Sunday, March 4, 2007

Preventative Medicine

I recently spent two days in the hospital, trying to find out if my 47 year-old heart was breaking down. It caused me to question the tug of war between the well-being of one person and that of others.

Early one morning I woke up with a growing ache in my chest, which continued after a few hours of sleep. I initially attributed it to an allergic reaction to something in my house, but it grew in strength, becoming painful even after I got to work. I became concerned enough to seek medical advice. A nurse working for my health care provider, after hearing my symptoms and learning of my father’s death from a heart attack, insisted that I call 911 and get checked out for a potential heart attack. The advice made perfect sense, though I briefly thought about bucking it and heading home. Better to be safe than fatally sorry.

After my first ride in an ambulance, I spent several hours in a local hospital’s emergency room where my heart was monitored, I was put on pain medications, and my blood was extensively studied. When they were unable to find an explanation for my symptoms, the doctors had my lungs scanned for a blood clot using radioactivity-laced oxygen as a tracer (the hospital’s only CT scanner had been broken; when it was fixed, I got the higher resolution scan of my heart). There were still no problems detected, so with more detailed tests available the next day, I was checked into the hospital’s cardiac unit. In the morning I learned that no one had communicated that I had to wait at least 36 hours for radioactive air to clear from my lungs before the scheduled heart scan, also using radioactivity (in my blood), could be done. So instead I took a stress test, which revealed no unusual heart activity or pain; but my symptoms, now shifted from variable chest pain to chest pain only when I breathed, made the test’s conclusions equivocal. Early the next morning, I woke up with my chest feeling totally congested, and after a few more hours of sleep I felt almost totally fine. The heart scan, chemical-aided stress test, and follow-up heart scan showed no problems, so I was released in the afternoon. The doctors guessed that my symptoms were caused by either a combination of stress and acid reflux, or (my favorite) a highly aggressive virus like a chest cold.

The hospital’s ER had been totally full when I arrived, and both beds and rooms were at a premium. While I was enjoying the experience of periodic injections and random status checks, forced food and water deprivation, and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements for me and my wife, all so I could learn that I had a cold mimicking a heart condition, at least I had privacy and room service; others were far less fortunate. In the ER, you were lucky if you had a curtain and a bed.

I shuddered to think of how many resources were being used to support me during my stay at the hospital; but like so many people, it was hard to keep from using them when my personal survival was at stake. My wife and everyone I shared my concerns with constantly reminded me that I had made the right decision to call 911. My best friend had experienced almost identical symptoms when he discovered that he was actually having a heart attack. The EMTs, doctors, and nurses all agreed that someone my age (and even much younger) with my family history could not afford to ignore the warning signs.

The medical profession and its infrastructure exist, in theory, to keep people from dying. By every standard in our society and universal personal values, I was using them appropriately: to prevent my own death. But how much is a single life worth relative to those of others, who are either competing for the use of the medical system or the resources that support it? How much pain and suffering, greater than my own, might I have alleviated by following my brief impulse to head home and ride out my own pain, without cluttering the ER or monopolizing a hospital room? I may never know, but I can’t help but ask the question.

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