SOB and the S.O.B.s (part I)


Between 1984 and 1991, I was progressively poisoned by a psychiatrist who prescribed lithium and didn’t monitor it.  She should have been checking lithium levels every two months, kidney function every six months, and cardiac function annually.  She did none of these things.

While I was taking lithium, my next-door neighbor and I were both attending the local community college.  He would drive and I would ride with him.  He was always late, consequently, he would set off from the parking lot at a fast pace; I couldn’t keep up with him because I was short of breath.  That’s where it began.

In 1991, I learned that I had nephrogenic diabetes insipidus, a rare kidney disease that was caused by the unmonitored lithium.  I went to a lawyer who handed me the PDR—Physicians Desk Reference—which lists all the drugs sold in America, and their side effects.  The lawyer asked me to count how many side effects I had:  the number was 32, including shortness of breath (SOB).

It wasn’t until I stopped taking drugs in 2001 that my major medical problems began to clear up enough for me to notice that I was having repeated episodes of shortness of breath.  The episodes always occurred simultaneously with debilitating fatigue and depression, i.e., when my immune system was reacting to stressors such as a vehicle accident, a medical procedure, or an infection.

By then, I also had severe obstructive sleep apnea, so I also had a pulmonologist—or four.  The first one had Asperger’s syndrome and, therefore, treated me badly, so I moved on to the second one, who also had Asperger’s.  Asperger’s is a combination of brilliance and a mild form of autism, and an atypically high percentage of physicians have it. 

Brilliant guys are attracted to the field of medicine because it rewards them, but it isn’t until their fourth year of medical school that they actually come in contact with human patients and discover they don’t like them.  So they gravitate to the fields of medicine wherein the patient most nearly resembles an object, i.e., anesthesia and sleep disorders.  Doctors with Asperger’s like their patients best when they are unconscious.

Between 85 and 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal and the second doctor couldn’t look at me so he didn’t get the message.  I moved on to the third pulmonologist, who was a hotshot at the local teaching hospital.  Like the other doctors, he mistreated the sleep apnea and ignored the complaints of shortness of breath.

At one appointment, when the issue was the shortness of breath, he spent four minutes with me, then sent me out for a single, brief breathing test, after which he gave me two more minutes, shrugged and sent me away.  Then he sent the insurance company, which is Medicare—in other words, you—a bill for about $200.  You paid, and I moved on to another pulmonologist.

When I showed up for my first appointment with the fourth pulmonologist, without advance notice I was subjected to an hour or two of breathing tests.  The respiratory therapist, as is their wont, kept exhorting me to “Breath-breath-breath!  More-more-more!  Push-push-push!”

I have a dozen diagnosed illnesses and my immune system is wrecked.  If I am overstressed, it precipitates a cascade of system failures and I become very sick.  The only cure is bed rest and it has taken anywhere from three days to three months to recover.  A test I took a couple years ago revealed that I rank in the top group for my ability to create a low-stress lifestyle.  I have to.

So I tried to explain some of this to the respiratory therapist by way of telling him that I couldn’t continue with one particular test.  He snapped at me, “This is about lung function and doesn’t have anything to do with anything else!”  In his world, the lungs exist independently of the rest of the body.  Even Asperger’s doctors, who don’t like their patients, know that all parts are connected.

The respiratory therapist got mad, discontinued all testing, and I was seen by the pulmonologist, who finally came up with the right fix for the sleep apnea:  an auto-BiPAP.  Thereafter, I did not go back to the pulmonologist.  He existed in a group that was run by the first doctor with Asperger’s, which meant that the Asperger’s doctor hired the guys, who hired the girls, who hired the other girls, who worked there.  In short, every non-physician in the group was hired without regard to their empathy or compassion.  Even the receptionist was a bitch.  The good pulmonologist was a diamond in a pile of shit and I wouldn’t go through the shit to get to him.

My episodes of shortness of breath continued.  My psychiatrist would have torn his hair out, but he didn’t have any to spare.  Doctors would actually tell me that my SOB was because I was depressed.  My psychiatrist—eyes flashing and smoke pouring out his ears—would say, “Is not depression!  Depression does not cause shortness of breath!”  And, over the years, he referred me to three rheumatologists.

Rheumatology is where diseases of the immune system are diagnosed—or not.  Each rheumatologist would do a work-up, suspect a particular disease—multiple sclerosis, lupus, scleroderma—test me for it, find it not present, and send me packing.  We do not live in the television world of House where the doctor works tirelessly and relentlessly until he finds the diagnosis.  We live in the real world where if a doctor doesn’t get a diagnosis on the first visit, there is no follow-up.  The doctor refers the patient to somebody else who does the same thing.  (To be continued)

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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