I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game it will be coming around again. So don’t mind if I fall apart, there’s more room in a broken heart…Carly Simon
The day before yesterday was one hell of a day. The appointment with my pulmonologist was to some extent a repeat performance of my last meeting with my GP.
Some may think that because this blog’s focus is on experiences (often bad) in the healthcare system and on patient’s rights that I am just angry, but in truth I’m not. Emotions are part and parcel of the human condition and I don’t shy away from them, but what I feel is more frustration, fear, and grief that although it would be so easy in this situation for those in positions of authority to make things right, instead they make the decision not to at every turn, and in their opposition they prolong physical suffering unnecessarily.
Doctors, when you see signs of disease document them, don’t just have verbal conversations with the patient and not put down a diagnosis if treatment depends on it. If you discover later there were procedural mistakes, then for Godsake amend the record! Untreated disease will continue to tap you on the shoulder until something’s done about it. It waits for noone. Leaving the patient on their own with it to twist in the wind is never the answer. If I seem a bit on edge at times, then this is why.
If you’ve ever had a pet who is injured you will understand. They may bite if you try to pick them up, not out of anger but because they’re protecting the part of their body that hurts. It is just instinct; not intent. Humans as well become quite to the point when there’s little more time to waste. This is nature’s way of motivating us to stay on task to find a way out of peril so that we can survive. When the struggle for self-preservation stops then you really have to worry.
While I am an activist this is not all that I am. Some may view me as a radical but if that’s all they see then I haven’t communicated my point effectively. I’m a mother, an animal lover, an artist, and a writer. (The broken heart at the top is a component I cast in 22 Kt. gold years ago from a mold of my own design. The line created from it was about regeneration in the face of adversity). Most of all at the core I am soft-hearted and fundamentally believe in the goodness of people and man’s ability to change and transform. I also believe that not everyone’s path is the same, nor should it be, as we are all individuals.
I am more apt to assume that people are with me when they aren’t than the other way around. It is actually because at the core I think positively that I am like this. This is why I often give people in my life maybe more chances than I should.
I try to stay on topic in this blog because the atrocities that take place within healthcare are what I’m trying to shine a light on so that there can be social change. While I am telling my story, this is not just about me, but about so many people who, like me, end up sidelined because of a broken system that leaves little room for tolerance of differences, individual needs, and those who don’t fit the mold of what doctors, insurance regulations, and levels of government who set the laws and rules dictate. There is no manual for the human body and yet there persists the false expectation that there is within the medical field.
The chubby black nurse with lots of tiny braids came in and took my blood pressure, charted a few stats on the computer and then handed me the standard sleep questionnaire to fill out, watching me impatiently.
“He’s running on schedule so I don’t want it to eat up your time. He can’t spend an hour with you” she blurted out rudely.
I narrowed my eyes at her not knowing what brought that on. I never knew how to fill those things out anyway as my sleep/wake pattern is all screwed up from day to day. She told me to average it out, her voice growing ever more impatient.
“Is Z here today?” (another nurse) I asked her.
“No” she replied. “She’s off for a few days.” I thought back to our last phone conversation and suddenly had an uneasy feeling. I’d told her what had recently transpired and told her that I was going to need the pulmonologist to take over all the order writing. She understood. There was no mistake about it. She’d been open and empathetic and she was hearing me in a way she hadn’t ever before. When I asked for verification she said “Yes Ma’am” in a way that conveyed that now she understood the gravity of what I was up against.
In the past she’d told me this doctor thought for himself and didn’t think he’d buy into the buzz, but in this last conversation I remember telling her I was glad he was not one to buy into group-speak and that he was the only one left, that I was glad that he at least believed me. On that she didn’t respond to reassure me as she usually had.
I never got a call back from her regarding his answer. Then about 4 or 5 days later (the day he’d refused to do the two referrals) another nurse had responded on his behalf on the Patient Portal. When I’d asked where Z was I was told she’d asked off.
Did she know what awaited me at my upcoming appointment? Perhaps she did and couldn’t bear to be there to watch what was about to unfold and didn’t want to go along with hurting me.
Once the nurse in the office left the room with the clipboard in hand I waited in anticipation that at least he was still with me as he’d indicated on the Patient Portal…or so I hoped.
Medicine is more than the mechanical fixing of bodies. It’s about a partnership between doctor and patient and when one is chronically ill this becomes even more crucial. Often along the way that human aspect gets lost in the process. Above all patients need hope when going through a difficult and long diagnostic process and they need to know that whatever happens their doctor is there for them.
The other day even though he’d refused to write the two referrals I’d sent him the information on (Vanderbilt and the Undiagnosed Diseases Network), I still thought positively that he hadn’t diverged from me. Maybe he just wanted to see me in-person before writing any orders or referrals, I reasoned, or maybe he just felt that it was the GP who should have done this. I tried to believe that there was a reasonable explanation in every way I could.
Not long after the nurse had left he knocked briefly and entered the room.
His face was red at the top of his cheeks just under his eyes. Because I am close with him I knew that was a tell. Even still I powered through, tried my best to ignore it, thinking maybe it was just a temporary bump in the road. I had a smile on my face because I was genuinely happy to see him and I still considered him a confidant until such time as I knew otherwise. I was willing to give him a chance, to hear him out before passing any judgment. Even with some weird vibes I was picking up I couldn’t switch gears that fast and suddenly be unhappy with him. There was a history there. He had helped me in the past, maybe more than any of the doctors at Emory. I had the impression he genuinely cared.
“How are you” he asked looking at me from across the room as he sat down in his chair. He made eye contact, but I just couldn’t block out the distracting reddening in his cheeks and kept looking there instead of his eyes.
“Not good. I’ve been feeling pretty bad with this Dysautonomia not treated for the past several months. I’ve nearly passed out several times in the past two weeks.”
“You’re smiling” he said, nodding. I didn’t exactly know what to say to this or why that was significant to him. I grappled as best as I could to find the words, but failed miserably in fully explaining. I communicate better in writing than I do verbally.
“Well things went well yesterday. The nurse practitioner told me that she didn’t think I was nuts, and apparently Dr. V validated my Dysautonomia, so that’s progress.”
“You’re smiling” he said again, a little louder this time, almost cutting into the end of my sentence. I wanted to ask him what his point was but I didn’t know how. It was as though my brain stopped for a moment. I could think it but the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. In the time I’ve known him I have grown very attached to him and in the past he has always been willing to do whatever he could to help me. All I had to do was ask. I told him just the other day on the Patient Portal how much I appreciated that, and suddenly as if the rug were pulled out from under me all that was gone.
I tried to push the gnawing insecurities aside in favor of logic. How could a strongly positive doctor/patient relationship go from 100 to zero in just a week’s time, I wondered? As I sat there across from him something didn’t feel quite the same.
“What is your understanding of the situation right now?” he asked. “Do you think Neurology is moving forward in getting the answers?” It was one of those statements masquerading as a question. I could feel it yet was unsure exactly what he was going to say although I grasped that it wasn’t good.
“Well it’s too early to know for sure. I just started with them, but Dr. V. definitely picked up on something of the underlying condition. She just isn’t sure what it is yet. She’s only seen me once, so hasn’t even had time to investigate very far before going on maternity leave.”
The pulmonologist shifted in his chair from side to side, not a good sign. “She was hanging her hopes on it being the Sarcoidosis.”
“Yes, and it turned out not to be that” I answered the question for him. The red in his cheeks continued to spread outward. “The Gallium Scan was clean” he said with almost an eeriness in his voice.
That meant it wasn’t in acute flair but he seemed to have a much more ominous take on it.
The significance for him seemed to take on an almost supernatural quality to it and I could tell it scared him. We live in the bible belt here in Georgia and one always has to consider that doctors in this part of the country may read in a religious significance to explain things that as of yet are medically unexplainable. That is yet another variable that can and does interfere with trust within the doctor/patient relationship; the good vs evil dichotomy.
“It was the inconsistency in the exam that concerned me” said the Pulmonologist, his cheeks reddening further. At this point he was looking kind of ill himself. I knew what he was thinking because doctors are trained that way.
I felt the need to reassure him that I had not been taken over by some strange evil force and that there was and is a reasonable explanation, that we just needed to find out what that is. There is a confounding variable neither he nor Dr. V were taking into account which elicits inconsistency in an exam, but the growing sense of mistrust and feeling of utter futility held me back from telling him what it was. I opted for the simpler of explanations.
“This is just the beginning”, I continued. She’s just started with me. Sometimes it can take as many as 6-8 years for patients to be diagnosed. I sure hope it won’t take that long for me, but the point is that alot of people go through this. It’s not that uncommon for things like that to come out negative or inconsistent, but at least they can start by treating the Dysautonomia since they know that the Saline helped when I was at Piedmont. That would be a start.”
It was all he could do to stay put in his chair. He seemed to be grappling within himself pulling to one side, then the other. I could imagine opposing dialogue going on in his head.
“You keep coming up with that word; Dysautonomia!” his speech accelerating and growing in urgency. “There’s no evidence of Dysautonomia.” (pregnant pause) “that’s your perception. That came from you. She said by patient report.”
“What do you mean no evidence? “It came from Piedmont” I replied. “Didn’t you see the BP stats that were entered into the electronic records system? My blood pressure was all over the map for 11 days, measuring it 6 times a day!”
“That could be anything. A cardiologist would have to determine what that is….and you need to consider that this could also be…psychological. I would recommend seeing a Psychiatrist and a Cardiologist.”
“Well it sure isn’t in my head. Believe me, I went that route first, as I had problems on my left side a number of years ago. The therapist suggested I get it medically checked out because she didn’t think it was psychological.”
“It can reoccur.” he replied ignoring the fact that I’d said it had been ruled out.
“Blood pooling in my feet? Pictures I sent Dr. B. on the portal.”
“There’s no evidence of Dysautonomia. That’s your perception. They have to do tests for that!” at this point seeing he was losing this argument but sticking to his story so as not to lose face.
“They should have done that testing 4 months ago. I’ve been telling people this since I was discharged from Piedmont in November. The doctor there had a conversation with me about this. It didn’t come from me, it came from him. He just didn’t document it and I didn’t know that until I got the records later. I believe it’s secondary and that it and the movement disorder are all part of the same syndrome. They need to find the underlying condition.”
“If there is one. Why not see a Cardiologist?”, he said.
“I could. That’s another reason to go to Vanderbilt. They have specialists there and I’m sure they have Cardiologists there as well as Neurologists.”
“You could see one here… or at any place locally. You don’t need to go out of town for that.” I wondered why he was so wedded to the idea that I stay here in town for such an evaluation.
“The thing is if I went to just any Cardiologist they may be too general to recognize this. Many Cardiologists are generalists and they have many other heart related disorders to focus on. I need an expert who knows what to look for.”
“I would recommend doing it here.” I’m sure he would, I thought, beginning to feel as though he wanted to control the situation. Odd, given the fact that just a few days previously he’d taken a hands-off approach.
“Then my chronic constipation, the fact that I’m thirsty constantly, how can you say there’s no evidence?”
“That could be dehydration. Dysautonomia is extremely rare statistically.” He seemed genuinely afraid and holding onto this denial for dear life, like a security blanket, although I wasn’t sure why. The whole time we’d been talking I was drinking water and sucking on ice cubes.
“Well why am I dehydrated? As you can see I’m drinking ice water constantly. I have a cup with me at all times and yet I’m still thirsty.” He was out of excuses and just looked at me seemingly frustrated. He asked about Dr. B. and I said “He’s gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean?”
“I mean out of the picture; gone” I did not elaborate.
“He’s not your primary anymore?”
“No, he was doing me more harm than good anyway. You see, nothing was moving. My treatment was going nowhere. I tried to tell him but he wouldn’t listen. I’ve been untreated for almost 4 months now and I can’t wait much longer. It’s getting worse.”
“Untreated for what?“
“And you really think Neurology is helping you?”
“According to the Nurse Practitioner she is supposed to be good and I was told she thinks outside the box. I figured I’d give her a chance.”
“OK then, I’ll take a back seat to Neurology then and just follow what they’re doing with you.” he replied seeming somewhat offended or hurt, I couldn’t tell exactly which. “I still think you should see a psychiatrist” he threw in for good measure.
“I just don’t want to cloud the issue. I want this looked at on it’s merits. There are several problems in seeing a psychiatrist. Every specialty tends to look for what they specialize in and they can’t bill insurance for situational problems so that motivates them to fudge and give you a psych diagnosis when you really don’t meet the criteria. Would it make any difference at all if a psychiatrist wrote a letter saying that what is going on with me is not psychiatric but medical?”
“Yes” he said emphatically, “It would help alot”. Somehow his words rang hollow as soon as they’d been spoken. I found it hard to believe that he could ever go back to the way things were before. A line had been crossed and another rung of trust broken. Even if he could go back I couldn’t. It scared me that he could so easily go from supporting me 100% to being so determined not to support me. It was like the air let out of a balloon. Knowing that deep down he was not trying to rule it out but rule it in was what hurt most of all. The way he looked at me just killed me; a mix of irritation, amusement, and pity as though I had wasted his time.
“I feel like you don’t believe me” I said. I wasn’t smiling now.
His face clouded over and he looked through me rather than at me. “Ms. Carlington” he said with a forced new formality “I need to move on” he stated dismissively looking somewhere to my right, then avoiding my eyes and looking to my left.
The first level I perceived right away (move on as in to his next patient), but then I picked up something on a deeper level.
He was officially uninvesting himself in me and though I was still technically his patient I’d clearly been relegated to the cutting-room floor.
A thousand pieces of paper wouldn’t change anything now with his resolute mind-set and knowing, that psych is a soft science and based more on individual clinical opinion than provable fact, to take that particular piece of advice and gamble with my future could put the last nail in my coffin.
As both of us exited, he to the left, and me to the right he called back over his shoulder that I should really get a new Primary Care physician to coordinate all these specialists and I told him that with managed care and heavy caseloads I really don’t know if one would, so I wasn’t in any great hurry to do that. It didn’t work out for me the last time. He said that’s what they’re supposed to do. Yes, I thought, they are supposed to.
I went to the front checkout desk where the young receptionist with the long wavy black hair and black-rimmed glasses greeted me with their customary “Did you have a nice visit?”
“No, not so much. Not this time. I feel a bit uneasy.” She got on the phone to ask the doctor when to schedule me for my next appointment.
“Six Months” she said as she turned toward me. I winced. (It was usually more like 2-3), but still feeling that sense of futility I didn’t ask her to make it earlier, only asked if I could if I needed to, and she said yes, that he was here 5 days a week and if need be it wouldn’t be hard to get an appointment should something come up.
Yesterday Dr. V finally responded through her Nurse Practitioner, but since she’d not heard of the IV Saline treatment she told her she wouldn’t authorize her to write the order “at this time”. None of the other items on my list of priorities (other than the med refills) had been addressed, so I wrote back and asked if she had authorized her writing the referral to Vanderbilt, and provided her several pieces of information about the treatment and contact info for two specialists familiar with it.
Yesterday I got the name of a guy at another specialty clinic out of state and am waiting to hear back, as he is out for the week. The office is supposed to call when he returns. All the pre-registration was taken care of over the phone. If I don’t see some action out of Emory Neurology soon I’ll go that route, as he seems to have diagnosed lots of people who had the same experience I’m having now and there you don’t have to have a referral. As gut-wrenching as it is to be losing doctors I’ve known for years locally I wonder if maybe, just maybe with doors closing at Emory, another window is about to open.