practically a doctor a day

This has been a doctor week. Yesterday, I saw an orthopedist whose specializes in hands, wrists, and elbows; today, an orthopedist who works on shoulders. Before them, a sleep specialist. I resist being the kind of person who runs to the doctor for every little thing, and I indeed considered canceling at least one of my appointments on that basis alone. But, the thing is, I don’t run to doctors for every little thing. I’ve had sleep problems for ten years, carpel tunnel for twenty, shoulder pains for eighteen months. I’ve put in my time studying—and sometimes trying—self-treatments and alternative treatments, yet I have only gotten worse.

I usually have a tentative diagnosis for a problem, and know everything medicine can do for it before I even see a doctor. I try to keep emotion out of doctor visits, because doctors are at their best when they feel they have something to offer, and few have much to offer in the way of emotional support.

The longer the appointment, the more of a challenge emotional neutrality becomes, and I might not know I’ve lost it until I realize I missed several sentences or failed to understand simple statements. Peggy and I try to go with one another to the doctor to compensate for such deficiencies.

I originally went with her—at her request—to offer moral support, and I usually didn’t ask her go with me because I didn’t think I needed moral support. I’ve discovered, though, that what I do need is another clear head in the room. She takes me with her for an additional reason. She is convinced that doctors—both male and female—treat her better when she’s with a man.

She and I both hold doctors in low esteem until they give us reason to think otherwise. Her nursing experiences have soured her, whereas I react more to the deference they expect and to the exorbitant fees they charge. They’re also typically rushed and, to many of them, medicine is simply a way to earn money. Then there are the limitations of medicine itself.

If a doctor comes into the room and says, “Mr. Thomas, I am Doctor Boneshaker,” he or she loses five points. If he shook hands as he said it, he only loses two points. If he gives his full name (giving me the option of what to call him), he gains five points.

I am often tempted to say, “I don’t do deference. I can call you Bill, or I can call you Mr. Boneshaker, or I can not call you anything. You choose.” I don’t say this because it might arouse hostility, and hostility would inhibit the doctor’s ability to help me. It’s one of those predicaments for which I can find no good solution.

I often run into more interesting problems with doctors. Both my hernia surgeon and the hand surgeon I saw yesterday (for carpel tunnel surgery) proposed the last surgical option that I had expected based upon my research. Every website I visited recommended endoscopic surgery over an open incision for hernia surgery, yet my doctor recommended an open incision based upon my thin build. The hand surgeon had even more treatment options—four in all—yet he chose one-hole endoscopic, the very surgery that has the highest failure rate.

How is a patient to respond? I fall back upon my overall impression of the doctor. Does he seem to care? Did he take the time to explain his reasoning? Is his resume impressive? The hand surgeon explained the discrepancy between my reading and his own approach this way. (1) Less qualified surgeons negatively skew the results. (2) Many websites lean toward conservatism because they are collectively produced across many disciplines, and because a wide range of surgical candidates look to them for advice. His patience in addressing my concern impressed me and that, along with his reasoning and his other qualifications, made me decide to go with his recommendation.

His description of the level of care my wrist I would need after surgery was far more optimistic than what I had read. For example, the Mayo Clinic advised that I not even lift a jug of milk for the first two weeks, whereas he told me to let my comfort level be my guide. When I asked about the discrepancy, he said that Mayo’s advice was based partly upon what he considered outmoded surgical techniques, and that tissue damage from a single puncture would be much less than that from a four-inch incision. That made sense. Whether it’s true, I don’t know. I could consult one or two more surgeons and go with the consensus, but I waited ten weeks to see this one, and this is an extremely common surgery, and it is also his bread and butter.

The amount of caution that is warranted in a surgical undertaking becomes much clearer in retrospect. My knee surgery was a mistake, but I undertook what I considered a prudent amount of research going into it, and I didn’t learn until later that the surgery plus physical therapy is no better than physical therapy alone. But that was two years ago, and I have come far in the amount of trouble I am willing to go to on my own behalf.

I can see how doctors would come to resent all the hours they spend explaining why they disagree with Web MD, but I should think that a patient would have to be pretty naïve to want to remain ignorant. Of course, I might be leaning too far in the other direction. I took complete control of my discussion with the hand surgeon yesterday, and, after I had gotten all of my questions answered and verified the Peggy had gotten all her questions answered, we left without either of us asking the surgeon if he had anything to say. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to ask, but I try to look at things from the doctor’s viewpoint.

Yesterday, for example, the doctor tried to take the initiative, but sensing that I knew where I wanted to go—and that I needed to feel in control—he backed off. I later wondered if he didn’t go so far as to stop thinking proactively, allowing himself to become simply a resource for answering questions. I quickly consoled myself with my observation that I have never found surgeons to be a timid species who readily allow themselves to be trodden upon.

My shoulder appointment this morning did not have a happy outcome. I thought I had lingering tendon inflammation from yoga exercises two years ago, but the x-rays showed jagged arthritic damage in both shoulders. The doctor advised that I avoid weight-bearing activities if I want the joints to last. When I asked how she was able to rule out soft tissue injuries, she said she wasn’t, but that there isn’t much she can do about them short of surgery, and I’m hardly ready for that. The best she could offer was an appointment with a physical therapist, and I took her up on it.


Last week, I repeatedly mistook the same chair for Bonnie, and I heard voices coming from a radio that was unplugged; both no doubt due to a lack of REM sleep. When the insomnia first hit me, I lay in bed longer to catch-up on my sleep. My back soon hurt so bad that I couldn’t lie on it, yet I couldn’t lie on my sides or my stomach either due to the tendonitis in both shoulders. What sleep I did get was interrupted by dreams of suffocating in airless rooms, suffering cyanide related seizures in a Nazi death chamber, or vomiting due to exhaust fumes. I have never faced a more dismal prospect than that of finding sleep and wakefulness equally impossible. I realized that there was a limit to how long I could hold up either psychologically or physically, yet the prospect of leaving Peggy by my own hand seemed equally cheerless.

I have gone to a lot of trouble and expense (including two surgeries) over the past ten years in an effort to remedy my sleep problems, yet they have grown increasingly worse. The only advantage I have found in such things is that they allow me to make a more accurate appraisal of human frailty. People who have not known sickness cannot know how tenuous health is, yet it is knowledge worth having. I read the thoughts of the benefactors of my species, and I contemplate the extent upon which their thoughts were based upon such things as trace minerals and sleep, things that they so often despised. How ungrateful the man who loathes that upon which his every thought depends.

I bike to get Wittgenstein, his misery contrasted with Hume's happiness

I biked to the library in the rain this morning just to get Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I had avoided Wittgenstein because I knew enough about him to know that he dismissed most of the questions that are asked by philosophers as nonsensical, and I didn’t want this to be the case because, nonsensical or not, they are questions I cannot avoid. He wrote:

“People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical questions as were the Greeks. But the people who say that don’t understand why this has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions.”

Okay, great. I can even imagine him to be right, but—and this is another reason I avoided Wittgenstein—the man was suicidal. When he finally learned that he had terminal cancer—at about the same age I am now—he didn’t even care, because as he put it: “I have no desire to live.”

But the skeptic in me might well ask: “But how do you know that his despair was the necessary outcome of his philosophy?” Well, I don’t. David Hume was the most renowned skeptic of all time. He could abolish claims to knowledge as adroitly as a man with a machine gun could abolish chickens, yet he was a happy man, and as he approached death, he remained that way. He even wrote that he had no idea why one with such a dismal philosophy could be so happy, and concluded that it must simply be congenital. Go figure. Surely, nothing is good or bad unless what our thinking makes it so, but what makes our thinking make it so? Optimists say that we are free to choose, but I think they give themselves too much credit. They say “Be like us” in the easy certainty that they too could be jaded, cynical, and pessimistic if they so pleased.

insomnia, thoughts about philosophical skepticism

Sleep? Not much. Maybe four hours a night—five if I’m lucky—and it interrupted every hour or two by nightmares and headaches. I arise several times a night and read—Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail of late, but mostly the Britannica’s section on philosophy. I find much that I can’t make sense of, so I reread and rethink. Often, I still make no sense of it, and I wonder if anyone can. Examples are numerous, but I will offer one that is brief, ancient, and famous. In the 11th century St. Anselm made the following argument in favor of the existence of a deity.

“…a being conceived to be perfect must necessarily exist, for otherwise he would lack one of the essentials of perfection.”

Isn’t this the same as saying: “A rabbit that is conceived to be omnipresent exist must necessarily exist, for otherwise he would lack the qualification for omnipresence”? Why has Anselm’s argument survived for 1,000 years rather than being dismissed the day it was made? Much of philosophy strikes me as equally meritless.

The only philosophical stance that has ever appealed to me consistently has been skepticism, because it is the only one that is logically unassailable. To every inductively-based knowledge claim, the skeptic responds: how do you know this to be true?; and the claim is quickly shown to rest upon a train of assumptions that are themselves improvable. The problem with skepticism is that it often defies common sense, which greatly reduces the number of thoroughgoing skeptics. If I say that a given bachelor is single, I might be redundant, yet I will be right 100% of the time, based upon the definition of the terms. On the other hand, I might truthfully argue that there is no absolute proof that pressing my face to a red-hot griddle for ten minutes will damage it (a knowledge of past events justifies, at most, predictions of probability), yet I have no intention of holding pressing my face to a red hot griddle for even ten seconds.

Skepticism is a cure for illogical proofs rather than a source of logical ones, and hence it is of small comfort when one is wide awake at 4:00 a.m., almost panicked by his inability to sleep, and twitching and trembling while struggling to coordinate his movements—all while wondering what in the hell life is about. (I personally delivered a friend to the asylum when he became stuck on the question and would say nothing else all day long.)

Of course, I err logically in assuming that life is about anything. I even err in assuming that insomnia is a problem. After all, I can’t prove either, and I can’t even define my terms since words like meaning, purpose, and problem are among those words that we think we have a clear grasp of until we are called upon to define them. As do most words. Table, for example, or even red; words that are either umbrella words or that define a quality of perception as opposed to a quality of measurability (as in the water is hot, versus the water is 110. 246841º). Only is there, really and truly, such a thing as objective measurability? After all, words and numbers are a human creation, a way of describing reality in terms that we can understand and communicate. We impose an artificial construct over that which our senses can detect and our minds can comprehend, so we can never know that we have experienced reality as it is as opposed to how it seems to us. There is my perception of my dog, and there is my dog, and I cannot know how closely the two coincide.