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About John Lundy

John Lundy covers health and health-related issues for The Duluth News Tribune. He's a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Guest post: Lessons on Living from a Dying Man

 

Editor’s note: A guest blog today from Cathy Wurzer of Minnesota Public Radio.

Grief counselors say one of the most frequent questions they get from clients, newly diagnosed with a terminal illness, is “How am I supposed to live in the time I have left?”

I wish all of us would try to answer that question well before a life-altering diagnosis forces us to finally consider our options.

Cathy Wurzer Minnesota Public Radio photo

Cathy Wurzer
Minnesota Public Radio photo

I do not have a terminal illness, although my life condition, at some point, will include a definite denouement. I’m at peace with my future demise but only because, for the past few years, I’ve had the heartbreaking and yet joyful experience of being with two men who taught me what it means to live and how to die. One teacher was a friend and the other was my father.

The process played out in a very public way thanks to a blog, a radio series and now a book and podcast.

Both men were teachers, gifted educators who knew how to engage their students. My father, Fritz Wurzer, came to teaching late in life after having had enough of the corporate world.

Dr. Bruce H. Kramer Photo by Michael Ekern, University of St. Thomas

My friend, Dr. Bruce Kramer, was one of those dynamic teachers a student never forgets. I met Bruce, the former dean of the College of Education at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, shortly after my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Bruce started blogging about living with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, several months after his diagnosis in December of 2010. A mutual friend steered me to his blog, thinking my public radio audience would appreciate Bruce’s candid and reflective thoughts on living while slowly dying.

Some of my newsroom colleagues were skeptical that a series of conversations with a dying man would be something early morning radio listeners would want to hear, and, to be honest, I wasn’t convinced it would work.

I nearly pulled out of the entire project, thinking that I was not going to be able to handle someone else’s pain while also dealing with my own as I watched my father fall apart.

My plan was to do a couple of interviews with Bruce, see how they went, and move on. Instead, our series of extraordinary conversations stretched over more than four years, ending with his death in March of 2015. My father had passed away a year earlier in March of 2014.

Watching how both men lived with their respective illnesses taught me about the gift of grace that reveals itself when accepting one’s reality and the surprising realization that a diseased life can be a worthwhile life.

Shortly after he was diagnosed, Bruce started asking himself some important questions as he mapped out how he was going to live with ALS. One of them jumped out at me.

“Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question: ‘What will you be from here into eternity?’”

Think about the question. What will you be, even in the face of the pain, nausea, and exhaustion associated with many physical illnesses, the confusion of dementia, the darkness of mental illness, or the uncertainty of whatever you’re living with?

As his body deteriorated, his spirit expanded, and Bruce Kramer chose to live his days to their fullest without the ability to move a muscle. This isn’t what Bruce had envisioned his life would be, but toward the end of it, he said he wouldn’t have wanted to take back the gifts and lessons ALS taught him even if he could have had his old life back.

Bruce said his life had a richness and depth knowing that it was going to end soon. Might we be better served if we started asking ourselves, earlier, the deep questions that tend to get asked as we enter the final laps of our lives? What gets in the way of that kind of reflection? Fear, most certainly, and denial—after all, we live in a culture of immortality.

Kramer felt that, by facing his death and embracing it, he had the opportunity to focus on the task of growing into the person he was meant to be. He said, “That’s how I want to die. I want to die fully alive.” And indeed he did.

Now, how will YOU live your life? Are you clear about what really matters to you? I’m still working on those questions, but my intention is to live the rest of my days as fully as my now-departed friend did.

By the way, MPR has just created a new podcast of Bruce Kramer’s story. I hope you’ll give it a listen! http://mprnews.org/podcasts/living-while-dying

Contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com. 

More information on the Cathy Wurzer’s blog tour is available here:

 

Using the tongue to ‘see’

 

A Wisconsin company is the manufacturer of a device designed to help blind people process visual images through their tongues.

The Food and Drug Administration announced in a news release today that it is allowing marketing of the BrainPort V100, made by Wicab Inc. of Middleton, Wis.

The battery-powered device consists of a video camera mounted on a pair of glasses and a small, flat device the user holds against his or her tongue, the FDA explained in a news release. Software converts the images captured by the camera to electrical signals that are felt as vibrations or tinglings on the tongue. With training and experience, the user can interpret the signals to determine the location, position, size and shape of objects and whether they are stationary or moving.

Studies showed 69 percent of the 74 people who completed a year of training with the device succeeded in an object-recognition test. Some users reported a burning, stinging or metallic taste from the device on the tongue, but no serious problems arose.

The news release noted that more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. were blind in 2010, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute. It’s projected that will rise to 2.1 million by 2030 and 4.1 million by 2050.

Contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com. 

 

 

 

How much is too much?

Saltz

Dr. Leonard Saltz

A combination of two drugs has had “truly, truly remarkable” results in treating skin cancer, a doctor from one of the nation’s leading cancer centers says.

But it costs too much.

Zosia Chustecka of the online journal Medscape Oncology reported on Monday about the comments of Dr. Leonard Saltz during the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.

Saltz, with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, spoke on Monday during what Chustecka called an “extra session” at the conference. Saltz has been vocal in the past about the high cost of cancer therapies, Chustecka wrote.

In his talk, Saltz spoke specifically of ipilimumab and nivolumab, both made by Bristol-Myers Squibb. They’ve achieved dramatic results in the treatment of metastatic melanoma, which was thought to be “basically untreatable” just five years ago, he said.

But “these drugs cost too much,” Saltz said.

How much?

Nivolumab costs $28.78 per milligram; a bargain compared to ipilimumab, which sots $157.46 per milligram. That’s about 4,000 times the cost of gold, Saltz said.

The median total cost per patient in the latest trial was just under $300,000, Chustecka reported. For a Medicare patient with a 20 percent co-pay, that would mean coming up with $60,000 out of pocket.

“This is unsustainable,” Chustecka quoted Saltz as saying. “We must acknowledge that there must be some upper limit to how much we can, as a society, afford to pay to treat each patient with cancer.”

Contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com.  

Not-so-fat Minnesota

Image

While other states in the Upper Midwest keep getting fatter, Minnesota’s obesity has leveled off.

That’s the news the Minnesota Department of Health trumpeted today on the basis of 2013 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System; Minnesota Department of Health

Source: CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System; Minnesota Department of Health

 

The percentage of Minnesotans who are considered obese peaked at 26 in 2007, according to the data, began to drop in 2008 and has stayed pretty much level since 2010.

Meanwhile, obesity rates in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin have kept climbing, to almost 30 percent and beyond. Of the five states, only Minnesota is below the national median rate, the health department added.

Moreover, the number of Minnesotans whose weight is healthy increased by 60,000 between 2010 and 2013, according to the health department.

The flip side of the good news, of course, is that more than one in four Minnesotans still is obese. The numbers might give us reason for hope, but not for celebration.

Contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com.

A poisonous topic

Brackets.

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about poison.poison

It’s National Poison Prevention Week, the American Lung Association in Minnesota and the Minnesota Poison Control System remind us.

The American Lung Association’s news release on the subject notes that poisonings are the second-leading cause of unintentional injury mortality in Minnesota, according to the state’s health department.

The Poison Control System (aka Poison Center), in its news release, notes that 50 percent of poisonings occur in children under 6, and 94 percent of poisonings occur in the home.

A particular concern, according to the American Lung Association, is the vials of liquid used for e-cigarettes. They can contain fatal levels of nicotine for children, who may mistake them for candy or something to eat.

But a greater source of danger is in your medicine cabinet. The Poison Center cites a Safe Kids report that 77 percent of children’s poison-related emergency room visits were related to exposure to medicines belonging to a parent or a grandparent.

The Duluth Health Homes Partnership, which is affiliated with the American Lung Association, is encouraging all of us to create poison-free homes and properly dispose of any household hazardous materials.

It you think a child or loved one may have been poisoned, you should call the national Poison Help number, (800) 222-1222. The Poison Center suggests programming the number into your cell and/or home phones.

Also, free poison prevention packets are available at all three Duluth Public Library locations.

Here’s some additional tips from the Poison Center:

  • Keep medicines and household products in their original containers.
  • Keep medicines and household products up high and out of sight or locked up. If you have visitors, make sure suitcases and purses are stored out of children’s reach, and remind visitors to take responsibility for their own medications.
  • Take the time to read and follow the label before taking or giving medicine.

Contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com.

Ebola back in the news

This just came in from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

 

 

 

CDC investigating potential exposures of American citizens to Ebola in West Africa

 

On March 13, an American volunteer healthcare worker in Sierra Leone who tested positive for Ebola virus returned to the U.S. by medevac and was admitted to the NIH Clinical Center for care and treatment.  As a result of this case, CDC is conducting contact tracing of individuals in Sierra Leone, including several other American citizens, who may have had potential exposure to this index patient.  At this time, none of these individuals have tested positive for Ebola. These individuals are volunteers in the Ebola response and are currently being monitored in Sierra Leone.  Out of an abundance of caution, CDC and the State Department are developing contingency plans for returning those Americans with potential exposure to the U.S. by non-commercial air transport. Those individuals will voluntarily self-isolate and be under direct active monitoring for the 21-day incubation period.

 

One of these American citizens had potential exposure to the individual being treated at NIH and is currently being transported via charter to the Atlanta area to be close to Emory University Hospital. The individual has not shown symptoms of Ebola and has not been diagnosed with Ebola. Upon arrival in Atlanta, the individual will voluntarily self-isolate and be under direct active monitoring for the 21-day incubation period.

 

The Obama health insurance video

Have you seen President Barack Obama’s video reminding us to sign up for health insurance by Sunday’s deadline?

If you enjoy self-deprecatory humor, check it out here:

We can’t match that, but we can remind you that Sunday is the deadline for open enrollment in the private health insurance marketplace. Last-minute free help is available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in the form of “navigators” at the downtown branch of the Duluth Public Library. No appointment is necessary.

You should bring household income information and Social Security numbers for those applying. It’s not a universal deadline:  If you are eligible for public health programs or have qualifying life-changing experiences, you can apply anytime. Otherwise, Sunday is the last day to get health insurance for 2015 … and if you don’t get insurance, you may face tax penalties next year.

More information is available by calling United Way 2-1-1 or by visiting mnsure.org.

You can contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com.

 

 

 

The smoking minority

Smokers are more of a minority group than ever in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Health and ClearWay Minnesota report today that, based on their annual survey, the state’s adult smoking rate has declined to 14.4 percent — the lowest rate ever in Minnesota. It’s down from 16.1 percent in 2010, the last time the survey took place.

The survey result means about 580,000 Minnesotans continue to smoke, according to a news release from the agencies.

Additional conclusions:

  • More than 60 percent of smokers who quit during the past year indicated the statewide tobacco price increase in 2013 helped them make that decision.
  • Minnesotans with less than a high school education have the highest smoking rate: 28.6 percent.
  • Between the genders, a greater percentage of men smoke (16.5 to 12.4 percent).
  • For the first time, the youngest adults (ages 18-24) aren’t the most likely to smoke. The age group that smokes the most now is adults 25-44.
  • Not surprisingly, the percentage of Minnesotans who have used e-cigarettes within the 30 previous days has risen — from 0.7 percent in 2010 to 5.9 percent last year. Almost two-thirds of e-cigarette users were current smokers.

You can learn more here:

You can contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com.

Flu numbers down (for now)

Although influenza remains widespread in Minnesota, numbers took a dip during the week that ended Dec. 27, according to Minnesota Department of Health data.

The number of hospitalizations was down to seven during the week, compared with 84 the week before. None of the hospitalizations occurred in Northeastern Minnesota.

School outbreaks, which skyrocketed to 315 the week before, were down to 34 last week. (An outbreak means at least 5 percent of a school population is out with an influenza-like illness or at least three children from anyone elementary classroom.)

Outbreaks in long-term care facilities were down, too, from 33 to 22.

Of course, people and their doctors may have made more of an effort to avoid hospitalization in the week that included Christmas. And most schools weren’t in session most of the week, if at all. A better picture might emerge in a couple of weeks when schools have been back in session.

Still, the data suggest this hasn’t been an unusually harsh year for influenza so far, at least in Minnesota. To date, 577 Minnesotans have been hospitalized in the current influenza season. Compared with the previous five seasons, that’s more to this date only than the 2011-12 season (556) cases. It’s much less than 2009-10 (2,060), 2012-13 (3,068) and last year (1,540).

The seven cases last week can be compared to 382 cases during the same week two years ago.

But influenza always takes a toll, especially among the young and old. Already this season, three Minnesota children have died because of it.

It’s a reminder that such  precautions as staying home when you’re sick, washing your hands zealously and perhaps an elbow bump instead of shaking hands or embracing always make sense.

Contact John Lundy at jlundy@duluthnews.com.

 

And the best place for an active lifestyle is …

Omaha, Neb, is the home of Warren Buffett, the College Baseball World Series, and — take it from me — an above-average tea shop.

It’s also the best place for people with an active lifestyle.

So says Wallet Hub, a website the purports to provide helpful information for consumers and owners of small businesses.

Evaluating categories such as the cost of playing golf, fitness club fees and the percentage of people who are physically active, Wallet Hub says Omaha rose to the top, followed by Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; Reno, Nev.; and Orlando, Fla.

Duluth, aka the best outdoors city in the country, wasn’t evaluated. But the city on the other end of Interstate 35 was. Laredo, Texas, ranked last: 100 out of the 100 communities ranked.

Only Minneapolis (15th) and St. Paul (21st) were on the list from Minnesota; and Madison (25th) and Milwaukee (64th) in Wisconsin.

Madison has the highest number of basketball hoops per capita of any city surveyed, and the most “park playgrounds,” the report found. Minneapolis ranked third in the number of tennis courts.

Look for yourself here:

Contact John Lundy at: jlundy@duluthnews.com.