April 2010

The Gagging of God

The Gagging of God, by D.A. Carson ★★★★★
This book has been around a while but still remains timely. Written by D.A. Carson as his magnum opus, it engages the themes of pluralism, tolerance, and the disappearance of the acceptance of true truth in our society. Such loss of respect for truth and ability to communicate that truth has sunk into all aspects of society including the thinking and behavior of Christians. Carson is a tour de force who tackles pluralism in a clear but uncompromising fashion. The book is broken up into four sections. The first details how pluralism came about, discussing the history of thought in regard to matters of epistemology and linguistics, ending in the modern despair that truth is unknowable and so that all truth, contradictory or not, is true. The next section covers how this secular thinking has pervaded the Christian community. Carson covers how pluralism has affected the Christian community, and what it has done for our thinking on basic doctrines and ethics in the church. The third section attempts to detail Christian responses to living in a society soaked in pluralistic thinking, and the last section details particular themes, such as speaking the truth in matters of evangelism, and doctrinal issues, such as loss of the doctrine of hell.
Carson began life as a chemist, and then went to divinity school, studying in England for a period of time. I have a deep appreciation for the way he thinks, in that he’ll take a particular matter, and then slowly whittle away at it, giving lists of 5-10 reflections on the subject, leaving no stone unturned. His thought processes are exactly how I wish all theologians would write. He is not an easy person to read. I’m sure that if I re-read the book, I would see much that I missed the first time around. One cannot read this book quickly and expect to leave understanding all that Carson has to offer. So, I recommend this book to anybody who has the patience and time to read it. Hopefully, you will be seeing yet more Carson book reviews coming on this blog site.

The Origin of Civilization

The Origin of Civilization, by Scott McEachern ★★
This series by the Teaching Company is about archeology, and the discoveries of archeology in various parts of the world, including Africa (esp. Northern Africa/Cameroon and the great Zimbabwe), Egypt (though formally a part of Africa), the mid-east, India, China, and Central/South America (Mayan and Incan civilizations). Scott first spends six lectures detailing his philosophy for doing archeology. During this time, you get a delightful flavor of his biases, and intentions for doing archeology. Dr. McEachern spends most of his time working in Northern Cameroon, digging up ancient garbage.
You are not given a historical perspective in this study. Compared to an excellent Teaching Company series on the origins of civilization by Kenneth Harl, this series leaves you swimming a bit. You are told considerable amounts about what kinds of food are thought to have been eaten by ancient civilizations, and perhaps what sort of structures for housing they may have built for themselves, but that is it. The remainder of what we are left with is pure guesswork. Much of this guesswork presupposes that ancient civilizations might have been similar to the various cultures and civilizations you see today. Unfortunately, that gives you no information at all, except the obvious, that is, that mankind has remained similar over the course of its short history. I really don’t find it fascinating to imagine that people ate similar foods in ancient times like today and that famines might have happened. Scott lacks better stories to tell, and though he is careful not to extrapolate too wildly, extrapolate he still does and refuses to remain silent where the evidence is only foggy or unclear. He seems to suggest social structures based on remnant housing and graveyard goods, yet this could be utterly deceiving. In the end, I’ve learned very little about what we are to think about ancient civilizations, other than that they had analogous social systems and political constructs as we have today. It was very challenging actually making it through 48 1/2 hour lectures in order to glean this truth. This course has also persuaded me to stay far away from archeology.
Is there any benefit that I see for archeology? Yes. When we have purported historical narratives from the past, archeology might help substantiate the legitimacy of these stories. This is particularly true of the fall of Troy, the stories of Greece, historical narratives from China, etc. Most importantly, archeology could assist in further substantiating the veracity of Scripture. Yet, McEachern dares not tread on such a subject, even when it would have been entirely admissible. As an example, he is overwhelmingly astonished at how early urbanization occurred in civilization, yet Genesis suggests specialization (and thus urbanization) from very early times. He is amazed at the amount of trade occurring in ancient times, yet much Scripture speaks of international trade and commerce from quite early on. It is chronological arrogance that overwhelms some of Scott’s thinking that does not allow him to constructively best put together the data at hand.
I could not recommend this series to anybody, except for those who are deeply interested in archeology and the various schools of thought. Scott is not difficult to listen to, but his content would have a hard time grasping most people’s interests.

Life Update 19APR10

It’s been over three months since I’ve posted about events in Betsy’s and my life. A lot has gone by, like, Easter! I had out the Österlamm that Herbert gave me about 6 years ago.

So, here is a quick catchup, mostly with photos…
1. Deutsch Unterricht– I restarted the Saturday AM German class. Between reading the Magazine Deutsch Perfekt and going to German class at the Tacoma German Language School, I’ve been able to keep from totally losing my language skills. Here are some photos of the class, as well as the teacher, Yvonne. She is from Dresden, Germany, and is unbelievably patient with us old farts.

2. Oregon Coast– in early February, Betsy and I took a trip to the Oregon Coast. The lead photo was from Cannon Beach. The Oregon Coast is one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. 

3. Cycling & trainer– Betsky now has a new bicycle, named Meggie II, after her first bicycle. We took a brief 10-mile ride recently…

Betsy also let me get a Tacx Virtual Reality Trainer. These are quite nice at being able to cycle train in bad weather or when you only have an hour to spend on a bicycle and need a hard workout. It works by connecting a computer to a gizmo that your back bicycle wheelsets in. When you are going “uphill”, the wheel offers resistance in proportion to the steepness of the hill, and when going downhill, it may actually spin your tire for you. It is close to reality.
You can see that it really chews up your training tire. Meanwhile, you watch a video screen, which you set to a number of rides that you may wish to experience, throughout Europe. As you pedal faster, the scene moves faster, quite comparable to reality.
The screen will also show your power output (in watts), cadence (how fast you’re pedaling), heart rate, bicycle speed, time, and distance. This allows you to monitor closely how well you are improving on your endurance. Here is Jonathan on the bicycle trainer…

4. Bicycle Tour 15-18APRIL2010. This trip was to celebrate tax day, April 15. Russ A. and I drove to Chelan, WA, and took off from there. Our first stop was 52 miles later in Twisp, WA. The road either followed the Columbia River, or tributaries, leaving us at a resort town just east of the North Cascades pass.

The next day went from Twisp to Coulee Dam, an 85+ mile ride, with fully loaded touring bikes, and about 7000 feet elevation gain. Here was our first challenge, that of crossing Loup Loup Pass. We were concerned about the weather since it had snowed on the pass just a week before. It was quite cold, but we were working so hard to cross the pass that we were over-heated anyway.

We then ended up in Omak. We met a kindly elderly gentleman on the street to enquire about our options, and he suggested that we NOT go the way we had planned, but instead take an alternative route that was marked on the map as a gravel road, yet in reality, was fully paved. He also suggested that there were minimal hills. The route indeed was far less hilly than our planned route but was persistent in multiple sections of 6-7% grade uphill, and a lengthy 8-9% grade section at the beginning and end of the new route. We were quite pleased to have done this alternative route, since it took us by some absolutely spectacular scenery, like Omak Lake.

We eventually ended up at nightfall quite exhausted but looking at the Grand Coulee Dam. We stayed in a motel that faced the dam.

The next day was 61 miles and another 5000 feet of climbing. From the photo below, the intuition would remark at how flat the terrain was, yet, on a bicycle, it was quite rolling hills, with lots of 6% grade climbing. We were still moderately tired from the previous day, which made it harder to do even simple hills.

Our last memorable scene was from the Columbia plateau, getting ready to descend down to the Columbia River. In the distance, you could see Lake Chelan and the town of Chelan. It was a 8-12% grade descent for about 5 miles. Awesome! I’d sure hate to come up that hill on a loaded touring bike!
5. Future– so much has gone by. A niece, Laura, won a beauty pageant.
Laura, we are so proud of you. It takes not only beauty but true talent and skill to get to Teen Colleyville.  Thankfully, you didn’t have to have uncles dying in the car and brothers spazzing out on you to get into your contest, like in Little Miss Sunshine. We had old friends from many moons ago, Aaron and Anita visit us. They remain quite special. I especially appreciate being able to do outdoor things with Aaron. We plan on seeing Jonny off to Belize for the summer, and perhaps longer, to visit and study with Uncle Dennis. Dennis has been doing well, as is attested by this recent photograph…

Once he gets out of jail and quits playing with poisonwood, he’ll be back to his old self, I’m sure. Dennis is not really in jail; he is just showing us the miracles of Photoshop. I’d really like to visit Dennis someday. Belize is looking increasingly appealing, especially with our Destroyer-in-Chief Obaminator as el Presidente ruining all that we count as precious in our country. He will go down with Woodrow Wilson and FDR as the worst presidents ever of the USA.
I hope to do a few more cycle tours this summer. I also plan on spending the month of June in Bangladesh and will be in Germany for the last 2 weeks of August, if all works well. More blogs will follow. I haven’t had many book or movie reviews since I’m listening to 2 lengthy Brahms compendiums, which I wish to review together, watching a lengthy tv-series with Betsky, and reading a very large and ponderous book. So, more blogs will be in the works in the future. Meanwhile, please stay in touch.

Surgery and the Airline Industry

I’ve written about this before, but the topic doesn’t go away and I’m growing weary of it. Hospital regulatory agencies in our state, and in most states, are being instructed the way in which the airline industry has become safe was through the use of certain regulations and imposed rituals. Especially being pushed on the medical community are the use of checklists, similar to what is used before and after a flight to assure that all procedures are carried out correctly. Our state is now instituting a checklist standard with 100% compliance by hospitals in our state and celebrated by meeting at the old Boeing plant in Seattle, Washington with an author of a favorite book detailing the use of airline safety procedures in health care industry.
I’m all for airline standards, but not in the “pick and choose” standard that is being shoved down our throats. There are too many other airline industry differences that are simply ignored, at the patient’s peril. I’ve discussed many of them in the previous post. Let’s re-hash a few of them.
1. Airline personnel work hours. The airline industry, as well as the government, has strict standards on the amount of fly that a pilot can do, or work that a repairman can do before exhaustion leads to inefficiency as well as mistakes. Nobody would ever dream of climbing on an airplane, where the pilot has been up the last 24 hours and is now exhausted. I have personally called for reform in this area with deaf ears listening. It is hard to imagine that a truck driver in our state is forbidden from driving his truck for greater than 8 hours straight, and yet physicians frequently work for 48-96 hours straight with nary a comment from the state about the dangers that this is imposing. I’ve asked both the medical society as well as state legislators to consider this problem, and it is swept under the rug. Yet, if there are any actions that could be taken to eliminate errors in medicine, this is certainly the most important. Even airline pilots, on long flights, have replacement pilots in the plane to prevent the pilot from having to fly for over 8 hours.
There are 2 main stresses on an airline flight, that of taking off, and that of landing. True, decisions may need to be made in the air, but the main stresses are the start and end of the flight. In medicine, the initial patient consult, the care during a moment of extreme instability, or the trip to the operating room may be likened to the takeoff and landing stresses. The period that physicians spend on call sitting by their beepers could be likened to the time in the air. It is similar, since the physician is still being called, and must make consequential decisions. Many of those decisions are made when awakened from sleep, and more often than not, a night on call will rarely give more than an hour of straight sleep in a night. Yet, we not only have to make significant decisions during the night but must show up at work and consult on new patients or operate the next day. Would anybody feel comfortable flying on an airplane where the pilot had no sleep in the last 24 hours? Thankfully, most patients have no clue how much sleep their surgeon had in the last 24 hours! Comparable to the airline industry, it would be like saying that the only legitimate work-time for the pilot was the time on takeoff and landing, and then who cares how much time is spent in the air since flight time is a low stress.
2. Co-pilots. It used to be that almost all surgical cases had two doctors in the room. For smaller cases, it was the surgeon and a family doctor, and for larger cases, it was two surgeons. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to get two surgeons both in the room at the same time. It is economically unfeasible, and we’ve been forced to adapt. This has mostly been to the greater risk of the patient. Two surgeons on a case always go quicker and better than one surgeon alone. It could be compared to the airline industry deciding that a co-pilot is too expensive to maintain and thus eliminating that position. Maybe it’s time to return to the co-pilot in surgery practice?
3. Retirement – My pilot friends tell me that the airline industry bumped up the age of mandatory retirement from age 60 to age 65. Frightening! Pilots need to go through more rigorous psychomotor testing to assure that they have good reflex timing as they age. Why aren’t they doing this for doctors, especially those who do procedures on people? We are required to take ever-expanding CME classes and tests to prove our mental competence, though it is dubious that either accomplish their intended task. At the same time, we are required to take courses in things we never intend to see or would not manage even if we encountered such a situation, since courses of themselves are absolutely no replacement for real-life experiences. I recently took a mandated pediatric trauma online course in order to maintain my ability to serve our hospital. I felt like I was in the military–dotting all my “i”s and crossing all my “t”s, yet realizing that I had not acquired any true competence at pediatric trauma. We don’t have simulators that can exactly match what a flight simulator can do for a pilot. There are no surgery simulators that will spray blood in your face and give you AIDS if you screw up.
At this time, I have no recommendations for the medical profession, but pray that it soon die the same death that all its patients will eventually experience. Physicians are unwilling to defend their profession from external abuse but complain bitterly about the loss of their profession. Medicine – R.I.P.


Below is an article that I wrote several years ago, that is now more true today than when I wrote it. At the time, we had a flamingly incompetent Chief of Staff (called Dr. Bigshot, since he remains very prominent in politics at our hospital) and the staff of our hospital was all given an article by Dr. Guwande from the New Yorker regarding the virtues of checklists in saving lives. My apologies for not being able to give you the exact reference for this article, as I threw it in the wastebin. I have no problems with checklists. I have a serious problem with assuming that checklists are what saved the airline industry and that people would be saved if only we used checklists. So, I re-post my article. The next post carries on with the same theme, now written contemporarily. BYW, Dennis, I found most of my grammatical errors, but feel free to inform me of others.
Several years ago, tort reform became the cry of the medical profession. We felt that our profession was being destroyed by a litigious culture that was strongly supported by a government that seemed to thrive off of a healthy legal industry. We lost that battle. In return, the law industry laid claim that the health care industry was careless and did not attend properly to quality control or error reduction. In turn, we responded with multiple programs. There were state and national programs that were initiated, such as the 100,000 lives campaign (I await eagerly the 250 million lives campaign). Even in Pierce County, our medical society invited various quality control pundits to speak to us. The rallying cry was to become like the airline industry. After all, did not the airline industry take an intensely complex system, and produce methodological algorithms (such as checklists) to eliminate human error? As I learned in flight surgery school, the number one cause for airline fatalities was a loss of situational awareness on the part of the pilot. Checklists helped to reduce routine operational error, thus, decreasing the one aspect of a fatal error.
The article by Atal Guwande in the New Yorker further fosters this idea that if only the health care industry model itself after the airline industry, then error reduction would significantly fall, and lives would be saved. I certainly agree with Dr. Guwande that checklists can serve some useful purposes in our profession. Yet, I also see certain problems with what he proposes. The first problem discusses differences between the airline industry and medicine, that disallow the airline model. The second details the evidence that Dr. Guwande himself provides claiming that checklists can solve many of our woes.
First, what are the differences between medicine and the airline industry? There are a number of issues that I can list.
1. We can’t control the circumstances. In the airline industry, if bad weather hits, the airlines shut down. We can’t do that. We “fly” in any circumstances. If a patient arrives in immediate need of surgery when the operating rooms are already filled and the patient already has multiple system organ failure, we aren’t allowed to “stop all flights (surgeries)” and wait, in order to get control of the situation.
2. We don’t aim for 100% survival. Ultimately, all of our patients will die, which is 0% survival. Unlike airplanes, we have a poor means of predicting personal survivability. We can quote population statistics, which do not apply to a given individual. Checklists or not, eventually everybody will die on us. In fact, we have very poor means of measuring when we are actually successful in medicine, as it is not necessarily survivability at low cost without complications.
3. We cannot set the circumstances for surgeons or health care personnel like we can with pilots and flight attendants, airline mechanics, etc. I would love to have the same working circumstances as a surgeon as a pilot usually lives. There are strict controls of working hours, and time that a pilot is allowed in the cockpit. We have no such controls. Yet we know that human error is our biggest source of health care error, just like situational awareness is the biggest problem in the airline industry. Establishing mandatory retirement ages, mandatory work-hours, mandatory spontaneous drug testing would kill the industry. I have operated countless times high on antihistamines in the symptomatic treatment of seasonal URIs, yet such drugs would have grounded me in the airline industry. Are we willing to have our health care personnel subjected to such demanding regulation as the airline industry has done? Why not? The object is to eliminate human error, and such airline regulations would accomplish that.
4. Human systems back-up cannot compare. A pilot has not only a second backup (the copilot) always at his side, but also the capabilities of autopilot. Generally, we virtually never have a second physician (with the same expertise) simultaneously participating in a case. Auto-doctors remain to be invented.
5. This leads to a brutally serious question…why have auto-doctors not been invented yet? Autopilots work because one can “figure out” most of the system’s issues and expected problems in the operation of an aircraft. The “machinery” (the human body) that we work with is infinitely more complex than the machinery (the airplane) that the airline industry works with, and the expected problems vastly greater. While Dr. Guwande tends to disparage the “art” of medicine, heralding the virtues of scientific medicine, it remains without question that the complexities of medicine demand both intuitive as well as methodological decisions, and the intuitive decisions cannot be check-listed. An equivalent comparison would be to devise an airplane that is so complex, the ground support personnel never really understand how the airplane works, or exactly what the proper procedures are to repair. The pilot could never be sure whether pushing the joystick to the right would move the appropriate wings or flaps in the proper direction, and would be told that any control panel action would have only an 80% or less response rate, as well as a highly unpredictable nature of whether all the monitors or gauges on the control panel were ever monitoring the correct information. Yet, we live with this all the time in medicine.
6. The economics are different. If the airline industry is asked to institute an industry-wide change, they would raise rates to passengers to pay for that. We cannot do that anymore in the health care industry. In fact, our pay would either remain stagnant or cut, in spite of the elimination of error.
7. Training and retraining. We call retraining CME, yet CME only remotely pertains to our practice of medicine. A flight simulator has never been invented for the health care industry, probably for reasons explained in #5. Our expertise comes solely from experience, coupled with the maintenance of an innovative mindset. When we increase physician educational demands and demonstration of competence through increased testing, the net result is not increased competence among physicians, but a decreased number of physicians, who drop out rather than re-test. This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from the airline industry. It only means that we need to be very cautious in selecting what methodological algorithms we acquire from the airline industry, and then be highly selective in exactly which circumstances or activities would be well served by these algorithms. It is possible that some systems in medicine would actually be harmed by blindly applying the airline industry methodology of error prevention.
What about Dr. Guwande’s claims that checklists can significantly reduce errors in medical care? Dr. Guwande discusses his thesis with unbridled enthusiasm. In a most unscientific manner, he fails to discuss multiple variables that should have been examined, especially since his thesis of the virtues of checklists are now being mandated throughout hospital systems in the USA. Which variables did Dr. Guwande follow? Survival? Costs? Turnover rates of health care personnel? Patient and family satisfaction? Days of hospitalization? His studies of checklists were limited to highly specific and controlled circumstances, such as the management of central lines. This is a relatively non-complex system compared to many systems seen in medicine. Does he propose that all operating systems will be helped by check-listing? Does he have evidence for that? Newly enacted checklists tend to eventually breed familiarity, which in turn lead to loss of effectiveness. Dr. Guwande has only short-term follow-up of his check-list system, so it is not surprising to see short-term improvements. What do you suppose we will see after ten years of check listing and familiarity itself leads to error? I suspect it will lead to even more detailed check-lists, probably orchestrated by a computer program, rather than a human, such as the nurses that Dr. Guwande used in his catheter study. This in turn will not only drive up the costs of medical care, but also the depersonalization of medical care.
Outside of checklists, the failure to communicate has been identified as the other great source of medical error. There is a great amount of truth to this, and check-lists certainly serve the function of forcing a brief episode of communication among the team, many of whom often don’t even know each other’s name, let alone the most rudimentary facts about the other people on the team in the room. But, we don’t dare tread on that. We must remain scientifically impersonal. Yet, when I work with a team that has known me for years, typically, minimal communication ever occurs about the patient or medical care we are rendering, save for occasional teaching points for the team (we do talk about other things!). We know how each other does things, and we expect things to be done that way. This is true for nurses and techs in the OR or recovery room, as well as experienced nurses on the wards. Sadly, regimented communication cannot fix the problem of operational harmony, something that only time and experience with each other as a team can fix. This is why “teams” are probably more important than checklists. Another communication issue, handwriting, was fixed thirty-some years ago with computer-order entry, quite the norm in Chicago, IL where I trained, but still unknown in these parts.
Dr. Bigshot comments that resistance to checklists is an “ego” issue. I doubt it. True, there are ego issues when one has a nurse policing the doctor. Not even the airline industry has stooped that low, having a stewardess tell the pilot to push the rudder right rather than left when the airplane is going down. But that is exactly what is happening in medicine. You can escape hierarchical disorientation by being independent, which is exactly what Dr. Bigshot has done. Hospital-bound doctors like surgeons and intensivists don’t have that luxury. Is it egoistic to ask questions pertaining to the efficacy of checklists? I don’t think so. Many of us could have easily gone into research rather than clinical medicine. Our training teaches us to ask questions, look for alternative solutions, explore the unthinkable, to agonize over a solution that doesn’t exist in a textbook, journal article, or on a checklist. Yesteryear, that made you a good physician. Nowadays, it makes you a non-team-player, radical, disruptive, or perhaps, worst of all, egoistic.
We will turn to checklists. We will love them with religious devotion. The Joint demands it. We will comply. Yet, it feels like we are driving just another stake into our coffin. R.I.P.