Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 574 Health and the Importance of a Second Opinion

This is a repeat performance of one of my most popular podcasts dealing with getting a second opinion when faced with a medical problem. It seems like I have aired it at least a couple of times but it may be that I have just told this story often to friends or relatives. As we age it seems like medical issues are some of our most oft visited subjects.

My mailman, grocery checker, and cabinet-maker all had scars on their wrists.  Repetitive motion was responsible. Carpal-tunnel syndrome raged across the country like a junior high fad. After playing the classical guitar for two or three hours each day for several years, my hands felt the pain and agony of something gone wrong. Though threatened with the knife, I escaped the procedure.

Health decisions seem to mount as we move towards 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 seek a second opinion.

My family doctor prescribed drugs to reduce the inflammation. I’ve always practiced a minimalist approach to taking any sort of drug and 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 carpal-tunnel syndrome. He recommended surgery.

Reluctant to accept the drugs or the surgery, I searched for yet another answer. Inquiries led me to a source 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. With high hopes we, my wife and I, drove the ninety miles south. A disturbing scene greeted us. In the office were several patients waiting for their doctor. They all had bandages on their hands. Everyone had bled. 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. Looking at my chart, 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 the 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?” There was no pain.

He handed me a small piece of paper and a pen and asked me to write.  “Write anything, he said. 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.

Then they excused themselves for laughing and asked me to continue writing just a little more.  Reluctantly, I put pen to paper. Sweat broke out on my forehead. Embarrassment swept over me. 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 severe example of my problem. “It is text book,” he said. “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 then 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 grasped the pen too hard. I pressed on the paper too hard. The wise physician 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. And 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 more than they were. 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 and give them a quick check. I began noticing the tenseness in my tongue, checks, back and everyplace else. I had never noticed this all-encompassing tenseness.

Habits developed over a lifetime change slowly. It has been over 20 years since my visit to Doctor Sack.  The sharp pains left my hands. The burning stopped. Now my hands are relaxed as well as much of the rest of me.

Spinoza believed that the mind and body were one. In my case pain attributed to repetitive motion was really a mind problem. My heart, as well as my hands, is benefiting from a true physician who does understand carpal-tunnel syndrome and the art of healing.

This experience led me to the conclusion that a second medical opinion that is highly recommended in medical circles is absolutely valuable. You might want to keep that in mind the next time you get bad news from your doctor. I know I will.

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