This I Believe

Kate - Manhattan Beach, California
Entered on October 1, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: illness
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Life Is A Tale Told By An Idiopath

Until I turned 55, I believed that whenever I got sick I could be diagnosed and healed. My body ran well enough, rather like a used Honda—a few dings here and there, and no valet ever lit up when he saw it, but it was basically sound and got me where I wanted to go. Then I had that crucial birthday, and my body’s warranties started to go, along with my belief in its reparability.

At my annual checkup, my doctor found blood in my urine. She sent me to a urologist who did extensive testing, and then concluded that I had idiopathic hematuria. As he dryly remarked, “’Idiopathic’ means that your doctor’s an idiot and you’re pathetic.” I didn’t think he was an idiot, but even I realized that idiopathic meant “unknown cause,” not “no cause.” I suppose I did feel pathetic because it was then I truly realized that (1) they weren’t kidding when they said that no one lives forever, and (2) despite the incredible advances in modern medicine, doctors don’t know everything.

I was just getting used to my hematuria when I developed a frozen shoulder. This is a painful condition characterized by a three stage process in which the shoulder “freezes” (3 months), locks in place (3 months) and “unfreezes” (3 months). According to the orthopedist, frozen shoulders are baffling (read “idiopathic”); I just had to wait it out.

One morning my legs started to twitch. Little flesh quakes rippled up and down my calves. The neurologist conducted tests and allayed my anxiety by telling me that his medical school roommate had the same symptom, and was convinced he had ALS, until the roommate confessed to drinking nineteen cups of coffee a day. My diagnosis wasn’t as definitive: benign (idiopathic) fasciculations.

I started noticing other little symptoms. Was that pain behind my right eye a headache or the beginnings of malignant optic nerve tumor? Was that mole on my back changing? When did that cough start? I began to hang out in medical cyberspace, the training ground for today’s hypochondriacs. “Idiopathic” may satisfy the diagnosis line on my chart, but I was convinced that malign, underlying diseases were poised to pounce, having sent out signals that my doctors couldn’t interpret. I was vigilant, and Google was my triage center. Apparently, I had lots of company—people who were experiencing weird symptoms, confused about whether or not they have a death sentence or a harmless twitch. I felt like an addict as I palpated various body parts and read up on rare, unpronounceable diseases with hideous symptoms and grim outcomes.

When I developed pounding heartbeats accompanied by flushing and sweating, the doctor deemed it idiopathic arrhythmia. Then she told me something that changed my attitude and ended my addiction to Web MD. In medical school, she’d been told by a teacher that cardiologists often benefit from being a little hard of hearing. Human beings have such idiosyncratic heartbeats that many “arrhythmias” can be safely ignored, so it’s just as well if the doctor doesn’t hear them.

I decided that I could also benefit from becoming a little hard of hearing (appropriate, since I’ve recently developed idiopathic tinnitus). At 60, I am turning a deaf ear to those whispered aches, pains, tics, rashes and coughs. From now on, if my body wants my attention, it’s going to have to yell.