BELIEVING IS SEEING


My wife read a CT Scan of the heart, done to look for coronary artery calcification, and told the referring physician the patient had breast cancer.

Whoa!  What does that have to do with heart disease?  The answer is nothing, and that is my point: we need radiologists to read films formally, not clinicians, and I say that as a former neurologist who read CT head scans well.  A medical group may own an X-Ray facility and clinicians may read the images.  But every image must have a formal reading by a radiologist, an unbiased individual trained to look at everything on the image, every corner, every part.  There is no law in nature that says a person will have only one disease process.  It is entirely possible for a neurologist to look at an MRI of the spine and miss a large abdominal aortic aneurysm.  We see what we expect to see.  Seeing isn’t believing.  Believing is seeing.  We believe something, and we tend to look for it.  We also are pattern recognizers, often useful, but leads us astray when some see Jesus on a pizza or the “The Face on Mars.”

A CT scan of the Chest has a side view.  This isn’t a mammogram, but it certainly is capable of showing a breast cancer.  In addition to the breast cancer, there was a “ground glass” area in the lung suggesting there might be an early lung cancer, too.  Wow.  A CT scan of the heart is done for coronary disease, and two primary cancers are discovered.  Maybe the cardiologist would have found those, but I doubt it.  I doubt when I read CT scans of the head that I would have found a throat cancer, even though the throat was scanned and on the film.

In my defense, I was once asked by a cardiologist to see a man who had presented with a brief spell of unconsciousness, or syncope. Neurologists are frequently consulted for syncope, and it is usually due to a non-neurological problem.  The man had recently driven 1500 miles (2500 km) from Minnesota to Arizona. I examined him, noting his breathing was faster than normal. His neurological examination was unremarkable. I obtained an arterial blood gas, since we didn’t have pulse oximetry back then, and found pronounced hypoxia.  Thinking a cardiac arrhythmia might cause unconsciousness (strokes seldom do), thinking a pulmonary embolus could cause both an arrhythmia and hypoxia, I obtained a lung scan, since that was once the “gold standard” test. The man indeed had pulmonary emboli, likely because of venous clots in the legs occurring during prolonged sitting on his long drive.

It seems trite to talk about the “good old days,” when they were not always so good.  We didn’t have the technology we have today.  On the other hand, I think our physical diagnosis—history and physical exam—was a lot better than today.  We didn’t have scribes writing down findings and ordering a plethora of tests, many of which require a lot of radiation.  More than once, my wife has told me of head CT scans or MRIs with a specific lesion.  When I asked her what the history was, she usually answered:  “It was part of a complete body work up.”

That approach makes modern medicine foreign to me.  I ordered tests I thought I needed, and if I weren’t clear in what order I should order them, I called the radiologist.  I always wrote much information about the patient on the requesting slip, back when we used paper and still knew how to write, because a radiologist could give me a better reading when they knew the area of the brain or spine in which I was interested.  When I could, and I usually made sure I could, I would look at the films with the radiologist, when we still had films, so I could see for myself and learn more about reading images.  It made the radiologist better and feel more useful; I believe it made me a better neurologist.

So, when the MRI of my neck, done because of a concern about a pinched nerve, was unchanged from 9 years earlier, that was good news. I was chagrined, however, when the radiologist told me that I had a two thyroid nodules that were missed by even the radiologist back then.  It never occurred to me look for thyroid disease on my neck MRI.  It is sort of like people’s being surprised when I tell them the Moon is visible in broad daylight.  “It is?” they say.

“It’s there, isn’t it?”  I reply.  The thyroid nodules were definitely there.  Once I looked, there they were, quite obvious, like the first quarter Moon in the southeastern sky in the afternoon.  Try finding the Moon in daylight, if you haven’t ever noticed it.  The Moon is above the horizon half the time, and other than 2 days on either side of new, it is visible, day or night. You will discover a whole new world—literally, and wonder why you never noticed it before.  That’s the problem.  We notice only what we are willing to notice.  If we learn to notice many things, it opens a door to a new world.

Sometimes, we notice a thyroid nodule.  Sometimes, we don’t.  I was lucky; the nodule was benign.  Had it not been, my thyroid cancer’s discovery would have been much later than it should have been.

Sometimes, life itself lasts longer when people notice things.

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