Friday, January 6, 2012

Awareness of self

When I wrote the story of Mrs A, I said I would write about two of them. This one is the other which I meant to.

She has been my patient for many years and must be in her mid sixties now. With a strong family history of cancer and heart disease she is extra careful with her health and gets her tests done on a regular basis and keeps her twice a year visits to me without fail. Living with another sister who keeps indifferent health adds to her worries. Let me call her Ms M.

When Ms N came to see me when she was not due to see me, some three months ago, it was for another reason. She had severe back and hip pains of few weeks duration. Ms N is a frail vegetarian and when I found that her back and hips were generally tender with no specific localizing signs, I thought she has osteoporosis with add on Vit D deficiency, this despite her taking calcium tablets and a drug named alondrenate which is given for osteoporosis.

Vit D is manufactured by our skin only when there is sunlight exposure. Modern living and fear of sunburn makes people become Vit D deficient which can give rise to many signs and symptoms and aches and pains are some of these. Vit D deficiency was virtually unknown in the earlier years of my practice. Now I see this quite frequently for reasons mentioned above and also easy availability of tests to detect deficiency.

Mrs N was asked to do these tests and come back. The bone calcium density was not bad but her vitamin levels were low. I thought there you are! You have the diagnosis and the treatment is easy. Just give her Vit D supplements and get her to sit in the sun and her pains will disappear in a month or two. Thus reassured, Mrs N went her way.

She came back six weeks later, in acute distress. She was in such severe pain that she had to be assisted into my clinic by her brother. Instead of getting better she had gotten worse. I really cannot blame her for having gone to a specialist doctor in rheumatology [illnesses related to what is loosely called connective tissue]. This doctor had done a large number of tests to detect antibodies against her own cells. These were negative.

Here I must explain the basics of this fascinating aspect of life. We are each of us, unique, in the sense our cells [the ultimate functioning units of our body] are our own and there is an elaborate mechanism which allows our cells to recognize each other as belonging to one person and this mechanism has the ability to recognize something which enters our body as foreign. After this recognition there is an elaborate system of defense [major research area] to counter these invaders. This recognition of self from non self is fundamental to life. Occasionally, for various reasons, some understood and some still to be understood, this intricate system of recognition fails and the resulting clutch of disorders, go by the name of auto immune diseases.

Like we all have a life span [bible limits it to three score and ten, meaning seventy. I should be dead by this time going by this!]. Our body consists of various organs which perform various functions. Each of these organs is made up of millions of specialist cells. And all these cells too have their own life span and it is not threescore ten. Cells lining our mouth have a shorten life span than that of cells of our brain. When a cell dies the innards are released and these find their way into our lymph and blood stream. This dead material when once it comes out of the cell should be quickly disposed off. Or else these become potent antigens [foreign] and the our immune system begins to fight these by forming antibodies and the resulting fight takes place all over but when it occurs in our connective tissue it becomes painful and the illness too is widespread. Connective tissue is the one which binds the various structures and gives shape and structure to us. The resulting plethora of illnesses is called auto immune disease. I have given a rather simple explanation and I may be pardoned by my specialist friends for any error.

Ms N had one of these illnesses. Which one was the issue? The rheumatologist too must have been in this quandary and therefore had given her a non specific drug and wanted to review her after she tries it for few weeks. Why then she got back to me when my earlier treatment gave her no relief?

Sometimes we doctors stick our necks out and sometimes it is to benefit our patients and occasionally we get hung by! This is what I did. While reading about another problem I chanced upon this condition called Polymyalgia Rheumatica and the symptoms and signs fitted to what Ms N had like a glove. It occurs rather suddenly to only those above sixty, three times more common in women, large muscles of the spine hip and shoulders are preferentially involved, and markers of inflammation CRP and ESR will be very high. All of these were true in Ms N’S case.

I made bold to call her. I knew her name and the locality she lives and finding her number in the phone book was not tough. She must have been taken by surprise at my request to see her as soon as possible and she agreed and thus the present consult.

I explained to her the possible diagnosis and treatment. It took some convincing for her to agree to the treatment as it meant taking small dose of steroid [compared to what is given for other allied conditions]. Another motive was the dramatic freedom from pain she is likely to get if the diagnosis is right [sticking my neck out]
She agreed and three weeks ago took the initial shot of long acting steroid followed by oral tablets. Even I was surprised by the result.

When she came ten days ago, she came on her own could move all parts of her body, could bend, sit up, walk all without pain. Both her CRP and ESR which were sky high had returned to normal!

Practice of medicine is indeed rewarding. Don’t you agree?


Gopakumar said...

A wonderful piece, both educative and very interesting. Yes, I sometimes envy you for the difference you are able to make to people's lives by being both investigative and honest. The point you have made about reading up is also very valid: perhaps specialists are so busy making money that they live within their circle of competence and do not grow as professionals (a malady, alas, true in my field as well). Again, a lovely piece.

My thoughts said...

Specialists too have their own problems. There is so much happening that for any professional to remain updated one has to read and learn. Patients are our greatest learning tools and as you have recently experienced they should give their doctors a chance to get to the correct diagnosis which often is tough.Your story too is worth writing about! W ill you do it in your blog or should I?