James Joyce and an unexpected death

The Library, (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Photo H. Colt)

In the early morning of January 13, 1941, James Joyce, age 58, died from unexpected complications after surgery for a  perforated duodenal ulcer. The past medical history of the author of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake was replete with illnesses that had diminished his quality of life, yet his death was the consequence of complications after surgery. Today, we know that duodenal ulcers are usually caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. Treatment is based on preventive measures, avoidance of alcohol, NSAIDS and smoking, and early use of medications to reduce stomach acid and kill the bacteria. Surgery is warranted in case of perforation and peritonitis, with complications rates between 3% and 40%. 

Reading details about Joyce’s death from surgical complications reminds me of how each and every encounter with a physician, then or now, is a potential encounter with death.Perhaps this sounds a bit harsh, but it is something I kept in mind during my entire career as well as during times when I was, myself, a patient of other doctors. In fact, the possibility for treatment-related complications, including death, is one of the reasons physicians strive to be the best they can be, and why our profession insists on continued medical education and repeated practice to maintain technical skills and clinical acumen.

Inequalities of learning opportunities across nations and between medical centers make it difficult, however, to guarantee an equal access to knowledge and procedural training. Some medical cultures might have a rich experience in diseases such as tuberculosis-related strictures, whereas others have a high preponderance of lung cancer or transplant-related disease. By building a global network of physician experts, however, information can be shared, cases discussed, and knowledge enhanced in a collegial manner. This is, in fact, one of the reasons of being for Bronchoscopy International.

I mention this because I want to remind everyone about the importance of studying the potentially harmful consequences of airway and pleural interventions. Emergencies such as bleeding, cardiac arrest, over-sedation, infection, recurrent airway strictures, and respiratory compromise are life-threatening. By simulating these events in our procedure suites and workshops, we can practice technical interventions and team dynamics. Sessions that include medical students, house officers, nurses, and respiratory therapists can be documented in quality improvement reports and documented in competency-oriented training programs. Furthermore, national conferences could include at least one session where response-to-complications is addressed 

These days I am traveling through Ireland, and more specifically rereading the works of James Joyce. Meandering through the streets of Dublin on what the locals call soft days, described as a drizzle of rain rather than the usual downpour, I feel safe under the relative comfort of a large umbrella. We provide our patients the equivalent of such an umbrella when we prepare ourselves to respond to any and all complications; when we assure ourselves there can be no surprises, and we have thought and prepared for anything that might happen during or after an intervention. Complications are a natural and sometimes unpreventable consequence of airway and pleural procedures. We can minimize their impact through careful strategy and planning, preparation, and practice.