When I was in college, I woke one morning with a lump under my eyebrow and the right side of my face swollen. My doctor prescribed Claritin, an allergy medicine. The lump continued to swell and my face continued to swell, and each day I returned to the doctor, I was sent away. Five days later, my eye completely swollen shut and my face too tender to touch, I brought myself to the emergency room. The ophthalmologist on duty immediately started IV antibiotics, lanced and drained the lump, and packed the wound with gauze. A Staph infection was threatening my optic nerve. I missed my brother’s graduation because the ophthalmologist wouldn’t release me to fly until he was sure I wasn’t going to lose my eyesight.
This week, I went to the emergency room with abdominal pain. After blood work, x-rays, and two ultrasounds, the doctor diagnosed a 4 cm cyst on my ovary. And told me to eat more fiber. I’m a vegetarian who eats so many vegetables my food-tracking app once reported my fiber consumption was inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients. I had a follow-up appointment with my regular doctor, who blamed the cyst on, and I’m quoting her, “this crazy spring.”
I know that patients are poor indicators of what’s happening in their bodies. I know that our medical system is completely broken. I know most doctors do the best they can.
But I worry often that American medicine doesn’t take its patients seriously. I worry often that we’re told all sorts of strange things in order to usher us quickly out the office door. I worry often that in the scramble of hourly billing, medical mistakes happen more often than they should. I worry often that doctors are afraid to tell patients when they just don’t know the answers to our questions and so respond with truth claims that are nowhere near the truth.
Three years ago, I spent a week at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where more than one doctor told me we have only a rudimentary understanding of hormones, how they work in the body, how they interact with one another, what constellation of issues they might cause when they’re imbalanced or interacting in unusual ways. And it was terrifying to hear this admission—some of the best doctors in the country saying simple, “I don’t know”—but it was also amazingly refreshing. Just a simple, “I don’t know.”
“Every human being is a colony,” Picasso said. And sometimes that colony functions seamlessly. And sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the malfunctions are easy to identify and fix. And sometimes they aren’t. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if more doctors simply sat with us in their offices? Simply listened to our bodily complaints. And when they don’t know what’s making us ill, wouldn’t it be refreshing if they simply said, “The body is mostly mystery” –instead of writing quick prescriptions or blaming the weather. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if patients like me who feel brutalized by medicine’s incompetence could regain some of the faith felt by the generation before us? If we could all just agree, “The body is mostly mystery.” And try to work with that.