“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”

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I’m not a hypochondriac.  At least, I don’t think so.

But at 61, I have several chronic conditions (TMJ, upper neck and back pain, anxiety) and then other issues that make guest appearances from time to time (vertigo, extra heart beats, random muscle pain and spasms). I go to the doctor if something seems unusual, or if I suspect they might have some treatment that will improve the chronic ones but other than that, I just try to enjoy the fact that basically, I’m pretty healthy.

However, if several of these symptoms show up at the same time, say vertigo, a restless heart, and a little chest tension, then, of course, my anxiety shoots up and I start getting worried—which makes everything worse.

I’ve had enough false alarms that I’m wary of rushing off too quickly to the doc. I have learned not to call the Kaiser “advise nurse” because no matter how benignly I might describe my symptoms, her solution is always to send me to emergency room hell. I also NEVER Google a symptom. There is no quicker way to be sure that you are dying of some heinous disease, than to plug in a couple of symptoms and let a multitude of websites guess at what you might have.

Because the neck pain drives me crazy, I take ibuprophen every day. I’m confident (because I’ve read the warnings on the side of the extra-large bottle) that eventually my stomach will explode because of it. So when I started to develop a chronic pain on the right side of my abdominal area, I decided to go in to see my doctor. I explained my concerns about the ibuprophen destroying my stomach, and he told me straight out that that was not the issue since my stomach is on the left side. The right side contains the pancreas, liver, and spleen. Great, I thought, now I’ve got three critical organs to worry about.

After reviewing my blood work and doing a physical exam, he told me that he was pretty sure I had something called “abdominal wall pain” which sounded like something that doctors say when they have absolutely no idea what is wrong with you. He reassured me that he had eliminated 95% of the “really bad stuff” and that this diagnosis really did make the most sense. To eliminate the other 5%, he could order up an MRI and blast me with lots of radiation. I decided that I was OK with 95%.

During the exam, though, he introduced me to an interesting bit of doc-speak. He told me that he understood my concerns and my desire for him to be thorough, and that every doctor has to evaluate his patient’s “tolerance for uncertainty” in making a diagnosis. I now know that my “tolerance for uncertainty” is 5% or lower. If I’m 6% uncertain, I’m going to want to full monty of tests, radiation be damned.

However, my tolerance was sorely tested on Christmas Eve this past year. After our usual wonderful meal and as the family celebration was continuing, I excused myself to go to the restroom. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my urine had turned pink. Blood in the urine! This can’t be good. Either my stomach had finally exploded or something was surely wrong with my pancreas, liver, and spleen now that I knew for sure where they were.

I could not rush off to the emergency room on Christmas Eve even if it meant having my kids watch their dad slowly bleed out as we drank beer and watched “A Christmas Story.” I calmly told my wife, and she agreed that I should monitor the situation and as long as I wasn’t in pain, we could get it checked out later. By noon the next day, the symptoms were gone and all that was left was that nagging worry that at any moment, I could go critical again.

I waited until December 26th to go in to see an urgent care doctor and recounted the series of events and my various theories, all of which he kindly discounted. In fact, he seemed intent on assuring me that he was in far worse shape than I appeared to be. He asked me a long series of questions, none of which led to a conclusion. Finally, he paused and asked, “Did you eat anything unusual?”

Beets. Mary had made a beet salad from fresh beets and I ate it to be polite and because I read somewhere that purple food is good for you. I don’t even like beets. No one had ever told me that fresh beets, eaten in large enough quantity, will color everything that passes through your body for about 8-12 hours. Sure, ibuprophen has warning labels, but not beets.

So, am I a worrier—yes. Possessor of a 5% tolerance for uncertainty level—absolutely. Anatomically ignorant—check. Hypochondriac?—Hmmm. Still not sure. I think I’ll wait until the next time I’m nearly killed by a vegetable to decide.

 

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Grieving in Teaspoons

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When it comes to grief, I often feel there is something I am missing.

I watch my friends and relatives deal with the loss of a loved one and often they are drenched in sorrow, tears, depression, and anger. I just passed the sixth anniversary of the death of my dad, and I have lost some friends and colleagues about whom I cared deeply. In fact, as I enter my 60’s, I find myself attending too many funerals as social events. However, in watching the grieving of others, I have been surprised (so far) by my own sense of detachment, as if I’m failing at grief.

My dad, Jack, was a wonderful man. He gifted me with his sense of humor, an indispensible tool in my experience as a teacher, and he lived his 86 years with a sort of joyful kindness and a true affection for others, especially his grandchildren. When we gathered for his funeral, the same comments came up over and over. No one could remember ever seeing him angry. No one could remember him uttering an unkind word toward another person.

As a child, he came to know the things I cared about and made sure I got to experience them. He was never a sports guy, but he could see my interest grow. So he made sure I got to see the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine (unfortunately a guy named Joe Moeller was pitching that day instead of the great Don Drysdale or even greater Sandy Koufax). We made regular trips to Westgate Park where the minor league Padres played their games. We experienced hockey, professional basketball, and the Harlem Globetrotters together. When Bill Cosby broke on the scene, and I began to memorize his comedy routines and perform them at Scouting events, he surprised me with tickets to see him live on stage. I am positive he would never have spent that money on himself just for his own enjoyment.

My dad’s last three years were difficult ones. He became increasingly crippled by arthritis and was in constant pain. Dementia began creeping in. He kept punctuating conversations with phrases like, “I bet you never thought you’d see your old dad all crippled up like this” as I’d help him into the car on the way to endless doctor appointments. More and more often, even at holiday gatherings, he began to express his desire for his life to be done with. Hearing every one of those woeful comments was a moment of grief for me.

He passed away in the hospital, sneaking away suddenly and quietly. He woke up in the morning, began teasing the nurses and talked one of the pretty ones into helping him with his morning coffee. He got on the phone to my mom to find out when she was coming in to see him and took time to tell her once again how much he loved her. And then, when no one was looking, he died. It was May 2, 2008.

I expected to have a wrenching, emotional response even though he had been through three years of suffering, and we had had numerous close calls during that time. Instead, I found myself consumed with the details of his funeral, keeping an eye on my mother and my children, and in writing a eulogy that would give him all the credit he deserved.

That emotional response never came for me, not entirely. My good friend Stephen noticed it and told me, “You can’t just be the tough guy through all of this. You have to allow yourself time to feel it.” But it just wasn’t there. Not then.

The first time it hit me was in June. I was on a walk through the neighborhood and mentally working on a “to do” list, and it hit me that it was almost Father’s Day and that I needed to be sure to get by the store and pick up a card for……oh, yeah. I didn’t need to do that. I would never need to buy a Father’s Day card again. Suddenly, his loss began to feel real.

In September, I was chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year, a truly memorable recognition, at a televised, gala event at the Balboa Theater in San Diego. In accepting the award, my thoughts went right to him and how proud he would have been to see me receive that award. He was never the kind of father that I had to work to impress or please, but someone who always gave me the confidence that came with knowing that my father believed that I had already exceeded every expectation that he could ever have for me. I missed him there, on that stage that night.

One of the most trivial, but most painful moments came when I grew tired of seeing “Mom and Dad” on my cell phone every time I had to call my mom. It was inaccurate. Dad was gone. Dad was not going to answer.   I needed to delete my father. Every press that removed the “and Dad” felt like a rejection and a betrayal.

Even today, I will catch myself thinking of an odd encounter or a pleasant moment and how I need to get on the phone and call my dad and tell him the story. And then I catch myself in mid-thought and lose him once again.

I began to realize, early in the process of writing this, that not only does everyone grieve differently, but that my reactions to grief are packaged all around the history and circumstances of the loss. There are potential losses that I refuse to even think about much less write about. I can’t begin to imagine how crushing they might be.

For now, in my way, I still grieve for my dad. This grief continues to be doled out to me in teaspoons, painful ones. Perhaps the next one will be a tidal wave.

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