Something to think about: Old or sick?

By From page A4 | April 19, 2013

Something is just not right. Strange things are going on with your body and you don’t know what to do about it. First, you wait for the symptoms to go away, but, when they don’t or they worsen, you go to the doctor.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. If you are over 35 and the doctor doesn’t know what condition is causing your combination of symptoms, you will likely hear the dread words, “Well, at your age…”

The assumption that completes the rest of that sentence is that at your age, decrepitude of some form is to be expected. Go home, get some rest and suck it up.

One thing I’ve learned from watching CSI and multiple detective programs on television is not to make assumptions. Follow the evidence. Open your mind and explore the possibilities. Follow all the leads, not just the one that seems most likely. It’s probably not the butler who killed Professor Plum in the library with the lead pipe, but you should check it out anyway.

I first heard “at your age” when I was 40. I have friends who are hearing it at 94, but it’s not any more valid at 94 than it was at 40 as a reason for all medical problems. To be sure, things are going to wear out and some things work differently than they used to. They look different too. But, you live in your body 24/7 and when something is not right, you know it.

It’s like that funny noise you hear in your car. Other people don’t notice the noise or they attribute it to something inconsequential. But you know your car and that is not a noise your car makes. You take it to the mechanic and it stops making the noise. The mechanic can’t find anything wrong and implies that it’s probably just a loose screw or something. You drive home, thinking that maybe you’re wrong and then, a mile from your house, the noise returns. If you immediately return to the mechanic, sometimes they find the problem. Sometimes, several hundred dollars later, there’s still a noise in your car and the mechanic looks at you as if you’re crazy. You decide to try to live with the noise and hope that your motor won’t fall out on the freeway.

A friend’s active and independent 90-year-old mother went into the hospital for minor surgery. The surgery went well, but her daughters were dismayed that their mother seemed to be rambling and incoherent upon waking up. The hospital kept her another night and the following morning; the mother did not recognize her children and was hallucinating. The daughters talked to the doctor who said that unfortunately, this sometimes happened to elderly patients — a slide into dementia that would necessitate a placement in assisted living or a memory care facility. The daughters questioned whether the intravenous pain medication or some of the other medications being given to their mother in the hospital might be the cause. No, it was her age — it just happens, said the doctor. Finally, the oldest daughter demanded that all medication be stopped temporarily. Reluctantly it was and 12 hours later, the mother was back to her usual alert and responsive self. She had been allergic to the pain medication.

Thank goodness for the Internet. You can research your own symptoms — follow a few leads and narrow down the field of possibilities. You might have a bit more time and definitely more motivation than your doctor does to do this. Doctors didn’t use to appreciate patients who researched their own symptoms, particularly when they also made their own diagnosis, but if you trot out your research and leave it open-ended, many are more willing to listen. There are countless examples of non-medical people doing research that lead their doctor to an accurate diagnosis.

It’s up to you to refuse the one-hit wonder approach. How about looking at all the symptoms instead of just one? Advocate for yourself even if you don’t know anything about medicine — few of us do. If your doctor pulls the age card, pull one of your own — the informed patient card.

Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly. 

Wendy Schultz

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