I’m a 41-year old family practice physician living in the Chicago area. I worked in private practice directly after residency and then worked for the Veterans Administration in an outpatient clinic the remainder of my short career.
Much of my work involved treating patients with chronic, non-cancer pain. Little did I know at the time, this was more of a training course for me to become the very patient I was treating.
In 2011, my 39-year old big brother died suddenly and unexpectedly at home. He was a criminal defense attorney living in our home state of Oklahoma at the time. His death was shocking since I was unaware he had any serious medical conditions. Getting his medical records was even more shocking. His physical symptoms were attributed to psychological causes.
His death was the worst life situation I had experienced. I’d never felt such emotional pain. I also began to have physical symptoms. I had bouts of severe abdominal pain, headaches, vomiting, dark urine, numbness in my hands, and fatigue.
In 2013, when I was the same age my brother died, I had very severe abdominal pain with vomiting and foot drop. This time the pain was too intense to tolerate and I went to an emergency room. I was admitted and had a CT scan, endoscopy, and a colonoscopy. All of these tests were unremarkable, yet I was getting sicker each day.
Initially, when speaking to the hospital doctors involved with my care, I assumed the diagnosis would be found and I’d receive appropriate care. The first surprise was, after admission, they refused to treat my excruciating pain. I was doubled over, rocking, vomiting, and crying with the worst pain of my life. Worse than labor, appendicitis, or anything else I’d experienced. It was a hot, burning pressure that was like lava and hot razor blades filling up my abdomen. My stomach distended to appear 9 months pregnant.
Doctor after doctor walked in and witnessed this and continued to refuse ordering opioids. After all the tests were complete and normal, the doctors were very rude to me and implied this was all a psychological problem.
I was shocked and in disbelief. How could my colleagues not believe me? Did they think I was lying? And why would I lie? I had a busy life with two young children, a husband and worked full time as a physician. I had rarely gone to doctors in my life and only taken opioids after the few surgeries I had.
Clearly the doctors didn’t listen or believe me, because on day 3 of the first hospital stay, I was discharged home, doubled over in the most excruciating pain ever. I was unable to tolerate even liquids and vomited continuously. At home I never even made it upstairs. I lay on my couch getting sicker and sicker. I was getting short of breath and having palpitations. My pulse was very rapid and blood pressure high.
I went to a different hospital emergency room within 24 hours of discharge from the first hospital. After about a week of tests, the doctors were able to diagnose me with a rare genetic metabolic disease called acute intermittent porphyria.
Before figuring out the cause of my pain, doctors at this second hospital not only listened to me, but believed me. My pain was very aggressively treated the entire time I was there. I was believed, as all patients should be. Time wasn’t wasted on judging and all energy went towards helping me.