Thursday, September 21, 2017

Got the Stinkeye

It's been quiet. Too quiet. Until right now.

It has been 10 months since I definitively learned that I did not, in fact, have an exotic, aggressive tumor that would kill me within 2 years. Life has settled down to the ho-hum existence of your average northeastern US primary care doctor living in the End Times. What was I to do for excitement?

So, this summer, I had been getting a runny nose, a cough, sneezing, and a bit of bloody nose. It didn't seem like anything special, but it went on for several weeks and did not respond to allergy treatments. So I stuck a culture swab up my nose, sent it to the lab, and prescribed myself some antibiotics. *

The culture grew 'normal skin flora.' Generally, when they find this in a culture, they throw it out, and that's just what they did. And I didn't get better. I went to see Hygieia. It indeed looked infected. She cultured it again, and I spoke to JD of infectious disease (ID). He put me on two antibiotics.

Those two antibiotics did seem to help some, but they made me ill, and, three days in, I woke up in the middle of the night with a fire alarm in my ear (tinnitus from hell). That was minocycline. Not doing that again. So JD switched out one of the drugs for another. But the new combo didn't seem to work, and the other drug, rifampin, turns all one's body fluid orange, which can be a real downer.

Meanwhile, about a week ago, whenever I coughed or sneezed, it felt like my right eye and cheek were about to blow off my face. On Sunday night, it crossed my mind that this was not actually normal, even for me.

The next day, Hygieia squeezed me into her schedule. (I guess she found the idea of my face bursting apart disturbing too.) The inside of my face was not looking better.** So she got another culture and ordered a CT scan (also because that spot hasn't had enough radiation lately). And the CT scan showed...another trophy for my catalogue of experiential medicine! I have orbital cellulitis.

What's orbital cellulitis, you ask? Sounds like something Chris Hadfield ( might get. But no. It's an infection in the tissues surrounding the eye. Usually, it's quite painful, because the tissues around the eye usually form a closed space that can build up pressure. Luckily (Heh!), in my case, the orbit is not a closed space. It's wide open to what should be bone and sinus, but what has, for the last 10 years, been my facehole.

Know what's even more special? That culture seems to be growing Enterococcus faecalis! To put it delicately, that's a bug that one more often finds in the hole on the other end of things. This is so special, that only two patients in all of medical literature have ever had such an infection! *** And I bet neither of them had a facehole like mine! I win!

So, last night, after all of this, I called up my parents, and I asked, "are you bored? . . ."

* Before you give me the a hard time about my treating myself, I am in frequent contact about these things with my primary care doc and my ENT doc, Hygieia, the Greek goddess of otolaryngology. Dr. Bug, head of infectious diseases at Ben and Jerry's Hospital, is impressed that I have been able to keep the inside of my face from turning into a foul sewer of infection for the last 10 years given what cancer, surgery, and radiation have done to it. (I guess that 10 year streak is over.)

** Meanwhile, her lab had tossed the second culture, because it too grew 'normal skin flora.' This made Hygieia very mad, since normal skin flora do not belong on the inside of my face.


He's not bored.

Friday, April 28, 2017

No Window Into My Soul

Hi, Tumoriffic readers!

That whole thing about spitting out a piece of my skull thing fizzled out so quickly, I forgot to tell everyone what finally happened. Here goes:

1. Apparently, I am still alive.

2. When I got home from the British Virgin Islands, I went and saw Hygeia, Goddess of Otolaryngology. I had given her a heads up, so she had done her research. Apparently, in all of Pubmed, there were no useful articles about what to do when someone spits out a piece of their own skull. That made me feel very special.

Using her holy pharyngoscope, Hygeia could see where the piece had come from, and it was from the source of all of my recent adventures--my poor, tattered clivus.* What she could not see was what was left behind it. There was a scab, and she was disinclined to pick it off. She worried that doing so might rip my meninges** and spray cerebrospinal fluid in her face. I would have found it very embarrassing. 

So, she decided to get a CT scan of the area. After all that fuss, there was a still a layer of bone separating my meninges and brain from the back of my nose/throat. Yawn.

It was sort of anticlimactic, but at least I have a souvenir. Who else do you know who came back from a vacation with a dried out little cube of their own skull? I keep it in my bedside table in a little cardboard soap box from the resort. Everyone in Hygeia's office thought it was neat. I'll show it to you if you want.

Be well,


* Autocorrect wants to substitute 'cloves' for 'clivus.' Gimme a break, autocorrect! Are you telling me that you don't know basic skull anatomy? (On the other hand, cloves might do nicer things to my breath than rotting clivus.)

** The meninges are the membranes inside your skull that surround your brain like a Ziplock bag full of wet chicken. Meninges was also a minor Greek hero from the Iliad who was responsible for packing everyone's lunches.***

*** Homer left him out of the final draft. You can't prove that's not true, so it basically is.

This is what true love looks like.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Nearly A Piece of My Mind

Today started very strangely. Here's some background:

Ever since my surgery and radiation in 2005, I have been unable to blow my nose effectively. So, every morning and evening, without fail, I rinse out my nose with over half a gallon of salted distilled water using a sinus rinse bottles.* I call this process "nouching."

Anyway, as I was rinsing this morning, I felt something hard and sharp behind my nose. I rinsed some more, and spit out a piece of my skull.


That's right. A piece of my skull. It's about a third of an inch to a side and more or less cubic. And holy plucking schmidt! It's a piece of my skull! And, it may surprise you, but it does not look healthy. It looks like peanut brittle (though less tasty) or pumice (though less useful for removing corns). I could probably crush it to powder between my finger and thumb. And did I say that it's from my skull?

What does this mean? Is my head about to collapse into a mass of bone powder and goo? Probably not. Although the appearance of a piece of my skull in the bathroom sink was an unpleasant surprise, I know that the big part of my skull between my nose and brain is dead. I'm not sure how that leaves me alive and more-or-less healthy, but my doctors have assured me that I am alive and am in reasonable health. I'm not sure they entirely know why either. 

So, I left messages for my primary care doc, my local ENT doc, and my F'in Famous Cancer Hospital ENT doc. One nurse I spoke to said, "wow. That's different!" To say the least. I've heard back from Dr. Hygiea, Greco-Roman Goddess of otolaryngology, *** and she wants me to get a CT scan. That will have to wait.

See, I am currently spending the week in the British Virgin Islands. I called around. There is one ENT doc in the whole country. He might be able to see me in March. He will be in for emergencies tomorrow, but he'll be away for a week after that. So, if my brain lining rips and my CSF leaks onto my shoes, or if my head collapses onto my spine so that I am a human bobble-head, I'll have to get air-lifted to St. Thomas or San Juan.

I'm actually not really worried. This is just the sort of thing that happens when you have a large chunk of dead bone in the middle of your head. Really, the dangerous part is that dead bone, like a splinter, can fester and cause infections. So, all else being equal, the more of it that comes out, the better. It's like Mom always said, "better out than in." 

Tomorrow, I'll go snorkeling and look for whales.

Be well,


* By the way, I recommend this wholeheartedly to my patients. If you have a cold, sinusitis, or allergies, rinsing helps clear out the gunk. Do it as much as you can stand. The concept is disgusting, but, sometimes, it can help you avoid antibiotics, and involves no toxic products whatsoever. ENT docs love them. The salt packets can be expensive, but pharmacies have started selling generic versions which are cheaper.

** I'm certainly not about to carry a giant jug of water on top of my head like some women in Africa. That could get ugly.

*** This is a pseudonym. 

Here's a baby gray whale checking us out in 2013. We're looking for humpbacks tomorrow. I hear there's a newborn nearby.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Well, That Was Fun!

As of last update, I was in the emergency department at Ben and Jerry's Hospital getting worked up for an episode of double vision. After a normal CT scan and MRI, I had to wait overnight for a visit from the eye doctor and for an echocardiogram to make sure there wasn't a big, floppy blood clot throwing off bits and pieces into my brain.

That was the day before yesterday. They put me in a room in 'observation' (part of the emergency room where they keep you if you are there for more than a few hours, but they don't want to admit you). Surprisingly, if you have your own room and are hard of hearing like me, you can sleep pretty well in the ER. You take your hearing aids out, put in earplugs, and it's pretty quiet. There are pluses to bad hearing. K, on the other hand, slept terribly, worrying about me.

Yesterday, late in the morning, a technician wheeled in her ultrasound machine and got an echocardiogram of my heart. This involves the tech rubbing a microphone covered with KY Jelly on my chest. Those of you who have been pregnant may be familiar with a similar experience. It's a rather slimy. To everyone's relief, there is not a great big blood clot flopping around inside my heart waiting to fly off into my brain!

Finally, the ophthalmologist came by. He examined my eyes. I'm always jealous of ophthalmologists. They have all sorts of cool equipment to look into eyes. I only get to use the wimpy kind of ophthalmoscope primary care docs get. It makes me feel inferior. Thankfully, he did not rub it in.

The ophthalmologist agreed that the most likely explanation for my episode of double vision is that my extreme fatigue had amplified the inherent weakness of the muscles that move my right eye.* I had been really tired that day. Not only was there an early-morning meeting at my office, the night before, I had a migraine and had foolishly treated it with caffeine in addition to ibuprofen. I slept terribly that night.

Shortly after the ophthalmologist left, K showed up. I was ready to go home. Sadly, because someone had to put an official read on the echo and various notes had to be written, I had to wait until late afternoon to go home. Still, I had time to take the dog for a walk. It was a pretty short ordeal for a Tumoriffic episode.

That's all, folks!


* The muscles that move my right eye (extraocular muscles) are weak due the radiation and surgery I received in 2005. Generally doesn't bother me unless I look down or way to the right.

** I have been getting migraines lately, probably because I just got progressive lenses, and I'm not used to them.

Saying 'goodbye' to the ER and 'hello' to my new friend. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Embarrassing Update From the Emergency Room

So, the news has been so boring lately, I thought I would spice things up.

Yesterday morning, I was driving to work. Suddenly, there were twice as many cars in front of me as had been there the moment before. Every car had grown a twin. I blinked my eyes, but it was still true. I had double vision. Luckily, if I kept one eye closed, it went away, so I avoided dying in a flaming wreck. After a few minutes, things returned to normal. I went to work, saw my patients, and went home.

That evening, thinking that maybe my primary care doc, Dr. N, should know about this, I sent her a message. Foolish me.

Today, after I had seen a few patients, I got a call from Dr. N. She was laughing. She said, "Tom, what would you tell a patient if they sent you a message saying what you said to me?"

"Um," I tried figure out something to say other than the obvious, but there was no way around it. "I'd send them to the emergency room." And she laughed at me some more.

Reluctantly, I cancelled the rest of my appointments. I grabbed some papers off my desk, and drove home. Then, my delightful neighbor, G drove me here, the emergency room of Ben and Jerry's Hospital. *

After several hours, I have had an unremarkable CT and MRI (by my unique standards). I did not have a stroke. However, I don't get to go home tonight. We still don't know for sure what happened.

The most likely explanation is that Donald Trump. That's right. His fault. Some kind of executive order. Donald Trump.

Another possibility--the one that really seems most likely to me--is fatigue. I was ridiculously tired that morning. My work was holding a meeting at a truly ungodly hour. The muscles surrounding my right eye are weakened from all the radiation, and I think the fatigue just brought this out. This was one of the ways I reassured myself until Dr. N embarrassed me into coming here. I still think it's number one.

Next, it is possible that I had a TIA--a transient ischemic attack. ** This happens when there is a blockage in blood vessel in the brain that is temporary. This could be due to narrowing of the small vessels from all the radiation I had to my brain (a known phenomenon and probably the reason for my two strokes ***). This is quite possible. That was the other way I reassured myself. I'm already on medicine for this, so I am already doing everything that can be done.

But, then, there's the kicker. The other possibility, however remote, is that I have a big, ugly clot in the left side of my heart that just threw off some little bits that travelled to my brain. If that's the case, I'm in for an operation to get the clot out before something really exciting happens. So, I'm here in the ER for the night, waiting for an echocardiogram.

Hopefully, by tomorrow, I'll be home with the wife, the kid, the cat, and the dog.

Be well,


* See

**  It can also mean other things. According to the Urban Dictionary, a Tia is "a cool, smart-mouthed girl that always has something smart to say to everything. ( According to the Online Slang Dictionary, it may stand for "thanks in advance," "this is awkward," or "the ignorant ass." ( It also means 'aunt' in Spanish. Or it stands for "Trump in America."

*** See August 14, 2006 (mislabelled 2007) in and The latter needs a serious rewrite. I haven't looked at it in years, and it's really confusing. Sorry.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

#8 Your Special Specialist

Dr. Tumoriffic's Inappropriate Guide
to Navigating the Medical System

Dear Dr Tumorific, 

How can I know which doctor at the specialist practice to see?


Dear Jay,

This is a very special question. There are many ways to do this.

For instance, if you would like to use the guidance of the spirits, print out pictures of all the specialists in the specialist practice. Then paste them to a Ouija board. As the paste dries, burn some incense and douse yourself in patchouli oil (at least 5 feet away from the burning incense so as not to light yourself on fire). Clear your mind, and let the spirits of the medico-industrial complex guide the planchette (Ouija piece) to the answer.

If you're less spiritually minded, you could tack that Ouija board to the wall and throw a dart to pick your specialist. Why did you even have a Ouija board in the first place?

Finally, there's the superficial method. If looks can kill, they can also save your life. Peruse the photos. Which one looks most doctorly? Do you prefer red-headed doctors? Are you more comfortable if your cardiologist is ugly? It's all a matter of taste.

But, if you want my real opinion, it's complicated. There are a lot of factors. I am going to interpret the question broadly. I'm not going to talk not just about how to choose a specialist within a given practice, but how to choose any specialist anywhere.

1. This is the most aggravating, but, for many, the most important question to answer: which specialists take your health insurance? More and more, insurance companies are making deals with specific groups of doctors, and if you go to someone outside those groups, you have to pay a higher price, or in some cases, you won't be covered at all. 

Sometimes your primary care doctor can get special exceptions, but the insurance company will then penalize the primary care doctor's organization financially. This puts primary care docs like me in a tough situation. We would like our patients to go wherever they want to go, but if we ask for too many exceptions, we will get in trouble with our employers. But when we don't think an exception is warranted, we end up being the bad guys by telling our patients they can't get what they want, because, let's face it. almost no one reads their insurance contracts, so the fact they can't see their friends 'great specialist' comes as a nasty surprise.

2. Next, where is the specialist located? Assuming you're not a medical oddball like me, convenience may be a good way to find a specialist. Especially if you are elderly and have a hard time going places, Dr. Nearby may be the best for the job.

3. Also, which specialist works best with your primary care doctor? Like all primary care docs, I have a few people in each specialty who see almost all of my patient referrals. I know them, like them, and trust them, and I can get ahold of them easily. There are some who will call me within 5 minutes if I text them. I even bug them about random questions when I'm not sending them patients. And if I am sending them a complicated case, I will call and talk to them about the details instead of just sending them a brief written referral request. All else being equal, ease of communication goes a long way towards quality of care.

4. Finally, how special do you need your specialist to be? Aside from intelligence and conscientiousness, the quality of a specialist for a given problem depends largely on how often they see and deal with the problem.

You don't need to go to a medical Mecca to find a gastroenterologist who is an absolute wizard with a colonoscope, and you do not need to go looking far afield for the world's greatest hip replacement surgeon. There are doctors all over the place who do dozens upon dozens of these procedures all the time.

But on the other extreme, you could be like me and have a type of radiation-induced tumor that is rare even among radiation-induced tumors and in a very difficult to reach spot in the bone under my right eye. In 2005, I could have gone to the highly prestigious Wicked Famous Cancer Hospital in my home town and been operated on by very eminent surgeons who had never before worked as a team, much less done my operation ever before. (No kidding! I was going to be their very first case together!) Instead, I chose to go 215 miles away from home to a team of the F'in' Famous Cancer Hospital who did 50 of those surgeries a year. As a result, I still have my right eye. (See, April 17, 2005, The Clash of the Surgeons, or The Eyes Have It!)

The most common way to locate one of these super-specialists is to know somebody who knows somebody, or to ask your doctors, who hopefully will know somebody who knows somebody; I call this the Medical Mafia.

You or your doctor could also look up who is getting NIH grants in that area (, or research who is publishing articles about their work on similar cases by searching in pubmed (

So, how to find the right specialist is a very special question. Thanks, Jay, for another good one.

Be well,

Dr. Tumoriffic