Monday, December 7, 2009

Medical Muddles

"I rather like mysteries. But I do dislike muddles."
~ David Lean

We live in the age of medical miracles, when strokes are reversed, hearts are restarted, brain tumors are removed and one-pound babies grow up to be sports stars. While we know that some conditions cannot be cured, we believe in our hearts that virtually all — and certainly any that might befall us or our loved ones — can be treated and managed. At the very least, today's doctors are expected to know what's wrong with us. And yet...

Several years ago my husband developed a terrible, itchy rash. His internist sent him to a dermatologist who examined his skin and wrote out a couple of prescriptions; at home we soon found that one burned unbearably and the other did absolutely nothing. After that came more visits to more dermatologists along with multiple skin biopsies. The final specialist told him he had a mental problem and should see a psychiatrist. A few weeks later he stopped taking a particular medication and the rash went away.

More recently, one of my sisters was diagnosed with a medical condition that sounds quite alarming but so far is more irritating than dangerous. She was also informed she may or may not have a second condition. The problem: the preferred treatment for condition A is taboo in the presence of condition B. "First do no harm" is the oath the doctors have taken. And so she goes from expert to expert, having test after test after test. It's been more than two years and the debate continues.

A few weeks ago, a woman I know told me about her husband, who has suffered from intermittent high fevers for almost a month and spent a week in an ICU. After thousands of dollars worth of tests, the doctors still have no idea what's wrong.

Yesterday I heard from a client who spent 24 hours in an emergency room only to emerge with the same symptoms that had brought her there. While she had no diagnosis, she did have a great big medical bill.

One of the saddest Google pages I have ever seen is the response to this query: "Doctors have no answers." When doctors have no answers, when our condition presents a medical mystery, we are more than shocked, frightened and frustrated; deep down, we are heartbroken.

“Mysteries are not necessarily miracles.”

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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