When Is More Data “Too Much” Data?

So my wife recently gave me a third son. I’m pretty sure I know why this keeps happening, but I’ll leave the science to the doctors, of which my wife is one. Ultimately, I defer to her for all biology questions. Anyway, our little guy was born at 39 weeks completely healthy, but there was one issue that landed him in the NICU for a few days: he had a periodically low resting heart rate.

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This was definitely one of those times I tried to just turn off my brain and follow my wife’s lead. In turn, she tried not to be the stereotypical “doctor who makes the worst patient,” and I think she did wonderfully. I am, however, a curious person by nature, and I also like to troubleshoot problems, so behind the scenes I was trying to digest everything these super-nerds (a term I use endearingly and respectfully) were saying about “bradycardia” and “prolonged QT interval” and such.

Say what?

By all reasonable means, the data should have been scaring the shit out of me…

You see, newborns are supposed to have a pretty high resting heart rate in comparison to larger humans, and there were these monitors with pretty little yellow, purple, and cyan lines and numbers tracking li’l dude’s vitals, of which the yellow line was tracking his heart rate. The purple and blue lines were perfectly fine, and even when his heart rate would dip into the 60s (60 and below is “time for infant CPR”), it would soon recover back to the 80s, 90s, and so on. Nevertheless, we monitored his progress over those few days.

What struck me was that none of these professionals were at all worried. They repeatedly said there was probably nothing to worry about. Even when we were finally discharged, they mentioned something to the effect that, “We aren’t really doing anything except watching.” Basically, we were chilling in the NICU in case he ever hit 60 or below, which makes sense, and they were right to keep us there for evaluation (particularly since they also wanted to see his QT trend shorter over those days, which it did).

The context surrounding the data is as important (if not moreso) than the data itself.

By all reasonable means, the data should have been scaring the shit out of me, particularly because the monitor would sound an alarm every time we hit 70, but then he’d recover without issue. I looked for patterns, like when he’d get overly aggravated from a diaper change, his heart rate would crash after. Similarly, when he’d have a bowel movement, it would drop. These were not, of course, consistent observations, and so I gave up trying to play House, MD.

On our way home from the hospital, we picked up an Owlet monitoring sock, which is an at-home consumer-grade monitor similar (in terms of metrics) to the professional system found in the NICU. My wife and I had debated the merit of getting one for “peace of mind” and whatnot, but ultimately, since she’s a medical professional, we decided it would be better to have it so that she could be alerted to begin baby chest compressions if we ever hit 60 or below.

What I realized from all of this is that in a world where we are always looking for more data or “big data,” sometimes it’s best to just not know. I’m not one to condone (much less promote) ignorance, but in this instance, the presence of extra data was doing nothing positive for me. 100 years ago, we would have just taken the little guy home, and he would have probably been fine (barring the lack of certain life-saving vaccines, of course), neither of us remotely aware of his “bradycardia.”

Of course, someone should know, and those someones are people professionally trained to interpret certain types of data. Biological data in the hands of the armchair physician can cause panic. The context surrounding the data is as important (if not moreso) than the data itself. Even now, having learned about all of the above, I really have no true understanding of what was going on. My brain is full of new, useless data, and I’ll likely never have an opportunity to legitimize the fact that I know the critical difference between an infant’s resting heart rate of 60 and 70. (I can’t imagine that would ever even be a Jeopardy! answer, much less a pub trivia question.)

Thankfully (for many reasons) I have my wife.

 

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