Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


 Episode 551 A Second Opinion

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery

A few years ago my mailman, grocery checker, and cabinet-maker all had scars on their wrists.  Repetitive motion was diagnosed. Carpal-tunnel syndrome raged across the country like a junior high fad. A few years ago my hands felt the pain and agony of something gone wrong. Though threatened with the knife, I escaped the procedure. Personal experience and a strong resistance to surgery revealed a surprising analysis for me.

Health decisions seem to mount as we move towards and in retirement. We are faced with choosing between alternative treatments. What to do? Where do we turn for advice? Most of the time, we can readily agree with our doctor.  Other times, it just doesn’t feel right. We want a second opinion.

For my hands, my family doctor prescribed drugs to reduce the inflammation. I’ve always practiced a minimalist approach to taking any sort of drug so I didn’t take what was prescribed. Later a hand-specialist took X-rays and prescribed a different drug. Once again, I refused. Then a neurologist suggested yet another drug and pronounced the presence of dreaded carpal-tunnel syndrome. He recommended surgery.

Still reluctant to accept the drugs or the surgery I searched for yet another answer. Inquiries led me to a source was in Seattle. I was referred to a hand surgery clinic where doctors examine hundreds of hands each month.

I called the clinic and inquired as to the necessity of surgery in all cases. I was assured that not all problems required surgery.  Promised that I would just receive an examination I drove the ninety miles south with high hopes. A disturbing scene greeted me: in the elevator three people had hands in bandages, in the office were several patients waiting for their doctor. They all had bandages on their hands. I wanted to flee but the long drive, and my wife, demanded that I see and hear the expert.

Dr. John Sack appeared to be in his early fifties. He was tall with an athletic build and a gentle presence. He was in no rush. He asked me about my occupation or retirement: how I spent my time, hobbies, kids, wife, diet, physical activity, and medical history. He even inquired into my attitude towards life. As a former teacher of philosophy I particularly warmed to that question. My existential bent was briefly  illuminated in that small room. I told him of the intensity with which I approached each day and yet accepted the absurdity of life. He told me a little about himself – his career choice and his rowing on Lake Washington each morning. He gave me time and set me at ease.

He then put me through a series of hand gymnastics. “Push here. Pull there”, he commanded. “Do they hurt when you sleep? When you walk?” He looked at my hands.  “Is there any pain at the moment”?

He handed me a small piece of paper and a pen and said,  “Write anything. It doesn’t matter what it is”.

I wrote only three words and the Doctor and the nurse broke into loud laughter. They looked at each other, shook their head from side to side, and then laughed some more. 

They excused themselves for laughing and then asked me to continue writing a little more.  Reluctantly, I put pen to paper for just a few words. Embarrassment swept over me. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I sensed the analysis.

The Doctor shook his head and said that I had written enough.  He explained that the laughter was because they had never seen quite such a sever example of my problem. “It is text book"' He went on, “Del, you’re just not that important. You need to let up.  You’re going to press that pen right through the table. I’m surprised that you can play the guitar at all.”

The doctor gave me the medical term for my problem and said that it is commonly called, “white knuckle disease”. When I wrote on the paper my knuckles had turned white instantly. My effort far exceeded that necessary for the task. I grasp the pen too hard. I pressed on the paper too hard. He had looked at my hands and saw clearly into my mind. The intensity with which I lived life had to be harnessed, reduced, or controlled. My existential attitude had created an intensity that was overwhelming my body.

He advised me to go home and play my guitar. Even more importantly he advised me to let up - when playing music and when not playing music. On parting he said, “I should never see you again. You just need to relax”.

Within two weeks my diastolic blood pressure had dropped 15 points. Many times during the day I would give myself relaxation tests. I would focus on the hands and see if I could relax them. I always found them tense. They would be knotted while walking down the street; tight while I was washing the dishes, reading the newspaper, or driving the car.  They would even be tight when I would wake in the middle of the night. I began noticing the tenseness in my tongue, checks, back and everyplace else. I had never noticed this all-encompassing condition. It had become a way of life.

Habits developed over a lifetime change slowly. It has been over 20 years since my visit to Doctor Sack.  Now my hands are relaxed as well as much of the rest of me.  I felt stupid about causing so much grief to myself but I felt good about refusing the drugs and the surgery. Fad treatment for a problem that is difficult to diagnose may not address the true problem.

Spinoza believed that mind and body were one. My pain attributed to repetitive motion was really a mind problem. It took several opinions before the truth was discovered. Sometimes you just have to look around.

This is Retirement Talk.

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