progress, but honestly admitting to a past error may lead patients to see them as incompetent, breeding mistrust.

 

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What if we got rid of reversals? That’s what University of Chicago Medical School professor Adam Cifu and oncologist Vinayak Prasad propose in Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives. In many cases, they conclude, recommendations are simply issued too soon and are based on low-quality trials. Guideline committees may succumb to groupthink or feel pressured to reach a consensus where none exists. “If we look at something like peanut restriction,” Cifu told me, “the initial recommendations were mostly based on theory—good immunology theory, but theory nonetheless.” If doctors “stick with what’s evidence-based, our advice will be less likely to be overturned.”

Yet diseases don’t wait for evidence. Doctors must sometimes make medical decisions even if good data is rare or unavailable. Cifu and Prasad draw a sharp distinction between evidence- and theory-based recommendations, but in practice, doctors often adopt a looser framework. They may use lower-quality (often theory-based) recommendations until they can be replaced with higher-quality ones. Doctors combine this knowledge with their own personal experience in making clinical decisions.

Medical guidelines are similarly a composite thing, often seeking to balance new evidence with deference to established authority. And decisionmakers may also consider how a revision will affect trust in the system as a whole. In the 1990s, for example, the rotavirus gastroenteritis infection killed more than 130,000 children globally each year. In 1998 the pharmaceutical company Wyeth released a vaccine, called RotaShield, that dramatically reduced the mortality rate. Within a year, however, doctors and patients poured in with complaints. Among the inoculated, there seemed to be a small increase in a bowel condition called intussusception, which in rare cases can be deadly. In 1999, after 15 reported cases of vaccine-related intussusception, both the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and the Centers for Disease Control ordered that RotaShield be withdrawn from the American market. It’s worth noting that VAERS is limited by the honor code: Adverse events are not confirmed.

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In a 2012 paper titled “The First Rotavirus Vaccine and the Politics of Acceptable Risk,” Jason Schwartz, then a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, explored the thinking behind the withdrawal. In his view, the decision wasn’t purely evidence-based. Schwartz told me that while some “argued that keeping the vaccine would have, in absolute terms, saved more lives,” the decisionmakers weighed trust: “You can’t have a vaccine out there with a notable risk of a harmful condition.”

According to this reasoning, the RotaShield reversal should increase our trust in vaccines: It shows that the system we use to monitor them works. (Two safer rotavirus vaccines have since been introduced and remain in use.) Vaccines such as MMR have been monitored for decades by the same system, and observers have seen no alarming signs—proof of their extraordinary safety. We’ve recently seen similar safety processes play out with the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines. Still, a paradox of medicine is that the steps we take to make the system more trustworthy can make it seem less so.

THE FLIP SIDE of that paradox is that getting doctors to be comfortable expressing uncertainty may be the surest way to instill patient trust. Steven Hatch, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Massachusetts, argues that medical reversals unsettle us because both medical professionals and patients are too fixated on being sure. “The public often thinks that they go to their doctor, the doctor runs the test, and the test reveals the truth,” Hatch told me. “But most of the time, we weigh sets of data and arrive at weighted possibilities which are not rock-solid.”

Doctors might approach different kinds of patients differently. Some people are comfortable with uncertainty and risk; others, says Hatch, struggle “to deal with ambiguity in their lives in general.” With the latter, doctors must resist the temptation to create a false sense of certainty, because “it’s really when things go wrong that a patient may feel cheated by the system.”

Hatch’s observations made me think of Diane, a woman I met a few years ago at a yoga retreat. Now in her sixties and retired, Diane is healthy, active, and cheerful, but she’d gone decades without visiting a doctor. She’d avoided preventative screenings of all kinds, in large part because it seemed to her that medical advice is always changing.

A few years ago, one of Diane’s friends—a woman who’d also avoided routine screenings—died of colon cancer. This inspired Diane to make a few doctor’s appointments and, in December 2019, she had her first physical exam since the early 1990s. Still, she found herself confused about how much uncertainty was normal in the doctor-patient relationship. She told me that when she asked her doctor if a prescribed skin cream would make her skin sensitive to the sun, her doctor told Diane that sun sensitivity wasn’t a side effect. Later, at home, Diane looked up the medication and found a warning that the cream actually did make people more sensitive to sunlight. “The doctor admitted to being unsure, which didn’t bother me,” Diane said. “But then she ended up telling me the wrong information. It’s hard for me to overlook that.”

Diane has struggled with the changing recommendations during the pandemic, and with figuring out how they should shape her behavior. “It almost seems like no one knew what they were talking about,” she recently told me. “First, it was no mask, then it was mask. Now, it’s two masks. It’s hard to keep up.”

Diane’s husband is a pilot, so I suggested a flying analogy. Sometimes a pilot who has been flying the same route for years has to shift because of severe turbulence or weather, perhaps flying thousands of feet higher or lower than what was originally planned. Usually the pilot announces the change to the cabin, and the passengers understand. Most don’t see the pilot as newly untrustworthy or incompetent; on the contrary, they’d worry if the plane shifted course and no announcement was made. Changes are inevitable when new information arrives, and transparency should increase trust, not erode it.

 

The Re-Emergence Effect

It will take time and patience to reemerge from the collective crisis of the pandemic with our mental and physical health intact.

When I met Darren Sudman six years ago, at an event in Palm Springs, I didn’t expect that his story would be one that I would return to time and again as I began examining what makes us thrive and heal after difficult times.

Sudman introduced himself as a former lawyer and a founder of a nonprofit. In 2004, Sudman and his wife, Phyllis, experienced every parent’s worst nightmare: Their three-month-old son, Simon, was found motionless in his crib. He had passed away from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), later deemed to be secondary to a heart rhythm disturbance called “long QT syndrome.”

Sudman’s nonprofit, Simon’s Heart, was created with the purpose of screening children early in life. It has kept us in touch over the years. But it was what Sudman shared about how he emerged from this unspeakable tragedy, and was able to move forward, that has continued to stay with me — particularly during this time as I reflect on our collective reemergence after the pandemic.

“My daughter was two and she needed me to get out of bed every day. She was really young and didn’t have a grasp of what was going on, and I had to take care of her. That forced me to wake up and live every day as best I could — she was my motivation,” Sudman told me. He also shared advice his co-worker provided at the time: “‘When you feel grief, let it pull you under and don’t resist it — it’s temporary and when you’re ready, you’ll come back up.’ This idea continues to work for me.”

In March 2021, a survey from the American Psychological Association found that 49% of adults reported feeling uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions when the pandemic ends, and this included those who were vaccinated.

In China, after lockdowns lifted and people reemerged, over 10% met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Indeed, for roughly 14 months most of us adjusted to a modified sense of “normal,” in much the same way a person living in a cave for a year may adjust to the lack of cognitive and light stimulation.

Change — even if it comes in the form of freedom — is still uncomfortable. So, it’s no surprise that some doctors are admitting to their own reemergence anxiety, that this summer terrifies a lot of people (perhaps especially introverts), and that many are worried about returning to work. Things will get better and the pandemic as it stands will end and Covid is most likely transforming into an endemic seasonal virus, yet all signs are clear that we must prepare for a reemergence effect.

Javeed Sukhera, chief of psychiatry at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, shared that the reemergence process may feel similar to grief. “Especially for those who struggle with tolerance for ambiguity and when circumstances are not in their control,” Sukhera shared, “They will either adapt to the stressor and reflect more on the meaning of things, or risk of falling back into maladaptive ways of coping.”

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Reemergence effects are not new.

We can look at butterflies as an example from nature — a caterpillar spends up to two weeks in a cocoon dissolving into a stew of cells, which it then partially ingests before swiftly emerging as one of our most prized insects.

I think back to a training in humanitarian emergencies I took at Harvard several years ago. The crisis situations were almost always in developing countries, where we needed to sort out food, water, and safety (for instance, from civil war and infectious diseases). A core part of our training was how to reemerge from the crisis with our mental and physical health intact. This involved time and connecting to resources to integrate back into the societies we had left — lessons I took to heart and applied during research or clinical work in low resource settings.

There are also examples from history.

Some Holocaust survivors, once freed from Auschwitz, marched across the camp and to freedom, but promptly returned: Writer and psychologist Edith Eger suggested, “They didn’t know what to do with their freedom,” and a return to life was challenging.

We see this in medicine as well.

compelling case of a man who spent decades legally blind had his eyesight restored only to suffer a psychological breakdown as he reemerged with the vision he had become accustomed to not having. The criminal justice system is also illustrative: The recent release of Joe Ligon, who spent 68 years of his life incarcerated, suggests that his true sense of freedom may be linked to how well he is supported during his reintegration into society. Indeed, once we start looking, we see “reemergence effects” everywhere — moments when, after spending a length of time in one state and having adjusted, we are forced to shift to another. Even if our new state is objectively better, our minds are still impacted.

Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai who specializes in trauma, expected many would seek therapy during Covid, the numbers were not as high as expected, which suggests to her that there may be an immense need after the crisis as part of our reemergence.

Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based clinical psychologist, agrees. “Many people may experience a post-traumatic stress response several months after we emerge that may take them by surprise as they may be getting through this difficult time by not fully acknowledging and processing what’s been happening, likely because it was their only way to keep functioning,” Bradford said.

As such, part of planning for our reemergence will involve anticipating our future mental health needs. Reconstruction after a humanitarian crisis is common, and often provides an opportunity for mental health reform; this was echoed in a UN report published last year. The idea of “building back better” for children’s mental health is instructive and could apply more widely.

“If I had a magic wand, in terms of building unlimited capacity for healing, I would initiate a campaign called ‘Let’s Talk About it,’ meaning, talk about the challenges, and the pain, and how we felt at the time. And it wouldn’t necessarily have to be with a mental health provider,” Yehuda told me. “Ideally, we would come together with people we know in our communities, in places of worship, the gym, yoga studio, or book club and ask each other, ‘What was it like for you?’”

And we may very well emerge better in some ways, perhaps a bit surprised by our own resilience, a point Yehuda wants to underscore.

“Time does heal, and the desire to flex our resilience muscles is powerful. That most of us will recover is an important public health message,” she shared.

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With butterflies, it turns out that my understanding of their reemergence was incorrect. There’s more to the process. When a butterfly emerges from the cocoon it’s still a goopy wet mess. Its wings are too small to fly. To expand them, it must actively pump in fluid from its abdomen — a bit like blowing up a balloon. Then its wings must dry under the sun. And then — as anyone who has spent a prolonged length of time in a hospital bed, and experienced muscular deconditioning, knows well — the butterfly must exercise its fragile wing muscles enough to ensure they stay up against gravity in order to fly.

In other words, a butterfly’s reemergence isn’t swift at all: it takes intention, time, and effort.

Our collective reemergence may be similar. It must be handled with care, patience, and ideally capacity to receive our mental health needs on the other side of this pandemic. Engaging in a collective reenvisioning both around what capacities should be built now, in preparation for that reemergence is part of our collective post-traumatic growth, and goes beyond resilience to involve creating of meaning from crises, which could perhaps buffer some of the harmful elements of the reemergence effect.

Though I didn’t appreciate it six years ago, this was perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Darren Sudman, which I hope we can all put into practice today as we reemerge stronger and more whole. Sudman’s intentional efforts to steer his family’s crisis into one that could help other parents helped offset his personal horror of reemerging as a parent who had lost a child.

“We had just suffered one of the worst tragedies but through it we [created] new narratives that involve helping prevent this from happening to other children, meeting families with similar experiences. When Jaden, our third child, came home, he brought another ray of sunshine to our house and reinforced the fact that life goes on and there’s still goodness.”

**Originally published in Elemental in May 2021**

Interview Series: Bryant Terry

Interview Series: Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry is a James Beard Award-Winning chef, educator, and author renowned for his activism to create a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. Since 2015 he has been the Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco where he creates public programming. Alice Waters has remarked, “Bryant Terry knows that good food should be an everyday right and not a privilege.” San Francisco Magazine included Bryant among 11 Smartest People in the Bay Area Food Scene, and Fast Company named him as one of 9 People Who Are Changing the Future of Food. Bryant’s fifth book, Vegetable Kingdom, will be published on February 2020. His last book, Afro-Vegan, was published in 2014 and was named one of the best cookbooks of 2014 by amazon.com and was nominated for an NAACP Award in the Outstanding Literary Work category. Bryant is also the author of the critically acclaimed Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine, which was named one of the best vegetarian/vegan cookbooks of the last 25 years by Cooking Light Magazine. www.bryant-terry.com

1. You had an interesting journey before being a food activist What prompted you to begin your work as a food activist?

Years ago, in high school, I first heard the rap song “Beef” by the hip hop group Boogie Down Productions. The lyrics discussed the impact of eating meat on human health, the environment, and animals. That was the first time I realized that I held all of these assumptions about how animals are treated in our food system, and I began eating less meat. I learned a lot about the many reasons to maintain a plant-based diet from lots of older Black vegetarians and vegans. While I was doing doctoral work at NYU in American history I learned about the “Survival Programs” created by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s that addressed the intersection of poverty, malnutrition, and institutional racism—mainly their grocery giveaways and Free breakfast for Children Programs. I realized that historically marginalized communities were still dealing with many of the same problems in regard to food access, so in 2001 I founded a non-profit called b-healthy to raise awareness among young people about the politics of food and give them the tools to improve access to nutritious foods in their communities.

2. How does that inform how you approach healthcare?

I think health ‘care’ system is a misnomer since it often doesn’t refer to caring for people’s health. Mostly we see this medical system responding to illness. I’d like to see a system that is putting more resources into giving patients tools to prevent chronic illnesses and truly “care” for themselves and their families.

3.You had an experience with being challenged with your well-being not that long ago? Can you share more about that?

While working on my last book a few years ago I had lots of time and space to disappear in the writing and recipe testing, which was really exciting. At that time I didn’t have kids and was newly married, and it was all about the hustle. Raising my children and working on my forthcoming book was hard because writing and testing was limited to weekends, holidays, and times when my kids were out of the house. So the struggle of balancing it all felt overwhelming. Things I used to rely on to stay balanced, like my meditation practice, fell away. So now that the book is done I’m preparing to spend the better part of 2020 touring by spending lots of time working on self-care.

4.What does thriving mean to you?

It means different things at different points in life. As a husband with two daughters now, thriving means taking care of my family, preparing my children for the future, and creating space for them to have an enjoyable childhood.

5.What are you most looking forward to in 2020?

I’m very excited about further inspiring people to work towards a more healthy, just, and sustainable food system.

Resolving to Be Coached

Resolving to Be Coached

The secret to sticking with your resolutions may be having a coach to help strategize and cheer you on.

My teenage patient looked nervous as I reviewed her glucose readings from her glucometer and her glucose logbook, which people with diabetes use to track their blood-sugar test results. There were a lot of high levels — ranges in the 12’s and 14’s, when the goal was around 7 or 8. The peaks were mostly in the middle of the day and on weekends. (This was in Canada; blood glucose readings of 12 to 14 are equivalent to 216 to 250 mg/dL in the United States.)

“What do you usually eat at home?” I asked. She said that her mother was careful to make her a breakfast that balanced carbohydrates with protein. Her dinners were similar.

“What do you usually eat at lunch?” I asked. My patient started tearing up. She ate whatever her friends were eating in her high school’s cafeteria that day — like spaghetti, hamburgers or pizza, and something like a cupcake for dessert. This was probably what led to her readings being so high.

She had met with diabetes educators before, and she knew what uncontrolled glucose does to a person with diabetes, from speeding up nerve damage in the feet to hastening blood vessel damage in the back of the eyes and the kidneys, to increasing her risk of heart disease.

I knew she could have told me all of that, so lecturing her wasn’t going to help.

Instead my patient needed empathy and the tools to help her make healthier decisions, and part of that required understanding what was important to her, specifically “fitting in” with her friends in high school, the ones who didn’t have a chronic disease. It also would have involved helping her find the motivation within herself to make the change.

But my skill set for helping her was limited, especially on top of everything else I had to cover within our allotted time of 45 minutes.

Research suggests that behavioral and lifestyle factors are a big part of what contributes to chronic disease. In medical training, we learn a lot about the body and how to prevent and treat disease, but little about how we can motivate a patient to change old habits or even stick with a current management plan.

It struck me that what my patient really needed was a coach. At this time of year when many of us have made resolutions to get healthier, working with a health coach might be one way to reach those goals.

A health coach is someone trained in behavior change, who primarily uses an interview style called “motivational interviewing” to help patients see their ability to make change. While some may have clinical training in fields like nursing or medicine, they hail from a wide variety of disciplines or train in health coaching as a secondary career.

As a relatively young field, it’s still finding its footing — for instance, a systematic review found that the definitions of “health coaching” varied widely, though the authors recommended that health coaches take a patient-centered approach to help with goal setting while encouraging self-discovery and accountability.

The evidence that health coaching may spur general lifestyle changes is mounting. A 2018 study looked at clinical trials for coaching for nutrition and weight management and found that over 80 percent of these studies found improvement. And a 2017 study found that coaching can lead to increased physical activity in older adults. Studies suggest that health coaching may also provide benefits for conditions such as obesity and diabetes as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, chronic pain, hypertension and high cholesterol. A recent review found that health coaching can improve quality of life and reduce hospital admissions among patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and it may help patients to become more engaged in the health care system.

It may even improve health outcomes through encouraging patient adherence to medication.

“Health coaching recognizes that we cannot help people by expecting them to act if that person is not ready to act,” said Leila Finn, a health coach based in Atlanta. “We help people take big goals and break them down into accessible, bite-size pieces — not by telling clients what to do but by helping clients figure out what will work for them.”

Health coaching gets to the heart of what providing good health care is about: acceptance, partnership, compassion, and helping patients feel respected and understood.

Though my clinical training is in pediatric medicine, inspired by what I had read, I recently completed a certificate in health coaching myself. The experience was eye-opening and humbling. I learned new ways of communicating with my patients, specifically ways to encourage them to see their own ability to make lifestyle changes while setting manageable goals. I also learned ways to cheer them on when they reach their goals, without shaming them if they relapse: Both pieces are critical to the process of making sustainable change.

While research is beginning to show the value of health coaching, the principles of communicating with the intent to inspire and motivate are transferable to all health professions — and could reap dividends if taught early on in the training of nursing students, medical students, pharmacy students, and other allied health professionals.

And when I think back to my teenage patient with diabetes, while I was empathetic, that was only half of the solution. The second half could have involved coaching her to see which small changes she could begin to make moving forward. I’m hoping that choosing my words more effectively, even within the pressures of time, may make all the difference for my other patients.

**Originally published in the New York Times**

Interview Series: Dr. Neel Desai

Interview Series: Dr. Neel Desai

Dr. Neel Desai is a primary care physician based in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. He is a contributing member to The Happy Doc podcast. He wrote a book called The O.I. Connection about the rare condition osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare genetic condition of faulty collagen and bone synthesis [summary of condition]. Dr. Desai spoke with me in September from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

We connected because I was working on a ‘medical mystery’ article about O.I., and had, by chance, come across the Happy Doc podcast, which I loved. But you had an interesting journey in medicine that prompted you to co-develop the podcast. Share a bit of that with readers.

I’ve been working as a primary care doctor for 15 years, and about 5 years ago, it got to a point where I was becoming frustrated with medicine. I was losing autonomy to administrative burden and inefficient electronic medical records. So I wanted to look for ways to build (digital) creativity into my life and regain some autonomy. Writing my book and being part of the podcast led me to some powerful insights. I realized creative pursuits helped me address frustrations with the current medical system. I also observed another common pattern: the rigorous process of becoming a physician can suck the creativity out of doctors in training. Conversely, we observed doctors, residents, and medical students working on a creative endeavor regained energy and fulfillment in their training, as well as in their personal and professional lives.


1.What is the HappyDoc Podcast?

The Happy Doc Podcast was started by Dr. Taylor Brana, as a third-year medical student, at a time when he was becoming disillusioned with his medical training, and as a result was just very unhappy. He began asking the question, ‘are there any happy doctors out there?’. Most of what he was seeing in his attendings was not good: burnout, lack of joy in medicine, and just disillusionment with their current station in life. He connected with me online, seeing that I had been out in practice, and asked me if I was happy. I had a unique answer to that question (I was happy when it came to initiatives aimed at educating the public about OI through modern technology ). He asked me if I wanted to join his podcast. The aim was to find happy physicians, discovering what helped keep them fulfilled in their work, and give listeners practical tips to do so in their own lives. I agreed to partner with Taylor and became the guest recruiter for the podcasts, and I also run social media engagement.

2.Let’s talk about what happened in Fall 2008 which led to your interest in O.I.

My wife and I were trying to conceive our first child and she had two miscarriages prior to this third pregnancy. This third one, a son, had made it to 17 weeks. During the ultrasound, the normally chatty ultrasound tech looked at the left femur (thigh bone) and fell dead silent. She abruptly left the room. She came back with the Ob/Gyn on call. He pointed out our son’s left femur was curved and not growing. He recommended we see a maternal-fetal specialist to set up an amniocentesis. We saw the specialist the next day. I’ll never forget how she delivered her diagnosis and prognosis: she said the findings were consistent with a skeletal dysplasia incompatible with life. She shrugged her shoulders, and said “I’m just being honest.” And left us in the room overwhelmed, heartbroken, shocked, and devastated. lt’s a great teaching point for any medical professional. Don’t ever deliver news that a person’s loved one is going to die without some compassion. That life changing moment prompted me to write an ebook called “The O.I. Connection,”. I found writing was very cathartic for me, helped to process my emotional trauma, and accept my son’s diagnosis. It also inspired me to help others in similar circumstances by bringing together resources for other OI families and caregivers in a practical and interactive way.

3.What can you share about getting to your ‘new normal’ after that diagnosis

My wife and I were obviously stunned with the diagnosis. But we wanted to educate ourselves as much as possible about OI. We found an online OI family community of support on Yahoo health groups. The group included several health professionals, physiotherapists, and an emergency room doctor. They had children with OI and first hand experiences dealing OI. They gave us hope as they had successfully navigated the road ahead of us. They told us about revolutionary treatments for O.I., specifically, medications like intravenous bisphosphonates to prevent fractures and reduce pain, as well as telescoping rods which expand like curtain rods to straighten out the bones. They educated us on how these interventions help children gain more strength to grow, improve function, activity, and have a happier and healthier quality of life. Ethan was born with at least 7 fractures (unknown if he had more). He required the rods, the medication, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and started these early after birth. By 18 months he took his first steps with a walker. By 2 years old, he was running independently. It’s interesting, because as difficult as all this was, and still can be, at 10 years old today he can walk, swim, run, jump, dive, and dance. He still has to use his walker or wheelchair occasionally for safety or longer distances. He also academically functions at a higher level. He’s really into computers and space, for instance. I think even if there are physical limitations, many of these kids often adapt with their minds.

4.What is the biggest misconception about being a parent with a child with a chronic condition. Has it changed how you see your own patients?

The last thing any child with a chronic condition like O.I. wants is pity. What they want is compassion, understanding, kindness, dignity, and respect. A lot of people also assume that the subject is off limits for discussion, but we as an OI family embrace curiosity and asking questions, which is how all of us do better. I want people to ask questions and not be afraid to ask questions. I think keeping it taboo causes more problems. Asking questions leads to more understanding and acceptance. This goes for children with OI and answering their questions about OI as well. In regards to answering a child’s question about feeing less than or bad about why they have a chronic medical condition, I use the example of a parent I know explaining O.I. to her daughter with OI. She likens it to having blond hair or brown eyes or a birthmark: it’s just something you have, and nothing to be ashamed of. OI or any chronic illness can be hard as it affects how a family functions, but it can also affect marriages, jobs (especially with needing to take time off for fractures, surgeries, doctor, therapist, hospital visits), and can be very isolating and lonely for all involved. So one of the core lessons for me personally and professionally is the power of having a very strong supportive community to communicate with.

5.Switching gears how has this experience helped you approach your work as a doctor interested in advancing change.

All of this has really made me value strong communities. The role of community, as in having strong support networks and teams, is really important, and The Happy Doc community has been a huge part of that for me personally. A more proactive, as opposed to reactive, approach is really powerful as well.

In regards to advancing change, I think it’s time for us all to evolve in medicine. From what I’ve seen, it’s like medicine is dated and still stuck in the 20th century: there’s so much resistance to being innovative — poor EMRs, rigid traditional hierarchies, and using technology from the 20th Century (pagers, fax machines, etc) are barriers to where we could and should go. It’s 2019, and it’s time to practice medicine in the century we live in. We should embrace being proactive, innovative, and collaborative. We do this by amplifying what we value most: meaningful human connections. This occurs by reconnecting with our colleagues, our communities, and most importantly, with ourselves.

I use an analogy of it being like the medical profession was in the desert for most of the 20th Century, but now we’re in the 21st Century rainforest. The world expects us to just adapt to all the rapid changes over the last 20 years and thrive. But we can’t do this if there is immense inertia and if we don’t value questioning, curiosity, and creativity. Having outside interests – like podcasts or journalism—and integrating those creative outlets is important to develop current and future systems for the 21st century.

6.What does thriving mean to you?

Thriving means living your best life on your terms. Playing and loving your game unapologetically, unconditionally, and on your terms. Loving what you do, doing what you love. Waking up so energized that you can’t imagine doing anything else. And paying it forward and sharing your good fortune with the ones you care about most through the ups, the downs, and all the in betweens.

7.What are you most looking forward to now in general?

Creating a healthier, happier, wealthier, and wiser medical education system. A system where as healthcare professionals and patients, we are energized, enlightened, connected, and inspired. And most of all, to just enjoy the serendipity of the journey to the unknown and connecting to amazing people all over the world.

Nutrition a challenge for many cancer patients navigating the ‘cancer-specific’ diet

Nutrition a challenge for many cancer patients navigating the ‘cancer-specific’ diet

When Miguel Roger began chemotherapy for chronic lymphocytic leukemia last summer, he didn’t realize the challenges he would face with food.

“Once treatment started, I noticed a change in my appetite, and a lack of energy,” said the 65-year-old retired engineer.

His wife Jenny, 61, became his primary caregiver, and found it challenging navigating all the nutrition advice from books, their doctor, and the hospital nutrition centre.

“I once cooked him calf liver to help with his anemia,” she said, “I read it in a book, but when I spoke to Miguel’s doctor, we were told it wouldn’t help, since the anemia was not related to nutrition, but to the cancer itself and the chemotherapy.”

Nutrition is an under-recognized challenge for many cancer patients. And fad diets can cause unnecessary weight loss, disrupt treatment, and sometimes make outcomes worse.

Many patients struggle with navigating the “cancer-specific” dietary information found in popular books, blogs, and websites. A British study released last month found caregivers and patients were concerned about the lack of accurate and clear information — something Canadian health providers are keen to provide.

It’s easy for misconceptions to spread through websites, nutrition bloggers, books, and word-of-mouth.

“In clinic, I once overheard a woman saying how she was getting mega-doses of vitamin C, rose hip tea, bee pollen and antioxidants,” said Jenny Roger. “But I heard the dietitian advise that those things may not be regulated and could be contraindicated during chemotherapy.”

This is a familiar story to many cancer specialists and dietitians, including Thomas Jagoe, director of the McGill Cancer Nutrition Rehabilitation Program in Montreal.

One of his challenges is dealing with diet trends that conflict with what a patient’s oncologist advises. One trend is “short-term fasting” before chemotherapy.

“This is a hot topic of research but at this time the evidence doesn’t support that a patient who is already losing weight starve themselves for a few days,” Jagoe said.

In Halifax, it was an open line of communication that helped Stacey Sheppard, a dietitian with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, identify the real reason behind a patient’s issue.

“One patient with nasal cancer got advice from a holistic nutritionist to omit gluten. When we got to the bottom of the issue we realized that they actually had issues with swallowing crackers — so it was a swallowing issue, not a gluten issue,” she said.

But patients keep looking for answers outside the system. And it’s all about control, says Jonathan di Tomasso, a nutritionist who works with the cancer rehabilitation program at McGill.

“People often lose control over many aspects of their life when they are diagnosed with cancer. Food is something they can control, but the roar of misinformation out there is deafening,” he said.

Toronto-based naturopath Daniel Lander, who has an undergraduate degree in nutritional science, works closely with physicians to offer evidence-based nutrition advice.

“Patients are generally relieved when I tell them they don’t have to follow those strict diets, and I focus on making sure they are getting enough calories and important macronutrients,” Lander said.

He advises a Mediterranean-style plant-based approach that has lean-protein sources, lower animal products and lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

“It’s nothing too exciting or flashy but from the science, that’s the best we can tell people to do,” he said.

In terms of good online sources of information, Daniela Fierini, a registered dietitian at the Princess Margaret Hospital, recommends the American Institute for Cancer Research, BC Cancer Agency and Nourish Online, but still cautions against the “one size fits all” model.

Due to a good response to chemotherapy and radiation, Roger’s cancer has been in remission for the last month.

“Now my appetite’s normal. I lost around 10 pounds at the start of the treatment but I think I have gained it all back … my energy level is fine and I’m no longer swollen,” he said.

The Rogers were cautious about following popular cancer diet trends and maintained open communication with their doctor.

“You can get caught up with reading things on the Internet and I think everyone should be working with their doctor. People need to have a bond of trust with their doctor. Some people don’t, and so they look elsewhere, which can sometimes be overwhelming and can cause more harm than it helps,” said Jenny Roger.

[by Amitha Kalaichandran and Shuang Shan] **Originally published in the Canadian Press/Toronto Star**

The Doctor is Cooking

The Doctor is Cooking

Here we were, 80 eager physicians from across North America in a large teaching kitchen in Northern California.

 

Surgeons have the best knife skills.

That might sound obvious in the operating room, but here we were, 80 eager physicians from across North America in a large teaching kitchen in Northern California in February.

Our white coats had been traded in for white aprons as we learned the first lesson of the day: The best way to dice an onion is to keep the root intact.

The veteran surgeon from Alaska was encouraging as I attempted to chop the onion into even cubes, as he had humbly done in less than 15 seconds flat. No tears were involved.

Next we went on to preparing grains like farro and cooking plant-based proteins like quinoa and lentils.

Much of the day was also spent addressing nutrition myths (for instance, low-fat diets don’t necessarily lead to weight loss), learning motivational interviewing techniques to help patients identify their readiness to make diet and lifestyle changes, reading nutrition labels, and most important, cooking nutritious meals on a budget — all with the aim of teaching doctors so that they can better educate their patients.

This wasn’t exactly cooking school — it was a three-day “culinary medicine” conference, which just completed its 15th year this past spring. Called Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, there are several others that work along similar lines: Nutrition and Health ConferenceFood as Medicine Conference, and most recently the Health Meets Food Conference.

Culinary medicine is an emerging field that teaches doctors to cook while also imparting practical nutrition information, and is defined as “a new evidence-based field in medicine that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine.”

A 2008 study found that doctors coming out of medical schools in the United States lacked the knowledge to effectively counsel patients about nutrition. Similar findings have been reported among Canadian medical students and European residents. Even specialties like gastroenterology and cardiology, which often deal with diseases that have a large dietary component, include little training in nutrition.

I can relate: once in clerkship and residency, it struck me that what I thought I knew about nutrition was totally inadequate to address the questions patients would ask, and left me unprepared to understand and decipher the myriad new nutrition research and ever-changing recommendations that patients get bombarded with everyday.

The movement is gaining ground across North America as well as around the world, with researchers looking into how it could improve health outcomes for chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

As physicians themselves aren’t typically the best models for nutrition — long hours and on-the-run meals are common — bringing doctors into the kitchen may also be a way to encourage self-care as well, both through the mindfulness inherent in food preparation and the consumption of wholesome foods.

There are at least 10 culinary programs in the United States that are backed by a hospital, medical school or school of public health. As part of the medical education curriculum, they reach more than 2,500 doctors and other health professionals each year.

Each school approaches the field slightly differently. For instance, since 2012, Tulane University School of Medicine has offered a compulsory culinary medicine curriculum for its medical students while also reaching over a thousand medical residents through online courseware it has licensed to seven American residency programs. Dartmouth School of Medicine provides culinary medicine workshops to medical staff members, patients and the community through teaching kitchens. And Baylor College of Medicine’s Choosing Healthy, Eating Fresh (CHEF) program is a medical student led elective course which facilitates nutrition and cooking workshops for medical students and patients at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Stanford is one of the latest medical schools to jump on board. Co-founded by Dr. Julia Nordgren, “The Doctor is In … The Kitchen” program began last spring. The group meets one evening a week to learn about how culinary medicine is implicated in a real clinical story — for instance, a busy mother with a toddler who is a picky eater, or a patient with diabetes who is on a tight food budget. To be effective, culinary medicine cannot ignore the issue of food insecurity, which affects 12.7 percent of Americans.

My alma mater, the University of Toronto, started a mandatory culinary medicine program for medical students last year under the direction of Dr. John Sievenpiper. It involves an interactive cooking class, open-access lectures and a grocery store tour led by registered dietitians and chefs, where students learn to read labels and prepare simple meals. Late last year, more experienced physicians eager to advance their nutrition knowledge were offered a chance to enroll in an “update” on clinical nutrition which, among other things, will help separate fact from fiction with respect to popular diets for chronic diseases.

“Nutrition evidence is protean; it changes as we learn more,” said Dr. David Jenkins, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto whose research played a key role in the development of the glycemic index. “We need to allow students to critically think about nutrition, and extending this teaching into the kitchen could be one good way to do that.”

Studies show that physician beliefs about the role of food in preventive medicine, and cooking specifically, can translate to effective nutrition counseling for patients, leading to better dietary choices. In 2013, researchers reported that participants in a culinary medicine program reported a higher comfort level with cooking and were better able to assess patients’ nutritional status and advise them regarding nutrition changes, and in 2015, a culinary program at New York University reported improved culinary skills and budget-appropriate meal preparation.

Some medical educators question the effectiveness of nutrition counseling at a time when doctors are so pressed for time, or whether the 10 to 15 minutes allotted to a patient visit can cover the primary medical concerns and additional information about diet and cooking. But Dr. Nordgren notes, “it doesn’t take any more time to discuss a technique to cook a vegetable than it does to write a prescription.”

Still, she acknowledges it’s an imperfect system. She and others have reported that nutrition science is an emerging and difficult to research field. Programs across the country would do well to standardize objectives and curriculums. Recently, the European Society for clinical Nutrition and Metabolism and the American College of Lifestyle Medicine have called for a standardized nutrition curriculum in medical schools.

If Hippocrates really did say, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” the culinary medicine movement takes it one step further with a nontraditional take on the traditional medical education adage: ‘see one, do one, teach one.’ And perhaps bringing more doctors into the kitchen could lead to fewer patients being brought into the hospital. Wouldn’t this be the sweetest of ironies?

**Originally published in the New York Times**

Nutrition