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Why Must Being Sick Be Such Hard Work?

Posted Nov 19 2012 9:41pm
English: 1942 photograph of Carpenter at work ...
Being sick sucks.

Of course, this notion is self-evident. Nobody in their right mind wants to be sick. For those who are otherwise completely healthy, even illnesses as benign as the common head cold bring with them a blanket of misery. That misery is multiplied exponentially when the disease you’re forced to deal with isn’t of the temporary variety, but instead is one that sticks around and steadily gets worse. Chronic and progressive disabling illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, are especially cruel, as they wreak havoc not only on their victims’ bodies but on every aspect of their lives as well. As the disease progresses, hardship piles upon hardship, until accomplishing once simple tasks become daunting challenges requiring grit, determination, and sheer force of will. Putting on a pair of pants turns into an exercise in ingenuity and physical stamina; taking a shower metamorphoses into a death-defying feat. As the body becomes more and more rebellious, new methods of accomplishing old tasks must be devised, or else those old tasks must be dropped from the patient’s dwindling repertoire of the tightly entwined activities that represent normalcy and independence. Realizing that a button-down shirt has become a puzzle too complex to solve can really ruin one’s day.

Given the challenges inherent in grappling with a crippling illness, it would seem only fair that somehow the rest of the world would get with the program, and endeavor to make the life of sick people as easy as possible. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. On top of having to deal with all of the physical obstacles and frustrations of feeling lousy, and having to work around bodies increasingly on the fritz, chronically ill patients (or at least this chronically ill patient) are often met with a stupefying array of incompetence, insensitivity, and needless obstacles, often personified by the healthcare establishment that is supposed to be exist to help them. From the Byzantine bureaucratic bullshit of insurance companies to the sometimes mind-boggling incompetence of medical office staff, patients are often faced with uphill battles that can make getting proper care and needed services disheartening and daunting experiences, the equivalent of a particularly odious full-time job. Nevermind the innumerable frustrations of being disabled in an able world, attempting to navigate the medical landscape can drive one absolutely bonkers.

Back when I first came to grips with the fact that I did need a wheelchair, a notion which grew roots only after a heavyweight bout of denial, I had the not so great fortune to experience the exquisite pleasures of dealing with insurance company automatons, the folks at the other end of the line who excel at sounding entirely reasonable while spouting a line of crap longer than New York City sewer system. The insurance company brain trust decided that the perfect chair for me was one designed for indoor use only, which was completely ill-suited for life in the big city. This was at a point in my illness when I could still precariously hobble around my apartment, and the point of my getting a chair at that precise juncture was to allow me access to the world outside of my apartment door. Inasmuch as that world is smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, I needed a chair that was rugged, had long-lived batteries, and was relatively speedy, lest I get shmushed in the middle of trying to cross Broadway. Okay, I’ll admit that I also wanted a really fast chair because I thought having speedy wheels would be fun (I was correct), but getting around New York City does provide a need for speed. The wheelchair vendor that the insurance company referred me to apparently couldn’t give a damn about my real-life requirements, and insisted on trying to sell me chairs that were completely ill-suited for the task at hand, but were of the type preapproved by my insurance company. In other words, easy money for the wheelchair vendor.

The more I insisted on getting a chair I could actually use, the more the insurance company insisted that I was being unreasonable, and I was soon thrust into the company’s “appeals process”. Well, there was nothing appealing about it. Obviously designed to simply wear a patient down by attrition, the process was convoluted and nonsensical, as each appeal was decided upon by yet another layer of insurance company bureaucrats, thereby almost ensuring a continual string of denials. The entire exercise took on an air of the surreal, as I found myself vehemently arguing for a contraption the idea of which horrified me to no end. And I mean arguing in a very literal sense; phone clenched in my fist as I screamed myself hoarse trying to get my point across. As I generally am not a very confrontational person, it takes a lot to get me to the point of screaming, but the wheelchair madness got to where I would become absolutely apoplectic upon just seeing the name of the insurance company on my caller ID, worked into a lather before even answering the phone. After a full six months, and with the help of my neuro’s social work staff and photos documenting the cracked pavement, construction sites, eight lanes of traffic, and other realities of my urban environment, I was shocked with a phone call telling me that the insurance gods were sated by my burnt offerings, and that my appeal had been approved. Thus, The Wheelchair Kamikaze was born.

I’ve heard countless similar stories of other patients’ battles with their insurance companies, often times over treatments that the patients themselves were scared to death of receiving. Many patients simply give up, something I’m sure the insurance companies count on. They probably have charts and tables accurately predicting just how much corporate cat herding the typical patient will put up with before crying “uncle”. These patients are sick people, dammit, trying to feel better or make their lives easier. Instead of being treated as such, too often it seems the patient is treated as an adversary. Meanwhile, through all of the pleading, arguing, and appeals, the disease continues its relentless march, only heightening a patient’s sense of desperation. I believe this kind of treatment of chronically ill patients falls into the category of cruel and unusual punishment.

It’s not only the insurance companies that complicate the world of chronically ill patients. Insensitive doctors and incompetent office staff too often are the source of consternation, and just about every patient I know tells tales of the frustrations and sometimes sheer anguish visited upon them by folks whose job it ostensibly is to help them. One of the most common complaints are unreturned phone calls, usually placed when a patient experiences a disturbing new symptom or has a serious question about their condition. Let’s face it, not too many people call their doctor to engage in idle chitchat. Yet, getting some doctors and members of their staff to promptly return calls, or even just return them at all, is far too often an exercise in futility. Thankfully, my own primary neurologist’s clinic is an exception to the rule. The office runs a “nurse’s helpline”, on which I can leave a message that is invariably responded to that very same day by an intelligent and empathetic healthcare professional. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of the constellation of other physicians with whom my condition has forced me to get acquainted, many of whose offices are Bermuda Triangles for phone messages left with office staff.

This lack of response puts patients in the uncomfortable position of either making repeated phone calls and risk being placed in the “pain in the ass” file, or just letting their issues go and leaving them unresolved. Worse still are instances when, out of sheer frustration, patients must take the lead in micromanaging their own care, in effect doing the job of office staffers for them. In the last six months I’ve found myself having to call hospital radiology departments to get the info needed to schedule tests ordered by one specialist or another, and have even had to call medical records departments in order to get test results sent to the ordering physicians, all tasks that should have been handled by the physician’s office staff. If I had waited for the staffers to handle things themselves, though, I fear I would still be waiting. I understand that such staffers are under constant barrage by needy patients, each of whom thinks their problem should take precedence over all others. The stress of dealing with seriously ill people day in and day out must certainly take its toll, but that’s no excuse for people simply not doing their jobs.

At the top of the frustration food chain are physicians themselves. Some, maybe most, are indeed outstanding individuals who take the time to get to know their patients and show a true interest in them as complex emotional beings, and not just broken bodies on which to ply their trade. Others, though, while clinically proficient, are seriously deficient when it comes to compassion and the art of listening. Neurologist horror stories litter Internet MS forums and chat rooms, tales of doctors who seem to place their own interests over those of the patients they treat, brushing off patient concerns with condescension and disregard, often acting as if they are doing the patient a favor by examining and treating them. This can leave patients more befuddled after their appointments than before, a situation that simply should not be. Yes, doctors are only human, and perhaps some patients expect too much of them, but at the end of the day it is the patient who is left alone to navigate the frightening world of chronic illness, a fact that should be at the forefront of every physician’s mind and personal code of conduct.

Yes, being sick can be very hard work. My MS friends tell story after story of almost unbelievable travails within the labyrinth that is modern medicine. Although different countries have different medical systems, it seems every patient, no matter where they live, has their own tale of battling the medical powers that be. Not every physician’s office is dysfunctional, not every doctor is an egotistical ass, and not every medical staff member is incompetent, but there are just enough that are to make being sick sickening. When I “retired” from my career six years ago I had no idea that a new occupation awaited me. Far too often, being sick is a full-time job.

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