March 6, 2013 —
I sleep well, generally. So when a pain in my gut woke me mid-REM on a recent Saturday, I knew something was wrong. “Where is the appendix?” was my first thought. But no, this pain—a burning acute bullseye of pain—was on the other side. When I touched the spot, it burned like the proverbial poker.
After the stress of a major move, then a major move-in, followed by a dinner party in my new home for my beloved aunt who is moving too, a pain in my gut encouraged me to spend the day on the couch with tea and blankets. But my family encouraged medical care. “The smartest people I know,” said my son, “are the stupidest when it comes to medical care.” He was talking about his parents’ habit of self-diagnosis and delay when it comes to health care.
My family was not alone in encouraging professional attention. WebMD told me to seek immediate care. Still, the sunlight slanted so beautifully across the wood floors and my chamomile tea was warm and comforting. Friends were no help either, telling me to get off the phone and call a doctor.
The second day of pain moved me to call my internist. He abruptly told me he could not diagnose abdominal pain in his office and that I should go to the emergency room. Under doctor’s orders, I relented. Armed with a mocha latte, the Sunday New York Times and a foul mood, I grudgingly made my way through slushy Manhattan streets to the nearest ER. As soon as the intake nurse heard my complaint, I was hooked up to an EKG. I have to admit that got my attention. After that, I was assigned to a gurney and ignored for an hour or so except for a blood pressure check. The next five hours were spent listening to the non-stop profanity of a visitor in the next cubicle and endless perplexing beeps. Occasionally I was poked and finally given a pelvic exam for which I was probably overdue. As night fell, I declined a tray of hospital food and made my way home with orders to call my doctor. “Isn’t that how I got here?” I thought.
Throughout the weekend, the pain persisted. I did not call the doctor on Monday. Instead, I traveled upstate for a meeting, thinking solitude would do me some good. I scheduled a massage and tried to breathe into the locus of pain. I was able to sleep. One morning I woke with the thought, “ulcer.” The word was onomatopoetic with my pain. But the ER doctor had assured me that the pain I was pointing to was not my stomach.
I called Dr. Spinard. For those of you who just arrived in the river valley yesterday, Lorraine Spinard is our own medical wizard(ess). If she can’t cure you with something grown in her garden, she can surely diagnose you. In the meantime, I had self-diagnosed a stuck illeocecal valve while studying the reflexology chart at the pedicurist, remembering a similar pain once before when Dr. Spinard poked me so hard I thought I would scream. It turns out I was remembering the pain but not the location. After about two minutes, the good doctor assured me I was pointing to my stomach and was exhibiting symptoms of an ulcer. She then tested and re-tested me with various substances and muscle responses. Because Dr. Spinard is a chiropractor, she cannot prescribe tests that my insurance will cover. That doesn’t keep her from being shocked that the hospital did not perform an endoscopy immediately. I left the office 45 minutes later relieved to have been assessed by someone with an enquiring mind and a scientific method, who was not content to say “I don’t know” and release me into the night. I paid her $35 and left with instructions to see a gastroenterologist, get an H-pylori test and endoscopy and drink aloe vera juice to relieve my distress.
(My next River Muse column will continue this theme by inquiring “Why did a 48-year-old father of two die of a heart attack not long after seeking medical care?”)