A Letter To Patients With Chronic Disease

Dear Patients: You have it very hard, much harder than most people understand.  Having sat for 16 years listening to the stories, seeing the tiredness in your eyes, hearing you try to describe the indescribable, I have come to understand that I too can’t understand what your lives are like.  How do you answer the question, “how do you feel?” when you’ve forgotten what “normal” feels like?  How do you deal with all of the people who think you are exaggerating your pain, your emotions, your fatigue?  How do you decide when to believe them or when to trust your own body?  How do you cope with living a life that won’t let you forget about your frailty, your limits, your mortality?

I can’t imagine.

But I do bring something to the table that you may not know.  I do have information that you can’t really understand because of your unique perspective, your battered world.  There is something that you need to understand that, while it won’t undo your pain, make your fatigue go away, or lift your emotions, it will help you.  It’s information without which you bring yourself more pain than you need suffer; it’s a truth that is a key to getting the help you need much easier than you have in the past.  It may not seem important, but trust me, it is.

You scare doctors.

No, I am not talking about the fear of disease, pain, or death.  I am not talking about doctors being afraid of the limits of their knowledge.  I am talking about your understanding of a fact that everyone else seems to miss, a fact that many doctors hide from: we are normal, fallible people who happen to doctor for a job.  We are not special.  In fact, many of us are very insecure, wanting to feel the affirmation of people who get better, hearing the praise of those we help.  We want to cure disease, to save lives, to be the helping hand, the right person in the right place at the right time.

But chronic unsolvable disease stands square in our way.  You don’t get better, and it makes many of us frustrated, and it makes some of us mad at you.  We don’t want to face things we can’t fix because it shows our limits.  We want the miraculous, and you deny us that chance.

And since this is the perspective you have when you see doctors, your view of them is quite different.  You see us getting frustrated.  You see us when we feel like giving up.  When we take care of you, we have to leave behind the illusion of control, of power over disease.  We get angry, feel insecure, and want to move on to a patient who we can fix, save, or impress.  You are the rock that proves how easily the ship can be sunk.  So your view of doctors is quite different.

Then there is the fact that you also possess something that is usually our domain: knowledge.  You know more about your disease than many of us do – most of us do.  Your MS, rheumatoid arthritis, end-stage kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, bipolar disorder, chronic pain disorder, brittle diabetes, or disabling psychiatric disorder – your defining pain –  is something most of us don’t regularly encounter.  It’s something most of us try to avoid.  So you possess deep understanding of something that many doctors don’t possess.  Even doctors who specialize in your disorder don’t share the kind of knowledge you can only get through living with a disease.  It’s like a parent’s knowledge of their child versus that of a pediatrician.  They may have breadth of knowledge, but you have depth of knowledge that no doctor can possess.

So when you approach a doctor – especially one you’ve never met before – you come with a knowledge of your disease that they don’t have, and a knowledge of the doctor’s limitations that few other patients have.  You see why you scare doctors?  It’s not your fault that you do, but ignoring this fact will limit the help you can only get from them.  I know this because, just like you know your disease better than any doctor, I know what being a doctor feels like more than any patient could ever understand.  You encounter doctors intermittently (more than you wish, perhaps); I live as a doctor continuously.

So let me be so bold as to give you advice on dealing with doctors.  There are some things you can do to make things easier, and others that can sabotage any hope of a good relationship:

  1. Don’t come on too strong – yes, you have to advocate for yourself, but remember that doctors are used to being in control.  All of the other patients come into the room with immediate respect, but your understanding has torn down the doctor-god illusion.  That’s a good thing in the long-run, but few doctors want to be greeted with that reality from the start.  Your goal with any doctor is to build a partnership of trust that goes both ways, and coming on too strong at the start can hurt your chances of ever having that.
  2. Show respect – I say this one carefully, because there are certainly some doctors who don’t treat patients with respect – especially ones like you with chronic disease.  These doctors should be avoided.  But most of us are not like that; we really want to help people and try to treat them well.  But we have worked very hard to earn our position; it was not bestowed by fiat or family tree.  Just as you want to be listened to, so do we.
  3. Keep your eggs in only a few baskets – find a good primary care doctor and a couple of specialists you trust.  Don’t expect a new doctor to figure things out quickly.  It takes me years of repeated visits to really understand many of my chronic disease patients.  The best care happens when a doctor understands the patient and the patient understands the doctor.  This can only happen over time.  Heck, I struggle even seeing the chronically sick patients for other doctors in my practice.  There is something very powerful in having understanding built over time.
  4. Use the ER only when absolutely needed – Emergency room physicians will always struggle with you.  Just expect that.  Their job is to decide if you need to be hospitalized, if you need emergency treatment, or if you can go home.  They might not fix your pain, and certainly won’t try to fully understand you.  That’s not their job.  They went into their specialty to fix problems quickly and move on, not manage chronic disease.  The same goes for any doctor you see for a short time: they will try to get done with you as quickly as possible.
  5. Don’t avoid doctors – one of the most frustrating things for me is when a complicated patient comes in after a long absence with a huge list of problems they want me to address.  I can’t work that way, and I don’t think many doctors can.  Each visit should address only a few problems at a time, otherwise things get confused and more mistakes are made.  It’s OK to keep a list of your own problems so things don’t get left out – I actually like getting those lists, as long as people don’t expect me to handle all of the problems.  It helps me to prioritize with them.
  6. Don’t put up with the jerks – unless you have no choice (in the ER, for example), you should keep looking until you find the right doctor(s) for you.  Some docs are not cut out for chronic disease, while some of us like the long-term relationship.  Don’t feel you have to put up with docs who don’t listen or minimize your problems.  At the minimum, you should be able to find a doctor who doesn’t totally suck.
  7. Forgive us – Sometimes I forget about important things in my patients’ lives.  Sometimes I don’t know you’ve had surgery or that your sister comes to see me as well.  Sometimes I avoid people because I don’t want to admit my limitations.  Be patient with me – I usually know when I’ve messed up, and if you know me well I don’t mind being reminded.  Well, maybe I mind it a little.

You know better than anyone that we docs are just people – with all the stupidity, inconsistency, and fallibility that goes with that – who happen to doctor for a living.  I hope this helps, and I really hope you get the help you need.  It does suck that you have your problem; I just hope this perhaps decreases that suckishness a little bit.


Dr. Rob

Post Script: This post has generated a huge amount of conversation and interest (as witnessed by the large number of comments!).  I very much appreciate the dialogue it has spawned both here and across the web.  I’ve subsequently written follow-up posts explaining my thoughts in more detail – largely in response to the comments here.  One of them discusses in more detail my own experiences as a doctor and the second talks of the importance of  knowing and being known.  Reading these will give you a better picture of my thought process and perspective on this.Dr. Rob

From http://more-distractible.org/musings/2010/07/14/a-letter-to-patients-with-chronic-disease

Interview with a Doctor on Trans-Sphenoidal surgery

Dr. Julius July: Neurosurgeon at the Neuroscience Center of Siloam Hospitals Lippo Village Karawaci 


The mention of the word “surgery” evokes images of lengthy and elaborate procedures that involve delicate acts of cutting, abrading or suturing different parts of the body to treat an injury or disease.

This widely-held perception has led some to develop an irrational fear of surgery–especially if an operation involves a critical organ, such as the heart, or in the case of trans-sphenoidal surgery, a procedure used to remove tumors from the hormone-regulating pituitary gland located at the base of the brain.

Though the procedure has been around in different forms for the past three decades, individuals who may be in dire need of it might fear or avoid it.

To demystify this specific method of surgery, J+ spoke with Julius July, a neurosurgeon at the Neuroscience Center of Siloam Hospitals Lippo Village Karawaci. He has performed hundreds of trans-sphenoidal operations on patients throughout the country since 2008. Below is our interview, edited for length and clarity.

Tell us more about trans-sphenoidal surgery.

The goal is to extract benign tumors of the pituitary gland that are called pituitary adenoma. The pituitary gland controls different secretions of hormones. If there is a tumor and it grows large, one of the consequences could be that a patient goes blind. It can also lead to symptoms manifesting in other parts of the body due to excess hormone production, depending on the type of hormone affected by the tumor.

What does a neurosurgeon do during the procedure?

As neurosurgeons we use an endoscope with a camera attached to it and insert the instrument through the nostril. We go through the right nostril and through the sinus to reach the tumor and remove it. Once that is done, we add a coagulant to prevent bleeding. The operation takes only an hour to 90 minutes to perform and is minimally invasive. People come in and expect the surgery to last five or six hours. They hear “surgery” and fearfully assume that. But modern trans-sphenoidal surgery is simple, only lasting one to two hours.

What’s the prognosis after surgery?

In 80 percent of cases, all it takes is one surgery to remove a tumor. However, some need repeated intervention, while others require radiation. Some tumors want to invade their surroundings. In these cases, the surrounding area is a blood vessel. We can’t totally remove that type of tumor. But such cases are rare. If a patient needs more than two operations, we usually recommend radiation, because who wants to have a lot of operations?

What are the symptoms of pituitary adenoma?

Symptoms depend on whether a tumor affects hormone production or the optic nerve. The principal complaints are related to a patient’s field of vision becoming narrower. If there is a tumor in the pituitary gland area, the eye can’t see too widely. The tumors would press on the optic nerve, which leads to the periphery of your vision getting blurry.

If the tumor affects hormone production, the symptoms depend on the specific type of hormone that the tumor has affected. Different hormones have different roles. Excess prolactin hormones can lead to women–or even men–producing breast milk. If a woman who isn’t pregnant is producing breast milk, they need to be checked. The basic ingredient of milk is calcium. Without treatment, the woman will have porous bone problems. It also leads to reduced libido. If men have an excess of these prolactin hormones, they cannot get erections and will become impotent.

How does these problem develop in the first place?

Mutations lead to the creation of these benign tumors. Some things make mutations easier, such as smoking or exposure to radiation or specific chemicals. It could be anything. You could have eaten tofu and it had formalin or some meatballs with borax. Preventing it obviously requires a healthy lifestyle, but that’s easier said than done.

It’s not just one thing that causes these tumors.

Who does this pituitary tumor affect?

It affects both genders equally, more or less. The risk of pituitary adenoma compared to all other types of brain tumors is 15 percent. Children are also affected, though the condition is statistically much more likely to afflict adults. Of my patients, two in 70 would be children.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will check your hormones after a blood test and identify the problem. For example, if the condition affects growth hormones, a person can grow to two meters or more in height, which leads to gigantism. Alternatively, a condition could lead to horizontal growth–a bigger tongue, bigger fingers and changing shoes each month. The tongue can become so big that it causes breathing problems. Growth hormone overproduction is like a factory with the machine working overtime. As a result, a person’s life span can get cut in half. The heart works overtime, they keep growing and they die prematurely.

How many operations do you perform a year?

I’ve been doing these operations since 2008. I handle 60 to 70 such surgeries a year.

Any notable success stories to share?

One patient from Central Java came in blind. I examined him and said that there was no way we could save his vision by removing his tumor. He was crying. He had been blind for a week. But if no action was taken, the tumor would keep growing and would lead him to becoming crippled. At the end, he decided that he still wanted the operation. Surprisingly though, after the operation, he was able to see. Three months later, he was driving and reading newspapers. It was a fascinating case.

From http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/07/30/well-being-trans-sphenoidal-surgery.html

Day 25, Cushing’s Awareness Challenge 2016



I wrote parts of this in 2008, so all the “yesterdays” and “last weeks” are a little off. 

Wow.  That’s about all I can say.  Yesterday was possibly the best day of my life since I started getting Cushing’s symptoms, and that was over 25 years ago.  A quarter of a century of feeling exhausted, fatigued.  A quarter of my life spent taking naps and sleeping.

Last week  in this post I wrote in part:

I went to the endo yesterday.  Nothing has changed for me.  Nothing will.  He wants me to take more cortef.  I don’t want to gain weight again.  He looked up Provigil and it’s not indicated for panhypopituitarism.  So he won’t prescribe it.  My kidney surgeon probably won’t let me take, anyway, but it was worth a try.

He did mention that in “only” 2.5 years maybe I can go back on growth hormone.  I don’t want to live like this another year let alone 2.5.  But then, when I was on GH before it didn’t help me like it helps most everyone else.

I’m tired of catering to a kidney that may or may not fail sometime anyway, tired of being so exhausted all the time.  I feel like I’ve lost nearly half my life to this Cushing’s stuff already.

So, yesterday I was supposed to go to a conference on web design for churches.  My church sent me because they want me to spiff up their site and make them a new one for Christmas.  I wanted to go because, well, I like learning new stuff about the web.  I figured that I would learn stuff that would also be useful to me in others of my sites.

And I did!

But the amazing thing is this.  My son had told me  about a medication that was very similar to Provigil, that he had tried it while he was writing his doctoral thesis and it had helped him.

So, having tried the official doctor route and being rebuffed – again – I had decided to try this stuff on my own.

Just the night before I had written a response on Robin’s wonderful blog that reads in part:

I hate this disease, too.

I was just talking to a friend today about how I’d try nearly anything – even if it ruined my one remaining kidney – to have a few days where I felt good, normal, where I could wake up in the morning rested and be able to have energy for the day.

I want to go out and have fun, to be able to drive for more than 45 minutes without needing to rest, to be have people over for dinner, whatever. I hate being restricted by my lack of energy.

My endo says to cheer up. In two and a half years I can try the growth hormone again. Whoopee. Didn’t work the first time and maybe gave me, or contributed to, cancer growth. Why would I want to look forward to trying that again?

I want to feel good now. Today.

I hate that this disease kills but I also hate that it’s robbed me of half my life already.

I wish doctors would understand that even though we’ve “survived”, there’s no quality of life there.

I hate Cushing’s. It robs so much from so many of us. 😦

As I said earlier, I have a history of daily naps of at least 3 hours a day.  It cuts into everything and prevents me from doing many things.  I have to schedule my life around these naps and it’s awful.

rockford-2006-sue 12-18-2006 2-09-18 pmA few years ago I went on a Cushie trip to Rockford.  I’ve been there a few times and it’s always so much fun.  But this first year, we were going to another Cushie’s home for barbecue.  I didn’t drive, I rested in the back of the car during the drive.  We got there and I managed to stay awake for a little while.  Them I put my head down on the dining room table and fell asleep. Our hostess kindly suggested that I move over to the sofa.

So, I have a long history of daily naps, not getting through the day, yadda, yadda.

So, I was a little nervous about yesterday.  I really wanted to go to this conference, and was afraid I’d have to go nap in my car.

I got up at 5:30 am yesterday.  Before I left at 7:15, I took my Cortef and then I took my non-FDA approved simulated Provigil.  (Although it’s not FDA approved, it is not illegal to possess without a prescription and can be imported privately by citizens)

I stayed awake for the whole conference, went to a bell rehearsal, did Stacey’s interview, had dinner and went to bed about 10:30PM.  NO NAP!  I did close my eyes a little during the 4:00PM session but it was also b-o-r-i-n-g.

I stayed awake, I enjoyed myself, I learned stuff, I participated in conversations (completely unlike shy me!).

I felt like I think normal people feel.  I was amazed.  Half my life wasted and I finally (thank you Michael!) had a good day.

My kidney doctor and my endo would probably be appalled but it’s about time that I had some life again!  Maybe in another 25 years, I’ll take another pill.  LOL

Well, the energy from the Adrafinil was a one day thing.  I felt great on Thursday.   Friday and Saturday I slept more than usual.  Saturday, today, was one of those days where I sleep nearly all day.  Maybe if I took the drug more it would build up in my system, maybe not.  But it was still worth having that one day where I felt what I imagine normal to be.

While I was being a slug today, my husband painted the entire house.

I’m not sure if I would have been this tired today or if I was somehow making up for the nap I didn’t get on Thursday.  Whatever the case, I’m glad that I had the opportunity to try this and to experience the wonderful effects, if only for one day.

Information from a site that sells this:

Alertness Without Stimulation

Adrafinil is the prototype of a new class of smart drug – the eugeroics (ie, “good arousal”) designed to promote vigilance and alertness. Developed by the French pharmaceutical company Lafon Laboratories, adrafinil (brand name, Olmifon) has been approved in many European countries for treating narcolepsy, a condition characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and other unusual symptoms.

Non-narcoleptic users generally find that adrafinil gives them increased energy and reduces fatigue, while improving cognitive function, mental focus, concentration, and memory. It has been reported that quiet people who take adrafinil become more talkative, reserved people become more open, and passive people become more active.

Of course, many stimulant drugs, ranging from caffeine to methamphetamine, are known to produce similar alerting/energizing effects. Adrafinil has been described by some users as a “kinder, gentler” stimulant, because it provides these benefits but usually with much less of the anxiety, agitation, insomnia, associated with conventional stimulants.

Adrafinil’s effects are more subtle than those of the stimulants you may be used to, building over a period of days to months. They appear to be based on its ability to selectively stimulate 1-adrenergic receptors in the brain.2 These receptors normally respond to norepinephrine (noradrenaline), a neurotransmitter linked to alertness, learning, and memory. This is in contrast to conventional stimulants, which stimulate a broader spectrum of brain receptors, including those involving dopamine. Its more focused activity profile may account for adrafinil’s relative lack of adverse side effects.

There’s more info about Adrafinil on Wikipedia

It’s interesting that that snipped report that people become more talkative.  I reported that in the original post, too, even though I didn’t realize that this was a possibility.

A good quote that I wish I could relate to better:

“Time is limited, so I better wake up every morning fresh and know that I have just one chance to live this particular day right, and to string my days together into a life of action and purpose.”

Lance Armstrong (1971 – )
Cyclist, seven-time Tour de France champion and cancer survivor

2011 stuff starts here:

Awhile ago I went to a handbell festival. I took a bit of adrafinil on the main day to try to stay awake for the whole day. It didn’t seem to keep me as on as it did before. I can’t be used to it already. Maybe I’m just that much more tired than I was before.

Our son lives in New York and every few years he gives us tickets to see a Broadway show.  A couple years ago we took the train to NY to see Wicked.  Usually my DH wants to go out and see sights while we’re there.  I usually want to nap.

This time we got up on Saturday morning, went out for breakfast.  I wanted to take in the whole day and enjoy Wicked so I took some Adrafinil.  We got back to the hotel and got ready to go to a museum or other point of interest.

But, DH wanted to rest a bit first.  Then our son closed his eyes for a bit…

So, I found myself the only one awake for the afternoon.  They both work up in time for the show…

Sigh  It was a great show, though.

A recent Christmas I was going to get my son some Adrafinil as a gift.  The original place we bought it didn’t have any more stock so I tracked it down as a surprise.  He was going to give me some, as well, but couldn’t get it from the original source, either.  So he found something very similar called Modafinil.  GMTA!



And this year…

Saturday, 4/23/16 really was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.

I’ll be writing a longer post about that later on my travel blog but here’s the original plan: https://maryoblog.com/2016/04/23/busy-saturday/

Suffice it to say, we arrived at the Tattoo and I got no nap at all, all day!





Interview with Deborah March 30, 2016

Deborah has many symptoms but is not yet diagnosed.


Deborah will be our guest in an interview on BlogTalk Radio  Wednesday, March 30 at 6:00 PM eastern.  The Call-In number for questions or comments is (845) 241-9850.

The archived interview will be available after 7:00 PM Eastern through iTunes Podcasts (Cushie Chats) or BlogTalkRadio.  While you’re waiting, there are currently 89 other past interviews to listen to!


Deborah’s Bio:

Hello all,

I do not know where to begin. For many years I have been struggling with these symptoms. I have proximal weakness, intolerance to stress, blood pressure fluctuations, hyperpigmentation, reactive hypoglycemia, sweating, severe dehydration, very bad confusion, vision, memory problems, physical body changes (hump, bruises), carb intolerance, and inability to exercise.

My endocrinologist did a workup for Cushing’s disease and the midnight saliva test was high. She brushed it off as “stress”. I am seeing a doctor now that says I have POTS and Dysautonomia. My doctor says I have inappropriate adrenaline rushes.

My body is falling apart because I haven’t found a doctor who will take my symptoms and test results serious. I would like to talk to others who are having trouble getting diagnosed and also to those who have gotten diagnosed who have a good doctor.

God Bless and Thank You,

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Sharmyn McGraw on Blogtalk Radio



March 22, 2016 7:00pm Eastern  Sharmyn speaks to medical professionals about the spiritual side of pain advocacy for patients with pituitary tumors and hormonal related disorders!  She’ll share how she turned the darkest part of her life into the best part.  Watch out because Sharmyn will also use Tumor Humor to keep the message light and fun.

Sharmyn will be be speaking with her good friend Garrett Miller, Rated G Radio. Garrett is fun, smart and to say creative is an understatement.

Garrett and Sharmyn will be having a conversation about how she turned being misdiagnosed for seven horrible years with Cushing’s disease into one of the best parts of her life.

Many of you have heard her talk about Cushing’s, but very few people have heard the back story, the personal and raw part of Sharmyn’s journey… well join them on March 22, at 7:00pm eastern and you can hear it all and join in also.

Use the call in number and let’s chat.

Sharmyn McGraw joins the show Tuesday to talk about turning Pain into Passion and Passion into Action!

Listen to the archives at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/ratedgradio/2016/03/22/sharmyn-mcgraw-turning-pain-into-passion


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