Decisions. We all make them from the time we get out of bed until the end of the day when we go to sleep. Which shirt should I wear to work? What are we going to eat for supper? iPhone or Android? Cable or satellite? Do I drive an extra 5 miles to save a penny a gallon on gas?
For those of us with chronic illness, decisions are even more complex and the stakes are higher. I was pondering this on the way home from my 3 doctor appointments today (my mind never seems to stop, which is probably why I need Trazodone to help me sleep).
My first 2 appointments today were with the Transplant Surgeon and Transplant Nephrologist. Everything is going well with my kidney. My creatinine is still rock stable at 1.2, and although I again have BK Virus in my urine after 2 negatives, there were only less than 6000 copies in my last urine specimen 2 weeks ago, far below the 2 million copies that my Transplant Surgeon said is the level that he would be “worried” about. It was my last appointment, with the Neuromuscular Neurologist, that got me thinking about the topic of decisions.
As I posted last Spring, I was on Leflunomide, which was used to keep the BK Virus at bay. Not an FDA approved use of the drug, but then again, there IS no standard treatment for BKV. I agreed with the decision by the Surgeon to start Leflumonide. But when my hands were so weak and shaky that I couldn’t get a key into the door, it dawned on me that something was terribly wrong. I figured out that it was not progression of my neuropathy (Charcot Marie Tooth), but rather, was the Leflunomide ravaging my peripheral nerves (and yes, ravaging is an appropriate term). At the time, I phoned my Transplant Coordinator, and was told to stay on Leflunomide, and to see a Neurologist. The referral was made, but 2 months later, I still hadn’t even been contacted about an appointment. As the neurotoxicity worsened, I stopped taking the Leflunomide, and contacted the Transplant Department. The Transplant Coordinator covering for my regular Transplant Coordinator spoke with the doctor, and called me back. When I told her that I stopped the Leflunomide, she asked me if I wanted to lose my kidney. Sheesh, another decision. My first reaction was that she had a helluva lot of nerve putting it that way (I still think that), and being that she is not living with the effects of the med, it wasn’t too professional of her to put it in those terms. Putting the cart before the horse, she continued on by telling me that I may have to receive a last ditch treatment, intravenous Cidofovir, to get rid of the BK virus, since I had stopped the Leflunomide. The problem would be that Cidofovir is VERY toxic to kidneys, and would put my transplant at great risk. Damn, another potential decision. When she went back to the doctor, it turns out the plan was watchful waiting. It obviously turned out well, as my kidney is doing just fine.
Just last Fall, I had a reconstruction done on my right foot. Of the 8 surgeries I’ve had in my life, this was by far THE most painful surgery I have ever had. I was literally screaming in pain when I got to my room after the surgery, but today, for the first time in years, I am walking without a hard plastic orthotic bracing my leg, and my foot is straight. That was a good decision, although during the recovery period, it would have been easy to argue that it wasn’t.
Which brings me to my Neurology visit today. The Neurologist and I had a long talk (my first visit with this doctor), and a good portion of that was on the topic of medications. It turns out that the drug I take to suppress my immune system to prevent my body from rejecting my kidney, Tacrolimus, is a known toxin to peripheral nerves. It’s not likely to cause the damage that the the Leflunomide did, as it’s a “lesser” toxin, but over time, it most likely will cause SOME damage. Risk vs benefit. Progressive damage over decades vs dialysis within months if I don’t take the Tacrolimus and reject my kidney. I’ll take the former. It all boils down to risk vs. benefit.
But being a glass half full kind of guy when it comes to health, there are people far worse off than me. Like the 7 year old local girl who recently lost her life to cancer (Neuroblastoma). Or many of my patients who have disease such as heart failure, cirrhosis, or COPD whose diseases will progress to end stage within a matter of months or several years. I see it every day in my job as a Case Manager.
A doctor will oftentimes make decisions for you – here’s a pill that I’m going to prescribe to help with your blood pressure or cholesterol. A GOOD doctor will explain the risks and the benefits and then ask for your input and decision. Life is full of risks. Too many people today are under the illusion that risks were something we face “in the old day”. Surely, with all of the advancements in science, we shouldn’t have to take risks…. Sorry to burst those people’s bubble, but that’s not the way it works. In fact, with advancements come even MORE risks and more complex decisions. Science and medicine can fix a blockage in the arteries of your heart, and you’ll live longer, as long as you follow the Cardiologist’s instructions. But as we live longer, there is an increased risk that other problems will pop up. And this leads to more decisions.
Unless you are a child, you’ve probably made a decision in the past which you have come to regret. Last year, I had surgery to “tie off” my dialysis fistula. I was told that I would get inflammation in the vein of my upper arm, and it would become red and painful. It did, but when I had a fever of 102, along with the fact that my immune system is suppressed, I made the decision to seek treatment in the Emergency Department (it was a weekend). The doctor decided to admit me to the hospital, and the pharmacist recommended a specific antibiotic. The nurse that was working was a friend of mine, and looked a little nervous when she brought the antibiotic in. It was Vancomycin, which is known for it’s potential to cause kidney damage. Not only that, but the dose was very high-3 grams, followed by 1,750 mg (1.75 grams) every 12 hours after that. I knew it was a high dose, but the facts were that I had a potentially life-threatening infection. Do I risk not treating that and saving my kidney, or risk my kidney to decrease the risk of death or potential problems of an untreated infection? I chose to get the antibiotic, and ended up with Acute Renal Failure from both the med and dehydration. Did I make the right decision? Well, probably not, because they could have used a lower dose or a different antibiotic, but in the end, everything turned out ok, other than the fact that I was in the hospital a few extra days. Hindsight is 20/20. I learned from that one…
Just yesterday, I spoke with the adult child of one of my patients who has had a steady decline in her health over the past year. Her chronic diseases have been well managed up until recently, prolonging both her life and QUALITY of life, but recently, she’s had one problem after another. She made the decision to not get out of bed yesterday, and to not go for her endoscopy today because she has “given up”. She’s not tolerating the medicines that for so long have kept her illnesses at bay; they “come right back up”, probably due to a newly diagnosed disease that may be a result of one of the medicines used to fix an abnormal heart rhythm. Her decision is probably due to her thinking that things just aren’t going to get better no matter what she does, and she’s probably tired of all of the appointments, procedures, and drugs she has to take just to stay alive, and yet still live with her health declining. It’s her decision, and we’ll respect that.
I guess the point of all of this is that if you are faced with a decision, get all of the information you can so that you can make an INFORMED decision, consider risk vs benefit, and don’t beat yourself up when you make a wrong decision.