June 24, 2017
A Reality Check
I have been lucky. Throughout my life I have had few health problems. I went to a doctor for checkups and an occasional medical bump in the road. Even spending 150 days each year in airplanes and hotels rarely resulted in more than a cold or occasional case of food poisoning.
Things started to change about three or four years ago. Slowly, I began to notice strange pains, OK , strange to me. Some of my fingers seemed a bit stiff when I first woke up. A twinge in my lower back wouldn't go away after a hot shower. I had some shortness of breath after a bit of yard work.
Two summers ago things got a little more serious during a trip to Portland: I ended up in the hospital for a few days with a cardiac episode. It wasn't a heart attack, but a small vein was blocked, resulting in pain and a small area of dead heart muscle. Scary for me, my wife, family, and friends, but eventually under control.
A year later, sharp pains in my lower left side wouldn't respond to my normal treatment method: take some aspirin and ignore it. I ended up in the emergency room with diverticulitis, painful but easily cured with antibiotics.
Then, this spring I caught a whopper of a cold. After two months, still coughing and feeling weak, I sought a professional opinion. Based on my description he thought bronchitis was a logical choice. Twenty days of steroid pills later, the cough and weakness still present, he decided to try antibiotics. Maybe my sinuses were infected and that was causing my problems. Nope.
Thinking it was time to up my game, I secured an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. If nothing else, I wanted a doctor to actually look at something up close and personal. A scope of some kind was threaded up my nose and down my throat; everything looked fine with only a slight swelling on one side of my vocal chords. Of course, that could be from all the coughing, but he thought it might also be caused by some acid reflux problem. So, a new set of pills to take. Some unpleasant side effects and a slight, temporary improvement didn't indicate he was right.
Frankly, by now I was becoming a bit depressed. I began to see my future: endless trips to doctors, all taking guesses but never really solving the nagging aches and pains of aging. Slowly, but surely, body parts and functions would begin to slip, just enough to be constantly there, never bad enough to prompt a real investigation, but just enough to sap my spirit and strength. I had been through that with my parents and didn't want it for me.
Then, after four months of this problem, the cough began to diminish, from being my frequent companion to only an occasional visitor. My mood lifted, my energy returned enough to allow me to start going back to the gym, and life seemed brighter.
Had the cold and its effects finally gotten tired of playing with me and left to move onto someone else? Had I completed my 40 days in the wilderness (more like 120 days) and was freed from this test of patience and faith? I doubt a medical professional knows, I certainly don't.
But, this experience reinforced a few important realities that this 68 year old man must face:
1) My future will contain problems like this, and worse. The approach of benign neglect that worked so well for the first 64 years of my life is over, finished, no longer on the table.
2) We say doctors "practice" medicine because the human body is too complex for anyone to be able to arrive at more than an educated guess about what may be wrong. I am seriously grateful that the medical profession exists and that I have insurance that allows me to benefit from that knowledge, but doctors are not always right. Sometimes, they are wrong.
3) My wife has lived with constant aches and pains for the last 30 plus years. Because of a hypersensitive system she must avoid most pills or medical options. Importantly, she rarely complains. She certainly doesn't give into the disabilities, but works right through them. Instead of shutting down and bemoaning my fate, I must try to emulate her approach.
4) Ultimately, I am in charge of how my body's treated. If what a doctor gives me doesn't seem to be working, I will not stay on that course. I will ask him to look at other options, i will find a specialist, I will look for second opinions. I will do my own research.
5) As time progresses I must learn to adjust to more limited choices. Hopefully I will continue to see the glass half full, but accept that aging has consequences.
We all learn so much on our retirement journey. Some of it is hard to accept, but accept we must. I think what makes the difference is how we deal with the inevitable.