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Medical students learn how to give injections and much more, but one Omaha professor treats serious topics with a healthy injection of something else — humor.
Humor, it is said, is the best medicine. So this doctor occasionally shows up in costume — a knight on a crusade for one recent lecture. He even needles students with a bit of teasing.
“All ye knights and knightresses of the round table!” intoned Dr. Ed Vandenberg, brandishing an 18-inch plastic sword. “I summon you to a quest! Come with me, and you and I will prevent falls in the elderly.”
I sat in an auditorium at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, much older than the second-year med students around me and secure in the knowledge that, so long as I held on to my chair, at least I wouldn't fall down laughing.
No, falls are not a laughing matter, especially among the elderly, whose ranks I hope healthily to join someday. (And at 64, my day isn't all that far off.)
Dr. Vandenberg, 62, who recently received UNMC's Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award, truly has made reducing falls among the elderly his quest.
Besides extending lives and limiting pain and discomfort, he said, fewer falls mean lower medical costs.
“For every dollar spent in fall prevention,” he told me before entering the auditorium to talk with students, “you save $3. Think about that.”
A native of Brainard, Neb., who long ago acted in summer-stock theater, the doc says the point of his humor-laced lectures isn't showmanship. He wants to get students' attention, and he sympathizes with them for all of the hours they spend in lectures.
“By the spring of second year for medical students, it starts to get pretty dang tedious,” he said. “They are in lectures day in and day out.”
His humorous method is in the manner of a Monty Python movie.
He asks comical questions of students “to get them in the mood of participation.” (Where do you find a dog with no legs? A student answered: In a bun.)
On another day, Dr. Vandenberg wears a raincoat and carries an umbrella — while lecturing about urinary incontinence.
Speaking of falls, he calls the bathroom the most hazardous room in the house, quipping, “I don't know why anyone goes in there.”
In his knight costume, he gestured extravagantly with his plastic saber before saying he would put down his “swwwword,” emphasizing the “w” sound for effect.
“Enough of the bad British accent,” he said with a smile, segueing into the learned associate professor of geriatrics and gerontology that he is.
He reminds students of the tale that said drinking from the Holy Grail meant you would live forever.
“I'm not saying that preventing falls in the elderly will make your patients live forever,” he said. “What I am saying with absolute confidence is that there is a ton of evidence that prevention of falls will add to the quality and quantity of your elders' lives.”
Falls, he said, are the most frequent cause of accidental injuries in people over 75. In Nebraska, he estimated, 43,000 elderly people are injured in falls annually.
Nebraska and other states in the Great Plains lead the nation in death rates from falls. The reason for that isn't clear.
Many older people most fear a fall that breaks a hip, with good reason.
Statistically, Vandenberg said, a third of those who fall and break their hips soon die, and a third survive but must live in nursing homes. The other third return to their normal lives.
The reasons for falls are many, including: a lessening of vision and depth perception; poor lighting; multi-tasking instead of concentrating; disease and medication; limited range of motion; and depression, which can cause a person to be distracted.
Risk factors, he said, often can be inexpensively eliminated. Urged the doc: “Get rid of throw rugs!”
But the main cause of falls?
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“Muscle weakness leads the pack,” Vandenberg said. “Not disease-induced, but neglect-induced weakness.”
That's why the elderly need to exercise. A six-month strengthening program, according to one study, can reduce falls by 40 percent.
Students got the prof's message, and they appreciated his method.
“It was refreshing,” said Travis Bailey of the Elkhorn area. “A lot of lectures are pretty straightforward.”
Said Whitney Bossert of Lincoln: “We spend four to eight hours a day in here. Anything a little different definitely catches our attention and keeps us focused.”
Sarah Synovec, originally from Topeka, Kan., said she hopes to practice geriatrics.
“I've always felt a love for older people,” she said. “And it's kind of where our population is going, especially with baby boomers. In geriatrics, when you walk into a room, you are guaranteed to know more when you walk out. Patients share their experiences and give a lot of wisdom.”
A self-described former farm boy, Dr. Vandenberg practiced family medicine in Alaska and northern Wisconsin before deciding to specialize in care for the elderly.
“I'm a great believer in maintaining things that have value,” he said. “I like to keep old things running.”
His lecture on falls is partly a stand-up comedy routine, and he hopes it helps future physicians keep their patients seriously upright — and smiling.
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