Monday, March 6, 2017

Learning to Love the Secret Language of Urine

[ed. See also: How much pee is in our swimming pools? New urine test reveals the truth. Yikes.]

Learning about the body’s many excretions, secretions and suppurations in medical school, I realized that each medical specialty has its own essential effluent. And I heard that some physicians choose their careers based on the bodily fluid they find least revolting. Thus, a doctor disgusted by stool and pus but able to stand the sight of blood might end up a hematologist, while one repulsed by urine and bile but tolerant of sputum might choose pulmonology.

Many physicians are actively drawn to a particular bodily fluid, intrigued by its unique diagnostic mysteries. Each fluid that runs through the body is a language in which diseases speak to physicians, telling them what is wrong with a patient. And specializing means becoming fluent in one specific fluid’s dialect, learning to interpret its colors, textures and consistencies, and spending a career pondering its secrets.

As a medical student, I saw that a bodily fluid could shape a career. And though I resisted settling on just one (I remain a generalist), I have always been partial to pee.

I’ve studied all the body’s fluids and used each in diagnosing disease, and urine stands out in the wealth of information it grants about a patient’s condition. Conceived in the kidneys — a pair of bean-shaped organs tucked away in the abdomen’s rear — urine runs down the ureters and is conveniently stored in the bladder, from which it is gathered in plastic cups for testing. Urine analysis is performed frequently enough by physicians to have earned the shorthand “urinalysis” — no other bodily fluid can claim to be on a nickname-basis with the medical profession.

I remember the first time I watched a nephrologist turn a urine sample into a diagnosis. As a medical student at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J., I followed behind as he carried a small, plastic urine cup to the microscope room in the nephrology department. He plunged a diagnostic dipstick into the fluid to reveal bits of blood and protein unseen by the naked eye. He then placed some urine into a centrifuge, which spun rapidly and concentrated floating cells into a sediment at the vial’s bottom. After peering through a microscope at a single drop of this stuff, noting stray bits of debris flung across the viewing field, the nephrologist wove a comprehensive diagnostic tale that encompassed all the patient’s symptoms and lab abnormalities. The diagnosis turned out to be glomerulonephritis, a rare form of kidney disease. He was able to look inside that patient with a clairvoyance that seemed positively sorcerous, with urine as his crystal ball. From that moment I was determined to learn urine’s subtle language.

by Jonathan Reisman, Washington Post |  Read more:
Image: Christine Glade/Istock