doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Bugs and drugs

Talking to yourself is a sure-fire way to look crazy. I’ve discovered it’s also a sure-fire memory enhancer. When I was first learning Spanish, I would have conversations with myself, voicing my thoughts in Spanish rather than English. These days, I find myself muttering antibiotic treatment algorithms aloud. I (mostly) do this alone in my apartment, for everyone’s sake.

Identifying the bacteria causing an infection is sometimes trickier than it sounds.

Identifying the bacteria causing an infection is sometimes trickier than it sounds.

Tomorrow is our first infectious disease exam, and there is so much to memorize. Every little bump helps. I can sum up this exam in two words:

  1. bacteria
  2. antibiotics

That might not sound like such a big deal. Trust me. It’s a big deal. I can prove it. I’ve included a photo of my dry erase board, which currently sports an identification tree for both the common gram positive and gram negative bacteria. (There are other bugs to know, but these are the main ones.)

The list of antibiotics to learn is also long. The list here is a screenshot from an e-mail sent by our course director, telling us what we drugs to focus on. Antibiotics are tricky though. Each one covers a slightly different spread of bacteria. I also need to know the mechanism for each drug, possible side effects, and how various bacteria can become resistant to the drug. That’s a lot of information.

Learning all these drugs -- what they treat, how they work, side effects, and resistance mechanisms -- is a feat.

Learning all these drugs — what they treat, how they work, side effects, and resistance mechanisms — is a feat.

Thankfully, my motivation for learning these bugs and drugs is high. Antibiotic therapy is something I will definitely use on a regular basis. Seeing that clinical application helps me slog through. Silly mnemonics are also a boost. Some are my own, like this one:

  • Ceftaroline, a fifth generation cephalosporin, is one of a few drugs with activity against MRSA. Here’s how I remember that: Ceftaroline‘s got a line on MRSA.

Here are a couple from the book I’ve been using to study, Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple:

  • Carbapenems like Imipenem and Meropenem are broad spectrum antibiotics that cover all kinds of things — gram positives, gram negatives including Pseudomonas, and anaerobes.  To remember the coverage of Imipenem, think of this: I’m a pen, crossing out all bacteria.
  • Bactrim is another antibiotic that covers all sorts of bugs. This drug’s generic name is trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, or TMP/SMX. You can use four of those letters, TMP/S, to remember some of Bactrim’s capabilities:
    • T (Tree): respiratory tree. The drug covers all kinds of respiratory infections.
    • M (Mouth): gastrointestinal tract. The drug covers many gram negative bugs that cause diarrhea.
    • P (Pee): genitourinary tract. Bactrim covers UTIs and other nearby infections.
    • S (Syndrome): The drug covers a devastating disease called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), which affects people with AIDS who have low T-cell counts.

These are stupid, but they stick. And that’s what matters. It matters for my test tomorrow, but more importantly when it comes to treating a patient who presents with one of these infections. If it takes me mumbling these mnemonics to myself and looking like an idiot to get there, I’m ok with that.

An abstract challenge

I first saw my name in print in the fall of 1999. It was my first semester of college. I had taken a journalism class because my advisor told me not to. When I fell in love with reporting and writing, my journalism TA hooked me up at the school newspaper. My first article was a feature on cider making at the local apple orchard.

That was 17 years ago. It’s still a thrill to publish — to share my written work with the world. These days, most of that takes place via this blog or the online magazine where I write a monthly column. Most of my work consists of personal essays.

But last week, I submitted a different sort of writing — a research abstract based on my work in rural Uganda this past summer. If the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) accepts my abstract, I will present a poster at the organization’s national conference in San Antonio, Texas, in May 2017.

I do have another scientific publication — a secondary authorship on a paper from the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) lab where I worked for a semester while taking my medical school prerequisites. But this would be my first time as a first author. And this would be my first foray into the world of clinical research.

Acceptance here is by no means a guarantee. And my topic is somewhat outside the typical AGS fare, so I’m not holding my breath. Even if I don’t get accepted, going through the abstract writing process was still a wonderful experience. Distilling all that work into fewer than 2,650 characters was something else. That taxed even my editorial expertise.

All that said: *fingers crossed.* I’ll find out by February.