Category Archives: Commentary from Sarah

Nothing But Good News for Your Thanksgiving Table

I am betting I am not the only person looking for some good news right now– especially in the realm of health care.

I am not dismissing the significance of test results on the COVID vaccines just released by Pfizer and Moderna, but don’t you want to hear about something other than COVID right now?

Here are great stories from the year you can share with your family– or whoever you are quarantined with- at your Thanksgiving dinner next week.

Hiker Up & Talking 2 Days after Discovery in Near-Death Condition

This week began with joyful reports about a hiker on Mount Rainier, lost for most of 24 hours in 16-degree weather, white-out conditions, and 5 inches of new snow- located by helicopter just before his heart stopped. Rushed to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, CPR continued for 45 minutes before his cardiac functions were diverted to equipment [an “ECMO”] that delivered oxygenated blood throughout his body while his organs recovered.

His severe hypothermia on the mountain (his temperature was kept low in the hospital to slow bodily functions and aid recovery), his age, and level of fitness all helped- but it is still miraculous that two days after coming off life-supports he was “sitting up in his hospital bed, his heart and lungs functioning normally, expressing gratitude for being alive.” [quote]

In the words of the Harborview ICU Medical Director, “He was as dead as somebody gets before they are truly dead… For this person to come back and his mental status to be great, it is as miraculous as it gets in medicine.”  [quote]

A Possible New Cancer Vaccine from Australia

Researchers at the University of Queensland announced in July that preclinical studies on a new cancer vaccine comprised of human antibodies were successful, and trials in patients will begin soon.

“We are hoping this vaccine could be used to treat blood cancers, such as myeloid leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and pediatric leukemias, plus solid malignancies including breast, lung, renal, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, and glioblastoma.” [quote]

Woman with Severe Cardiac Disease Delivers a Healthy Baby

A 24-year old woman with complex congenital heart disease due to Rubella exposure in utero successfully gave birth in January.

The vaginal delivery occurred in the Cardiac Care ICU at Mount Sinai hospital in New York, where adequate equipment and expertise were available to support the Mom’s cardiac function during the physical strain of giving birth. A healthy baby girl was greeted to this world by a multi-disciplinary team [19 in the picture] that included the obstetrician, anesthesiologist, cardiologists, and several Cardiac ICU nurses.

This story is remarkable given that prior to delivery, the mother had severe pulmonary regurgitation, stenosis of her pulmonary valve, and leakage in her tricuspid valve. The right side of her heart, both the right atrium and ventricle, were enlarged. And yet, both she and her child survived delivery without further complications. In the new Mom’s words: “I feel Wonderful… I’m a mother now.”

As more young women with significant cardiac disease survive into adulthood (which is itself a Good News story!), increased efforts are necessary to support them in reaching their dream of motherhood.

A Single Shot That Lowers Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides- for a Lifetime?

Although it will be years before human trials can begin, researchers in Boston believe they may have been able to edit a human gene in such a manner that they can significantly reduce blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides with a single shot. And the results will last a lifetime.

The results were presented at the (virtual) International Society for Stem Cell Research in June.

The implications are enormous- not only could the shot reduce the risk of a second heart attack in cardiac patients- it could be given to prevent high cholesterol years before any cardiac damage occurs. The Director of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, responded that “this could be the cure for heart disease.” [quote]

We Meet the Second Person to Ever be Cured of HIV

Last March, researchers in London announced they had successfully cured a person of his HIV infection, only the second time that has happened since the AIDS epidemic began in 1981 (the first cured patient was in 2007). This second cured person was identified only as the “London Patient.”

Although last year his physicians were sometimes still referring to his response as a long-term remission, the London Patient’s doctors are more confident that he is virus-free. “We think this is a cure now because it’s been another year, and we’ve done a few more tests.” [quote]

The treatment (a bone marrow transplant) was aimed at the London Patient’s lymphoma- not his HIV. The cure of his infection after almost a decade was a very welcome surprise for him and his medical team. Perhaps most importantly, his case provides a much-needed boost to AIDS researchers everywhere. The first cure in 2007 wasn’t a fluke after all!

This March, the “London Patient” revealed his identity and spoke to the press about his journey. “I want to be an ambassador of hope,” said Mr. Adam Castillejo. That he certainly is.

An Anti-Psychotic Medicine Might Alleviate Brain & Spinal Cord Swelling after Trauma

It is estimated that 75 million people suffer traumatic injuries to the brain (such as a stroke) or spinal cord (such as in an accident) every year. As threatening as the initial injury is, the local swelling in the immediate time afterward often compounds the loss of vital cells and tissue.

An international study has revealed that an antipsychotic medicine (Trifluoperazine), which has been on the market since 2001, may effectively stop that swelling with as little as one injection.

The drug has side-effects when treating schizophrenia or other mental health conditions over time, but a one-time dose at the time of injury should not have the same effects. Better still, given that the drug is already FDA  approved, these studies can move faster than other potential treatments. In May, researchers were hopeful that this new intervention could be available for brain and spinal cord patients in the near future.

Saving The Best for Last

I am betting I am not the only one who was teary-eyed watching news reports of Chris Nikic, age 21, who became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full Iron Man Challenge.

After a life of trials including open-heart surgery at 5 months of age, delay in walking to 4 years, and difficulty swallowing until age 6 (preventing him from eating regular table food), Mr. Nikic was able to complete a 2.4-mile open-water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run- and he did it in under the required 17 hours.

The story of who he is and of the family and community that supports him in reaching his dreams is one of my favorite this year. I suggest reading this profile at your Thanksgiving table to see if it doesn’t make everyone thankful for the possibilities in life.

But that is not why I include it with these great health care stories in 2020.

I have listed it here because tethered to Chris through the entire challenge was his volunteer coach, Dan Grieb. They started training together last October- and mile by mile, stroke by stroke, Dan literally walked Chris Nikic to the finish line.

Behind all the well-deserved publicity of Chris’s victory- Dan Grieb also completed an Iron Man last weekend. His guidance, strength, and unstated presence makes me think of the thousands of nurses, and doctors, and hospital personnel across the world who are leading COVID patients through their own marathons as I write this.

I wish for you, more than any of the rest of us, a peaceful, safe, and healing Thanksgiving. Thank you for what you do.