I got brave last week and decided to write about my hometown, something that was daunting, but I am glad I did it. I sat on the idea for almost a year. The idea for this post has been with me for over six months, and while it tells private stories, it is a shared concern. We decided that even if we can help one person get the medical attention they need, then it must be written. We remain well, and in our usual style, we will try to make you laugh about a heavy topic. There aren’t many pictures–trust us, this subject matter is best not pictured.
When I bought my car almost three years and 70,000 miles ago, the display on the dash told me how fast I was going, miles per gallon, how much gas left and more information than I knew what to do with. The computer was set to tell me when the next maintenance was due, as it already had 36,000 miles. It did just that, and it was time to be serviced. After the first oil change—undertaken by my husband, of course, the Maintenance Required message remained. According to the owner’s manual, it required a simple, simultaneous pressing of two different buttons to reset it, so that it could remind you again in 10,000 miles.
Except that it wasn’t simple, and it didn’t work that way.
“I’ll figure it out later,” I thought to myself. Meanwhile, I got the same message every time I started the car. Maintenance Required stared at me from the dash display until I hit a different reset button, and it went away. I kept track of the mileage in my head to know when the next oil change was due, and I simply let it go. For over two years, I simply let it go on.
For over two years—over three, to be exact, I didn’t go to the doctor. My beloved doctor, Dr. S., the woman who delivered my children and had been our family doctor for over 20 years, left our small city for greener pastures. I can’t say I blamed her, but it broke my heart. Perhaps I denied that she was actually gone, something I could easily do because none of us needed her—thank you, God. I knew in the back of my head I needed to find a new doctor, but it was easier to, well, just not go to the doctor. We had urgent care clinic calls for minor things, and that suited us well enough. Plus, it’s always handy to have a nurse practitioner in the family–my stepson’s wife was one.
Until that little voice told me to figure it out. A woman my age needs to have regular doctor visits, and Dr. S. is gone and she’s not coming back.
I began to get real about that, and asked around. I had heard good things about Dr. J., and I decided she would be a good fit. She is likely young enough to be my daughter, which is probably a good thing—she will hopefully be practicing for a while.
Since it had been over three years, I got the whole shebang checkup, soup-to-nuts. I had always skated through all my previous visits, so I thought this one would be no different. I had no major concerns. To overcome my little white-coat fear, however, I pictured myself walking with a spring in my step to the car after the visit, smiling, enjoying the sunny day.
Something you never want to hear from your new doctor on your first visit is this: “I’m not sure what’s going on, I am going to send you to a specialist.”
I got in my car without a springy step, without smiling, and even though the sun was shining, I had a dark cloud hanging over my head.
I started the car, and the metaphor did not escape me. There, glaring at me from the dash was the ominous message: Maintenance Required.
I should have done the required maintenance on my body sooner.
This was a Thursday. Mercifully, the specialist in her practice had a cancellation Monday morning, and I was first in line. Dr. J. admonished me with this wise and timely advice I’m sure many doctors give: “Don’t get online and try to figure this out on your own over the weekend.” Wise words they were, and I listened to her. I am so glad I did, because after it was all over, I did check it out.
I didn’t have time to search the internet anyway, because I spent the weekend picking out my funeral outfit. (This got an eye-roll from the invincible Gail when she previewed it for me.) Thanks to Suzanne; she did her best to talk me down from the ledge–I backed up a little, but stayed there for most of the next three days. She kept me sane. She has a way of doing that; she has been there, but gave up that particular breed of madness after she was diagnosed with cancer. More on that later.
As if Monday mornings aren’t hard enough, this one was among the most dreaded. At the same time, I couldn’t wait to get it over with, just to know what I was dealing with. The not knowing is the hardest part.
The specialist, Dr. A., came with high recommendations from trusted friends and family members, and I wasn’t let down. On that dark Monday morning, it took her only a moment to lift my self-imposed death-sentence: “Oh, it’s just a _______ ________. And just like that, it was over. I was going to live.
As I walked to the car, the sun shone brighter than ever.
Just three weeks later, I was awoken at 6:30 a.m. by a sharp pain in my upper back. It crawled up my neck, and started down my left arm. It was unlike anything I had ever felt. I got up, thinking “this is weird,” but since it was Christmas Eve morning, I didn’t give in to the idea that maybe something was really wrong. I had too much celebrating to do. Besides, that kind of high drama and poor timing only happens in the movies.
The pain subsided, and I went running as I always do. I decided that if I felt short of breath during my run, or if it got worse, I would probably reconsider.
It was a little tight, but I felt pretty good. I could breathe, so I let it go. And besides, I’m a runner. I’m in good shape, so this kind of thing really can’t happen to me…
Until 11:40 that night, when it woke me up again. This time it was sharper, more intense, and crawling further up my neck, down my left arm and across my back.
But it was Christmas Eve, and I didn’t want my holiday celebration to be marred by a little heart attack. I knew, though, that this pain was nothing to fool around with. The pain fit the bill for a woman’s heart attack, except there was no shortness of breath, no crushing weight on my chest and no upset stomach. Still, I knew I must not ignore it.
This night was reminiscent of the night I first gave birth. My husband was asleep, tired out after building our house after work hours while I built the baby. It was this same time of night, and he was particularly tired tonight like he was that hot day in May. I knew it was time to go to the hospital then, and I had to wake him from this deep sleep. We made it with plenty of time to spare before the baby arrived.
This night, Christmas Eve—only 15 minutes now until it was officially Christmas Day, I contemplated leaving him a note. The pain was lessening, and I could probably make it there by myself.
“Merry Christmas, honey. I think I may perhaps be having a little heart attack, but I didn’t want to wake you. I went to the E.R., and I’m sure I’ll be back soon.”
But I did wake him. Our boys were playing cards in the basement, and I let them know, as casually as possible, that I was simply having a little chest pain, and I think maybe I’d better go have it checked out. They knew it might not be that simple.
It was no Silent Night in the ER. The man around the corner and down the hall required the attention of not only the two security guards on staff, but three policemen as well. The nurses said it wasn’t anything special just for Christmas, just a typical night in the ER.
But I think I fared better than that guy. I spent almost four hours there, and was pronounced with a healthy heart—a wonderful Christmas gift. After my follow-up visit to my new doctor, who, at this point, must be wondering what on earth she signed up for when she accepted me not long ago, determined it to be a strained muscle. I had jacked up that shoulder by napping in a less-than-comfortable spot the day before. All the awful things were ruled out, and my healthy heart remains just that—healthy.
Usually it’s the little sister who imitates the big sister. This time, however, it was Gail imitating me. Nine days after my ER visit, Gail ended up in the ER of her small-town hospital with chest pains—her first ER visit ever. Now, if you know Gail, you know she doesn’t easily give in to pain or suffering, so this must be big stuff. She, too, knew it was time to high-tail it there, knew not to mess around with this kind of pain.
She was dismissed after the required testing, with a follow-up to the visiting cardiologist in two weeks. She was admonished by him to make some lifestyle changes, and come back in two months, which she did.
Her heart remains healthy, too.
I remember going to my former doctor, Dr. S., for my annual exam shortly after my parents died.
“It’s strange,” she said, listening to my heart, “You can’t hear a broken heart.” She was so kind and sensitive to my heartbreaking situation, and I will be forever grateful to her for her help in those dark days. I am grateful that she made my visits something I almost looked forward to, because she was so caring and empathetic. She took care of me and my family for all those years, and we were fortunate to have her.
Suzanne was diagnosed with thyroid cancer almost seven years ago—on her birthday. She said she was dismissed by two doctors–an ENT and a radiologist– who told her there was nothing wrong when they checked out her symptoms. Still she knew, in her heart, that something was not right. She found a doctor who found the problem. She persisted. She listened to her heart.
Suzanne remains healthy, too.
Sometimes, women are not easily persuaded to take measures to take care of themselves. We are typically more concerned about taking care of everyone else. That’s our job, for many of us. Yet, if we don’t take care of ourselves, no one else likely will.
See your doctor on a regular basis. If you are not as lucky as me to have great doctors, then find one you like. You are the customer, and you have that right.
Listen to that little voice. Listen to your intuition. Listen to your heart, because these places are where true wisdom lies. No one is wiser about your body than you. Suzanne knew, and she exercised that wisdom. I am so glad she did.
Wisdom is power. Knowing what you are dealing with, and how to deal with it is easier than torturing yourself with the unknown.
I knew when I felt the pain that I thought was a heart attack, that it was unlike any other, and it fit the bill—at least in several ways. During the follow-up visit to my new doctor, I expressed that I felt a little foolish for causing such a stir over a muscle. She reinforced that I did the right thing by going to the ER, and that she would have sent her own mother or sister there herself if they had those symptoms.
Lastly, if Gail herself, invincible, unbreakable Gail, went to the ER with chest pains, then it’s okay if you take yourself to the doctor for your concerns.
After the last oil change, the Maintenance Required message no longer showed up on my dash. My husband, in his MacGyver-like wisdom, figured out how to clear the message. It is now set to display again when it’s time for more maintenance.
It was that easy. Just like it was that easy for Dr. A. (the specialist) to take care of my issue. If you are putting off your health issues, it may just be that easy for you, too.
The Sisters of The Sister Lode hope so. We are living proof that the required maintenance is worth the trouble.
Thanks so much to everyone for the support and comments from last week’s blog. We all know that Tipton is an incredible little town!