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When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes

By ProPublica  
   February 22, 2017

Brown explained to the executive that his blockage was one part of a broader, more diffuse condition that would be unaffected by opening a single pipe. The cardiovascular system, it turns out, is more complicated than a kitchen sink. The executive started medication and improved his diet. Three months later, his cholesterol had improved markedly, he had lost 15 pounds, and the chest pain never returned.

Now, listen to the story with the sad ending: Not long after helping the executive, Brown and his colleagues were asked to consult on the case of a 51-year-old man from a tiny Missouri town. This man had successfully recovered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, but radiation and six cycles of chemotherapy had left him with progressive scarring creeping over his lungs. He was suffocating inside his own body. The man was transferred to Barnes Jewish Hospital, where Brown works, for a life-saving lung transplant. But when the man arrived in St. Louis, the lung-transplant team could not operate on him.

Four months earlier, the man had been admitted to another hospital because he was having trouble breathing. There, despite the man's history of lymphoma treatment, which can cause scarring, a cardiologist wondered whether the shortness of breath might be due to a blocked artery. As with the executive, the cardiologist recommended a catheter. Unlike the executive, however, this man, like most patients, agreed to the procedure. It revealed a partial blockage of one coronary artery. So, doctors implanted a stent, even though there was no clear evidence that the blockage was responsible for the man's shortness of breath—which was, in fact, caused by the lung scarring. Finally, the man was put on standard post-implantation medications to make sure he would not develop a blood clot at the site of the stent. But those medications made surgery potentially lethal, putting the man at an extremely high risk of bleeding to death during the transplant. The operation had to be delayed.

Meanwhile, the man's lung tissue continued to harden and scar, like molten lava that cools and hardens into gray stone. Until one day, he couldn't suck in another breath. The man had survived advanced-stage lymphoma only to die in the hospital, waiting until he could go off needed medication for an unneeded stent.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.


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