or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 8/7/11

   August 13th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Hot pepperA woman, wearing glasses, comes up to the desk and says she has two things to ask me - then relates this story:

Last night I was chopping peppers while cooking dinner. I wasn't using gloves because the peppers were from my own garden, and I didn't think they'd be very hot.

However, after dinner, I took my contacts out and could feel my eyes burn a little, which must have been from pepper juice left on my fingers.

This morning, even after showering, shampooing my hair, and washing my hands thoroughly, I could still smell and taste the pepper juice on my hands. That worried me, because I think it must also still on my contacts.

So my questions are, is there some kind of home remedy to get pepper juice off my hands, and how can I tell if my contacts are safe? It was my last pair of disposables and I actually have an eye appointment in a couple weeks, so I only need them clean enough to make them last.

Whew. I figured I could find information about pepper juice remedies, but I wasn't about to suggest anything having to do with her eyes*.

I did a few different keyword searches for cleaning pepper juice off of hands, and there were indeed tons of websites and suggestions. The two I saved for her were:

Although there didn't seem to be a consensus of what method was best - just lots and lots of suggestions.

For an idea of what to do about the contacts, I thought I'd call my own eye
doctor, because they've always been very friendly and helpful. I explained why I was calling, and the receptionist kind of laughed and put me on hold to consult with the doctor.

When she came back, she said to just throw them away. I kind of figured that's what she'd have to say, but I don't think it was just to protect against a lawsuit. She said contacts absorb pretty much everything they come into contact with, so there is just no way to safely clean them.

She did suggest the patron contact her own eye doctor now, even before her upcoming appointment, as they might be able to give her a temporary pair.

I conveyed all of this to the patron, who was appreciative - however, she said she was already using a temporary pair from the eye doctor, which were supposed to carry her through to the upcoming appointment.

Oh well - she was able to clean her hands, but she's stuck with glasses for the next couple weeks.


*That's the public reference librarian's mantra after all: no medical, legal, financial, or tax advice, ever.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/13/09

   September 19th, 2009 Brian Herzog

band-aid boyA woman walks up to the desk and says that she needs blank Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms. Internally I cringe, because legal forms always have the potential to be problematic.

I took her over to our Forms on File sets, and we found a Power of Attorney form, but no Health Care Proxy. While she made photocopied, I went back to the desk to keep searching for the other form.

I didn't find anything in the few minutes it took her to make copies. But, when she came back to the desk, she started to tell me more of the story:

  • The forms were actually for her son
  • Who will be deploying to Afghanistan soon
  • And who lives in Vermont
  • But she lives in Massachusetts
  • And Vermont doesn't have Health Care Proxy, they call it a Living Will
  • If anything happens to him, she'll want the son brought to a hospital in MA
  • The son doesn't want to think about any of this, and so isn't helping or doing any research
  • Her husband is driving up next week and wants to bring all this paperwork with him so the son can just sign it

Oh. I don't know this for sure, but when she mentioned he was deploying to Afghanistan, I suggested that the military should be able to help take care of all these issues and forms before he deploys. Not to mention that if he is hurt, she might not have a choice where he goes to recover.

Which was all well and good, but she still wanted these forms. However, neither of us knew if she'd need Massachusetts forms or Vermont forms. Then she said she had some errands to run, and would come back later that afternoon to pick up whatever I found.

mass med logoOkay. I decided the first thing to do was to call Massachusetts Health and Human Services, to see if they knew which form the son would need, and if they had the forms on their website. The woman I spoke with said she had no idea on either count, but said she actually was just looking for the Health Care Proxy form the week before for her own parents, and did find it online. However, it was on a different computer in her office, but she'd email it to me in an hour when she was back at that desk. And she wasn't sure, but she thought she found it on the Massachusetts Medical Society's website.

So I search the web again for health care proxy form massachusetts medical association and found their Health Care Proxy information page, and a link to the form itself [pdf].

Since they make the form available, I thought I'd call them, too, and ask them the MA/VT question. I do, but the woman on the phone has no idea. She said it's up to the hospital itself to honor the form, and she thought that any hospital in the country would, regardless of which state it came from. She did verify Vermont calls it a Living Will, but wasn't sure what the difference was.

VTmd logoSo I went back to the internet searching for living will form vermont (found one [pdf]) and the Vermont Medical Society. I called them, too, and again the answer I got was, "I don't know. That's a good question."

This woman confirmed that the form I found would be okay, and also said that every doctor's office in Vermont will have copies of the form, too, so they should check with his local doctor. And she also felt that the military would be able to provide all of the paperwork the son would need, and she recommended the parents start there.

Shortly thereafter the woman returned, and I conveyed everything I found. She didn't think it was likely that the military or local doctor would be much help, since her son was avoiding this topic, so she was happy to have copies of the different forms - even if she didn't know which she needed.

It bothers me when, after helping someone, all I can do is hope they have the right information.

And shortly after she left, the forms the woman from the MA-HHS emailed me arrived. Happily, it was the same one I found on the MassMed website.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/11/09

   January 17th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Eustachian TubeThis reference question started off normal enough. A patron called and asked if I could email her a picture of the Eustachian tube (a part of the inner ear).

While I took down her email address and got the correct spelling of "eustachian," she explained that she had an Eustachian tube infection, which was causing an echoing in her head. This was a bit more information than I needed to know (and you as well, probably), but she made light of it saying "it's like hearing voices when I speak, but there's nobody else in there."

Finding an answer was easy enough, too. I first checked our subscription database, Magill's Medical Guide. It had an informative entry and a diagram, but as I described it to her, she said it wasn't what she wanted.

She said she really wanted an image that showed where the tube was located in the ear. I switched to a Google image search for Eustachian Tube site:.gov. I described to her a couple images that I found, and she became positively jubilant.

This is where it got a bit unusual. She explained that she wanted the picture to hang on the wall, so every morning and night she could concentrate on clearing the infection through focused attention. She confessed it might sound odd, but said it worked before for a herniated disk.

Patrons never need to justify to me why they're looking for some particular piece of information, but the back story is usually worth listening to. I emailed her the image, and she replied saying that if it worked then I deserved "xoxoxo." As it happens, staff at my library is not allowed to receive tips or gifts, so I'll just be happy to hear she makes out.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/10/08

   August 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

One difficult question I get occasionally is "do you have rankings for doctor/lawyers?"

I think what people are expecting is a Consumer Reports-like ranking of these two professions, but unfortunately, we don't have anything exactly like that. We do have some resources for doctors, but lawyers are different.

Scales of JusticeA patron asked me to help her find lawyer rankings this past week. I did find a few websites showing some rankings, but I had no idea how reliable any of them were, and none of them got down to the local level needed by a patron in a small public library. Another thing I found were lots of articles talking about lawyers suing websites about their rankings, so that might explain the scarcity of resources.

In the end, two resources appeared promising, but only one ended up helping:

  • The American Bar Association has a Lawyer Locater, which is powered by martindale.com and LexisNexis. It does provide some information on a lawyer's background, including the Martindale-Hubbell peer review rating from their Law Directory. The amount of information varies by lawyer, but in this case, the lawyer my patron was looking for wasn't listed at all
  • The Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers provides an attorney status report which, while it doesn't rate lawyers, does indicate when the lawyer was admitted to the bar and if they've had any complaints against them (my patron was shocked to find out her lawyer was admitted to the bar just eight months ago)
  • A third resource the patron left with was the phone number of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Dial-A-Lawyer referral program, which assists private citizens in choosing legal council

The CaduceusFinding resources to research local doctors is slightly easier. This might be because the medical profession is more closely watched than the legal profession, or that people are more willing/able to travel for medical procedures than law suits.

One book I often turn to in our reference collection is America's Top Doctors, which lists doctors by region, specialty, hospital, and by name.

Another nice local resource is the Boston Consumers' Checkbook (which is also available for other cities). This magazine is similar to Consumer Reports, but instead of rating products, it rates services, including many medical services.

Part of the Mass.gov website reports on Health Care Quality and Cost Information. It includes lots of information for patients, but what I usually steer people towards are the "Volume by Surgeon and Hospital" reports - these aren't rankings exactly, but instead show how often a doctor or hospital performs a certain procedure. Other reports also list cost and mortality rates for doctors and hospitals.

Another state-level website is the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine's On-Line Physician Profile Site. Each profile includes general biographical information supplied by the doctor, and also has sections showing any malpractice payments made or any disciplinary and/or criminal actions taken against the doctor.

Additional web resources are:

  • The American Medical Association's doctor finder doesn't provide rankings, but it does show contact and biographical information for both AMA members and non-members (it gives priority to members, it does list non-members if you click the right buttons)
  • DrScore.com lets people score their own doctors and report on their experiences. Although the ratings are voluntary and anonymous, I did notice they indicate "Castle Connolly Top Doctors," which is the America's Top Doctor's resource I mentioned above. And in addition to the ratings, this website is also useful as doctor finder
  • RateMDs.com seems more commercial than DrScore.com, but it also seems to have more ratings and comments. This also has nice feature search for finding local doctors

I list these because they are free and useful, and accessible for my patrons. I'm sure there are many more not-free websites out there too, as well as additional good print resources. I'd appreciate hearing suggestions for more resources in the comments below - thanks.

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