Thursday, December 30, 2010
Sticking your neck out
“In a way, we are all dying,” I remember saying to the gastroenterologist. I felt long past mid-life already. In the past two years both of my parents had died and four of my cousins.
His office was decorated with the largest collection of turtles I have ever seen. I glanced at the wooden turtles, clay turtles, realistic looking turtles, and ones that were impressionistic. They sat in the spaces on his desk and bookcase shelves.
“We are all living,” he replied, turning the pages of my medical records and scanning the latest blood test results.
“What do the numbers mean?” I asked, attempting to maintain a casual tone in my voice. Far be it for me to pull my head into my shell.
“It means that your liver isn’t functioning well. We don’t need to worry too much now.”
“When do we need to worry?” I said uttering a chuckle at how ridiculous this sounded to me.
I thought to myself does he really think that I will stop worrying until he gives me a signal that it is time? Rationally I know that worry has never helped me; in fact it has only done me physical harm by raising my blood pressure.
“When the marker for liver cancer begins to rise.”
A few years later I sat in front of another gastroenterologist. This time I had seen a copy of my lab results before I met with him and I knew that the liver cancer marker was now above the level where I was supposed to worry.
“What does it mean?” I asked this doctor. He didn’t have any turtles in his office, but he seemed to have the same cheerful optimism. Perhaps it takes that kind of attitude to work with guts and bowels, I mused.
“It doesn’t mean much. These numbers go up and down over time. Besides there really isn’t anything we could do for you because you wouldn’t be eligible for a liver transplant.”
“So why do you order the tests?”
“Because we need to know.”