Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Patient #26--Cynthia Ruchti

Doctor Number Seven in the series rolled his vinyl-covered chrome stool so his back rested against the opposite wall of the small exam room. He sighed, slapped his clipboard (they used clipboards in those days) onto his lap and said, “Tell me about your life.”

My life? He’d only heard a smattering of the symptoms that had crept over me—a new one each month for the past year. Heart palpitations that took my breath away. Muscle aches that medicines and massage couldn’t touch. Incessant joint pain. Muscle spasms that flitted from one body part to another with lightning speed. A headache that lasted five months without letting up for even five minutes. Brown-outs (like a black-out, but not fully developed). Vision problems. Low-grade fever. Facial numbness that migrated to my chest and arms and eventually to the soles of my feet.

“My life?”

“Yes. How’s life?”

Did he, like others, assume my wide array of seemingly unrelated symptoms meant I put the hypo- in hypochondriac? Did he assume my real problem was depression? Or a plea for attention? Or a reaction to stress?

“Doc, I have a wonderful, supportive family, meaningful work, a great church family, friends I care about and who care about me. I love life and feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to live it. I’m one of the happiest people I know.”

He leaned forward a few degrees and searched my eyes for a tic, a tell. “I wonder if I can believe you.”

That registers as one of the lowest moments in my Lyme disease journey. I needed someone to believe I wasn’t making up this bizarre smorgasbord of symptoms. I wasn’t seeking attention. I didn’t need my husband or anyone else to feel sorry for me. I just wanted to be well.

It was another six months before my primary care physician—a man I greatly respected but who too had been stumped—passed me in a waiting room where I sat beside a friend who needed someone to lean on following her diagnosis of a brain tumor. The doctor—a man who consulted God as faithfully as he did the medical journals—stopped to see how I was doing.

The same. I’d heard that a patient with 14 symptoms is automatically relegated to the psych department, since no disease has that many. I had 13 symptoms and one I didn’t want to tell them about, so I answered, “The same.”

“Is it possible you could have been bitten by a deer tick?”

“I live in the woods. Deer hang out in our yard every evening. My husband hunts and fishes. It’s very possible.”

He wouldn’t let me leave the clinic that day without being tested for Lyme disease, which at the time was just getting a foothold in our part of the country—the Midwest.

Finally, a rational possibility.

But the test was negative. And the symptoms persisted despite what the lab said. The large medical center where my doctor worked had seen only 25 prior cases of Lyme disease back then, when hair was big, and mauve or country blue were the only two color choices for carpeting. I was Patient #26, in his estimation. He ignored the false negative and treated me with antibiotics. (I later learned from his medical assistant that when I would leave the exam room during all those months of uncertainty and increasing symptoms, he would retreat to his office, lean his head in his hands and moan, “What is it, Lord? It has to be something. What is it?”)

The symptoms waned soon after completing the round of antibiotics, then flared. We tried another antibiotic. Same results.

I was admitted to the hospital for around-the-clock IV antibiotic therapy—massive doses every four hours for ten grueling days.

“Give it time,” they said when the symptoms remained. Healing inched its way closer.

In my post-hospitalization appointment, the arthritis specialist who was seeing me at that time asked how I felt.

“Weird. I think…I think I might be pregnant.”

Our third child was born about nine months later. Full term, but only 5 pounds, 3 ounces. He suffers from immune deficiencies but neither that nor his low birth weight were officially linked to Lyme disease or the treatment. One wonders what other explanation would make sense.

My symptoms, though greatly reduced, kept nagging. After I stopped nursing our son, we tried another two rounds of a medication initially designed to treat cancer patients. As cheap paint eventually fades to an almost unrecognizable color, my symptoms eventually faded.

The memories linger in high definition.

Cynthia Ruchti, Wisconsin

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