“I’ve got BP, doc,” said the elderly man lying in the ward. “So why have you admitted this patient?” I asked the nurse. “He has BP, doc,” she said. “We all have BP, otherwise we would be dead,” I answered. “Having blood pressure means that blood and oxygen can get to our vital organs. Why did he come to the clinic? Usually hypertension doesn’t cause any symptoms unless it’s very high.” The patient intervened, “I’ve got problems passing urine, doc. It doesn’t come out as quickly as it used to, it stings and I needed to get up to wee four times last night.”
“So let me guess, when they did your vital signs at the registration desk, they noticed your blood pressure was elevated, so they sent you to the ward to rest, in the hope it would come down?”
“Exactly,” said the nurse. “Well, lying down and resting will reduce blood pressure, but it isn’t a useful treatment for everyday living.” The nurse agreed, but said that she couldn’t send him home if his BP remained high. “But what about the reason he came to clinic?” I asked. The nurse said that she reckoned this was “prostate”. I agreed that this was a likely diagnosis in a man of his age, but was there any way we could find out more? I had in mind the International Prostate Symptom Score, a screening tool checking different aspects of prostatism. “Yes,” said the nurse, “I did a digital rectal examination. It felt big, but I don’t know what a big prostate feels like, really. Can we do the rectal examination again together, so you can teach me?”
I was immediately taken back to my days as a very junior hospital doctor. “If you don’t put your finger in, you’ll put your foot in it,” an aphorism that is burned into my cerebral cortex. If I had not done a digital rectal exam on a patient, I would surely be asked about my findings by the consultant leading the team. But here was a nurse volunteering that she had been proactive. I was very impressed. Then I thought, did she do the rectal exam before or after she had checked his blood pressure?
I glanced down at the patient who was looking alarmed. I thought for a moment and decided we could postpone the digital instruction for a week. Three rectal exams in one day would send anyone’s blood pressure through the roof. I told the nurse I would get hold of some guavas of different sizes and practice. I suggested we check a urine sample, which showed signs of an infection, so we treated him with antibiotics.
“But what about the hypertension?” I asked. “He is already taking a calcium channel blocker, but it isn’t controlling his pressure,” she replied. “What other drugs could we use, perhaps one which would help him pass urine more easily?” “A diuretic?” she answered. “Yes, that would make him produce a lot of urine, but his problem is getting it out. Any other drugs?” “Beta blockers?” she ventured. “I was thinking of trying an alpha blocker, which might improve the flow of urine and his blood pressure.” “Never heard of it,” she replied.
We made a plan: treat the infection, continue his normal blood pressure treatment, see on Friday next week when we are both in the clinic, recheck his blood pressure, urine and prostate, in that order. He didn’t show up.
Dorcas was 84 years old and had suffered from “BP” for the past 15 years. Muzungu doctors had wrestled with her hypertension without managing ever to get it under control. I read through two tattered school exercise books which serve as patient-held medical records. I suspected that the reason for poor control was the lack of consistent supply of antihypertensive drugs at the clinic. Indeed she admitted that she had run out of medication (so had the clinic) and couldn’t afford to buy more. She was lying in the female ward, resting.
Ward rounds are good teaching opportunities. I asked the nurse what she might expect to find when examining someone with long term uncontrolled hypertension. “High BP,” she said. “But what might be the effects of high BP?” She didn’t want to guess, so I prompted her. “Why do we try to control blood pressure?” “To stop heart attacks,” she said. “Great, so what might you find when examining her heart?” “High BP.”
I realised I was going to have to go back to first principles. “The heart is a muscle. It pumps blood. The stronger it pumps, the higher the pressure. So do you think her heart muscle will have been affected by chronic hypertension?” “Yes,” she said. OK, how could we detect this? She didn’t know, so I asked her to look at Dorcas’ chest. I could see the apex beat, bouncing away almost in her axilla. Then I asked her to feel for the heartbeat. She correctly located it and described it as “forceful”. “What you can feel is the bottom of the heart tapping on the ribcage. It is typical of left ventricular hypertrophy. Try listening to the heartbeat.” She told me she didn’t have a stethoscope. I offered her mine, “Share my earwax, if you dare.”
We discussed the two heart sounds, and how much louder the second sound was: lub-DUB. As I explained where to place the stethoscope on the chest to hear blood flowing through the heart valves, I noticed a pulsatile swelling just to the right of her upper breastbone. Her swollen ascending aorta had distorted the chest wall. The most likely cause of this would be an aneurysm, following decades of untreated syphilis.
I am not sure that it would do any good at this stage, but we treated her with penicillin injections. No heart surgeon would want to operate. Although her aorta was swollen, the wall would be thinner than normal and could burst at any time with catastrophic results.
The more you look, the more you find.