Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

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Zzyzx, Calif.: Where a charlatan created an empire

zzyzx-road

Just off Interstate-15 in a lonely section of San Bernardino County, Calif., sits the implausibly named locale of Zzyzx.

To get there, you take 4.5-mile-long Zzyzx Road.

The name was the creation of a quack preacher/televangelist/medicine man named Curtis Howe Springer, who arrived in the Southern California area in 1944.

Looking to set up a health spa, Springer came up with the name Zzyzx. By naming his spa the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort, he was able to claim that it would be known as “the last word in health,” according to the website Roadtrippers.com.

Springer, born in 1896 in Alabama, had already enjoyed a lively career traveling the nation preaching, promoting various endeavors, selling fraudulent cures and working to stay a step ahead of authorities by the time he arrived in California.

Among his many enterprises was founding health spas. During the 1930s and 1940s, he opened a spa in Fort Hill, Pa., and tried to open others in Maryland and Iowa. But because Springer wasn’t fond of paying taxes, he lost his Pennsylvania spa to government seizure.

By the mid-1940s Springer had headed west and, working in conjunction with an associate, filed a claim to 12,800 acres in California’s Mojave Desert.

Springer, ever the resourceful sort, hired homeless men from Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row to build the Zzyzx resort.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Springer’s resort, which ultimately included a 60-room hotel, spa, mineral baths, a radio studio, and a church, was built on a fraud. He used a boiler to heat pools around the resort.

He promoted the resort through his radio program, which was carried on more than 320 stations, according to Roadtrippers.com. It also included advertisements for his special remedies.

“Listeners would send in donations for his ‘cures,’ which he claimed could relieve constipation, hemorrhoids, hair loss and, oh yeah, cancer,” according to the website. ”However, what people were getting was, well, actually a bit better than snake oil. It was mostly celery, carrot and parsley juices.”

In the late 1960s, he was “swapping” lots in Zzyzx for large sums of money. If the Feds didn’t take notice of his quack cures, they did eventually catch on to the fact that Springer was making a lot of money and not paying much in taxes.

He was accused of squatting on the land and his claim to Zzyzx was invalidated. Springer and the other inhabitants of the community were evicted, and Springer was convicted for selling junk “cures,” although he served less than two months in jail.

He died in 1985 in Las Vegas.

For the past 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed schools in the California State University system to manage the land in and around Zzyzx.

While the remains of Springer’s charlatan empire is still evident around Zzyzx, the area is now home to a highly regarded Desert Studies Center, the handiwork of a consortium of CSU campuses.

The sordid reason Rhode Island abolished the death penalty

old rhode island statehouse

Spend any time in Rhode Island and you quickly learn a few things: It’s not an island; it would appear to have the most corruption per capita outside of Sicily; and for such a small entity the Ocean State has more than its fair share of interesting stories.

Consider that Rhode Island hasn’t executed anyone in more than 170 years. Part of the reason is that the last man to die at the hands of the state was almost certainly railroaded, a victim of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry that was prevalent in many areas of the United States into the 20th century.

This particular story begins on Dec. 31, 1843, when textile magnate Amasa Sprague finished supper at his Cranston, RI, mansion and went for a walk. Sprague was powerful both in physique and prominence.

He was a New England Brahmin, and together with his brother William owned a textile business started by his father William Sprague Sr. The Spragues owned several cotton mills in Rhode Island, but their most profitable factory was the print works in nearby Spragueville, which printed calico patterns on cloth.

The A & W Sprague Co. employed most residents of Spragueville, owned the tenements they rented and the company store where they shopped. He was a man to be feared.

During Sprague’s after-dinner walk, he was accosted by at least two individuals. He was shot in the right wrist and struck with a blunt instrument in the left side of his head, then his right. Despite desperate attempts to fight back, Sprague was overcome and killed.

There was no shortage of potential suspects, according to the New England Historical Society.

Logo of A & W Sprague Co., showing Cranston, RI, textile plant.

Logo of A & W Sprague Co., showing Cranston, RI, textile plant.

There was talk that the murder was politically motivated. The previous year, an individual named Thomas Dorr had been arrested for a failed attempt to force broader democracy in Rhode Island by setting up a rival government that would expand the vote to all adult white males.

Still governed by the state’s 1663 colonial charter with its relatively high property requirement for suffrage, Rhode Island allowed only white, propertied men – about a third of adult male population – to vote. The Irish, who were nearly all disfranchised under the colonial charter, strongly supported the Dorr Rebellion.

Sprague, like many wealthy white males, benefited from the system in place and, along with his brother William and brother-in-law Emanuel Rice, helped orchestrate Dorr’s downfall. Some speculated that supporters of Thomas Dorr, who would later be found guilty of treason against the state, assassinated Amasa Sprague, according to the New England Historical Society.

Others looked closer to home. William and Amasa Sprague apparently disagreed about what direction the family business should take. William wanted to expand the company beyond Rhode Island, while Amasa was content to continue the business at its current size and profitability. Neither man had a reputation for backing down when they didn’t get their way.

Suspicion also fell upon Nicholas Gordon, a tavern owner whose establishment was frequented by Sprague’s millworkers, much to Amasa Sprague’s displeasure.

Gordon’s tavern was attached to his home and was located in a section of Cranston, which, in the decidedly indelicate sensitivities that were prevalent in 19th century America, was nicknamed “Monkeytown” because of its Irish population.

“Amasa Sprague had successfully fought against renewing Gordon’s liquor license because, he said, his Irish millworkers were getting drunk during work hours and neglecting their jobs,” according to the New England Historical Society. “Gordon and Sprague had fought publicly. Sprague and Gordon had once met on a path and neither refused to give way. Finally Sprague grabbed Gordon by the collar and shouted, ‘Get out of the way, you damned Irishman!’”

The entire case was a fiasco from beginning to end. William Sprague resigned his senate seat to supervise the murder investigation, an apparent conflict of interest.

Not only was Nicholas Gordon quickly arrested, along with his younger brothers, John and William, the Gordon’s mother and a friend of Nicholas’ named Michael O’Brien – because everyone knew the Irish always stuck together – but the Gordon’s dog was apprehended, as well. (The dog was later described by a defense attorney as toothless and old.)

William and John were tried first, with the Irish community rallying behind them and raising funds for their defense.

Ultimately, it was 29-year-old John Gordon, recently arrived from Ireland to join his brothers Nicholas and William, who took the fall for the crime. William was found not guilty, but John was found guilty despite a conviction based on contradictory circumstantial evidence.

How badly were the cards stacked against John Gordon?

In trials held at the then-Rhode Island Statehouse, Presiding judge Job Durfee told jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses. He added that they did not have to believe anything that the Irish witnesses for the defense said because they were by their nature unable to tell the truth, according to a 2013 report on the sordid affair by the Cranston Herald.

In addition, Henry Bowen Anthony, the editor of the Providence Journal, the leading news source for Rhode Island at the time, provided the public with plenty of “facts” about Gordon’s guilt, even though many were asserted without a shred of truth to them, the Herald added.

One of the pieces of evidence that convicted John was a broken gun found near the body of Amasa Sprague. Nicholas was known to own a gun, but it couldn’t be found in his house, so it was assumed the broken gun was his. After the trial it was discovered that William had hidden Nicholas’ gun under the attic floorboards, according to the New England Historical Society.

Nicholas was tried later, but he had an alibi and the witnesses who convicted his brother were suddenly unsure of their memories. His trial ended in a hung jury. His gun turned up just before his second trial, which also ended in a hung jury.

John Gordon was hanged on Feb. 14, 1845, in Providence. His last words were, “I hope all good Christians will pray for me.”

Many believed he was innocent and the victim of a legal lynching. Some 1,400 Irish came from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts for his funeral. The procession took a detour to pass the Statehouse and the homes of the Yankee elite.

Seven years later, the Rhode Island legislature banned capital punishment, in part because of the travesty of John Gordon’s trial.

In 2011, 166 years after John Gordon was hanged by the state of Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee pardoned him.

“John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence,” Chafee said in 2011. “There is no question he was not given a fair trial.”

(Old Rhode Island Statehouse, Providence, where John Gordon and his brothers were tried for the murder of Amasa Sprague.)

Mercury used in western mining: Where did it all go?

Gould_&_Curry mine comstock lode

Advances in US mining in recent decades have helped reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. While there is still room for additional progress, the difference between today and 125 years ago is staggering.

Consider the amount of mercury that was used – and ultimately dumped – into western rivers in the second half of the 19th century in the quest for silver.

Mercury, or as it was better known then, quicksilver, was critical in the removal of silver and gold from ore in the western United States. As the Alta California newspaper noted in 1890, it was pretty easy to determine how much mercury ended up rivers, streams and land: however much was used.

“In the silver mines of a certain region, in order to ascertain the amount of quicksilver dissipated and lost, it is only necessary to know the amount bought, for not an ounce is ever sent out from the mines to be sold,” the publication wrote in January 1890.

The paper estimated that between 1860 and 1889, more than 20.5 million pounds of mercury was used just in the huge silver strikes in the Comstock Lode in western Nevada. While some was likely vaporized, making the surrounding atmosphere toxic, most of the element seeped into the environment, according to the Alta California.

In Nevada, mercury was used to extract silver and gold from ore through the Washoe Process, a concentrating process in which silver was mixed with mercury, either in a drum or on an amalgamation table, where the precious metal bond with mercury. The resulting product was called amalgam.

The silver was then recovered from the mercury by retorting, which involves distilling off the mercury from the amalgam.

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New Tanzanian president puts nation’s well-being first

Dr-John-Magufuli

In a move governments around the world could learn from, newly elected Tanzanian President John Magufuli has cancelled Independence Day celebrations, instead ordering money to go toward cleaning the African nation.

“It is so shameful that we are spending huge amounts of money to celebrate 54 years of independence when our people are dying of cholera,” Magufuli said in a statement read on state television late Monday.

Cholera has killed about 60 people in Tanzania in the past three months, with more than 5,000 cases reported, according to the World Health Organization.

Tanzania celebrates its independence from the United Kingdom on Dec. 9. This coming anniversary will mark the first time since gaining independence that Tanzania has not held a celebration.

While Mugufuli’s party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, has governed since colonial rule ended in 1961, the new president, elected last month, appears poised to change direction with the call to clean.

Independence Day celebrations are usually marked with a presidential address, a military parade and performances by music groups at the National Stadium in Dar es Salaam, according to the BBC.

A spokesman for Magufuli did not say how much would be saved by cancelling Independence Day celebrations, but said the money would be spent on hospitals and the fight against cholera – a major problem in poor areas which lack adequate sanitation.

Magufuli, 56, has announced a variety of austerity cuts and crackdowns on public corruption since taking office, including a ban on superfluous foreign travel by government officials.

Last week, he ordered the cost of a party to inaugurate the new parliament to be slashed from $100,000 to $7,000, the BBC added.

He also fired the head of the main state hospital after finding patients sleeping on the floor during a surprise visit to the facility.

Magufuli, first elected to Parliament in 1995, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1988. He also earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry from the University of Dar es Salaam, in 1994 and 2009, respectively.

Prior to his election as president, Magufuli served as Minister of Works (2000-2006 and 2010-1015), Minister of Lands and Human Settlement (2006-2008) and Minister of Livestock and Fisheries (2008-2010).

(Top: New Tanzanian President John Magufuli earlier this month.)

Social media provides needed kick in rump to insurers

health

Perhaps social media does have a bit more value than my curmudgeonly self would care to admit.

Last week I wrote about a friend who is battling leukemia. Beyond the difficulties associated with fighting a life-threatening condition, she had also been clashing with her insurers, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida (Florida Blue) and Prime Therapeutics, both of which had denied her coverage for needed cancer-treatment medication.

As a result, she’d gone more than a month without medicine.

It’s not as if my friend was attempting to secure reimbursement for experimental medicine or didn’t have sufficient coverage. Florida Blue was simply giving her the runaround, even though my friend’s prescription was on its list of approved medications.

Even with her medical team working to help her, the companies denied coverage, claiming, among other things, that they had not received the information.

Doctors, nurses and health care providers worked diligently to get the correct papers into the hands of my friend’s insurers for several weeks. Yet, a month later she was still without needed medicine and still without answers.

Taking a break from such earth-shattering revelations as smoking birds and personal issues with LinkedIn, I detailed the above in a Sept. 30 post.

Around the same time, another friend started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to buy a fax machine for Florida Blue. That was because the insurer had told my friend with leukemia that one of the reasons they hadn’t received her doctors’ requests for authorization because their “fax machine was busy.”

As was stated on the GoFundMe site: “I want to raise enough money to buy a cheap-ass fax machine for Florida Blue so they can help dying people get their treatments. I would also like to buy them a time machine so they could move boldly into the 1990s, but that’s another issue.”

Within a short while Twitter was aflutter with tweets about Florida Blue’s (and Prime Therapeutics’) shenanigans, as was Facebook, and before long a representative from Florida Blue, having noticed the publicity, decided to step in to handle the case.

Around the same time, an individual with Prime Therapeutics posted a comment on my blog expressing her desire to assist my friend.

By last Saturday, my friend had her medicine in hand.

This happened because people got the attention of Florida Blue and Prime Therapeutics through social media, and because there were individuals at both companies who were willing to make a special effort to help my friend cut through unnecessary red tape and get her medication.

My friend is not out of the woods, but she is fortunate to have many friends who are or were journalists. They understand how to use social media and publicity to get things done. However, it should never have required scores and scores of people, if not more, using social media to get Florida Blue to do the right thing.

All of which raises other questions:

  • What happens to the vast majority of the population that doesn’t have a slew of publicity savvy friends at their disposal?
  • Where do those who are older and may not have the strength to keep fighting turn when they’ve been denied needed medicine that they’re entitled to under the terms of their insurance?
  • How many have died because insurers essentially waited them out, understanding full well that some of the ailing wouldn’t have the strength, willpower or ability to fight for what they’re entitled to?

I’ll not get into the injustice of a young mother being stricken with leukemia. There are some situations in life that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around.

But I will say that those who work in the health field, including health insurers, should do all within their power to make the lives of those they serve easier – rather than more difficult – when their customers find themselves facing life or death scenarios.

Feeling blue with Florida Blue: How insurers play God

florida blue 2

Ever wonder who would inhabit the deepest reaches of hell were Dante to return and rewrite his famous Inferno?

The easy choices, if we’re looking at it collectively, are surly DMV employees, self-aggrandizing school board members and self-righteous do-gooders who miss no opportunity to sing their own praises while informing you of your own missteps.

As if the above alone wouldn’t fill up at least a couple of circles of hell, there’s another group which deserves its own special place in perdition: health insurers who make life insufferably difficult for those with serious illnesses.

I have a friend who is battling leukemia. She is in her early 40s and she and her husband have a beautiful 7-year-old daughter. She has traveled to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, many times for treatment but lives in Florida. Beyond the unfairness of a wonderful person with a great husband and sweet young child having to battle of a life-threatening illness, she also has to fight insurers which routinely deny her coverage for needed cancer-treatment medication.

My friend’s medical team has sent documents in triplicate to her insurers – Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida (Florida Blue) and Prime Therapeutics – several times and each time insurance representatives have claimed that “they have no way to attach the documents to each other” or that they “have not received them.”

Screen shot from friend's Facebook feed as she expresses her frustration with insurers who won't pay for approved cancer medication.
Screen shot from friend’s Facebook feed as she expresses her frustration with insurers who won’t pay for approved cancer medication.

The folks at Florida Blue – whose slogan is, ironically, “Here For You, in Your Pursuit of Health” – have decided not to cover my friend’s prescription even though it’s on their list of approved medications.

Because of this, my friend has been without anti-cancer medication for a month, obviously not a good thing for someone with leukemia.

Her doctors, nurses and health care providers have been working diligently to get the correct papers into their hands for several weeks. Yet, a month later she is still without needed medicine and no answers.

I understand insurance is a business, but I don’t understand how paper pushers in any corporation can deny coverage to someone whose life is at stake when the needed medication is on the list of those already approved by the insurer.

At what point does someone within the company say “Enough!” and blow the whistle on this sort of unethical and, most likely, illegal, activity?

How many other examples like this are going on at health insurers across the nation?

Finally, how do the people who knowingly deny insurance coverage, and most certainly understand that they are jeopardizing lives in doing so, live with themselves? Can it be that easy to suspend ethics, compassion and decency?

Dante would have a field day with folks like those at Florida Blue and Prime Therapeutics.