Now I have seen some high blood pressures in my time, but this old lady’s 285 systolic was one of the highest I have seen here in Zambia. She had been taking two tablets, a calcium channel blocker and a combination diuretic. She claimed that she never missed a dose. When I took her pulse, it was galloping along at over 120 beats per minute. I tried checking with my pulse oximeter, which clips gently onto a fingertip and displays the oxygen saturation of blood, along with the pulse rate. It showed 116.
There are not many options available in rural Africa to treat blood pressure. I have become less keen on using beta blockers after my experience in Kenya that they did very little good. They may reduce the pressure, but there is little evidence that this results in reduced mortality. But they do reduce the heart rate, and this lady’s heart was going like the clappers. I asked her son to go to the pharmacy and buy some atenolol to see if it would help.
When morning clinic was over, I stopped by the ward to review her. I took her pressure myself and it had fallen to 170/95 with a pulse rate of 76/minute. This is still higher than normal, but I was delighted. I asked the son to make sure that she took the atenolol together with her normal tablets for blood pressure, for the foreseeable future. I said that she could go home and have some decent n’shima (stiff maize porridge) for lunch, but go easy on the salt.
She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She started swaying and needed some support from her son as she walked out of the ward into the sunshine. I wondered whether her carotid arteries were so stiff and calcified from decades of atherosclerosis that she needed a high blood pressure to get the blood and oxygen to her brain. I made a note not to treat her hypertension so aggressively in future. I didn’t want her falling over from postural hypotension and breaking her hip. It is important not to follow guidelines slavishly, without taking into account the patient as an individual.
Almost every morning when I do a ward round, there is an elderly person lying on a bed resting to reduce their blood pressure. If the blood pressure is extremely high (250 systolic), the nurses might have panicked and given furosemide (a diuretic), a practice I have advised against. But, if there isn’t anything else in the drug cupboard, what can you do? A group of fussing relatives surrounded a little old lady on the bed. I asked what was wrong. “BP,” came back the answer. I could have guessed.
One daughter could speak reasonable English so I asked her to tell me the history. Her mother had had hypertension for years but had given up taking pills. Perhaps she was being treated by the sangoma (witch doctor) or drinking herb tea (made with aubergine leaves). I have even seen people collecting elephant dung to make antihypertensive tea. Perhaps the elephant had been eating aubergines.
“And why did you come to clinic?” I asked. Her mother’s hand had become paralysed. Sometimes the local language doesn’t have the vocabulary to express subtle changes, so paralysed might mean not moving because it hurts or no feeling, numbness. “She is moving her hand now,” I said. “Yes, and she has started speaking again.” I looked at her school exercise book but the notes were very brief and didn’t mention a stroke or transient ischaemic attack.
The old lady looked miserable. Via her daughter, I asked her to squeeze my index fingers with each hand to assess the strength of her grip. “You can do better than that! Go on, try to hurt me!” I urged playfully. Her grip improved as she really put some effort in. The right hand was slightly weaker. I wanted to check her facial movements, so I pretended that she really was hurting me. I made an exaggerated show of trying to pull away from her. Eventually she let go and I waved my index fingers in the air, pretending to get some feeling back. This made her laugh, and I could see both sides of her face moving equally. It looked as though there was no residual neurological deficit. Disregarding social distancing, I put my arm around her shoulders and told her I was impressed with her recovery.
I told the family that I was going to add a small daily dose of aspirin to try to reduce the risk of another “mini stroke”. I discovered the pharmacy didn’t have any in stock, so I checked in my stash of drugs in the car and discovered a strip of aspirin tablets about to go out of date next month. As I handed it over, the family started chanting: “May Almighty God bless you and keep you safe,” “We will pray for you and your good works,” “Thank the Good Lord who has sent you to help us.” All for 14 aspirin.