This time last year, my colleague and supervisee, Patricia, took medical leave to have a debilitating tiredness and shortness of breath checked out by a pulmonary specialist her nephew, a respiratory therapist, had found for her in a larger town about forty miles away. The doctor ran some preliminary tests and put her in the hospital immediately.
She'd been ill for almost a year, and we'd nagged her constantly to get it checked out. Her cardiologist ran batteries of tests and found nothing- it wasn't her heart. Her family physician ordered additional tests, and found nothing. Her local pulmonalogist ran a few respiratory tests and thought it wasn't anything serious. The problem was, though, and I found this out from talking with her myself, that none of those three physicians consulted the others about any of this. I'm going to use the dirtiest word a doctor's child knows here: malpractice.
If they'd talked to each other, she might not have died, or died as quickly. From the Friday before Valentine's Day until a month later- from the first good diagnosis, to her untimely death. She was in her fifties. She had a new grandchild. She suffered horribly that last year, but she put her faith in three doctors who were too vain, lazy, or careless to talk to each other about what was happening to their mutual patient.
When we learned what was happening, I did what I usually do in such cases: I called my father and presented the pathology as I knew it, and waited for him to tell me what was wrong. Never discount an old G.P. just because they're old: the guys in my dad's generation of doctors had a damn good education, and my father pursued his interests in cardiovascular and pulmonary medicine as much as he could while practicing general medicine as half of a very busy joint practice. The Old Man was in Georgia, in the session, on the day that the French decrypted their AIDS research...and he knows more about HIV/AIDS than most younger doctors have forgotten.
He listened carefully and said, quietly, "Your friend most likely has pulmonary emboli. There are a lot of things that could've caused it. It sounds like she's past treatment. You should prepare yourselves."
She was moved to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was sitting up in bed one day, talking to her husband and flipping through magazines, and then suddenly...she was gone. She just stopped, and it was over. In a single month, she went from feeling miserably sick to being dead.
Medicine is a crapshoot. That's not to say that had her local doctors communicated with one another that her death could've been, with any certainty, prevented, but early treatment might have mitigated things significantly, both the suffering and the swiftness with which death came. I say this because I've been in respiratory failure myself, at the ripe old age of thirty-five (it was corrected a couple of years out with surgery). My mother now has emphysema, COPD, a partially collapsed lung, and congestive heart failure. I know how it feels to slowly suffocate because you can't will your own lungs to work correctly anymore. I know how it looks, because I have to see it every time I go home.
There will be times that you've got to get up on your hind legs and make your doctors pay attention. Don't fail to do it. Don't let them drop the ball, because that ball is your life. Cling to it with every fiber of your being. Fight like hell.
Happy Valentine's Day, Patricia. I'm sorry it went down this way. Wherever you are, I hope that you know somebody misses you.