Of Clot, Tofu, and Cheese

The process of clotting is something vascular surgeons take for granted, but patients may have a hard time understanding what a clot is because in most people’s experience, it is rare for someone to see enough blood to form clot. How many patients or even health care providers have seen a tube or a basin of blood clot? So how do we describe clot to patients? I think the solution lies in food.

Most people who know me will say that I propose food as the answer for most things but hear me out. In describing clot, food is particularly salient. Clot is protein made insoluble, and there are many foods that have similar properties. Tofu, jello, and cheese and their making can give context where the word “clot” cannot.

All are made by taking a solution of protein and allowing them to form clumps that cause them to fall out of solution. It may require an acid, as in the case of tofu and cheese, but mere time and cooling may be sufficient as in the case of jello. And like these, clot may take on a soft crumbly quality when it is fresh clot, to a tenacious formed clump when given enough time. The difference is like silken or soft tofu and firm tofu. Or fresh ricotta cheese before it has time to set in its mold and the firmer cheese you get after weeks of curing.
With enough time, you get a hard substance that you can slice with a knife, like a dry cheddar or Parmesan. That is how I think of clot. It can be soft and formless like early jello before it is ready to eat. Or it can be hard and formed like mature dry cheese. The softer it is, the easier it is to dissolve or suck out via gadget or catheter, but there is a time factor to this softness -thing of your jello setting and hardening in your fridge. The harder the thrombus is, the less likely it is you can remove it with catheters and more likely you will have success with an operation as in the first picture. The harder stuff in fact crumbles well like a parmesan cheese and is harder to remove.

Burrata, handmade in Calabria is similar to the kind of semi-mature clot that deforms well but is tenacious and difficult to break up and remove except in one piece.

There are several things to draw from this with regard to devices designed to retrieve clot. Clot can occlude catheters as much as they can occlude arteries. Clot retrieval depends on net output of fresh clot that deforms well and flows well but fails in the hardened brittle clot that is well organized and adherent. Retrieving these crusty dried clot matter may be impossible for a device that depends on clot deformability or a maximum particle size, and these clots are the ones that are more partial to crumbling and embolizing. All devices must accept the fact that the unclogging is done in a flowing circulatory system where items swept downstream have the consequence of killing tissues whose arteries are blocked by emboli. There is always embolism with minimally invasive approaches. These devices make sense for hard to access circuits like the brain, but make far less sense in circuits like the extremities where surgical control is relatively low risk and results in reversal of blood flow -like in TCAR. Each of these devices can cost several thousand dollars. The fact is, operations can be faster and safer because embolism can be controlled and a wider range of clots, and larger amounts of it, can be removed at a lower cost. The first picture shows the results of a popliteal cut down and tibial thrombectomy where inflow was first restored in the below knee popliteal artery, and clot retrieved from each of the three tibial vessels (misleadingly, the tibial thrombus is all lined up), and a simultaneous 4 compartment fasciotomy performed, all under 90 minutes with no use of contrast. Unfortunately, open thrombectomy is a bit of a lost art in that many of the maneuvers and steps required to revascularize a limb successfully with no preoperative imaging requires experience. A younger patient with an arrthymia related embolism and normal soft arteries is approached far differently from an older person with atherosclerosis and diabetes, where open thrombectomy is better suited for the first, and catheter based approaches better for the latter.

Diagnostic and Therapeutic

The open surgical exploration of the extremity arteries is fast becoming a lost art along with the physical examination. In the setting of acute limb ischemia, the first decision in my mind is: was this an embolism? The presence of arrrhythmias, cardiac shunts, and aneurysms may suggest this, the next question is did this patient have a prodrome of limb ischemia related symptoms and history of atherosclerosis. The fact is, you have about 4-6 hours to return blood flow before irreversible neuromuscular damage sets in, maybe less if important collaterals are lost. Choice of procedure then devolves to choices about the most expedient methods for returning blood flow to the extremity, and between endovascular procedures and open surgery, it is rarely possible to manage significant clot burden with endovascular methods without adding the burden of procedural time. These considerations are balanced by patient risk. If the patient cannot tolerate general anesthesia, it is still possible to operate under local anesthesia. Otherwise, one is faced with choices like stenting across clot or common femoral artery. The algorithm is simple -ensure inflow, thrombectomize outflow, check for backbleeding, restore flow, check flow, repeat as necessary downstream. Fasciotomy as needed and close the skin if you can.

Endovascular options deal with the basic physics of trying to pull clot of varying consistency through a small lumen over a long length while not pushing emboli. The needs are simple -a low profile, cheap, over the wire solution for evacuating clot without embolizing nor injuring the patient on a 100cm and 150cm length catheter. Cost wise, open surgery always beats any endovascular option if wound complications of open surgical exposure are avoided. Both methods can’t cover themselves if open fasciotomy wounds keep the patient in the hospital for weeks. The fact is, we already have this magic system in the catheters that we already have on the wall, albeit, they don’t work particularly well if you are dealing with Parmesan, but none of the systems do. I recently declotted a graft fistula with just 6F sheaths, a regular #3 Fogarty ballon, 6mg of tissue plasminogen activator, and was able to salvage the blood and return to the patient.

Conclusion

Vascular surgeons should have as many words for clot as Eskimos purportedly do for snow. There is no one solution to a problem, but all the tools must be available to the vascular surgeon. Ironically, only the simplest are needed most of the time.

Last Slides Should Pack a Punch

When I lecture to interventionalists (cough, cardiologists), I often end with some variation on the following:

1. The common femoral artery is the left main of the leg, so why would you ever leave a stent across the LCX?

2. Claudication is like stable angina, so is it okay to intervene on a long LAD CTO for stable angina?

3. Gangrene and ulceration are like STEMI and Non-STEMI, only you can’t take the dressing down on an infarcted heart three times a day and wash away the debris.

4. If a LIMA to LAD isn’t a failure and lasts many years beyond the best stents, how is a femoral to tibial bypass a failure?

5. Why is that [insert technology] is a failure in the coronary circulation but the latest and greatest thing in the peripheral circulation?

6. Reversible ischemia is well demonstrated in the foot by lifting it off the bed and watching the color change. It’s too bad for vascular surgeons we can’t build a giant white box around this test and have have the hospital build a center around it.

7. The ABI is a great test of cardiac risk, not so much for peripheral vascular disease.

8. Hybrid revascularization works for the legs in the same way it works for the heart -you maximize the hand that you are dealt.

9. The nitinol throne is not won without some cost.

10. One day, in the far future, someone will dig up an ancient human that is more nitinol, stainless, steel, and chromium, than bone, from the mitral valve out to the fingers and toes.

A Dozen Snippets of Advice to Graduating Trainees

IMG_2287.PNG

  1. Pass your boards and get your licenses. Board eligibility has the shelf life of a sack of dog food. After about two or three years, you better throw it out. While your apprenticeship with me and my partners has given you insight into the various styles and techniques of repairing arteries and veins, no hospital or insurance company will let you touch a patient without eligibility or certification. And while you are at it, maintain your certification  with CME’s. Apply for licenses early and diligently. You are like newly hatched baby sea turtles and the ocean is your board certification.
  2. Look the part. Stand up, look people in the eye, smile. Stay well groomed and wear clean clothes. Scrubs are acceptable only on days you are operating in the hospital, but no one should see you at the grocery store in them. Dress professionally, but don’t spend more money than your peers or partners. Clean fingernails a given.
  3. Remember, your first job is not like a first spouse and may not be forever. Exit strategies at a basic that can be negotiated from the start is coverage of a tail policy upon mutual separation. Triggers for retention salary (never bonus which is taxed differently) can be negotiated. For example, you take a rural job away from people you might want to marry –you may put in your contract that every year after a certain number you aren’t married, you get a raise. Same with partners who are said to be near retirement –people live longer and want to work longer, and you might find that promised increase in volume and salary does not come to fruition. Contracts can be structured for retention salary increases in those instances. Hard to recruit areas need to recognize that and be willing to increase your salary based on volume that would otherwise go to another partner if they could recruit them.
  4. While it can be viewed as a business transaction, you are setting out to take care of people in a community. Cultural competence is a huge advantage if you are not a native. Understanding the reluctance of an 80 year old Iowa farmer to get surgery in the fall because of the harvest may give you insights to head off argument –their fine sons or daughters may come home and help organize the harvest. Part of the process of getting to know the community is establishing some roots –I don’t mean marrying the mayor’s daughter or having three kids out of wedlock. It means joining clubs, churches, community organizations. It means attending the local fairs and buying from local stores even when Amazon would be a lot more convenient.
  5. Towns can be measured by metrics. How hard is it to get to New York from where you are. Is it in fact New York? How hard is it to get to your town from where your loved ones are? What is the swankiest brand of car sold in that town. Is sushi made by Japanese, is dim sum by Chinese, the pho by Vietnamese? Is there Korean food? Is there a Whole Foods? Is there a functioning public transportation system? Can you get fresh fish? How many pro sports teams are there? Is there a college nearby that you have heard of? How fast is the internet? Is there cell coverage? Do they drink the tap water? Is there a meth/heroin/oxycontin problem? Is the highest paid person in the state the football coach?
  6. Learn the limits of your hospital, your ICU, your floors, your consultants, your office staff, and yourself in equal measure of importance. Be patient and stick to simple straightforward low risk cases if possible and have partners co-scrub more challenging cases. Find and know the regional referral center if you are in a community hospital and don’t feel shy about referring patients beyond the capabilities of everything in the first sentence. Your results will be under a microscope, but the most important watcher is you.
  7. Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat right, and take up a leisure time activity that won’t result in lawsuits or court ordered DNA tests. Golf is great. Vacationing is okay, but spending every moment of time out of town sends the wrong message. Budget and start saving for retirement because you won’t be doing this forever. Pay down debts and don’t take on unnecessary debts. You don’t need a Porsche or a McMansion. If you have kids, stick to public schools and live modestly unless your spouse has a lot of money, then you’re a trophy spouse!
  8. Low hanging fruit of publicity –eating meals in the doctor’s lounge, chatting with staff in the OR lounge, attending staff functions, joining the local medical society. The ten minutes of conversation over a stale sandwich or rubbery, overcooked chicken works. Make sure to have business cards handy or your contact set up to share easily by text or email. Pro tip: having pens printed with your name and practice and number –the equipment and drug reps can’t give you swag but you can give them swag to give out. Give grand rounds or CME talks. Bring in your former faculty as guest speakers. Get an article in the local paper –it will end up on the web site, but mostly older people, ie your patients, will read actual papers. Social media and the internet –unless you are deeply committed to keeping a live presence there with frequent posts and comments, don’t bother. There are too many practice websites and doctors blogs that get refreshed every 3-5 years that they are a liability. You need to blog weekly or FB, Tweet, and Instagram post daily to get a following. That said, done right, you can control your image far better than the hive mind will. The people reading the internet won’t be your vascular patients, but it will be their kids who will search you out on the internet. The other tactic is to never, ever be on the internet.
  9. Humans, from the time of the Australopithecines and maybe before, are organized through direct personal relations in groups numbering up to ten or twenty. You will be in control of an OR or an office, and you have to learn how to do this well to be effective, and it will depend on forming good working relationships. This is not easy and mistakes will be made, but ultimately your success will depend on how well you orchestrate your team. Buying pizza for the team is a good way to get pizza for yourself, but will also earn the gratitude of your people.
  10. No amount of preparation on your part will make up for problems outside of your control. When managing these by “taking ownership,” usually by starting committees and study groups, takes up increasing part of your day and happen without compensation or acknowledgement, it is time to move.
  11. Surround yourself with smart competent people. No referral stream is worth the trouble of associating with stupid, incompetent people, because ultimately, you will become one of them. That said, graduating at PGY 5-7, maybe more, means that you are likely the most trained, most up to date individual in the medical community and to the degree you have to live and work there, you have to give something of yourself to take care of patients. If that means admitting a complex patient with an unrecognized exacerbation of a connective tissue disorder because they were referred to your clinic with foot pain, it may be simpler to simply admit the patient to your service and start the care and workup rather than trying to do an outpatient turf. Sending this patient to the emergency room or dismissing the patient with instructions to set up a specialist appointment washes your hands, but you are not taking care of this person are you?
  12. You are being paid to be smart and competent at vascular surgery like LeBron James was brought back to Cleveland to revive it economically and redeem its souls from perdition. Act accordingly.

The 10 Things That They Don’t Teach You in Vascular Surgery Fellowship

01e5193360545d3a7c280d251608607095365c6457

  1. Unless you are going out and setting up shop on your own, which is very unlikely, you will be signing a contract. The contract shapes your work life and forms the foundation of your business model. Not understanding this will set you up for headaches. It is worthwhile not only to have a lawyer review it, but also a business savvy physician.
  2. Every medical community has a Jabba the Hut, who is obvious, but there is usually a hidden Sith Lord as well.
  3. People generally will behave in ways that reinforce their worldviews. Add to that the fact that most people stop picking up new ideas or techniques after training, and you have people who practice as much on belief over evidence. This becomes dangerous in hospital privileging committees which are often a tool for killing off young competitors before they pose a threat. The Torquemadas and vascular Taliban are out there, young one, waiting to pounce on your first complication with that new-fangled whatchamacallit.
  4. The easy way to grade the livability and economic level of a town or a burg is looking at what car dealerships are there. Similar metric –is there sushi made by an actual Japanese sushi chef?
  5. Technically, you may press the EMTALA based federal law that you only need to be on call every third day to get paid for any extra days of call.
  6. Veins and dialysis access are far more complex and common than what you may think working for the chairman at Humanity’s Best Hospital. So are limb salvage and wound care.
  7. You are only as good as your team. As nice as you are, patients will hate you if you have an uncaring office staff or hospital rounding crew. As good as you are, your results will be poor without excellent anesthesia, critical care, and floor nursing. Take good care of your partners.
  8. Be careful about high paying jobs in tiny hospitals with no other vascular surgeons. The reasons for this are legion, and frankly, no matter how good you are, you need to be aged like good steak, and that means partners who have been out for a while seasoning you. Also, being solo means it is impossible to find coverage for vacation, unless you put it in your contract that the hospital or employer will pay for locums coverage during your vacation or fly you back first class if you need to come back from vacation and then return you to vacation with offsets for extra days –I have seen all of this and it can happen as long as you negotiate it.
  9. Strive to get better, and that means keeping track of metrics like OR times, contrast volume, fluoroscopy time, blood loss, length of stay, and complications, for standard cases like: Elective Open AAA Repair, EVAR, carotid endarterectomy, infrageniculate bypass with vein. You should get better every year.
  10. Open surgical skills are going to be far more valuable than you think, and it’s not the anastomosis. If all you want to do is the anastomosis and you think you “did the case” if that is all you got to do, you have been fooled by the oldest staff trick in the book. The value is in figuring out first why an operation is chosen, how it is performed, and how it is healed, and having plans B, C, D, and E. Even when an endovascular approach is planned, you have to have in mind the open alternative.

Top Ten Daily Gift Suggestions for Your Favorite Staff Surgeon

docpark

1. Beef Jerky, organic, traditional flavor

2. Tall Blonde Roast, two fingers of half and half

3. Honest, hard work

4. 12 inch Subway Club, with mozzarella, toasted, lettuce, tomato, olives, onions, sweet onion relish, and Sriracha, liter of water

5. Hygiene and grooming

6. An updated list with good news

7. Articulate, thoughtful, organized speech

8. Coordination

9. Good Halloween candy

10. Dark chocolate from DGC office