My father passed away late last Friday night from a most insidious disease called multiple system atrophy (MSA). It’s a rare, progressive, neurodegenerative condition that presents itself with symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, but it is far more aggressive and debilitating. Essentially, muscles stop working until the disease kills you. In my dad’s case, he ultimately lost the ability to breathe.
Nobody knows the cause of MSA and there is no cure. There really aren’t even any effective treatments. You can only treat the symptoms with medications designed for Parkinson’s to address muscle stiffness, balance and such, and with physical and speech therapy, but that’s like standing in front a speeding train with a stop sign. It’s a futile battle.
My dad never had any real health issues other than sciatica until he was diagnosed with what was thought to be Parkinson’s less than five years ago (MSA didn’t really come into the picture until maybe a year and a half ago). He ate well, exercised somewhat regularly and generally took pretty good care of himself before the disease came along. Now he’s dead at the relatively young age of 68 after an excruciatingly fast decline that kept him hospitalized for his final month.
He fought the disease valiantly and courageously, but he never got the chance to retire. He was forced to stop working because he was physically unable to continue. He never even got to come home to die. The end came so fast that we didn’t get past the first hospice discussion.
As sad as it is to lose my dad in the way that I did, I want something positive to come out of his ordeal. He was selfless, kind and generous in life, and my family intends to carry on his legacy in some way that we haven’t had time to figure out just yet. I want to use his memory and my little corner of the Internet to help educate people about MSA and about patient safety.
What does patient safety have to do with this, you ask? My dad had pretty terrible care at a poorly run community hospital near his home for more than three weeks before he was transferred to the wonderful Georgetown University Hospital in Washington for what turned out to be his final days. The contrast was striking.
The community hospital was a place of inadequate communication, broken processes, obsolete workflows, neglect and harm. My dad came in with what turned out to be a urinary-tract infection. They treated that with antibiotics, but he developed pneumonia in a matter of days—a condition a doctor admitted he had acquired in the hospital. So he was transferred to intensive care, where the hospital could make a lot more money despite being responsible for the complication. (Perverse incentives rule in American healthcare.) My dad was a Medicare beneficiary, so you and I, as taxpayers, get ripped off by the incompetence.
Meanwhile, the clinicians there, who had been trained to treat the acute symptoms, neglected the MSA for more than a week, even taking him off his regular meds for several days, during which time my dad’s muscles continued to stiffen. Physical therapy was essential to prevent further atrophy. The order went in for him to receive physical and occupational therapy at least three times a week, but the PT and OT were nowhere to be found for a week or more.
Meds that had been ordered didn’t get delivered. One night while I was there, a perky medical assistant or tech or someone of that ilk burst into the room announcing it was time for an AccuCheck test, and nearly went through with taking a small blood sample before I stepped in to ask what was going on. She explained that it was a test for blood sugar (who would know what AccuCheck was if they didn’t have diabetes or some familiarity with the healthcare industry?) only after I enquired, but I stopped her to tell her that my dad did not have diabetes. Because of the MSA, he had difficulty speaking and would not have been able to stop someone acting so quickly. It turned out that the tech had gone to the wrong room. The hospital did require clinicians to scan bar codes before administering tests and meds, but who knows if the system really worked?
Later that evening, the nurse nearly gave my dad an eye drop that had not been ordered. The proper instructions were to administer an ophthalmic drug orally, but only if he had excess saliva. The nurse didn’t see that part of the note, despite the fact that the ICU had a partial EHR (Cerner, for those of you keeping score at home) with electronic medication lists.
The infectious disease specialist at the community hospital was not even familiar with MSA — and he didn’t bother to tell us that for three weeks. It should be his professional duty to call in an experienced neurologist or consult with my dad’s personal physician.
Worst of all, my dad stopped breathing for a few seconds last week under questionable circumstances and was intubated, despite the fact that he had an advance directive on file specifically stating that he did not want to be intubated.
At Georgetown, we saw nothing but compassion and competence. Care was well coordinated. People talked to each other. Clinicians huddled together during shift changes to discuss all the patients on the ward. The medical director of the ICU, a pulmonologist, personally managed my dad’s case. The neurologists at this major teaching hospital had seen MSA before, but that didn’t stop them from talking with my dad’s personal physician. It was too late to save my dad’s life, but he died comfortably and with dignity at Georgetown, without the needless agony he endured at the other place.
I am now vowing to dedicate my own career to educating as many people about MSA as possible and about the danger of uncoordinated care and poorly designed workflows. Interestingly, one of the last stories I wrote before my father passed and before I took leave was a piece in InformationWeek about patient engagement. I love the mantra of the Society for Participatory Medicine that I mentioned in the story: “Nothing about me without me.”
Every patient should live by those words. And every healthcare facility should respect that concept.
Rest in peace, Dad. You have not died in vain.
UPDATE, April 2013: If you would like to make a donation to MSA support and research, please visit our family’s fundraising page, which is helping the Multiple System Atrophy Coalition. Thank you.