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Medical examination

March 6, 2009
By Bob Seidenstein,

We rarely hear the phrase "the miracles of modern medicine," and when we do, it's almost never meant literally. But it should be.

Just consider the state of medicine 50 years ago, when people routinely died of diseases, disabilities and miscalculations which almost never happen today.

For example, heart disease. Back then, if you had it, you had one choice - wait till your first heart attack. If you survived it, you had one more choice - wait till your next heart attack.

Diagnostic tools like stress tests and angiograms didn't exist, nor did the corrective procedures like angioplasties, shunts and bypasses. Now they not only exist, but they've been so perfected, they can be safely performed on people in their 80s.

But in the dark ages of my youth, any operation, no matter how simple, was fraught with risk, if for no other reason than the anesthesia itself. In fact, three of my friends' parents died from anesthesia during minor surgery - two during appendectomies, the other during a gall bladder operation. Certainly it was thought of as tragic, but not unheard of.

As a kid I had my own bizarre medical trip.


A germ with no name

It was mid-summer of my 12th year, and a friend and I spent the day swimming. Both the weather and water were unseasonably warm, so we spent hours splashing about - something I couldn't do in colder weather. But even though it was a hot, beautiful day, when we started riding our bikes home, something seemed off.

At first, I sensed I wasn't as peppy as usual and was slightly off-balance. But by the time I got to my driveway, I could barely push the pedals. Plus, I felt flush and feverish.

My mother had gone shopping, and when she got back, I was a complete mess; I was running such a high temperature, I was flat on my back, hallucinating.

She immediately called our family savior, Dr. Bellaire, who came rushing over. I can't remember what happened, but I assume he did the only things a doctor could in those days.

First, he checked see if my symptoms matched any known disease. Apparently they didn't, so he did the next thing he could - gave me a shot of some antibiotic, hoping it was good for what ailed me. After that, I'm sure he did what I most remember him for - he treated me with the greatest kindness and concern. As I said, I'd no idea what was going on, but no matter how bad I felt, Dr. Bellaire's presence alone was guaranteed to make me feel at least a bit better.

To make a long story short, I was feverish and mokus for the better part of a week. For the next week, I ran an increasingly-lower temperature but was still bedridden. The third week I could get up and walk around the house a bit, but not for long. After a month, I was healthy enough to go outside if I took it easy, and by the time school started, I was in fine fettle.

So what was it that'd knocked me on my keester for a full month? I never knew, and neither did anyone else. Tests revealed nothing. Of course, I hadn't been given any, because none that sophisticated existed.

The final diagnosis - I'd caught a "bug" and had gotten over it. Beyond that, no one knew anything, nor did they care. The issue had come and gone, I was a lucky little Dope, and it was time to move on, which everyone did.

But that was then - things are different now.


A cult of ingratitude?

Now, with our formidable medical arsenal of prevention, diagnosis, cures and analgesics, the idea of some strange "bug" (do we even use that word anymore?) not being identified and cured is intolerable, an insult. Rather than appreciate all the advances in medicine, we've only increased our expectations and been spoiled by them. And like all spoiled brats, we just take those good things for granted.

Fifty years ago, if the doctors could figure out what was wrong with you, it was a great thing. And if they could also cure it, it was an even greater one. But if the diagnosis and cure were failures, so be it. The most important thing was the doctor cared and tried his level best to help you - something people accepted philosophicallyand appreciatively.

But now? Now we want it all. If doctors make a mistake, they deserve no forgiveness. When you and I make mistakes, it's just a fact of life. But when a doctor makes one, it's a travesty, a sin, a crime. If a cure or procedure fails, that's unacceptable too. And in both cases, the least you should do as a disgruntled patient is sue the bejammers out of everyone involved.

Sure, there are flat-out incompetents, and taking them to the cleaners is just fair trade, as far as I'm concerned. But the inevitable human error shouldn't be cause for a forensic firefight or even a good case of outrage - at least not until we quit making them ourselves.

And in a similar vein, there's our current attitude about longevity. Due to medical improvements, people are living much longer than ever. And as a result, all too often, we've come to believe that a long life isn't merely a blessing, but our God-given right.

How often do we hear someone saying about someone passing away, "He was only 73." Only 73? Forty years ago, almost no one hit 70, and if they departed this Vale of Tears at 73, it was a source of joy. Now, it's a ripoff.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating actively reducing anyone's lifespan - especially my own. What I am advocating are a few changes of attitude.

The first is appreciating how blessed we are with the health care we have and that billions of other people never will have.

The next is trying to live life on life's terms. At times we won't be getting what we want in life, but it may be what we need. At the least, it might behoove us to accept and make the best of it, rather than whine about our "druthers" and cast about for someone, or something, to blame.

And, finally, doctors. OK, some of them may act like they're God, but we know they're not. They're just humans like the rest of us, and we should be big enough to respect their humanity - for our sakes as well as theirs.

Do I honestly believe we'll willingly give up taking the wonders of modern medicine for granted? No, not at all.

But it'd be a smart thing to do - before hard times of the future do it for us.



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