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.

Sincerely,

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

Myth: “Men1 and Men2 are the only genetic causes of Cushing’s”

Myth: “Men1 and Men2 are the only genetic causes of Cushing’s”

myth-busted

FACT: This is a Myth. More current research has explored multiple etiologies of Cushing’s. It was once thought that heredity had no influence on the development of Cushing’s Syndrome/Disease and our knowledge was once limited in this sense. Researchers have done more work in terms of exploring genetic factors in the onset of this disease. *~Robin Ess (Cushing’s educator and advocate)

The following causes for Cushing’s have all been explored:

1. Men 1

2. Men2

3. FIPA

4. CAH/BAH

5. PRKAR1A(protein kinase,cAMP-dependent, regulatory, type I, ? gene)

http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/564106_2

6.(PDE11A)

http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/564106_4

http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/564106_6

7.PRKACA

http://www.nature.com/nrendo/journal/v10/n8/pdf/nrendo.2014.89.pdf?WT.ec_id=NRENDO-201408

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24700472

http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v46/n6/full/ng.2956.html

https://www.genomeweb.com/sequencing/exome-sequencing-study-narrows-new-cushings-syndrome-gene-culprit

8.ARMC5

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141013090455.htm

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1304603

Cushing’s Awareness Challenge: Day 13

robin-complications

What can I say?  Robin’s images area always right on!

My only addition to this list would be the ongoing daily fatigue.  Maybe that’s not really a complication but more of an annoyance.

My bone loss has stopped  (or  slowed down some) over  the years since my pituitary surgery in 1987 but I doubt that I’ll ever gain back any height!

Luckily, I haven’t had a stroke – knock on wood!

Cushing’s – the “gift” that keeps on giving!

maryo colorful zebra

 

Cushing’s Awareness Challenge: Day 9

cushings-women

Another of Robin’s fine awareness graphics.  I had all these symptoms except Type 2 Diabetes.

After my pituitary surgery, I had diabetes mellitus for a while but that went away.

It was the easy bruising that finally got me diagnosed.

In 1986 I started bruising incredibly easily. I could touch my skin and get a bruise.

On New Year’s Day of 1987 I started bleeding under the skin. My husband made circles around the outside perimeter each hour with a marker, like the rings of a tree. When I went to my Internist the next day he was shocked at the size. He now thought I had a blood disorder so he sent me to a Hematologist/Oncologist.

Fortunately, the Hematologist/Oncologist ran a twenty-four hour urine test and really looked at me. Both he and his partner recognized that I had Cushing’s. Of course, he was sure that he did the diagnosis. No matter that I had been pursuing this with other doctors for 3 years.

However, he couldn’t help me any further so the Hematologist referred me to an Endocrinologist and I was finally on the way to my diagnosis.

 

maryo colorful zebra

 

Cushing’s Awareness Challenge, Day 4

Another idea I borrowed from Robin – using a Wordle as inspiration for today’s post.
Even though I’m “in remission” since 1987, I’m still way too fatigued, napping every afternoon for several hours.  People think I should be normal since my pituitary surgery was so long ago.  Well, no.
me-tired
Just a few days ago, I posted this abstract on Severe fatigue in patients with adrenal insufficiency.  I don’t think that they needed to do this study at all.  Just ask any Cushie!

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Fatigue is a frequently experienced complaint in patients with adrenal insufficiency (AI) and may be influenced by cortisol levels.

AIM:

The objective of this study was to determine the prevalence of severe fatigue in adrenal insufficiency (AI) patients, to assess which dimensions contribute to fatigue severity and to determine the association between salivary cortisol levels and momentary fatigue.

SUBJECTS AND METHODS:

We performed a cross-sectional study in the outpatient department of a university hospital. Included were 27 patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), 26 patients with primary AI (PAI), 24 patients with secondary AI (SAI) and 31 patients with adrenal insufficiency after treatment for Cushing’s syndrome (Cush-AI). Measurements included computerised questionnaires to determine fatigue severity and physical and psychosocial contributors. Patients took four saliva samples at home, in which cortisol levels were measured.

RESULTS:

Severe fatigue was experienced by 41 % of the CAH patients, 42 % of the PAI patients, 50 % of the SAI patients and 42 % of the Cush-AI patients. Psychological distress, functional impairment, sleep disturbance, physical activity, concentration problems and social functioning contributed to the subjective experience of fatigue. Salivary cortisol levels were not correlated with momentary fatigue.

CONCLUSIONS:

A considerable proportion of AI patients experience severe fatigue. Salivary cortisol level is not a significant predictor for momentary fatigue in AI patients.

PMID:
24615365
[PubMed – in process]

From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24615365

 

Back to my nap now…

maryo colorful zebra

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