Solving Complex Clinical Puzzles: A Memorable Autopsy Experience

I walked into the autopsy suite, trembling and drenched in sweat, even though the atmospheric temperature was as cool as it could ever be. It was my second autopsy experience as a pathology resident and I could not make out exactly how I was feeling. My first session had exposed me to the critical role of pathologists in solving complex clinical puzzles and had left me shaken for days. And, I still wasn’t sure how the second session was going to be. But, one thing I was sure of was the fact that I still felt uncomfortable.

Not uncomfortable because of the task that had been given to us to find out the cause of death of the person I was going to meet. But I felt very uneasy with the fact that I did not know what to expect, yet again. The first session had been that of a middle-aged woman. This was going to be a case of a young man. Two different scenarios and diagnoses. I did not know what to expect. My stomach turned and churned and I could also feel my heart thumping loudly in my chest.

I looked up at my senior resident, with my attending physician observing our every move. He looked very comfortable with what we were about to do. He seemed to approach the entire situation like it was a routine procedure for him. I questioned myself, “would I ever get comfortable with doing autopsies like him?”

I listened attentively as the senior resident walked me through the process of performing an autopsy and what our duties as pathologists was supposed to be. I tried to listen as my senior colleague who was obviously very familiar with the process gave me a detailed lecture. I felt my mind wandering away, even though it seemed as though I was paying attention to what he was saying. My attention drifted back and forth as I couldn’t help thinking about so many other things including the complexities surrounding life and death.

As we went through the organs and finally began working on the lungs and heart were his primary pathologies were supposed to be, I was amazed at the pathology I was being exposed to. His bilateral lungs were severely fibrotic, encased with numerous calcified nodules that eventually turned out to be non-caseating granulomas. He also had calcified hilar nodules also confirmed histopathologically as non-caseating granulomas and his heart was markedly enlarged, with hypertrophy of biventricular walls, more prominent on the right side. His pulmonary arteries also showed signs of severe vascular disease with hyalinization and fibrosis. He had disseminated sarcoidosis, with his heart and lungs more severely affected. The sarcoid granulomas had spared the other organs and had domiciled in the lungs, with downstream effects on the heart. He fit the stereotypical case of cor-pulmonale-right sided heart failure from severe lung disease. The facts of the case suddenly began to make a lot of sense to me. I thus had a better understanding of why the patient had progressed so rapidly with his disease course with a fatal outcome.

I realized later that all my prior apprehension about performing the autopsy had been replaced by an interesting curiosity to find out more about his disease. My initial trepidation about performing that autopsy was quickly replaced by a determination to answer the “why” question. I became more involved and present with the procedure that by the time we left the autopsy suite, I thought I had learned something new that day.

That experience of being able to solve a clinical puzzle from autopsy findings made a huge impact on me. Therefore, the role of pathology and laboratory medicine in the advancement of medicine and patient care can never be overstated.

-Evi Abada, MD, MS is a Resident Physician in anatomic and clinical pathology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine/Detroit Medical Center in Michigan. She earned her Masters of Science in International Health Policy and Management from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and is a global health advocate. Dr. Abada has been appointed to serve on the ASCP’s Resident’s Council and was named one of ASCP’S 40 under Forty honorees for the year 2020. You can follow her on twitter @EviAbadaMD.

Critical Values: The Burden, Promise and Realization of Virtual Interviews for Pathology Residency During a Pandemic

The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to cause increased infections and deaths around the world with considerable impact on clinical and laboratory medicine communities. Meanwhile, medical students and the medical community are also undertaking the yearly tribulation of residency interview season. Following the May announcement by the Coalition for Physician Accountability’s Work Group on Medical Students,1 the 2020 interview season will be entirely conducted utilizing virtual interviews. In pointed response to this change in format, residency programs rapidly scrambled to bolster websites, increase their social media presence, add virtual tours and prepare for the virtual interview format prior to the start of interview season. Now, at the midpoint of interview season, it is evident that some burdens of traditional on-site interviews are indeed being alleviated. Whether or not online resident socials and virtual tours can sufficiently substitute for all aspects of on-site visits and if the promise of increased spread of geographic and cultural diversity can be realized remains to be accurately assessed. The survival of the virtual format may even depend on this assessment.

The average cost of traditional on-site pathology interviews has continued to increase for medical students from a per person average of $3400 in 2015 to $4000 in 2020.2 Much of this expense comes from travel/transportation while some pathology programs provided accommodations. Additionally, interview season required about 20 total days away from medical school. To cover these expenses, about half (49%) of medical students borrow money for interviews . Not surprisingly, the majority of them agree that travel (79%) and lodging (65%) are overly burdensome components of interview season.2 Beyond accounting, the salient impact of these time and financial investments is that they were influencing the majority (58%) of interview decisions.

While the rising time and financial burdens of traditional on-site residency interviews were well-known and there was and continues to be a myriad of ideas3 on how to best address these concerns and the match overall, a small burgeoning literature on virtual resident interviews was available prior to the pandemic that showed promise for addressing these concerns.4,5 That is, in the 2020 – 2021 residency interview season, medical students are estimated to spend about 3.5 hours on an average virtual interview day instead of the 8 hour day of a traditional interview and through the elimination of travel time they may spend 7 less days on the interview trail. Thus, the cost of interviewing is also projected to be skeletonized to that of necessary professional clothing and computer hardware. Additional promising data from this small body of research suggests that 85% of virtual interviewees were satisfied with their understanding of the program and their ability to present themselves to residency programs.6 Furthermore, the fact that the residency program’s rank list showed no significant impact based on whether candidates interviewed virtually or in-person suggests that residency programs may feel capable of fairly assessing candidates.7

Beyond time and financial savings for pathology residency applicants and the assessment of candidates by residency programs and vice versa, the measurability of additional outcomes may be critical to the continuation of virtual resident interviews. In particular, there is great interest in online social events and interview day resident panels as a sufficient substitute for the naturally evolving casual conversations that occur during the dinners, lunches and tours available with on-site visits. Also, whether or not these socials combined with interviews with a small subset of faculty can accurately portray a pathology residency program’s culture. In prior surveys that compared in-person, virtual or a combined approach to interviews, candidates always favored in-person assessment when given the choice. The present circumstance will perhaps be the best attempt at an unbiased assessment of the perception of culture through virtual interviews. Last but not least, given the turbulent nature of race relations and culture in the United States over the last year combined with the ability of applicants to virtually interview without travel or financial restrictions, it will be absolutely critical to understand if virtual interviews portend to increase the spread of geographic and cultural diversity among applicants to pathology residency programs. That is, if current trends in resident recruitment can be altered from the current rate of 40 – 60% intraregional resident matriculation or whether the needs of financial and family assistance and/or intraregional familiarity are insurmountable.8 For if the potential for greater diversity is attainable in a significant manner that can be perpetuated into the future, it will be hard to argue for a return to the traditional format. That said, there will likely be bias in the data as an increasing number of pathology residency programs have heard the call to arms and are marching towards diversity, inclusion and equity through greater promotion, recruitment and retention efforts.9

In a tumultuous year that has included race relations reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era combined with a total number of worldwide pandemic deaths similar to the 1957 or 1968 influenza pandemics, medicine continues its steady progression toward improved healthcare and education for all. Following the May 2020 recommendations to implement virtual residency interviews, pathology residency programs moved expeditiously to bolster their websites, increase their social media presence, add virtual tours and prepare for the virtual interview format. Amid this tumult, the virtual interview format has already served to lessen the burdens of time and cost while also serving the practical needs of interview assessments for both medical students and residency programs. Yet, only time and methodical assessment will tell if the virtual interview format eliminates the impact of these burdens on residency decisions, allows both parties to adequately assess cultural fit and if the format and its advantages are here to stay. Regardless, it is imperative that the emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity remains irrespective of future format.

References

  1. The Coalition for Physician Accountability’s Work Group on Medical Students in the Class of 2021 Moving Across Institutions for Post Graduate Training Final Report and Recommendations for Medical Education Institutions of LCME-Accredited, U.S. Osteopathic, and Non-U.S. Medical School Applicants.
  2. Pourmand, A., Lee, H., Fair, M., Maloney, K. & Caggiula, A. Feasibility and usability of tele-interview for medical residency interview. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine 19, 80–86 (2018).
  3. Hammoud, M. M., Andrews, J. & Skochelak, S. E. Improving the Residency Application and Selection Process: An Optional Early Result Acceptance Program. JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association 323, 503–504 (2020).
  4. Chandler, N. M., Litz, C. N., Chang, H. L. & Danielson, P. D. Efficacy of Videoconference Interviews in the Pediatric Surgery Match. J. Surg. Educ. 76, 420–426 (2019).
  5. Vining, C. C. et al. Virtual Surgical Fellowship Recruitment During COVID-19 and Its Implications for Resident/Fellow Recruitment in the Future. Ann. Surg. Oncol. 1 (2020). doi:10.1245/s10434-020-08623-2
  6. Healy, W. L. & Bedair, H. Videoconference Interviews for an Adult Reconstruction Fellowship: Lessons Learned. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery – American Volume 99, E114 (2017).
  7. Vadi, M. G. et al. Comparison of web-based and face-to-face interviews for application to an anesthesiology training program: a pilot study. Int. J. Med. Educ. 7, 102–108 (2016).
  8. Shappell, C. N., Farnan, J. M., McConville, J. F. & Martin, S. K. Geographic Trends for United States Allopathic Seniors Participating in the Residency Match: a Descriptive Analysis. J. Gen. Intern. Med. 34, 179–181 (2019).
  9. Ware, A. D. et al. The “Race” Toward Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Pathology: The Johns Hopkins Experience. Acad. Pathol. 6, (2019).

-Josh Klonoski, MD, PhD, is a chief resident at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, with a focus in neuroinfectious disease and global health. He has completed the first year of a neuropathology fellowship (out of sequence) and is in his final year of an anatomical and clinical pathology residency. Dr. Klonoski will return to the second neuropathology fellowship year in 2021 – 2022 and apply for a mentored clinical scientist research career development award (K08). The focus of his laboratory research is influenza and active projects include flu pneumonia, super-infections, encephalitis and oncolytic virotherapy.

A Closer Look at “Inside the Lab”

Hello everyone and welcome back!

If you’re as “plugged in” to the pathology and laboratory medicine community as I am, then you’ve been absolutely swimming in the explosion of new content and novel delivery this past year alone! A lot of it is a result of our unfortunate pandemic circumstance, but the pathology media-train has been gaining speed for quite a while now.  Whether you’re a podcast addict, an enthusiastic virtual annual meeting participant (which is still open!), or if you’ve spent way too much time on Path Twitter, I’m right there with you!

Image 1. Awesome Title. Awesome Topics. Awesome Podcast. Subscribe today!

I’ve talked here before about the power and impact of social media in our community, and I could drone on and on about its impressive potential and warn you about pitfalls, give you tips, or just celebrate success stories. But that’s boring. You may or may not have a social media presence, in which case I’d either be pandering to the choir, or putting you sound asleep. Well, I didn’t match into anesthesia, so let me give you the readers’ (tweeters’?) digest. ASCP has (yet again) taken a huge stride in making a presence in today’s increasingly digital age. Catalyzed by many things—pandemic included—many of the projects I have heard about among ASCP colleagues have started to magically materialize; enter the podcast. Among podcast media, ASCP’s Inside the Lab absolutely nails the archetype of what good podcasting is today! It’s a wonderfully curated series, highlighting super relevant topics, and is hosted by a fantastic team. But that’s not all! (wait, this sounds like a commercial, I’m drafting an email about promotional royalties right now…) Kidding. Sort of. Along with the topics, discussions, and guest panelists in the 7 episodes thus far, you can get continuing education credits!

Let me stop there. For emphasis. Imagine you’re driving to work. Sipping your coffee, sitting through traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway (to those not in Chicago, we name them—we can talk more about this later). You suddenly remember you need CME/CMLE credits for your continuing ed maintenance. Great, you’ll just go hunting online for some boring QA/QC module about something somewhat related to your interests. Or… you could pop in those air pods and turn this podcast on for 1 AMA PRA credit a piece! Leave the murder mystery podcast for the drive home and spend the morning Inside the Lab! But I promised the readers’ digest, right? The following are highlights from a few of the currently available episodes for your listening and CE registering pleasure…

Image 2. Can’t have a good show, without good hosts. Dr. Milner, Dr. Mulder, and Kelly Swails are just that: excellent hosts and fantastic conversationalists who bring up interesting topics that go deeper into pathology and laboratory medicine. It makes for easy listening, easier CE, and provides the listener with a nice peek Inside the Lab. (Oh man, see what I did there?)

Hosted by Dr. Danny Milner (ASCP Chief Medical Officer and Global Health Champion), Dr. Lotte Mulder (ASCP Leadership and Empowerment extraordinaire), and Lablogatory’s very own Kelly Swails (digital managing editor in publications); the podcast has featured numerous amazing guests and topics ranging from testing logistics and interprofessional collaboration, to burnout and (obviously) COVID.

Episode 1: Disparities in COVID Cases Among Minorities

The inaugural episode featured Dr. Von Samedi (Associate Professor of Pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine), Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh (Associate Professor/Interim Chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Rutgers), and ASCP Social Media teammate Aaron Odegard (Infectious Disease MLS at Baptist Health Jacksonville). The inaugural topic (not a softball by any measure): how Black, Latinx, and minorities have suffered the brunt of COVID worse than other demographics. They discussed how COVID, at large, has uncovered swaths of long-standing, problematic disparities, and failures of our healthcare system. I gave a lecture on this topic when I was in New York as part of a CDC-funded, public health training seminar back in April of this (super long) year and things haven’t gotten any better—in fact from April to August when this episode aired, cases absolutely skyrocketed, especially in minority populations. The discussion’s bottom line: our community stands at a crossroads of education and delivery of results to both change the paradigm and improve the system. Good stuff. Listen here.

Episode 3: Online Teaching and Learning in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

This cutting-edge episode featured our hosts talking to Dr. Sara Wobker (Assistant Professor in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill), Dr. Natalie Banet (Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Brown University), and Dr. Richard Davis (Regional Director of Microbiology for Providence Health Care in WA). The topic: how the pandemic has shunted all educational efforts into zoom meetings, virtual conferences, and online classes. Maybe this was happening already? The panelists talked about the old guard of education and the new way online learning has provided dynamic, flexible options for various students of all learning styles. Limitations, however, are clear when addressing pathology education—it’s not so easy to go virtual overnight and you can see the growing pains in every laboratory department. When you try to deliver old lessons across new platforms, things don’t work. So, in order to maintain relevance, engagement, and success educators must take into consideration different types of students, social determinants of learning, cultural backgrounds, accessibility, and inclusion for all. Highly relevant today. Listen here.

Episode 6: Pathology Research and Publication

Finally, I’ll end with a more recent episode. This one featured a panel that included (among their many other academic and clinical roles) Dr. Steven Kroft (Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Clinical Pathology), Dr. Roger Bertholf (Editor-in-Chief of Laboratory Medicine), and Dr. Sanjay Mukhopadyay (Associate Editor of the American Journal of Clinical Pathology). The topic for these well-published leaders in our field: how important it is to maintain a scientific standard, and how to get your paper published—yes you! They all talked about peer review, editing, submitting, and being able to tell whether paper’s are “good.” A seemingly subjective measure, but apropos of the year we’ve had which was filled with so many “bad” pieces of scientific literature. The benefits and limitations of peer-review are something we all have come to scrutinize as the digital age puts out clinical content ad nauseum on our social media feeds. But they all assert that one thing should be preserved as the future of scientific publication unfolds: the ability to create a standard by which professional societies, and medical subgroups and communities, collect and assess the science behind our work with purpose, accuracy, efficacy, and efficiency. It behooves editors as well as writers to enter a process that, ultimately, aims to improve the system as a whole—for the benefit of patients everywhere. Exactly how we are #StrongerTogether. Check it out here.

Image 3. You’re still here. It’s over. Go home. Go. Go listen to the podcast. Get your CE!

Check out these and the rest of the available episodes at www.ascp.org/insidethelab, Apple’s app store, Spotify, Google play, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

Thanks for reading, now go listen!

See you next time!

Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS(ASCP)CM is a first-year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. He is a certified CAP inspector, holds an ASCP LMU certificate, and xxx. He was named on the 2017 ASCP Forty Under 40 list, The Pathologist magazine’s 2020 Power List and serves on ASCP’s Commission for Continuing Professional Development, Social Media Committee, and Patient Champions Advisory Board. He was featured in several online forums during the peak of the COVID pandemic discussing laboratory-related testing considerations, delivered a TEDx talk called “Unrecognizable Medicine,” and sits on the Auxiliary Board of the American Red Cross in Illinois. Dr. Kanakis is active on social media; follow him at @CEKanakisMD.

Microbiology Case Study: Interesting Case of a Cavitary Lung Mass

Case History

A 50 year old male with a significant past medical history of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, smoking tobacco abuse and obstructive sleep apnea was referred to our institution’s pulmonology clinic for cavitary lung mass. The lung mass was incidentally discovered on chest x-ray and has been clinically stable on serial imaging for over two years; however, a previous extensive laboratory workup including computed tomography (CT) guided biopsy was unrevealing to its etiology. The patient was noted to be largely asymptomatic at his initial office visit; repeat diagnostic workup was ordered. CT chest imaging revealed a 2.8 x 1.9 x 2.0 cm cavitary lung mass in the posterior left lower lobe that was unchanged compared to outside CT imaging from approximately 4 months prior.

Image 1. Cross section (left) and Sagittal (right) views from CT chest without contrast revealed a 2.8 cm transverse by 1.9 cm anteroposterior by 2.0 cm craniocaudal stable mass-like opacity in the left lower lobe superior segment broadly abutting the posterior pleura with a tiny internal focus of cavitation.

Given the chronicity of the lung mass, atypical infection (Nocardia, endemic fungi, mycobacterium) and primary pulmonary cancer were highest on the differential diagnosis. Blood tests including endemic fungal serologies, QuantiFERON-TB Gold, cryptococcal antigen, galactomannan and Fungitell (1-3)-B-d glucan assay were negative. Given the unrevealing non-invasive workup, a repeat CT guided biopsy was performed and core biopsy samples were sent for AFB, fungal and Nocardia cultures as well as for histopathological examination.

Histopathology revealed necrotizing granulomatous inflammation with empty spherules of Coccidioides suggestive of a remote infection of long duration (Images 2, 3). Additionally, no microorganisms were isolated from cultures. Based on these findings, an infectious disease (ID) consult was placed. The patient remained asymptomatic and revealed a long history of residing within areas of the Southwestern United States endemic to Coccidioides species (sp.) during his ID office visit. Repeat Coccidioides complement fixation was positive for IgG (Titer: 1:4) with negative IgM by immunodiffusion testing. Urine Coccidioides antigen tested by quantitative sandwich enzyme immunoassay was negative. These findings likely represent past history of coccidiomycosis and not active infection. Antifungal therapy was deferred due to the patient’s asymptomatic status. The patient was monitored with close clinical follow up and continued serial imaging.

Histopathology Images

Image 2. Hematoxylin and eosin stained sections of formalin fixed paraffin embedded (FFPE) tissue from core biopsy of cavitary lung mass. Necrotizing granulomatous inflammation at 40X (A) and 100X (B) with empty spherules of Coccidioides (C, D) at 600X.
Image 3. Special stains performed of formalin fixed paraffin embedded (FFPE) tissue from core biopsy of cavitary lung mass highlighting empty spherules. Grocott’s methenamine silver stain at 100X (A) and 400X (B). Periodic Acid Schiff for Fungus stain at 600X (C).

Discussion

Coccidioides sp. are dimorphic fungi with a mycelial (saprophytic) phase in the environment and a spherule (parasitic) phase in its host.1 It is the cause of coccidiomycosis, also known as valley fever, desert fever or San Joaquin fever, which has a wide range of clinical presentations from subclinical manifestations (~60%) to an influenza-like illness followed by skin lesions to the most pathological form, disseminated disease.1 It can also cause the development of cavitary lung masses, as described in this case.1 It is endemic to the Southwestern region of the United States where it prefers dry, arid conditions.2 Infections normally occur by inhalation of infective arthroconidia, which have matured from mycelium, following disruption of soil.1 Once inside the host, lungs spherules containing endospores develop (Image 4).1 These spherules rupture releasing the endospores which can continue to develop into spherules to maintain a continuous parasitic cycle or can be exhaled into the environment to continue its saprophytic phase.1

Image 4. High magnification images of hematoxylin and eosin stained sections of formalin fixed paraffin embedded (FFPE) lung tissue revealing multiple spherules containing endospores (left) consistent with active Coccidioides infection and a giant ruptured spherule releasing endospores (right) that will continue to propagate Coccidioides infection.

Two morphologically indistinct species exist (C. immitis and C. posadasii) that can only be definitively identified by molecular methods.3 C. immitis is predominantly found in central and southern California while C. posadasii can be found in other non-Californian southwestern US states and extending into western Texas and down throughout Mexico and South America.3 When cultured, it grows rapidly at both 25°C and 37°C into woolly white colonies that develop alternating barrel-shaped arthroconidia that can be seen on tape prep with lactophenol blue.4

References

  1. Donovan FM, Shubitz L, Powell D, Orbach M, Frelinger J, Galgiani JM. 2019. Early Events in Coccidiomycosis. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 33, e00112-19, DOI: 10.1128/CMR.00112-19
  2. Hernandez H, Erives VH, Martinez LR. 2019. Coccidioidomycosis: Epidemiology, Fungal Pathogenesis and Therapeutic Development. Current Tropical Medicine Reports, 6, 132-144,  DOI: 10.1007/s40475-019-00184-z
  3. Kirkland TN, Fierer J. 2018. Coccidioides immitis and posadasii; a review of their biology, genomics, pathogenesis, and host immunity, Virulence, 9:1, 1426-1435, DOI: 10.1080/21505594.2018.1509667
  4. Love GL, Ribes JA. 2018. Color Atlas of Mycology, An Illustrated Field Guide Based on Proficiency Testing. College of American Pathologists (CAP), p. 234-235

-John Markantonis is the current Medical Microbiology fellow at UT Southwestern and will be completing his Clinical Pathology residency in 2022. He is also interested in Transfusion Medicine and parasitic diseases.

-Dominick Cavuoti is a Professor at UT Southwestern and specializes in Infectious Diseases Pathology, Medical Microbiology and Cytology.

-Clare McCormick-Baw, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Microbiology at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She has a passion for teaching about laboratory medicine in general and the best uses of the microbiology lab in particular.

Hematology Case Study: A 20 Year Old with Anemia

Case History

A 20 year old Black male with a known history of HbS trait went to the primary care office for a pre-surgical evaluation for elective laparoscopic cholecystectomy for symptomatic cholelithiasis. All physical exam findings were negative. The patient had blood work completed and was found to have mild anemia with microcytosis. On previous imaging, the spleen was noted to be slightly enlarged. Further workup included a peripheral blood smear, finding target cells, microspherocytes, folded cells, and rod-shaped Hb C crystals (see image below). No sickled RBCs were noted.

Image 1. Peripheral blood smear with anemia, increased polychromatphilic RBCs, numerous target cells and rare HbC crystals

Discussion

Hemoglobin C disease is an intrinsic red cell disorder caused by Hemoglobin C (Hb C). Hb C is a variant of normal Hemoglobin A (Hb A) that results from a missense mutation in the β-globin protein, replacing the glutamic acid at position 6 with a lysine molecule. The disease can be either in the homozygous state (Hb CC) or in the heterozygous states (Hb AC or Hb SC). The origin of this mutation was traced back to West Africa and is found to confer protection against severe manifestations of malaria. In the United States, the Hb C allele is prevalent in about 1-2% of the African American population. There is an equal incidence between gender, and the incidence of the homozygous disease (i.e., Hb CC) is only 0.02%. Nevertheless, these statistics may be under-representative, since the disease is generally asymptomatic.

Heterozygous individuals with Hb AC usually show no symptoms, while homozygous individuals with Hb CC can have mild hemolytic anemia, jaundice, and splenomegaly. When Hb C is combined with other hemoglobinopathies, such as Hemoglobin S (Hb S), more serious complications can result. Hb S is similar to HbC in that it arises from a missense mutation; ie, a valine is substituted for the glutamic acid at the 6th position on the β-globin protein. As a result of this mutation, HbS abnormally polymerizes when in the presence of low oxygen tension, leaving the red blood cells (RBCs) rigid and irregularly shaped. Sickle cell disease (SCD) typically is a result of homozygous Hb S mutations (i.e., Hb SS), but the disease can also come from Hb SC.

All clinical features of Hb SS can be seen in Hb SC, including painful vaso-occlusive crises, chronic hemolytic anemia, stroke, acute chest syndrome, etc. Nevertheless, Hb SC is generally a milder disease. The complications from HbSC disease are less severe and less frequent when compared to Hb SS. Fortunately, unlike those with Hb SS disease, patients with Hb SC disease do not experience autosplenectomy, but they can develop splenomegaly. There are two complications that occur in HbSC disease occur more frequently than in HbSS disease, and they include proliferative sickle cell retinopathy and avascular necrosis of the femoral head (the latter case presents especially in peripartum women). Therefore, patients with HbSC disease should follow up with ophthalmology and obstetrics to monitor these complications. Furthermore, patients with Hb SC disease can vary in the severity of symptoms and the resulting complications. For example, some patients may develop a severe anemia and require blood transfusions; whereas, other patients are minimally affected by the disease. Overall, patients with Hb SC disease tend to have a better life expectancy compared to those with Hb SS disease. Patients with Hb SS disease have an average life expectancy of 40 years, while those with Hb SC disease are expected to live into their 60s and 70s. In contrast to Hb SS and Hb SC disease, Hb CC disease does not have an increase in mortality. As mentioned earlier, Hb CC disease results only in mild anemia, asymptomatic splenomegaly, and largely absent clinical symptoms.

Pathologic features of Hb SC and Hb CC diseases can be seen on a peripheral blood smear (PBS). Hb CC disease does not show sickled RBCs, while Hb SC can show sickled RBCs though very rarely. More importantly, Hb C is prone to polymerize into characteristic crystals. Depending on the zygosity of the individual, the crystals take on a defining shape. In heterozygous individuals (Hb SC), the crystals are found as irregular, amorphous, or bent appearing, and the RBCs can take on a “spiked and hooked” appearance. In homozygous individuals (Hb CC), the crystals are elongate, straight, and uniformly dense (as seen in the case above). In addition to crystals, the PBS shows numerous target cells, scattered folded cells, and microspherocytes.

Ancillary studies for diagnosis of these diseases include Hb variant analysis, such as electrophoresis and high-pressure liquid chromatography. Cellulose acetate (alkaline) electrophoresis is a standard method used to separate Hb A, Hb A2, Hb F, Hb C, Hb S, and other variants according to charge. Some hemoglobin variants comigrate using this described method, so citrate agar (acid) electrophoresis can be used additionally to distinguish between these variants. In Hb CC disease, analysis shows nearly all Hb C with small amounts of Hb F (i.e., fetal hemoglobin) and HbA2 (i.e., a normal variant of Hb A, in which the hemoglobin molecule is made up of 2 α chains and 2 δ chains). In Hb SC disease, analysis demonstrates almost equal amounts of Hb S and Hb C.

References

  1. Aster JC, Pozdnyakova O, Kutok JL. Hematopathology: A Volume in the High Yield Pathology Series. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier Inc.; 2013.
  2. Gao J, Monaghan SA. Hematopathology. Chapter 1: Red Blood Cell/Hemoglobin Disorders. 3rd edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018.
  3. Karna B, Jha SK, Al Zaabi E. Hemoglobin C Disease. 2020 Jun 9. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan–. PMID: 32644469.
  4. Mitton BA. Hemoglobin C Disease. Medscape, 9 Nov. 2019, emedicine.medscape.com/article/200853-overview.
  5. Saunthararajah Y, Vichinsky EP. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. Chapter 42: Sickle Cell Disease: Clinical Features and Management. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018.

-Amy Brady is a 4th-year medical student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is currently applying to AP/CP pathology residency programs. Follow her on Twitter @amybrady517.

-Kamran Mirza, MD PhD is an Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Medical Education, and the Vice-Chair of Education in the Department of Pathology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Follow him on Twitter @KMirza.

Virtually Amazing

Hello everyone and welcome back!

I’ve appreciated some amazing feedback from my previous post discussing how doctors can sometimes be patients too, and the challenges one might face in different roles within our health care system. Not only a challenge of roles, but those that struggle with invisible illness have unique perspectives on patient care.

That said, this month let me take a break from all the fun content found between cases, concepts, and trends in pathology and laboratory medicine, and celebrate our amazingly successful (and virtual) Annual ASCP Meeting!

Image 1. Just look at this virtual lobby! Set aside that in-person connectivity dissapointment and just appreciate the quality put into this visually! More of my oggling to come in further images…

It was awesome. But don’t just take my word for it, we’re all people of science here, right? So let’s do it by the numbers!

  • 133 educational sessions
  • 3 general sessions
  • 4 named lectures
  • 36 round table sessions which included topics like wellness, problem-solving, collaborative solutions, and “birds of a feather” breakout discussions
  • 9 virtual video microscopy sessions
  • 8 session dedicated to laboratory professionals covering hematology, chemistry, microbiology, and blood banking
  • 6 resident board review sessions
  • 15 companion society sessions
  • 14 sessions related to wellness
  • 4 sessions discussing diversity and inclusion
  • 10 COVID-focused sessions
  • 20 grant funded sessions
  • 4 virtual patient symposia (more on this topic below…) and
  • And 300+ posters!
Image 2. More visual appreciation here: virtual sessions felt like you were really in a large, collective meeting of enthusiastic, like-minded laboratory professionals all learning, collaborating, and networking together!
Image 3. I was fortunate enough to to speak on this amazing panel regarding direct patient-and-pathologist interactions, making laboratory medicine and the overal healthcare experience, safer, more accessible, more interdisciplinary, and better equiped at dealing with the forefront of medical diagnostics!
Image 4. So, the session went well! Just look at that social media data: 36 million impressions over 3.5 days! That’s 1 million people engaging ASCP topics a day, or 12 people per second! All actively discussing and collaborating topics in pathology and laboratory medicine.
Image 5. How could I (of all people) ignore the fact that #ASCP2020 featured an amazing social (media) lounge where people from all over could connect, chat, network, and relax! There were interactive, virtual sessions covering all kinds of non-lab med stuff: yoga, meditation, mixology, and cooking! I hope this is a permanent addition to future (hopefully) hybrid in-person/virtual meetings.

What more could you ask for? The folks that run the logistics and planning for the ASCP Annual Meeting outdid themselves again. Sure this content would excite anyone in the field for 3 dedicated days of immersive learning and networking, but all this and more are still available online for virtual on-demand recorded viewing! Missed a session? No worries, it’s still waiting for you for about 6 months (through March of 2021). All the buzz aside from ASCP members having free access to all of this content, the excitement started months before the meeting went live. Estimates are still coming in, but membership grew by a couple hundred in the weeks leading up to the meeting—not surprising: free access for members? That was an excellent deal, so choice.

Image 6. The start of the #ASCPSoMeTeam’s amazing trajectory culminated at #ASCP2019 in Arizona, the more we work together the more we can accomplish for our profession and our patients, #StrongerTogether.
Image 7. ASCP’s Resident & Pathologist Councils are invaluable assets to promoting and advancing all of our professional development. #ASCP2020 was no different! From virtual fellowship fairs to online, interactive resident council sessions, there was a lot to take it—still available online!
Image 8. I’ve talked about previous ASCP Annual Meetings here and here, and while I can’t list every single aspect of what made this meeting (virtually) amazing, members can check in for about 6 months and see for themselves the quality and attention to detail that comes directly from our collective passion to make pathology and laboratory medicine better, for everyone. Kudos to the ASCP leadership and logistics teams that made this all possible!

Great to see you all at the meeting!

Thanks for reading! See you next time!


-Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM is a new first year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. His posts focus on the broader issues important to the practice of clinical laboratory medicine and their applications to global/public health, outreach/education, and advancing medical science. He is actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Watch his TEDx talk entitled “Unrecognizable Medicine” and follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD.

It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here: Cytology Case Study

In my previous post here on Lablogatory, I discussed the diagnosis and comparison of two mediastinal fine needle aspiration (FNA) cases – thymoma and thymic carcinoma. I tooted my own horn of how I instantly recognized the tumors on Rapid On-Site Evaluation (ROSE), as the characteristics were exactly how I remembered them from my cytology knowledge bank formulated in grad school. Here’s a case that completely threw me off my game. I had never seen this type of tumor nor heard of it, at least not to my memory, but that’s the beauty of lab medicine—we’re continuously learning.

A 43 year old female with hypertension and no cancer history presented to a vascular surgery clinic for treatment of varicose veins, and an ultrasound was performed, noting a mass in the left inguinal region. The patient subsequently had an MRI, which demonstrated a predominantly fatty mass in that area with enhancement and probable necrosis within the lesion. The differential diagnosis determined by imaging was fat necrosis versus liposarcoma. With this risk of malignancy, the patient came to our institution for biopsy and further guidance. The ultrasound department visualized the left inguinal mass of mixed echogenicity, measuring 3 centimeters with a focal area of central necrosis.

After receiving two FNA passes of the patient’s left inguinal mass from the radiologist, I made mirror-image smears of the samples, air-drying one slide for Rapid On-Site Evaluation (ROSE), fixing the other in 95% Ethanol, and rinsing the needles in Hanks Balanced Salt Solution to later make a FFPE-Cell Block.

Image 1. Left inguinal FNA, DQ-stained smear.
Image 2. Left inguinal FNA, Pap stained smear.
Image 3. Left inguinal FNA. H&E cell block section.

I remember my differentials – Lipomatous tumor of unknown etiology versus clear cell renal cell carcinoma versus adrenal cortical carcinoma. I knew it was a neoplasm of sorts and that we had adequate material for a diagnosis. But I could not make a definitive diagnosis, and it mind-boggled me. That’s when my cytopathology director reviewed the case with me, and I went straight to the cytology encyclopedias.

The FNA specimen was signed out as a “Benign-appearing adipose tissue neoplasm, consistent with hibernoma.

Image 4. Left inguinal core biopsy, H&E section 100X.
Image 5. Left inguinal core biopsy, H&E section 400x.

Hibernoma was also diagnosed on the concurrent core biopsy specimen by the surgical pathologist on service.

Hibernomas are rare brown fat tumors that typically develop where brown fat is normally distributed throughout the body, such as the upper back, thigh, and retroperitoneum.2 Brown fat, or brown adipose tissue is responsible for non-shivering, mitochondria-rich thermogenesis.3 From the cytology images, one can appreciate the small, eccentric nuclei and capillaries, featuring three cell types: mature adipocytes (think lipoma), lipoblast-like cells (think liposarcoma), and hibernoma cells, which appear to be highly, but uniformly vacuolated adipocytes with granular cytoplasm.

Two months after the initial biopsy, the patient underwent a radical resection of her left thigh hibernoma en bloc with a portion of the iliopsoas muscle and femoral nerve neurolysis. The intraoperative findings showed a 5.2 centimeter well-circumscribed mass directly beneath the femoral vessels, beginning at the common femoral artery and extending to the level of bifurcation of the superficial femoral artery and profunda. The mass was adherent to the posterior wall of the vessel, but fortunately did not involve the adventitial layer. The mass, however, was more adherent to the pectineus muscle and inseparable from the middle portion of the iliopsoas muscle. The mass was also adherent to the hip, and in order to clear the mass from that space, an arthrotomy was made.

Image 6. Left inguinal resection, H&E section 100 x.
Image 7. Left inguinal mass resection, H&E section 400x.

The surgical pathologist signed out the case as follows:

– Hibernoma with focal myxoid changes, 5.3. cm. The inked margins showed no tumor.

 In the middle of the hibernoma, there was a nodular myxoid lesion with spindle cells. Due to a question of liposarcoma, cytogenomic microarray analysis (CMA) was performed which was negative for genomic imbalances. Immunostain performed on a frozen section of tissue showed that the atypical cells were positive for Desmin, confirming that they are skeletal muscle.

If this case was diagnosed as a liposarcoma rather than hibernoma, one would see atypical lipoblasts with more prominent capillaries, like a well-differentiated liposarcoma. Depending on the type of liposarcoma, one might also identify a myxoid stroma or round cells.2

Hibernomas are a unique kind of tumor where the consensus on how to manage them remains split – some favor observation, while others suggest surgical intervention. From the literature, there are no reports to suggest metastasis or malignant degeneration/transformation, but many do favor a resection if feasible.1

References

  1. AlQattan, A. S., Al Abdrabalnabi, A. A., Al Duhileb, M. A., Ewies, T., Mashhour, M., & Abbas, A. (2020). A Diagnostic Dilemma of a Subcutaneous Hibernoma: Case Report. American Journal of Case Reports, 21, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.12659/ajcr.921447
  2. Cibas, E. S., & Ducatman, B. S. (2009). Cytology: Diagnostic Principles and Clinical Correlates, Expert Consult – Online and Print (3rd ed.). Saunders.
  3. Cypress, A., & Khan, C. (2010). The Role and Importance of Brown Adipose Tissue in Energy Homeostasis. Curr Opin Pediatr, 22(4), 478–484. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOP.0b013e32833a8d6e

Taryn Waraksa, MS, SCT(ASCP)CM, CT(IAC), has worked as a cytotechnologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since earning her master’s degree from Thomas Jefferson University in 2014. She is an ASCP board-certified Specialist in Cytotechnology with an additional certification by the International Academy of Cytology (IAC). She is also a 2020 ASCP 40 Under Forty Honoree.

Microbiology Case Study: 83 Year Old Male with Bladder Cancer

Case History An 83 year old male with bladder cancer was treated with Mycobacterium bovis Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), his last treatment occurring 1.5 months prior to presentation. He has a past medical history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, and diabetes. The patient has been hospitalized four times over the last two months and his symptoms include generalized weakness, malaise, shortness of breath and recurrent fever. He was found to have patchy lung infiltrates and he was diagnosed with pneumonia, COPD exacerbation and symptoms of heart filature. He was treated previously with antibiotics, steroids and fluid management which would temporarily relieve his symptoms. He presents to the hospital again, four days after his last hospital discharge, with generalized weakness, malaise, shortness of breath and recurrent fever. On initial evaluation he was found to be pancytopenic.  

Laboratory Identification

Blood cultures were negative. A bone marrow biopsy was performed for fever of unknown origin and pancytopenia. The biopsy showed non-caseating granulomas which were negative for acid-fast bacilli (AFB) by Ziehl-Neelsen stain and fungal elements by Gomori Methenamine Silver Stain (GMS). A laboratory-develped PCR test for Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC) was performed on the bone marrow and was negative. AFB culture of bone marrow was positive for after 30 days of incubation and the organism was confirmed to be acid-fast bacilli by auramine-rhodamine fluorescent dye and Kinyoun stain. A second laboratory-developed test that uses heat shock protein (HSP) 2 and HSP3 to determine species level identification of Mycobacteria identified the organism as M. tuberculosis complex. Due to the patient’s history, further identification was performed at a reference lab using specific oligonucleotides targeting the gyrb DNA sequence polymorphisms which is able to separate different members of the MTBC. The patient’s isolate contained a RD1 deletion which is specific for Mycobacterium bovis bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG).

Discussion

Mycobacterium bovis is a slow growing mycobacterium which produces rough, dry colonies on growth solid media. It is one of the species in the MTBC with a natural host of domestic and wild animals. Routine molecular tests will not accurately differentiate between members of the MTBC. For definitive identification of M. bovis, 16S rRNA and gyrB gene sequencing is necessary. Safe handling procedures should be followed prior to molecular testing of MTBC.

Mycobacterium bovis BCG is a live, attenuated strain of Mycobacterium bovis that was created for vaccine and is used in the treatment of superficial bladder cancer. The treatment may cause localized symptoms including hematuria, fever, nausea, and dysuria which are marker of anti-tumor effect. Serious complications occur in <5% of patients with complications including sepsis, pneumonitis, hepatitis, lymphocytic meningitis, bone marrow involvement, and mycotic aneurysms. The cardinal sign of BCG infection is a relapsing fever with drenching night sweats persisting beyond 48 hours. Disseminated infection can occur days to years after the therapy. Clinical suspicion should be high for M. bovis BCG dissemination if there are symptoms and a high grade fever ≥72 hours. Treatment includes a regiment of isoniazid, rifampin and ethambutol. Most isolates of M. bovis are resistant to pyrazinamide.

References

  1. Lamm DL. Efficacy and safety of bacille Calmette-Guérin immunotherapy in superficial bladder cancer. Clin Infect Dis 2000; 31 Suppl 3:S86.
  2. Shelley MD, Court JB, Kynaston H, et al. Intravesical Bacillus Calmette-Guerin in Ta and T1 Bladder Cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2000; :CD001986.
  3. Richter E, Weizenegger M, Rusch-Gerdes S, Niemann S. Evaluation of Genotype MTBC Assay for Differentiation of Clinical Mycobacterium tuberculosis Complex Isolates. Journal of Clinical Microbiology 2003; 41(6): 2672-2675
  4. UpToDate

-Crystal Bockoven, MD is a 4th year anatomic pathology resident at University of Chicago (NorthShore). Crystal has an interest in and will be doing a fellowship in pediatric and perinatal pathology. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, hiking and biking. 

-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois. Follow Dr. McElvania on twitter @E-McElvania. 

Floating in a Sea of Uncertainty: Finding a Lifeboat

As we all find ourselves 9 months into 2020, which is arguably the worst year in living memory for many people, we face daily ongoing challenges of completing our work, finding work, adapting our work, feeding our children, schooling our children, preserving our health, caring for loved ones, and trying to not let the daily stress piped in from every communication channel send us over the edge. There are many people who have had a stellar year and have become richer beyond anyone’s imagining as the multitude of crises have fed their business models. There are many people we have lost prematurely due to an uncontrolled viral plague who would have contributed so much had they lived. Amidst all of this, there are individuals dealing with everyday problems in the chaotic setting of 2020—cancer, mental illness, disability, disparities, financial burdens, etc. Personally, I have a dear friend who was on the brink of a complete mental breakdown in 2019 for who I now feel I am on suicide watch 24/7. Life is normally hard, but it has certainly been abnormally hard for the past 9 months. I do not wish to point fingers, place blame, use hindsight, or make astute observations that are of no value—what my sports colleagues call the Monday quarterback effect. What I do want to do is open up to anyone reading this with a few of the things I have done in the last 9 months that have provided comfort and reminded me that, “This too shall pass.”

Take a stroll down memory lane – When I was younger, I used to take a lot of photographs with an actual camera and film. I would probably pass out if I knew exactly how much money I have spent in my life on buying and developing film. My dad was also an amazing photographer and probably knew more about taking traditional photographs than I know about infectious disease. During a certain period (end of high school through the beginning of residency – about 10 years), I was always taking photos and had at least three cameras all the time: a polaroid, an SLR, and point-and-shoot. I was not a very good photographer overall and most people quickly got annoyed with my constant snapping. But I am a collector so every photo I took was placed in an album. In organizing my garage on a Saturday recently when I was looking for anything to do because there was nothing really to do socially outside of my home, I made the decision to reorganize all of my photos into boxes by year and/or event and get rid of the photo albums. I do not recommend that unless you have a lot of time on your hands. But what I do recommend, and I greatly enjoyed, was going through EVERY photograph in my collection. There is a small box from when I was young that were taken by others as well as high school. There is a small box from college. There are literally 12 boxes from medical school and 6 boxes of my family. What did that mean in reality? I was incredibly happy in medical school. I remember being unhappy in high school and college. I have only a handful of friends each from high school, college, and medical school that I am in contact with regularly so no bias in that regard. But I wanted to remember medical school to a much greater degree than I had college or high school. My family is similar as I love my family. Seeing pictures of my grand parents who have all passed and my little cousins before they became grandparents made me feel happy and nostalgic. You have got photos somewhere (and I don’t mean the loads of ridiculous selfies on your Facebook account). Go dig them out and flip through them. If you find some true gems, post them on your social media. Share your memories and you will naturally smile.

Learn something new – We are inundated with information constantly but most of it is not knowledge. Most of it is simply status—the current state of people around us, all of whom will be dead and dust one day. One of my favorite lines from “The Terminator” is, “Look at it this way… In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” All the tweets, all the posts, all the photos are fleeting moments of fluff (and probably rot your brain—scientific studies to be complete). But knowledge is forever and is precious. Do you know how to refinish an old piece of furniture? Do you know how to grow any type of plant from a cutting? When is the next time we will see Saturn chasing Jupiter across the sky? What happens to stuff you put in a recycling bin? Where does the electricity you use in your home come from? Can you name all 80 unique cultures in Ethiopia? The internet is full of a lot of garbage, but it is also full of incredible sources of knowledge. Sometimes (most of the time) we are so tired of looking at a computer or a smartphone or a tablet if we are working remotely that the last thing we want to do is engage with it further. Libraries are open so you can always resort to dusty old books which are also full of knowledge. Online classes are available for many things. Although cliché, TED talks can be cool. If you are feeling overwhelmed by all of the negativity, opinions, and bandwidth that’s given to things no one will care about in 100 years, turn your attention towards something pure and lose yourself in the nonpolitical world of knowledge. An expert is someone who knows everything that is true about a subject as well as everything that is false. Pick a topic, preferably something that does not come up in your work and set a goal to become an expert in that topic. There will always be people who know more than you do on any topic—but not every topic—but the point is to gain knowledge, grow your brain, and appreciate the permanence of truth.

Mindfulness, it’s really NOT a fad – I wouldn’t dare try to completely address the topic of mindfulness in a short blog, but I will challenge you to investigate it for yourself. Where my last suggestion is one to fill your brain with new ideas, information, processes, and thoughts so you master something external to yourself, mindfulness is the exact opposite. Learning to “turn your brain off” is an amazing skill that does take practice but has enormous benefits. And it is not really turning your brain off but rather turning down the volume on all the negative thoughts you have and may not even know it. Negative thoughts—internal or external—do not control you! They are your thoughts and the most powerful thing you can do is control them. There are many books on this subject, but my favorite is, “Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”. I will not lie to you. I read this book 5 years ago and have been practicing the techniques since then which did give me a leg up on the horror hurricane that is 2020. But it is never too late to reach inside yourself and find inner strength to deal with outer challenges. It is a bargain at less than $15 and will give you some amazing tools to use if you give it a chance. On a side note, if you are dealing with mental illness or you have a loved one who is dealing with mental illness, the most important first step is recognition, acceptance, and treatment. No one can be expected to defeat the external demons of the world when your internal demons have the chemical advantage. Recognize the signs and recognize the external amplifiers so you can be the hero for those who need you most during this time.

You’ve got to have friends – I remember in the not too distant past listening to “old people” say, “These darn kids need to stop playing video games and texting friends in the same room and get outside and play.” True? Yes. But now our reality has shifted to digital communications as the safest way to go to work, go to school, and see our friends. Zoom parties and the like have become extremely popular and I wrote about etiquette for these tools previously. But they are not the only way to communicate. Did you know that your smartphone is a phone? You can call and talk to people! All that paper junk mail that shows up in your snail mailbox is bidirectional. You can send people letters! This is all obvious and the vast majority if not all of you reading this have used some form of communication to talk to non-work people at least once in the last 24 hours. But do not take this for granted. There were people before our virally induced confinement that did not have large social networks or even limited ones. The isolation of our current situation is amplifying their loneliness. What am I asking you to do? You have a phone. You have social media. Dig through your contacts, find someone you have not talked to in a while, and reach out. Check on them. Check on your distant family members. Ask about them, how they are doing, and what is new in their life. Hearing their voice and laughing with them will make you smile on the inside and the outside.

Move – Your body. Daily.

milner-small


-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

Doctors are Patients, Too

Hello again everyone, and welcome back!

Last time we talked a bit about what exactly pathology and laboratory medicine training looks like—a much-needed peek behind the curtain, if you ask me. This time, I’d like to discuss something that’s been challenging me way before I started working as a resident: something that’s made both clinical medicine and academic collaboration difficult (to say the least). I talk a lot about how medicine works best when we all come together and contribute our expertise from disciplines across the board for the sake of improving patient care; I even talk about how, too often, people don’t hear the messages coming through from their colleagues and that negatively impacts our field. We’re all guilty of it, some more than others. And in the last few weeks, I’ve been nearly deaf to my colleagues.

No literally, this article is about my Meniere’s disease and how those of us with invisible illness(es) can really impact the collaborative spirit of medical science. Trigger warning: frustration, anxiety, and pathology (mine, specifically). So here’s a reminder that everyone you meet and work alongside has issues they’re dealing or struggling with. And, to those outside of medicine, remember doctors are people too. Dr. Jena Martin, a dermatopathologist I admire and follow on social media recently promoted the topic #DoctorsArePatientsToo—she writes, shares, and promotes fantastic topics on social media and I suggest you check her content out at @jenamartinmd.

Image 1. By poet and patient Ronny Allen who was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer in July of 2010. He is passionate about education and awareness and advocates for patients everywhere. (Source: ronnyallan.com)

So, I’ve got a couple things to explain here. Come with me on a journey through the inner ear and out into the reaches of global pandemics!

An MD with MD

So what is Meniere’s disease (MD) and why does it deserve its own article? Well, first of all, it doesn’t deserve anything, it’s a garbage disorder with dumb symptoms and I’m only using it/myself as an example to highlight the struggle for other people working in medicine who also deal with invisible problems. But, since you asked…

Without belaboring any detail, Meniere’s is a somewhat understood inner ear disorder in which the potassium-rich, sound-signal inducing endolymphatic fluid builds up in the inner ear. This causes the organ of Corti (Image 2b) to swell up, along with the rest of the cochlea, the vestibule, and the fluid containing parts of the inner ear (Image 2a). The super pressurized vestibular-cochlear balloon is in a confined bone-space so what happens often is that small fistulas form, mixing the endo and perilymphatic fluids causing all sorts of problems not limited to but including: aural fullness, deafness, ridiculous multi-tonal/pulsatile tinnitus, distorted hearing, frequency loss, imbalance, severe peripheral/rotational vertigo lasting for hours, occasional tachycardia, anxiety, and more! There is no cure; therapy is symptom-dependent and purely aimed at management and mitigation of fulminant hearing loss. Did I mention that most times it’s one-sided, but mine is bilateral? Fun. I’ll be donating my ears to science and/or the garbage in some odd decades from now…

Image 2a and 2b. Dr. Strange-sound, or how I learned to stop worrying and love endolymph. Inner workings of the inner ear, note the marked swelling of fluid (hydrops) associated with the disease state compared to normal. (Sources: Nature and University of Iowa)

Let me put it this way: Over time, I will lose a stark majority of my natural hearing. I will continue to get occasional vertigo attacks, and related symptoms, until the disease (eventually…hopefully?) “burns out” and has no more capacity to damage any more already-damaged inner ear hair cells. I’ll probably get hearing aids or cochlear implants. (Whatever, I’ve always wanted to be half bionic…) I’ll probably keep a cane with me most times. (Dr. House anyone? Right? Or I could keep a sword in there? Legal issues?) But it’s not the long term that bothers me most. It’s the flare-ups. This disorder has periods of acute attacks, periods of mixed-symptom flare ups, and periods of remission. I can handle the remissions, hah. I can even handle the acute episodes—I’ve had great ENT colleagues and discovered great medication plans to manage the attacks. So that leaves the flares, which inspire writings like this one obviously. I wear my hearing aid, but it’s minimally helpful, and I practice patience until my hearing returns. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re a working resident MD!

The Sound of Silence

Technically, I haven’t experienced true silence since 2015. And, during flare-ups, most of my hearing is almost entirely replaced by the only sound my ears can accommodate and attenuate for which is their own local vasculature. If Edgar Allan Poe could see me know…telltale ears, anyone? Let me paint a picture of what I’m hearing right now on a pretty rough flare-up day, at work, at my desk in the resident room. I’m drinking tea, I can’t hear myself swallowing. I monitor my heartrate on my watch and it’s about 80-90 beats per minute, in my ear, all day, whoosh-whoosh. The pot of tea the robots have been making, whistles non-stop, 24/7. The mosquitoes I’ve been writing about for years now on Lablogatory never leave my cochlea. Cool, on top of that I’ve got hearing loss and aural fullness that makes me not able to hear low-volume pages/phone rings (vibrate mode FTW) and most talking—especially behind masks. (I’ll get to that in a second.) If I turn my hearing aid too high, there’s a squeaky feedback explosion, not to mention the occasional adjustments for quiet and/or super loud talkers, yikes. Just overall, me no hear too good right now. Basically if hearing was reading text, the printer is out of toner and the paper is provolone cheese. And the cheese is on fire. Opa!

Image 3. My flaming-cheese metaphor captured, a xerox copy being made by a waiter in Chicago’s Greektown, the original home of the flaming-cheese saganaki dish. (Source: Chicago Sun Times)

Global Pandemic? Sounds Pretty Bad…

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has created very interesting situations at work and elsewhere, all over the globe. People are utilizing the most effective measure against spreading the illness: which up to this point is the non-pharmaceutical intervention of social distancing. Nearly every single person working today, in any field, doing anything, reading this blog, has been a part of email chains, and conference calls, and …. sigh… Zoom meetings. I know, I know… there are pro’s and con’s to this but consider these three points for those with #InvisibleIlnesses:

  1. Working from home has liberated chronically ill folks

Okay so I have an intermittent vestibular/cochlear disorder. What about folks with chronic pain, or Lyme-sequelae, or brain fog, or any other host of hurdles before they can jump onto a video call. Pretend you’re sick at home with a (non-COVID) viral bug. Can you imagine how nice it would feel to have hot tea, your medications, your cat, your spouse, and (most importantly) your couch/bed/TV nearby? Within reason, you’ve just given people who would have needed to excuse themselves a way to participate productively!

2. Imagine having a supplementary PowerPoint or chat box during conversations IRL

One of my specific challenges is missing a word here, a sentence there, and not being able to catch up in a conversation. Usually it ends up with my smile-nodding through to the next topic or checkpoint, but in the current age of virtual meetings I can un-obtrusively ask “What was that last bit?” without seeming like I tuned out. And bonus: I can often get a text translation of a point or two I might have missed from keen colleagues aware of my AV troubles. I can only imagine what it would be like for those more permanently affected.

3. The explosion of inclusivity and accessibility is remarkable

Speaking of which, the number of videos and presentations I am now seeing with closed captions/text supplements are astounding. Usually when I’m in the midst of a flare, I have to check out from audiovisual stimuli and stick to reading only. This can be quite the challenge for work sometimes. But with chat boxes and videos with captions, I feel like I can catch right up. Now, I said I’m only like this part of the time, so for those that have felt excluded and marginalized I’m happy to say that inclusivity and accessibility are growing. I’ve often thought that the importance of a news story or press conference could be measured by the presence or absence of a sign-language interpreter. Over 100 press conferences by Governor Andrew Cuomo in NY, or in Chicago, Illinois with Governor JB Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and each of them was accompanied by ASL accessibility. Fantastic! Just look at one of many efforts online, like @ProjectHearing on Instagram, which promotes the advancement of these topics every day!

Image 4. “Deaf people problems” is a meme collection I’ve seen over and over on social media. Awareness, check. Clear message, check. Super creative visual way to demonstrate a better version of my flaming cheese analogy, super check.
Image 5. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes, I’m literally stuck on mute. Video conferences might become the new normal. If they are, remember to speak clearly and keep things out of the way between your talking and your microphone. Consider captions for videos and make nice PowerPoints. Please, haha.

Your Lips Move but I Can’t Hear What You’re Saying

So why, when the world is literally aflame with a viral pandemic, am I drudging you through my rant against my inner ears? And why did I just commit the travesty of endorsing zoom calls and captions (I know some people hate captions—you came for a movie not a book, I get it).

Well this whole topic illustrates to big things about working both as a physician and as a person with an invisible condition. First, like most things in medicine, to achieve success you have to adapt, improvise, and overcome. Solving patients’ problems and advocating for their best outcomes takes a little finessing of the system sometimes, you’ve got to do the same thing for yourself. Second, since doctors are patients too, its okay to ask for help. I matched with some of the best residents I’ve ever met, and they’ve offered whatever they can in helping manage my flares during work. This includes anything from extra emails/group text notification chains, forwarding pages, translating video call jumbled audio, etc. They are the best!

Meniere’s has been a challenge to me for a couple of years now, and it’s something I deal with. We’ll call it a character-building attribute. But I genuinely did worry about how this was going to affect me during residency—I had my fair share of hard days in med school basic sciences, and plenty of attending wave-offs when I simply couldn’t hear on 4:00am rounds (yeah I’m looking at you OBGYN and Surgery…). But, it’s been good.

Image 6. Not a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, these are real and they’re incredible. Clear window facemasks are such a relief for me. I give ones to all the folks I work with and my life just got easier.

And more than just good, another resident actually has a more permanent hearing impairment and two desks over from mine are the embedded hearing interpreters provided by the department. They’ve been so friendly and provided my with so many resources that I couldn’t be more appreciative. Not only do I have another resident to confide hearing-related rants to, but I also have a department that cares enough to create a supportive and accessible environment. One of the best things they’ve provided: MASKS WITH WINDOWS! Because since this damn pandemic started, I can’t read lips anymore! I didn’t realize how much I depended on visual lip-reads to confirm my hearing that it’s been a learning curve to say the least. Imagine being mostly deaf, your hearing aid not helping much, and looking into a multi-headed scope while your attending lectures on what you’re looking at. An otherwise impossible situation, but my friends and colleagues find ways to make it work because when one person excels, we all do. I’ve been able to continue working, learning, and collaborating thanks to considerations for invisible illnesses like mine.

Consider your colleagues, what can you do to make sure they feel that their needs are met since #DoctorsArePatientsToo? See you next time!


-Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM is a new first year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. His posts focus on the broader issues important to the practice of clinical laboratory medicine and their applications to global/public health, outreach/education, and advancing medical science. He is actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Watch his TEDx talk entitled “Unrecognizable Medicine” and follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD.