There are definite limits of medical science. Unfortunately, not all human conditions and afflictions can be adequately diagnosed even after exhaustive tests and studies, or sadly, effectively cured or treated. Medical providers live with that reality every day and so do our patients. When specialists and diagnostic studies have not revealed a cause to your symptoms, it does not mean you do not have a problem. It just means that no one has been able to find it…thus far. These events are as frustrating to your medical provider as they are to you.
Medical providers are trained as “fixers”. There is nothing more rewarding in medicine than to have a patient come up to you in a grocery store, give you a hug, and say, “It worked. Thank you so much. I feel wonderful again.”
Although I am pleased that my medical intervention did the trick, I often have little clue as to (a) who that patient was, or (b) what I did. Maybe the person just got better on their own, and I was just the last one who intervened. Like most medical providers, I will gladly take credit for the cure. I see a lot of patients and I do not remember them all, but I sure like to hear about sucess stories.
When patients cannot be adequately diagnosed, it is the responsibility of the treating medical provider to refer you to someone else more qualified. You would be surprised how frequently this does not happen. Patients will be told to “just live with it”, or to wait months or even a year to “see if it will just go away”. Surprisingly, a large number of people accept this and simply give up without a second opinion. As talented and skilled as your medical provider might be, he/she is only one brain. Medicine is much too complex to rely on just one provider…one opinion. Medical collaboration is the key. Two medical heads are definitely better than one. A team of medical heads would be even better, although it could reach a point of diminishing return…like having several chefs in the kitchen preparing just one meal.
Before throwing in the diagnostic towel for a difficult-to-diagnose or treat condition, I recommend that people consider a high-level diagnostic assessment at a large, university-based medical center. The collaborative and technological resources of these large research and teaching institutions are often better equipped to deal with complex medical challenges. Logistically and/or financially, I know this may be very difficult.
Life was never intended to be fair and bad things happen to good people. Peter, a very good PA friend of mine, died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. Not being a fool, he knew that pancreatic cancer is a usually a death sentence, but he did not give up. He endured chemotherapy and radiation until his hair fell out and his body wasted away. He endured terrible pain despite the strongest pain medications available. He even spent thousands of his own hard-earned dollars trying experimental drugs and therapies, both in the U.S. and Europe. In the end, the pancreatic cancer won. Medical science, again, met a formidable foe. I wish that Peter did not have to die. I miss him, even though I still haven’t forgiven him for once dragging me off to an Amway meeting. One of Peter’s sons recently wrote to me when he found my Blog. He simply thanked me for being a friend to his Dad.
Helen developed metastatic breast cancer about 20 years ago, long before bone marrow transplants were commonplace. Her insurance company considered it “experimental” and refused to pay a dime. Helen knew it was her last and only chance to survive. While the insurance company did have an appeals process, the process was so cumbersome that she would surely die before a claim resolution was made, so she fought. They sold their home and paid the several hundred thousand dollars for the recommended therapy, including a bone marrow transplant. Helen was cured of her cancer and later successfully sued the insurance company for full reimbursement. She is alive today, albeit minus her breasts, and living life to the fullest.
Donations for medical research are not fair, either. We donate umpteen millions of dollars in this country for breast cancer research, but very little money trickles into such areas as pancreatic cancer research. Breasts certainly have more public appeal than an ugly, ‘ol pancreas, but shouldn’t some of this research money be shared? Now don’t take me wrong, we have had more friends and relatives battle breast cancer than pancreatic cancer. They are both indiscriminate killers.
Medical science has come a long, long way, even in my own lifetime. Medical miracles happen every day, and more are on the horizon. But, in spite of those advances, medical science will always have limitations. We will not live forever and it is unlikely that Walt Disney’s unfrozen body will some day open up a theme park on Mars. Like most people, I lament the painful failures of medicine, often without truly appreciating those very obvious limitations, and the dedication of those who do not give up…patients AND medical providers.