‘I am happy to say that she is holding her own.” So said Dr. Michael Lemole, section chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center in Tucson, on Tuesday, characterizing the condition of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. “She is able to generate her own breath.” So these are the small victories that Representative Giffords, shot in the head by a lunatic on Saturday, now can look forward to, as she begins her long road to recovery.
Now that the initial shock of the tragic shootings in Arizona has subsided, the rest of us might pause to consider some lessons for our health-care system that the Arizona tragedy might provide. After all, as a nation, we have spent the better part of two years now wrangling over national health insurance — with no end in sight — and yet over the weekend, we were just reminded of what really matters in health care: health. Yes, health is what matters, as distinct from health insurance. And health insurance is a function of the health system; the insurance card is only as good as the professionalism and technology it is connected to. As a member of Congress, Representative Giffords was always entitled to health insurance, but what she needs right now is the best-quality care.
Health insurance, in a way, is symbolic, like paper money: Health insurance has no intrinsic value; it’s valuable only if you have a good place to “spend” it. So health insurance in a Third World country tends not to be worth much, because the health system itself is so poor. By contrast, health insurance in a First World country is worth something, because that insurance entitles one to high-quality care — care that is paid for, of course, out of the overall economic surplus of the country, augmented by economy-wide technical skill. So once again, it’s not the health-insurance card that saves your life; it’s the health providers, backed up by the rest of the economy.
To illustrate, we might consider the sort of care that any cranial-gunshot victim — not just Representative Giffords — might receive in the U.S. Here’s a typical scenario for a quality health-care system:
The patient receives CPR on the spot, if need be, and is endotracheally intubated as an automatic precaution. That is, a breathing tube is inserted to ventilate the lungs and also to protect the patient from pulmonary aspiration — foreign material getting into the lungs — or regurgitation. Unless the patient scores extraordinarily low on the Glasgow Coma Scale, the patient is sedated so as not to react to the tube, which, of course, is extremely uncomfortable. Endotracheal tubes were originally made from latex rubber, but most modern endotracheal tubes are constructed of polyvinyl chloride.
On the scene, or perhaps in the ambulance, the patient receives saline solution to stabilize vital signs. A brain-injury patient needs a certain minimum of cerebral perfusion pressure (CPP) to maintain oxygenation. If CPP falls too low, the brain tissue becomes ischemic and devitalized — that is, the patient becomes brain-dead.
In the ER, the main tasks are to stabilize the airway, normalize vital signs, and control external hemorrhaging. So in addition to checking the intubation, a blood transfusion may be necessary.
Next, the patient receives a CT scan to locate the bullet and assess the damage. If the CT reveals active bleeding or a hematoma, for example, a craniotomy is necessary, in which the blood flow is suppressed and the clot evacuated. Even in cases where the bullet passes through the victim’s head — as happened in the case of Representative Giffords — the doctor must still locate not only clots, but also bullet fragments and bits of bone. The medical term for a foreign object in the body is nidus (Latin for nest); if possible, these nidi will be removed to ward off infection.
Over the next few days, if the brain suffers intracranial pressure or swelling, the patient receives steroids through an IV drip to reduce the swelling. In more serious cases, the patient receives a decompressive craniectomy; that is, some of the calvaria — the upper part of the skull — is temporarily removed, to avoid herniating brain tissue. Possible complications from such a procedure include meningitis or brain abscess. Once the patient’s brain is stabilized, it’s then that the long road to recovery — physical therapy, plastic surgery — must begin.
We might pause to note that each of these procedures — and the techniques, instruments, and materials needed to perform them — is a story by itself. How did doctors and medical scientists figure these things out? How did they make these life-saving tools? No doubt there were a few eureka moments, but even so, in every case, there was a long slog of trial and error that saved someone’s life. Actually, many lives.
All this work has paid off. A 2002 study found that improvements in ER care in the previous 40 years had cut the death rate among assault victims by as much as 70 percent. In other words, without this technological innovation, the 15,241 murders that the U.S. suffered in 2009 might have been three times as great.
The same medical innovation is saving the lives of U.S. military personnel. Saturday’s New York Times reported that the survival rate for American service personnel taken to hospitals in Afghanistan has improved dramatically in just the past five years. In 2005, some 19.8 percent of Americans evacuated to military hospitals died; by 2010, the death rate was down to 7.9 percent. That’s a 60 percent decline in fatality, in just five years.
It wasn’t that long ago, of course, that military hospitals were little more than amputation factories — or didn’t exist at all. As an aside, we might note that the chief neurosurgeon in the Giffords case is Dr. Peter Rhee, who spent 24 years as a Navy surgeon — including service at frontline hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan — before coming to Tucson.
The life of Representative Giffords, and the lives of all of us, depend on medical technology. And yet politicians, right as well as left, would rather talk about health insurance, pro and con.
Politicians can talk like this — about finance, not medicine — until, of course, they need high-quality care to keep them alive. At that point, the minutiae of finance matter far less than the minutiae of medicine.
In the meantime, it’s in our enlightened self-interest to see the greater expansion of medical technology. What happened in Arizona was a terrible tragedy, but amidst the sadness, we can learn lessons that will save and improve lives in the years to come. Or we can think that health problems are solved when everyone has health insurance.
— James P. Pinkerton served as a domestic-policy aide in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses. He is the editor of SeriousMedicineStrategy.org and a contributor to the Fox News Channel.