In these virtual pages I have written about medical mysteries, the frustrations of today’s healthcare, and the human dramas we encounter in the practice of medicine.
Below are updates to three previous posts, one from each of these three categories: “The Great Imposter”, “Calling Mrs. Kafka”, and “Invisible Ties”. Readers who don't remember these posts may want to follow the links to catch up on the beginning of each story.
A TALE OF RED HERRINGS
“The Great Imposter” ended in clinical uncertainty:
“And so I leave Norman Sprague in the competent hands of Dr. Brown, who returns from his vacation tomorrow. Norman’s lung nodules and lymphadenopathy still remain to be diagnosed, and he still may have gallbladder disease, but he also, again, has the original working diagnosis of herpes zoster, the great imposter.”
The other day I saw Dr. Brown walk Norman Sprague down the hall. Afterward, I asked whatever happened with his possible shingles, gallbladder pain, lung nodules and mediastinal lymph nodes.
“The PET CT looked pretty benign”, said my octogenarian colleague, “and nothing came of that pimple you saw on his back. He still has his gallbladder and Roger White is pretty sure it's sarcoidosis. Interesting, though, that the Lyrica samples you gave him when you thought it was shingles cut his pain at least in half, but the pain is on both sides of the midline…”
“I don't know why it's working, then”, I said.
“Neither do I, but I kept him on it. He's meeting with Roger next week to discuss treatment options, probably steroids.”
“Pretty sure, huh”, I muttered to myself.
A PYRRHIC VICTORY
In “Calling Mrs. Kafka”, I went to bat against the insurance company for Harriet Black. She really did have a terrible case of shingles, and Lyrica was the only thing that really helped her pain; the gabapentin and her regular pain medication had not been enough.
After my call to the surreal Mrs. Kafka in the Prior Authorization department, I asked Autumn to call Harriet and tell her the drug was approved. She was very grateful on the phone. Some time later she came in for her follow-up appointment.
“How’s your shingles pain”, I asked.
“Still pretty bad”, she answered.
“I thought the Lyrica was working pretty well”, I said, confused.
“I can't afford it. The copay is too high”, Harriet said, her voice trailing.
So much for getting a medication approved by the insurance company…
MOTHER AND CHILD
Four years ago, in “Invisible Ties”, I described how Kirk Donner, adopted at birth, went to the State Capital to look for his birth mother after he turned eighteen. He knew she had an unusual name, Suann:
“Kirk took the elevator to the fourth floor. He was alone. As the door slid open, he stepped forward and almost collided with a tall, dark-haired woman with designer jeans and a plain, white blouse. Her eyes met his as he stopped and apologized. They were large and kind. She flashed a smile as he swerved around her, embarrassed and eager to get to the registry.
He walked up to the receptionist and stated his errand with words he had practiced in his mind the whole trip.The clerk handed him a form and as he reached for a pen he saw a stack of similar forms in front of her. Reading the top one upside-down he saw the name: Suann Walker.”
Mother and child made contact soon after that day, and each found peace in knowing what had become of the other. Kirk met his half-sister, also raised by an adoptive family.
Suann and her fiancé attended Kirk’s college graduation in May, and this summer Kirk spent a lot of time at their house while he took a summer course in the southern part of the state.
“Finding her and learning what she is like has helped me understand myself better, it makes me feel more whole”, Kirk has told me.
Many of my vignettes on this blog end with unanswered questions or unstated uncertainties, just like any typical physician’s patient encounters. These updates moved the plot forward in just three cases, but even these are not the final installments in the history of each patient’s own journey. Medicine, even practiced over many years of physician-patient continuity, is but a glimpse into the lives of a few fellow humans.