The morning after Christmas I was standing in an airport terminal, waiting for my wife and kids to get back from getting coffee, when a thought occurred to me: I’m going to end up in the emergency room before this day is over.
We were traveling to San Diego to spend some holiday time with my wife’s family. That morning everything had proceeded as normal, but as we drove to the airport my stomach started to hurt. As we waited for then boarded the plane, it got worse. As we flew from Raleigh to San Diego, it got worse. I didn’t tell my wife because I didn’t want her to worry, and really what could she do about it on a transcontinental flight anyway? I finally confessed my pain once we were safely on the ground, and soon found myself in an urgent care office, then in an emergency room.
Six hours after arriving in the ER I was released with no diagnosis. Two days later I was in the ER again, and was again released with no diagnosis. Thus began my months-long medical malady mystery, which finally culminated in having my gallbladder laparoscopically removed a few weeks ago. I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect, and I want to share with you two lessons I have learned from my sickness.
First, you have to look out for yourself. I don’t believe I ever met my grandmother’s doctor, but I knew him by name: Dr. Blackman. Dr. Blackman was Ma’s primary care doctor for years. They knew each other, and she trusted him. Anytime she talked about her own medical issues, she’d always reassure us, “Dr. Blackman said…” Whatever her diagnosis, whatever her treatment, whatever lifestyle changes came her way, if Dr. Blackman said it, it must be gospel truth.
Those days are gone.
Medicine has changed, and society has changed. Gone are the days of a lifetime-long relationship with a family doctor who knows you and your medical history well and treats all of it. We have seen the rise of the specialist. While repeatedly being referred from one doctor to another may cause a logistical nightmare of scheduling appointments, I am in no way against medical specialists. I don’t believe I would want a doctor performing open heart surgery on me who just came in from treating someone else’s athlete’s foot.
However, these changes in medical practice mean that often we are going from doctor to doctor, practice to practice, even hospital to hospital. As I have learned, these different doctors and practices and hospitals are not necessarily talking to one another, even when they really ought to. It took me a week and half and multiple phone calls to get one hospital to fax test results to my doctor’s office. I was told by an office administrator, “Sometimes these things happen.”
What’s more, doctors are simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of patients and paperwork. There’s a lot going on, and they cannot give every person their undivided attention. I had an appointment with my gastroenterologist scheduled at the end of May. In late March I called to see if I could move that appointment to an earlier date and was told that my doctor was all booked up through July.
None of this is meant to be a critique of doctors or our current medical field. Most doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, hospital and office managers, medical technicians, and countless others are working long, hard hours and doing their absolute best to help us. It’s a demanding job, and I sure wouldn’t want to do it.
However, what I learned and what I want you to know is that you have to be your own advocate. If you are sick and hurting, you cannot passively wait for doctors to get back to you, and you cannot assume that connections are being made from doctor to doctor, practice to practice. Please don’t take this as permission to be a belligerent annoyance to your medical professionals; give them the time they need to work. But make sure you’re putting in some work, too. Carry the paperwork and test results you’ve been given to your next appointment; don’t assume the doctor knows already. Do your own research online so that you’ll know what questions to ask (but don’t confuse your Google search for their medical degree). Advocate for yourself and for your loved ones, or else you might end up suffering a long time for no better reason than someone forgot to send a fax before leaving the office after a ten-hour shift.
Second, being sick is really hard. My illness was nowhere near as bad nor lasted nowhere near as long as what many people I know and love have suffered and continue to suffer through, but it is the longest that I’ve ever been sick. And it was really hard.
For me, the hardest part was not the pain. Though the pain was bad enough to send me to the ER twice, I found I could control it well-enough with diet and the occasional acetaminophen. No, the hardest part for me was not being able to do what I am used to doing.
February was the worst. I was eating comparatively little, and was losing weight- 20 pounds in just six weeks. I remember this past February as a long stretch of plain tiredness. I would get up in the morning and see my wife and kids out the door then either go to my office or sit down at my kitchen table with my laptop… and just stare at the blank screen. I would try to organize my thoughts to respond to emails, but found even that draining. My family would come home and find all the breakfast dishes in the sink or sometimes still on the table. All throughout February, it was a struggle for me to do the minimum of things. All I felt like doing was going back to bed.
March and April were a lot better. My weight loss finally evened out and I settled into a routine of what I could eat without causing problems. But even then, as things that excited me finally got under way, like planting the garden, my energy levels just weren’t what they used to be. I couldn’t work as long, I couldn’t do as much, I couldn’t focus on a task like I was used to. Even today, a few weeks after my surgery, I’m still not where I want to be physically. I have no doubt that spending this summer out in the garden (and hopefully getting into an exercise routine again) will do wonders and I’ll be back to normal by summer’s end, but in the meantime it’s frustrating to me to not be able to do physically and sometimes even mentally do what I’m so sure I can.
I’m not telling you this because I want your sympathy, but because this has given me a new depth of empathy for those who are sick, much sicker than me, and in recovery. Not to say that we should feel deep pity for the ill and do every little thing for them. There is great dignity in being able to do for yourself, and I would never rob someone of that dignity. But being sick is really hard, in more ways than just the physical discomfort. I understand that better now, and hopefully that understanding will make me a better pastor and a better person.
The Gospels show me a Jesus who is just as concerned with bodies as he is with souls. I believe as followers of Jesus we Christians need to be just as concerned with bodies as with souls. We need to take care of bodies, both ours and others’. Sometimes that will require advocacy and proactivity. Sometimes that will require allowing rest. But all times that will require effort to understand and care.