Belle Vue Clinic, Preventable Medical Disasters, and Stoic Lessons

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(Photo: Dirty Bunny)

[Warning: This post is one of my rare rants, perhaps my only rant, written last week when the reality-bending fury was fresh. Almost never seen, like a snow leopard, my angry self has come out to stretch his arms a bit, perhaps punch a few deserving people after warming up. The reasons -- primarily the safety of other people -- will become clear shortly.]

SEPTEMBER 25, 2011, CALCUTTA, INDIA
SAFE AT THE OBEROI HOTEL

Earlier today, a hospital superintendent snickered and offered me a feedback form if I had complaints. I declined, as I figured this blog would be a faster way of getting the message to the CEO in question, P. Tondon. Mr. Tondon, nice to meet you.

Forthwith, our promised programming…

The Power of the Checklist

Atul Gawande is an outstanding surgeon, Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, and author of “The Checklist Manifesto,” which details the power of checklists to prevent catastrophes or simply improve outcomes.

From the prevention of airplane crashes to decreases in hospital-based bacterial infections, having a clear, repeatable process is key. I read his book while flying to Amman, Jordan, and I ensured beforehand that I knew exactly where the best hospitals were close to our hotel, the fantastic Evason Ma’in Hot Springs. It’s as simple as calling the US embassy or consulate (if that’s your nationality) via Skype before you land. Here’s a list for your future use.

This week, I violated my own process: I didn’t check on hospitals before traveling.

“Ah… but where to?” you ask.

To Sweden? No, sir. To Japan? No, ma’am. I landed in Calcutta (Kolkata), India. Home of Mother Theresa and pathogens galore.

Ultimately, I ended up spending 3.5 days in two ERs and hospitals.

Before I explain the comedy of errors that led to this post, a few caveats to flavor the haterade for the anonymous ankle biters we affectionately call “trolls”:

- After 30+ countries visited, I don’t believe I’m a spoiled American. Puking on the floor of Chinese hospitals? Check. Getting probes and pokes (not that kind) in Argentina? Done. I’ve roughed it plenty of times and know the world isn’t covered with linoleum.

- I’ve been in dozens of hospitals and ERs around the world, had multiple surgeries, had food poisoning 4 or 5 times, and spent hundreds of hours with MDs for The 4-Hour Body.

- There were a few heroes in the following story, so this isn’t “us versus them” nonsense. Among the heroes: Pawan, our guide; Dr. Gunjanrai from Belle Vue, who saved our asses; and all of the friends I traveled with, especially Dr. Kareem Samhouri.

The Avoidable Pain of Poor Checklists

Preamble complete, here’s an abbreviated version of what happened:

- I ate a usually delicious local Bengali fish, Bekti, at the Tollygunge Club’s Belvedere restaurant, which my girlfriend Natasha later dubbed The “Tollygrunge” Club.

- Diarrhea and vomiting ensued through the following morning, as did fevers. I hit 101 and Natasha passed 102. I made the executive decision to go to the hospital for, at the very least, intravenous (IV) fluids.

- To stabilize my girl, who was incoherent, and avoid 1-2 hours of traffic, we first visited the closest hospital, the name of which I can’t recall. Now things get interesting.

- Enter war zone — Dr. Sumon and Dr. Chatterjee admit us to the ER. Natasha is wheelchaired in and put on a cot. No vitals are taken besides blood pressure. One of the doctors then alcohol swabs the arm, to prepare for IV insertion, following by slapping her forearm with the bare hand he’s just coughed on. I stopped him to correct course, as I had to do so with both doctors multiple times. Eventually, once her IV was delivering saline solution and lost electrolytes, I had to lay down, as I’d declined an IV and could barely stand. My only choice for rest was a cot with dried urine all over it, which Kareem covered with a towel. Who says chivalry is dead?

- The good news: when we leave, the grand total cost is 150 rupees for both of us, or about $3 USD.

Round Two at Belle Vue Clinic

- We leave for a reputedly much-better hospital, Belle Vue Clinic, where we’d be meeting an expat specialist named Dr. Ghosh. Sigh of relief. Natasha is still delirious and nonsensical, so I’ll be the only one coherent for our first day there. The pamphlet for Belle Vue Clinic is seductive:

Equipped with the finest resources of medical science, the clinic’s emphasis is on relief, reassurance, recovery and rehabilitation.

At Belle Vue Clinic, a patient is not a bed number. He or she is consider as a member of the Belle Vue family. A scrupulously clean and homely ambience is provided. There is always service with a smile.

- Without further ado, here are a few highlights from our slapstick treatment. Keep in mind, Belle Vue has good materials and drugs on hand. Their “Rules and Information” brochure reads “44 years of proven and trusted medical care of international quality.” In retrospect, I realize that “international quality” could mean “From St. Lucia to Somalia, we combine the most preventable mistakes possible.”

The following are process fuck-ups:

* Upon being properly admitted, a “sister” — or nurse attendant — takes my armpit temperature without paying attention. It’s half in contact with my shirt, resulting in a 98-degree output. “Fever, ne,” (“No fever”) she says and starts to walk away. I yell for her to wait, pull an electronic oral thermometer out of my pocket and repeat the drill: almost 102. “Fever, yes.” She later insists twice that I have no fever, until the doctor puts a hand on my forehead and settles the matter in my favor.

* Natasha had a terrible reaction to pain medication they administered, Drotin® (drotaverine), and collapsed on the floor that night after going to the bathroom. No one was watching her properly, so I had to leap out of bed with my IV and help her get up. They administered it the following day and Natasha’s temperature skyrocketed and she began to shiver uncontrollably. I called Dr. Ghosh, got no answer, and did what I could: tell all staff to absolutely NOT administer any more Drotin. When Dr. Ghosh arrived around 7pm that evening, I told him the same, which he said he’d note and convey to all staff.

That evening, as Natasha was falling asleep and I was going to bed, a nurse comes in with — guess what? — a syringe of Drotin to give Natasha. Fortunately, I wasn’t in the bathroom and intercepted it.

* Natasha ran out of toilet paper — as we did several times, which diarrhea will do — and rang the call button. The sister who came in asked her to use water instead to wash off. My girl, as I would hope, refused. The sister then took a dirty towel she’d used to wipe Natasha’s feet and offered that. Again, no dice. Eventually, we got the toilet paper with a chuckle of “fussy” in English. Bonus anti-hygiene points: The bathroom featured a used bar of soap from the prior occupants and nothing to dry your hands with.

* The second or third afternoon, Natasha’s feverish temperature was put in my chart, resulting in them attempting to switch our medicines. I had to make the correction.

* Critical requests for water (we’d been instructed to drink a certain number of liters per day), IV bag changes, IV blocks, etc. often took 10+ call button rings over 30 minutes. Calling Dr. Ghosh, as he encouraged us to do “anytime” did little or nothing, as he didn’t pick up 90%+ of the time. If he did, he said he’d speak with staff and then nothing changed. This meant we had no reliable English or supervising physician at the hospital until Dr. Gunjanrai rescued us by sheer good luck. Achtung: there appear to be quite a few people who speak English at Belle Vue. I’m not being an uppity entitled American; they had the capacity to triage this, even if it meant making the dietician, who was outstanding and spoke excellent English, our point person at additional out-of-pocket cost.

* Dr. Samrat Chatterjee (I ALWAYS write every doctor’s name down when being treated) enters our room to tend to us: a blood draw for me and a new IV for Natasha. He points to Dr. Kareem Samhouri, my friend who was visiting during proper hours, and says brusquely without looking at him, “You can leave,” while pointing at the door. I make it clear that Dr. K is my physician on the trip and listed as next of kin: he’s staying. Dr. Chatterjee then starts taking my blood sample and refuses to answer any of my questions, which focused on an odd yellow liquid in one of the collection tubes that mixed with my blood. Then to Natasha: Dr. Chatterjee rushes into the new IV insertion as Natasha screams in pain. He laughs and tells her she’s overreacting, repeating “fussy” with shake of the head. Later, when Natasha’s forearm skin swells up like lemon holding liquid, Dr. Gunjanrai will try and aspirate (draw out) blood from the IV — nothing. If you can’t get blood out of an IV, guess what? It ain’t in a vein. It’d been pushed into the tissue and several liters of fluid had been forced into Natasha’s worthless sham IV.


This is Natasha’s sham IV arm one week later.

Dr. Chatterjee, you’re a motherf*cker and should have your medical license revoked. Hopefully this post gets you part way there. You’re welcome.

* The next day, my IV clogged at least a dozen times. Somewhere between 6-12 times, I was therefore given “Hep-Lock,” named after it’s principle ingredient, heparin. Heparin can be quite dangerous, fatal if you overdose, and neither the nurses or Dr. Ghosh were remotely concerned. The blocks were blamed on me getting up to go to the bathroom or on me bending my arm. My left arm was so swollen and red from heparin that I had tingling in my fingers and couldn’t straighten my arm.

Dr. Gunjanrai, our repeated savior, replaced my IV when she removed Natasha’s sham IV. Problem fixed and perfect flow. No blocks. The only issues that cropped up were, again, process-related. On two occasions later, there was no drip; the nurses wanted to use more Hep-Lock (not a chance), so I used sign language to show they’d forgotten to put an additional needle in the IV bottle to create necessary vacuum and flow.

* On our last morning, we were to have fasting blood draws for follow-up testing. Natasha’s blood was drawn but mine was not. Since Dr. Ghosh had told us the night before we’d both be tested, I asked the sister, who replied with “Not you.” But yes! About 30 minutes after I’d finished breakfast, I was told that I’d have a sample drawn (we also had our temperatures taken right after we’d downed water). “Doesn’t it need to be fasting? Typically 8-12 hours?” No problem, I was assured.

Now, I’m no MD, but I’ve had compared hundreds of my own blood values. Blood readings taken 30 minutes after eating are not the same as from fasting. Not even close.

The End Result

We survived.

Even though I was more coherent than Natasha, I was a mess of delirium. My diarrhea was about three-times worse that hers (by frequency), I vomited more, and there were some episodes I won’t describe here, as they’ll make you nauseous. To maintain hawklike spider-sense while incapacitated, quality-controlling everything to avert disaster, is taxing beyond belief.

No one should have to do it when such simple measures can fix it. All of the above issues can be fixed with proper protocols and checklists. This is not the first time Belle Vue has had serious process screw-ups. Read this appalling news flash of a newborn baby declared dead, only to be later found alive.

But perhaps Belle Vue is too poor to make things work? Not likely, at least not based on my bill.

Cost: about $1,350 USD per person.

Dr. Ghosh’s fee? Almost 50% of each bill. Extortionary. He’s an outstanding ER physician, and he’s saved many people with horrifying injuries and infections. That said, if he’s almost never available to his patients (us in this case) and can’t manage staff to follow his life-saving directions outside of his 7-8pm visits, his expertise does next to nothing. I suspect he’s amazing when on the case 24/7. In our case, it was as if he weren’t there. 50% of the bill is an insult.

Dr. Gunjanrai’s fee? Less than $20. Give that woman a raise. She’s a superstar. I know she doesn’t have Dr. Ghosh’s credentials, but she fixed every problem she encountered, undid the messes created by others, and did it all with a Zen-like calm that made us calm. That’s a good doctor.

P. Tandon, fix your hospital. If you didn’t know already, now you do.

If you choose inaction at this point, you should be charged with premeditated homicide.

Here’s your feedback form:

The Bright Side

Experiencing pain allows you to appreciate pleasure.

Looking at the creature comforts of San Francisco, the world-class medicine I perhaps took for granted, my experience in Calcutta was a useful recalibration.

Getting the Belle Vue treatment is not necessary to increase your appreciation of what you have. This should be a principal goal in life, of course, as gratitude will determine your happiness more than achievement. In fact, Stoic philosopher and master statesman Lucius Seneca encouraged his students to practice poverty for precisely this purpose. From Martin Frost’s excellent introduction:

The second type of apathetic training proposed in the Moral Epistles is practical training, which is essentially a Stoic modification of a common Epicurean practice. In Epistle 18, Seneca informs Lucilius that Epicurus frequently set aside a number of days in which he satisfied his hunger with cheap food. The goal of this exercise apparently was to develop enough self-sufficiency that he would be able to remain happy, regardless of what his circumstances might be. Using this example, Seneca similarly advises Lucilius to practice extreme poverty for limited periods in order to test the ability of his mind to withstand the loss of his wealth in the future.

Although Seneca does not expect this type of practice to go on indefinitely or to be too severe, he makes it clear to Lucilius in Epistle 13 that it should be more than just a “mere hobby” that rich young men might play to “beguile the tedium of their lives.” Even though it is meant to last for only a few days at a time, the method should be harsh enough that it can prepare the subject for the most extreme reversal of fortune—the possibility of utter destitution.

Rehearse worst-case scenarios and they lose their power over you. Practice what you fear and ask all the while: “Is this the condition I so feared?”

You’re more resilient than you think.

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278 comments on “Belle Vue Clinic, Preventable Medical Disasters, and Stoic Lessons