“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.” ~ Erma Bombeck
by Dave Riley
YOU KNOW YOU LIVE among older people when you ask how they are, and they tell you. And tell you. And tell you.
And when you say you have such-and-such, they are quick to respond that they or their uncle or neighbor or pet beagle just had something quite similar, and not only that, this person knows the remedy for it.
Mrs. R, I am happy to say, isn’t such a person. She likes to keep her infirmities to herself. But this one night a few months back she said, “This just doesn’t feel right.” She was rubbing her tummy lightly at the time. It was a Friday evening, and she’d been having some noticeable discomfort for several days.
“Let’s go in,” I said, expecting her to say no, that’s okay. Maybe in the morning.
But women are more sensible than your average macho male when it comes to symptoms of illness, and Mrs. R surprised me. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s go in.”
So we did, and after hours of examination, by humans and by a variety of machines, both digital and analog, Mrs. R found herself spending the night in the hospital. In fact, she ended up spending several nights there.
In the interest of protecting at least a bit of Mrs. R’s privacy, I won’t describe her symptoms other than to say that they weren’t life threatening. But they did cause her medical team to consider an operation, a move they eventually ruled out. Her nourishment consisted of intravenous feeding and a diet of liquids and ice chips, which, in the absence of any other solids, soon became a gourmet treat for her.
She got to crave the chips so much that once, when a nurse brought her some, she immediately hid them, and when another nurse came in she said, “Where are those ice chips you promised me?”
DURING MRS R’s FIRST FEW DAYS THERE, a relative sent us an article from the Sunday Times Magazine about a lady patient in the University of Chicago Medical Center who had remarkably similar symptoms. Her doctors were mystified at first, but eventually concluded the woman was having a reaction to a particular medication, which Mrs. R also took. Could this be Mrs. R’s problem as well? the relative asked.
Now I would never consider approaching an auto mechanic or a plumber or an electrician with a suggestion about how that person should do his work. That’s because I know nothing about the internal combustion engine or copper piping or 110 wiring. I also know next to nothing about medicine except what I have learned as a patient, but that didn’t prevent me from approaching one of Mrs. R’s doctors with a copy of the article.
“Oh, boy,” he seemed to be thinking. “I spend over a decade in med school, but this guy thinks he can diagnose his wife’s illness by reading a Sunday supplement.” He took the proffered article, but was polite yet firm that the team had already ruled out a drug reaction as the cause.
I am grateful to the relative who pointed out that article because at the time the doctors were still playing the roles of medical detectives, and the article made a lot of sense. However I subsequently got advice from others that was, to put it most kindly, suspect.
“I know what’s wrong,” a well-meaning neighbor said. “You two didn’t get your flu shots.”
“Actually we did, just last month,” I replied.
“Well see! There’s your problem. Her sickness was caused by the flu shot.”
Another friend asked if Mrs. R had eaten out without me the previous week. Yes, I acknowledged. She went to a ladies’ club luncheon on Tuesday. “There’s the cause,” the friend said. “Food poisoning.” The fact that none of the other hundred or so women at the luncheon came down with the illness didn’t faze my friend.
Another had a one-word diagnosis: “Gluten!” she snarled. “Gluten.” Yet another said, “Chicken. Bad chicken has been in the news a lot lately.”
By now I was beginning to appreciate how the doctor must have felt when I gave him that article.
AFTER SEVERAL DAYS the gastroenterologists zeroed in on the correct diagnosis — Ogilvie Syndrome. Olgivie is an extremely rare disorder that is named after Sir William Heneage Ogilvie, the British surgeon who first reported it in 1948 — not that long ago as medical chronology goes. The doctors prescribed an appropriate course of treatment for Mrs. R, which, much to our relief, involved no surgery. She spent several more days in the hospital, improving each day, until the doctors judged her ready to return to the outside world and the care of her non-physician spouse.
Mrs R had been home only a few days when we realized she was recovering nicely with no recurrence of any of her symptoms. She also learned a valuable lesson. “If I’m ever ill again, don’t tell our friends that the doctors don’t know what ails me,” she said.
“So what do you want me to tell them?” I asked.
She thought about that for a minute or so, then said, “Tell them I’ve got Hulawalu syndrome. It’s a rare disorder found mainly among Pacific islanders.”
“Really. I probably acquired it during our trip to Hawaii three years ago. It killed Kamehameha the Great, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know that. And neither do you.”
“No, I don’t. But you’ll never rat me out, right?”
“Never in a million years,” I said.