Saturday, March 23, 2013

Is There a Doctor in that App?

I'm afraid I might be dying.  Or, I might be a hypochondriac.  One of the two.  Or both.
Here's what is going on.  This week, I experienced what I will term for now a raging anxiety attack.  Hmm...  That's a charged way of putting it, that might unduly influence the diagnosis from whatever armchair doctor might comment on this blog.  Instead, let's call it an episode of accelerated anxiousness.  That's good.  
It happened while I was driving around Pasadena, going to the store, stopping at the Post Office, normal stuff.  While driving, I suddenly had this fluttering feeling in my chest.  Not a pain, though it wasn't a comfortable feeling.  Persistent.  It sort of felt as if someone had taken their thumb and pushed it (not poked it) just to the left of my sternum, and I was feeling the impression their thumb had made after they took it away.  
Right after noticing this sensation, I felt the desire to breathe.  Not like I was choking or short of breath.  Not that.  It was a confirmation thing.  "Can I take a deep breath?" I wondered to myself.  If I tried, would I start choking.  I took that breath, really deep then let it out, to prove I could do it.  Then another, to prove I could do it again.  Then a third, to prove I could still do it.  
I started getting lightheaded.  I stopped proving to myself I could take deep breathes, thinking that was causing it.  The lightheadedness remained, though.  The sensation grew until I started feeling...  Light-bodied?  
I got home.  I felt worried.  Restless.  I drank a glass of wine, then a second.  The buzz from the drinks fell into the lightheaded feeling like a tired office working throwing themselves on the couch.  When I went to bed, the thought came to me that I might not wake up.  That I would die in myself.  I lay there, tired from the day, wondering what was happening to me, thinking I ought to say a prayer or something in case I never woke up again.  
Eventually I did go to sleep and I did wake up the next day.  I went online and did a google search of my symptoms.  I got the same combination of useless information mixed in with truly terrifying data that most of get when we go to those web-doctor sites.  
I then decided to check the side-effects of the medication I had been taking for my stomach acid.  It's called Lansoprazole DR.  For years I've had a persistent cough.  No matter how many times I brought it up to whichever doctor I was seeing at the time, they could not figure out a reason for it.  I tried holistic medicines suggested to me by friends.  I tried using willpower to simply not cough.  Nothing worked.  Then, I noticed that I was getting a burpy, acidy feeling after my coughs.  My current doctor prescribed the Lansoprazole and my cough stopped. 
I don't like taking medicine, especially when it seems to me there should be something I could do to correct the situation.  I remember a cardiologist I saw once, he weighed over 300 pounds if he weighed an ounce.  He told me about the medications he took which kept his cholesterol under 175.  I remember thinking that a few hours in the gym each week might do the same thing.  But I don't like coughing all the time, either, so I started taking the Lansoprazole regularly, a pill before breakfast each morning.  I figured I'd do that until I got a chance to see my doctor again and find out if there was some other, more permanent way of addressing the problem without drugs.  
So on this morning I thought I might never see, I looked up Lansoprazole's side effects.  This is what I found: 
  • dizziness, confusion;
  • fast or uneven heart rate;
  • jerky muscle movements;
  • feeling jittery;
  • diarrhea that is watery or bloody;
  • muscle cramps, muscle weakness or limp feeling; 
  • cough or choking feeling; or
  • seizure.
Well, no cramps or seizures, but the "dizziness, confusion" and "feeling jittery," parts stood out.  And the fluttery feeling I was having in my chest might have been caused by a "fast or uneven heart rate," right?  

Based on what I read, I decided to stop taking the Lansoprazole.  The next two days, I felt fine, but then on Friday the light-headed, nervous feeling returned.  Driving home from work, I found myself wondering if I should drive straight to the emergency room instead.  I wondered if I would make it in time.  

As you may already be thinking to yourself, I worry about my health a lot.  I had an incident about ten years ago or so where I was at the gym and it felt like my heart wouldn't slow down.  I got off the cross-trainer and walked home.  Even after the fifteen minute walk, my heart was still racing away.  I called my doctor and got someone on call.  I described what I was going through.  He told me that the symptoms didn't match a heart attack, but said if I was worried I should go to the emergency room.  I did.  They kept me there over the weekend.  Ran stress tests.  Put me in a big old MRI or CT scanner.  Took all sorts of blood.  At the end of all that, they told me what they found.

Nothing.  None of the tests they took showed any signs of any heart problem.  I had elevated levels of cholesterol, which I knew before, but nothing else they thought was a problem.  

I was thinking about this, too, while driving home last night.  I think it was this recollection that kept me heading for my apartment instead of the hospital.  

I was also thinking of the old adage that says, "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."  You could adapt that to something like, "just because you're a hypochondriac doesn't mean you aren't about to die."  

I'm a person who likes certainty.  I've been told what my symptoms aren't.  I want to know what they are.  I know part of my problem is my mental make-up.  My mother, with the cheery outlook of someone born in a third-world country, told me when I was a little kid, "From the very moment you are born, you begin to die."  

You hear something like that when you're six years old, it sticks with you.  When you get to my age, you start to remember it more and more.  

This week I heard a story on the radio about "DIY Health Monitoring."  There is a collection of people who download a variety of apps for their smart phones and use them to check on their health.  There are apps that tell you how far you've walked.  How many calories you've burned.  That can run an EKG on you and monitor your sleep cycles.  During the story, one of these DIY'ers (DIY stands for Do It Yourself, by the way) talked about someone he knew that monitored his bowel movements, and through the data he collected determined he was contracting Crone's Disease.  His doctor confirmed his diagnosis and started early treatment.  

I saw something like this coming years ago.  More and more, automated programs and expert systems are taking over jobs reserved for professionals in the past.  We used to think only manual laborers would be impacted by technology, as robots took over the assembly lines.  Today they have programs that can write basic news articles, and review evidence files to develop legal cases.  Medical conditions lend themselves much better to hard data and the interpretation thereof, it seems only a matter of time before our cell phone will tell us what was wrong before we think about seeing the doctor.  

I tried writing a story about how this would impact our healthcare system.  I envisioned it as being a sort of people's revolution, where we take our healthcare back into our own hands and away from the greedy insurance companies telling what is and is not good for us.  I imagined co-ops of people, centered around one or two healthcare professionals that had opted out of the current system we have in the U.S., sharing data and expert systems to get on the spot results to their questions, most of which could be boiled down to "What's wrong with me?"  

I never finished that story.  It just didn't ring true for me.  I such a system, while valuable, would not be the panacea my story was trying to claim it would be.  It would be too subject to overuse from people that worry for the sake of worrying, like me.  France and Japan, for example, both have the same exact healthcare system.  Japan's is rated the 10th best in the world compared to France's #1, with the difference stemming from the fact the Japanese overuse their system more than the French.  A Japanese person sneezes and they slap on a mask and run to the doctor, where a French person sneezes and they wipe their nose.  "Byouin ni itta hou ga ii," "You should go to the hospital," is one of the first Japanese phrases I was taught.  

So...  Where does all this consideration leave me?  Should I go to the free clinic?  Should I put it down to increased levels of stress from a job that gets increasingly more difficult with each passing day?  Or maybe I should finally get a smart phone and see what my EKG is telling me if, or when, that feeling comes back.  

If I can figure out how to read an EKG.  They probably have an app for that, too.  


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