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Goff pens guide on navigating healthcare system

By Kevin Groenhagen

(Reprinted with permission from the July 2016 edition of Kaw Valley Senior Monthly.)

Several years after Marsha Henry Goff’s mother, June, died, Goff and her sister, Vicki Julian, were driv- ing home to Lawrence from Topeka. Goff had long blamed herself for her mother’s death since she was unable to figure out exactly what had been killing her. Hearing her lament one time too often, Vicki said, “I think it is your fault that Mom died, Marsha.” After a pause, Vicki continued, “You could have gone to medical school and become a doctor.”

Of course, Goff hadn’t gone to medical school. She is an author, editor, desk-top publisher, and blogger who has written books primarily about humor and history. Her humor titles include Life is more fun when you live it, Jest for Grins and Human Nature Calls: Jest for Grins, while her history titles include The High Schoolsof Lawrence: A Nostalgic Look At the People and the Times, 1855-1998 and Lawrence Sesquicentennial: Images of History Vol. II, both of which were collaborative works with the late Bill Snead. Snead began his career as a photographer at the Lawrence Journal-World when he was a high school senior, spent more than two decades The Washington Post, and then returned to the Journal-World in 1993.

bookAccording to Goff, she has the ability to get interested in just about any subject. After taking care of her mother for decades, learning about the medi- cal experiences of friends and mem- bers of her family, and undergoing surgeries of her own, Goff has become somewhat of an expert on the healthcare industry. Wanting to share her knowledge to help others, last year she published Everything I know about medicine, I learned on the Wrong Side of the Stethoscope.

“I had been talking about writing the book for a good number of years,” Goff said. “My mother died in 2004, and I must have thought about that book almost since about that time.”

Goff’s father, L. Lew Henry, an attorney and elected official, died in 1974 as a result of a ‘benign’ tumor that probably developed from a head injury he suffered during World War II. According to Goff, her father may have been saved if the tumor had been discovered six months earlier.

“My father died at a relatively young age,” she said. “He was just 56. I sort of stepped in as the person to take care of my mother. My mother didn’t drive, except around her neighborhood. She needed transportation to go to doctors. And she was so distraught after my father died. She needed help.”

Unfortunately, June, who had been an athlete in high school and college, began having health issues several years before her husband passed away. In fact, she had to have surgery the very day he died.

“It was the one day we couldn’t take her down to the intensive care unit to see him,” Goff said. “They were on the same floor. Mother had just about everything go wrong that could possibly go wrong. She endured a lot, and, consequently, as her advocate, I learned a lot.”

The things that went wrong with June and her health care included several errors during her final hours.

“My mother’s death was the most difficult for so many reasons,” Goff writes in her book. “I think medical personnel failed her in not diagnosing that she was retaining urine and her bladder was stretched to bursting. The hospital could not find an oxygen mask to fit her. A child’s mask was too small, but just barely. The adult mask was so large, they tried to cut it down to fit, making the edges sharp and allowing oxygen to escape and blow in her eyes. My friend Martha, the RN who stayed with me that last night of Mom’s life, attempted to make the mask more com- fortable by pushing Kleenex under the sharp edges.”

After her mother died, Goff asked the nurse why her abdomen was swollen. According to the nurse, they had mistakenly placed the oxygen tube in her stomach instead of her lungs during the attempt to resuscitate her.

While June did suffer poor health during her final years, she maintained her sense of humor, including while experiencing a heart attack.

“My mother and my sister Vicki were sitting there in the hospital room,” Goff said. “Vicki kept noticing that the heart monitor was looking weird. That’s when Mother turned around and said, ‘I’ve watched enough Trapper John, M.D. To know that’s not right.’”

And then there was the incident with the burning blanket. Shortly after a hospital aide warmed up a blanket for her mother and spread it on her bed, Goff smelled smoke and noticed a black spot on the blanket quickly growing larger. It turns out the blanket was not one that should have been warmed, especially in a microwave.

June also enjoyed sharing jokes with her visiting nurses, who came to her home a couple of times a week during the last two and a half decades of her life.

“I tried to bring as many different people into the home as I could, not to lighten our burden, but because it was good for Mother,” Goff explained. “You don’t want older people to be isolated. That can happen very easily. These were people who hadn’t heard all of Mother’s jokes, and they could tell her new ones.”

marshasignObviously, Goff inherited her mother’s sense of humor, which has served her well during difficult times.

“Even serious things I write about usually have a humorous side,” Goff said. “I personally find it difficult to get through life without seeing some humor in even things that don’t sound like they’d be humorous at all.”

As a caregiver for a family member, Goff’s experience is a fairly common one. In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 40.4 million unpaid caregivers of adults ages 65 and older in the United States. Of that group, 90 percent are providing care for an aging relative. A plurality is caring for a parent. Goff’s goal with her book is to help those caregivers be better advocates for their relatives’ health care. Even if you are not a caregiver, Goff’s book offers a great deal of advice to help you be a better advocate for your own health care. Goff stresses that healthcare decisions belong to the patient, and a major part of making informed decisions is making sure medical records are accurate. Goff devotes an entire chapter to that subject.

“The problem with medical records is that they are often incorrect,” Goff writes. “And the problem with erroneous medical records is that doctors, nurses, and therapists tend to believe the written word.”

Goff cites several cases within her own family to illustrate just how common such errors are. When Goff’s sister, Lesta, changed doctors and looked through her medical records,She noticed her records said she had multiple sclerosis and diabetes (she has neither), had quit smoking (she never smoked), and one of her siblings (all female) had had a vasectomy. Lesta, a Caucasian, later discovered her medical records showed she is Black/African-American.

“I am betting that Lesta doesn’t have that mistake corrected,” Goff writes. “She is likely looking forward to seeing the looks on the faces of the medical professionals who read her records before they meet her.”

The medical records of Goff’s husband, Ray, noted that stents had been placed in his heart, when, in fact, they had not. And then there was the case of Goff’s 90-pound mother having her weight recorded at just 70 pounds.

“My mother’s medical records erro- neously showed that she weighed only 70 pounds,” Goff writes. “‘I told them when they weighed me in that sling,’ said Mom indignantly, ‘that my foot was still on the bed.’”

Consequently, medical personnel evaluated June’s condition without physically examining her, then cited her low weight in their own records as a failure to thrive.

A lot of people get inaccurate information out of medical records,” Goff said. “That’s really important because you don’t want to be on record having a disease or condition that you don’t actually have.”

Despite her negative experiences with medical personnel, Goff strongly believes most doctors are excellent at what they do and got into the medical field for the right reasons. In fact, she dedicated Everything I know about medicine, I learned on the Wrong Side of the Stethoscope to Fred R. Isaacs, Monti Belot, and Richard Tozer, “three exceptional doctors who are no longer with us.”

“Doctors are human, and they are going to have the same personality traits that we do,” she said. “A lot of my book is about how you handle relationships with medical personnel. I’m certainly aware of how difficult their jobs are. Patients aren’t always easy to get along with, especially when we are sick. I once wrote a column entitled ‘The Patient from Hell,’ and I was that patient. I rarely get ill, but, when I am, I want to be cured yesterday.”

Goff also writes in her book that she is fortunate to live in a city that has an outstanding hospital. She notes that Lawrence Memorial Hospital (LMH) has been named a Truven Health 100 Top Hospital for three consecutive years (LMH received the honor for a fourth consecutive year shortly after Goff published her book). However, even with that record of excellence, Goff counsels patients and their families not to get complacent.

“I have a great deal of confidence in that hospital, but I still wouldn’t leave a family member who is unconscious or sedated alone,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good thing to do anyplace.”

Despite Goff’s praise for excellent doctors and hospitals, she was concerned some readers might believe Everything I know about medicine, I learned on the Wrong Side of the Stethoscope portrays medical personnel too negatively. Therefore, Appendix G includes an account in which medical personnel did everything correctly when they saved the life of Jere McElhaney in 1973. Then a ninth-grade student, McElhaney was the victim of a freak accident in which a large tractor-type rotary mower propelled a wire into his heart. McElhaney was clinically dead when he reached the hospital. Goff’s description of the skill, quick thinking, and heroic efforts Dr. Wayne Hird, Dr. John Wertzberger, ER nurse Gaye Hill, and other hospital personnel exhibited in the emergency room rivals most scenes from even the best television medical dramas.

Other topics Goff covers in her informative book include the following:

Paperback and eBook versions of Everything I know about medicine, I learned on the Wrong Side of the Stethoscope are available at Amazon.com. In addition, The Raven Book Store in Lawrence has Goff’s book in stock, while other bookstores can place an order for the book. For more information about Goff and her books, please visit www.jestforgrins.com.