General Health

Scurvy Is A Serious Public Health Problem – Even If You’re Not An 18th Century Pirate

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

[From Slate, November 20, 2015]

In the winter of 2009, Eric Churchill was called to a patient’s bedside at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, to help out with a medical mystery.

The middle-aged man had shown up with bleeding gums, unexplained swelling, bruises, and fatigue. His team of internists suspected a skin infection, but every bacterial test came up negative. They were stumped until, Churchill recalls, “someone eventually thought to ask about this person’s diet.”

It turns out the man, who was mentally ill and lived alone in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, had eaten nothing but white bread and American cheese … for years. “And this had led to these very severe nutritional deficiencies,” Churchill says.

The man’s vitamin C levels were so low, he qualified for a disease Churchill hadn’t thought about since medical school: scurvy. The same scurvy made famous by pirates and British sailors from the 1700s, who would go for months or years at sea without fresh produce, experiencing symptoms from rashes to hemorrhaging. Back then, scurvy killed more seafarers than storms and shipwrecks combined….

To continue reading on Slate, click here

The Thinning Ranks of Frontline Medicine

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

The Boston Globe, June 23, 2015, FRONT PAGE

By Karen D. Brown 

 SPRINGFIELD — Dr. Katie Jobbins rested her forehead in her hand, tapping her fingers rapidly as she waited for a crisis counselor on the other end of the phone to pick up. It was a busy spring day at the clinic on High Street, and one of Jobbins’s regular patients needed help.

“I have a patient . . . who is actively suicidal and homicidal, who I’m going to send to the ER,” she said urgently into the phone. As nurses buzzed around, Jobbins searched for the right admission forms.

At 30, Jobbins is new to front-line medicine, and is still deciding whether to stick it out. She was among nine junior doctors at Baystate Medical Center training in primary care at a time when young doctors are more drawn to lucrative specialties than life as a family doctor. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of 45,000 primary care doctors by 2020.

The consequences hit everyone. As veteran doctors leave primary care faster than they can be replaced, waiting times for appointments stretch longer, and coordination of care becomes more haphazard….

To continue reading in the Boston Globe, click here

Not Just for Pirates Anymore: Could Scurvy Be An Underreported Disease Of Poverty?

Friday, June 5th, 2015

Listen Here

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Walmart’s produce section. By Karen Brown.

Poverty often leads to a poor diet, and poor diets can lead to a host of health problems. Doctors in Springfield, Massachusetts, think they’ve identified a diet-related condition that many thought disappeared hundreds of years ago. If their research proves correct, it could be quite common.  [Aired on New England Public Radio, May 2015]

To download, right-click here.

Sequel: Lance and Nina – A Recovering Addict Moves On …

Monday, May 18th, 2015

Lance Rice graduates from ‘drug court’ in Greenfield, Mass., April 2015.

Last Spring, New England Public Radio aired a story about a recovering heroin addict in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, named Lance Rice and the woman whose house he robbed, Nina Rossi.

Back then, sitting in Rossi’s kitchen, Rice said, “I’m so grateful there’s people like Nina out there, because the normal person would automatically hate somebody who did that to their home.” And Rossi responded, “Well, I did hate you, Lance. We had your picture from the newspaper with ‘F.U.’ written on it on the refrigerator. Cuz we felt violated.”

And yet they forged an unlikely friendship as Rice entered a court program that offers treatment instead of jail.

A year later, many things have evolved – in Rice’s recovery, and in his relationship with Nina Rossi.

To hear the update, visit here.

Police Chief Asks Community To Help Pick Up Heroin Needles

Monday, May 18th, 2015

Patrick Pezzati searches yards in Turners Falls, Mass., for discarded heroin needles.

As the last of the snow melts in New England, an assortment of debris is emerging — including heroin syringes. It’s gotten so bad in one small town that the police chief asked civilians for help.

Aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, April 28, 2015. Listen here.

The Path to Primary Care: Who Will Be The Next Generation of Frontline Doctors?

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

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Remember the grandfatherly doctor who makes house calls and treated three generations of the same family, nursing them through everything from skinned knees to cancer?

For the most part, that Norman Rockwell ideal is long gone, and replaced with busy group practices that usher through patients in 15-minute increments. But even that model is struggling. There simply aren’t enough primary care doctors, period. So when the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, the government included money to train and inspire a new generation of primary care doctors. Are those efforts working?

For a year, I followed a group  of doctors-in-training in Western Massachusetts as they weighed this major career decision, while trying out the profession first-hand.

This documentary was funded by a fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Commonwealth Fund. [Full transcript and photos at]

Listen to Rob Rosenthal’s interview with me on HowSound Podcast, hosted by, here.

Read my companion story in the Boston Globe here.


And to hear a follow-up feature, which looks at some unconventional, activist efforts to reverse the trend away from primary care, click here.