“Nothing but vitality has no side effects.”
Andrew Graham, DO
There was a time when patients would automatically accept the treatment recommended by a physician garbed in the absolute authority of a white coat. No longer.
My rebellion officially arrived in 2010, but it had been a couple of decades in coming. I forget sometimes that not everyone is as fascinated by medicine and the healthcare industry as I am, so I thought it might be helpful to share some more signposts on the journey.
My interest in medicine was innate, but my attention grew through three years in public affairs at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, 18 years of marriage to a healthcare executive, and many healthcare clients when I was working as a freelance writer. Along the way, I became increasingly intrigued with alternative medicine and was a founding investor in 2001 in a holistic clinic in Santa Fe that did not succeed.
In spite of that secondary interest, I deferred to physicians for years regarding my one apparent health issue–the thinning bone problem. I tried Evista for a while until the leg pain became so severe that I quit. Then I bailed from Fosamax when it wrecked my digestive tract. After that, I pursued diet and supplements as the preferred approach.
It was a different health issue that turned me into a real rebel. During a period of enormous stress during 2010, a pain in my side was diagnosed as diverticulitis. My physician, who has the best medical education you can get in this country, put me on an aggressive antibiotic therapy with two prescriptions. One I forget, but the other was Cipro.
I was supposed to get better, but as they days wore on, I felt increasingly unwell. My tongue turned brown, and even water tasted bitter. Then four days after my last pills, a horrible intestinal infection from a bacterium called Clostridium difficile erupted. Caused by the earlier antibiotics, it was now treated by a third.
C. difficile, which is characterized by profuse diarrhea, is typically caused by antibiotics; and it kills about 14,000 people per year. It is estimated that around 300,000 patients in hospitals contract it annually and the total number of cases nationwide may be as many as three million a year. Treatment costs exceed $1 billion.
I was fortunate that my second run of antibiotics seemed to cure the problem, although relapse is common. Ironically, recent research conducted in the Netherlands has verified the superior value of a new treatment, which looks holistic to me. It involves injecting the feces of a healthy person (Yech!) into the patient via an enema, a colonoscope, or a nose tube. In some cases, patients are healed within 24 hours.
The C. difficile hangs out in healthcare institutions, but it may be that many people have the bacteria among the hundreds, maybe even thousands, in their guts. An antibiotic can kill off the other bacteria that keep it in check, and it takes off.
Of course getting it subdued is only one part of the problem. I was fortunate to have access to all sorts of alternative resources in Santa Fe to restore the health of my digestive system. Later I would read an article saying that Cipro is such a powerful antibiotic that it should only be used in a life-threatening situation, which was not my case.
In spite of this experience, I went back to my doctor for my annual checkup, which involved a lot of diagnostics that revealed superior health except for the bone markers. I was already in a very skeptical place about the pharmaceutical approach, and it had deepened with the experience of a good friend.
She had been taking Fosamax for 12 years when she recently broke her leg descending a step ladder. Sometime later, she got out of bed and broke a bone in her foot. An orthopedist studying her X-rays turned to her and said, “You’ve been taking Fosamax, haven’t you?” When she agreed, he shook his head sadly and said, “We thought we were helping people.” Fosamax-treated bones look good on a scan, but they are brittle.
The relationship among bone scans and pharmaceutical companies and physicians is a topic for another post. When I arrived home after that last appointment with my own doctor, I got on the Internet to review information about a new recommended drug, Forteo. As in most cases, the list of potential side effects is long and intimidating. Life becomes kind of miserable, it would seem, although the bone scans look better. The more serious potential side effects include fainting, depression–and bone cancer. As I looked at that last item, I thought, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Needless to say, I’m not taking Forteo–or any other drug for that matter. For over a year now, I’ve been exercising at a serious gym, which has made me feel better than ever. Just recently, I began very gingerly to work out on the platform where we are trained in Olympic-style weightlifting. I’m getting muscles, and I’m surely building bone.
But I don’t really need to know how well. I realized after my last annual checkup that I dreaded those appointments, that I’m actually a little afraid of my doctor. I doubt that I will go back. For a fundamentally healthy person like me, Santa Fe provides a tremendous array of alternative practitioners who have wonderfully pleasant ways of sustaining vitality I don’t want destroyed by conventional medicine. Odd that it would come to this.