Dizzy with Over-Care

Dizzy with Over-Care

By Cynthia Toussaint.

A recent bout with a vasovagal episode for this woman in pain came as a shocking and near-deadly surprise.  It also turned into yet another carnival ride through American over-care, er… healthcare.

Three months ago I woke in the middle of the night with severe pain in my colon area. Concerned that I might have cancer, I fretted not about dying, but about how my pain would be managed while I was dying. When the discomfort didn’t let up, I got out of our hotel bed (we were displaced due to mold damage) and journeyed into the bathroom, making every effort not to disturb John and our sweet kitties in sand land.

Cynthia Toussaint

By the time I sat down at the vanity, I was struck by hellish nausea. Then I woke up and was so disoriented I had no clue as to where or who I was. In short order I recognized the hotel bathroom and discovered I’d passed out and was slumped over in the sink.

It momentarily occurred to me to call John for help, but the nausea was all-consuming. Then I woke again – and this time I was able to call out. I’d passed out a second time, and discovered I’d fallen backward off the chair and halfway into the bathtub. To this day I feel deep gratitude for not cracking my head open.

Thank goodness John heard me quickly because due to my right arm being broken by a physical therapist, I was stuck. While helping me back to bed, John was alarmed to see a cold sweat covering my body, and my face pale as a ghost.

Because I have a deep distrust for Western healthcare, I didn’t call a doctor. Despite my fear, I woke to the alarm and did my morning swim workout at the Y. Then battling low-level nausea, I put in a full work day that included a radio interview. Though I put up a good front, I was shaken and needed to know what the heck what was going on.

I talked with several friends who were baffled. Then I spoke with my sister in pain, Melinda, who lives on the east coast. Melinda’s as sharp as they come and knows most everything auto-immune. In fact she beats her doctors to new diagnosis. Melinda told me I’d had a vasovagal episode. She explained that I fainted due to a combination of rapid heartbeat (generally caused by intense pain or fear) and sudden plunge in blood pressure. These two conspire to pool blood in the lower extremities. To avoid fainting, I simply had to lie down. That’s why I came to both times I passed out.

I trusted Melinda to know, but when my mom learned of my experience, she shouted into the phone that I needed to call my doctor. I did. What can I say – she’s my mom.

My internist suspected a heart-attack which didn’t surprise me because Western medicine most always assumes the worst and the most costly. I reluctantly went to the ER – and eight hours of tests and blood work later, the doctor released me as a vasovagal episode. But not without a bonus diagnosis. Due to the pain I’d experienced, he told me that I most likely had colon cancer.

The next day I got an emergency call from my hospital telling me that I immediately needed to schedule multiple tests, including a colonoscopy. That, and see a GI doctor pronto. All of this coming from UCLA, a healthcare system renowned for their over-care, a hospital that has twice told me I had breast cancer (DCIS) and would die a terrible death within months if I didn’t take their invasive treatment plan. I refused all of it; that was 15 years ago.

As you’ve probably guessed, I chose to forego the battery of tests and the specialist. When UCLA finally sent me a home colon cancer test a couple of months back, I did it – and no word. Obviously I’m in the clear. Yet again.

A big part of my self-management is knowing when to engage in healthcare – and when not to. For years now, I’ve almost exclusively seen my integrative doctor, a physician who understands pain and fatigue and makes every effort to avoid invasive treatments. A doctor I trust and adore.

Part of our jobs as women in pain is to be wise and educated healthcare consumers. Vasovagal is something to take seriously, especially since many of us experience low blood pressure and intense pain due to our auto-immune disorders. But if I ever experience it again, I won’t go to the ER to potentially become a life-long patient.

Instead, I’ll lie down and put my feet up.

Cynthia Toussaint is founder of For Grace, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that works on issues facing women in pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.

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There are 7 comments for this article
  1. Sheryl M Donnell at 3:50 pm

    While I agree with you I do think we as chronic pain patients also have to be very wary of attributing all of our issues to our chronic pain. Especially when we take pain medication that could mask our conditions. It is a fine line we must walk. You are very lucky to have the doctor you have and trust who is so in tune with you. Most of us do not. We must be sure to not always assume everything is just our pain issue and still get quality check ups with doctors who understand our specific issues and check out new symptoms as they arise.

  2. Maureen at 10:01 pm

    Cynthia, I very happy that you got through yet another traumatic happening in your life. I’m also glad that you did go to the ER. never fool around with fainting like that. And how did you manage to go swim then an interview. I would imagine you had great fatigue from a night like that. You are amazing!
    I’m sure there are many more details to your story here but… from what I read…why in the world would an ER doctor DARE to tell you (or anyone) that most likely the colon pain be from cancer?! Why alarm a pt. with that news without proper testing?! For one, cancer generally would not cause pain, until you are dying from it, that is. (From my nursing point of view) but also from common sense.
    Also, I’m assuming the home test you sent back was a stool test? Whatever it was, if you received no word back, please don’t ever assume it’s negative…you ought to call and follow up on that for sure.
    You surely have had a tough year so far. I wish you much better days ahead! Be healthy warrior!

  3. BL at 1:58 pm

    When someone goes to a Teaching Hospital they should expect to be over treated. After all it is a teaching hospital. Doctors in training have to get experience and exercise what will one day be their professional judgement.

    It is always best to lean to the side of caution. This is what your internist did. Your friend may have been right this time but she is not a doctor. When in doubt it is best to go to the ER because even if the person is a doctor they can’t be objective when they are the patient. In other words it is better to be alive to complain about the overtreating than to be dead.

  4. Bob S at 2:03 pm

    Cynthia, while stumbling around in this fog of confusion, comes very close to identifying a key reason that pain patients are targeted for abuse by The Powers That Be.

    If an ER physician treats someone with what might be a heart attack, or might be a panic attack, that physician absolutely, positively must convince a jury that she really, truly tried to find evidence of a heart attack, before sending that patient home. If the patient is erroneously sent home and drops dead, the physician is sued and is potentially guilty of Patient Abandonment and loses her medical license.

    The sinister beauty of the political attacks on pain patients, is that by labelling every pain patient as an evil Drug Addict, it becomes quasi-legal to abandon the pain patients and compel us to suffer the effects of pain.

    My father had a vasovagal episode some years ago. He’d been growing a collection of gall stones. When finally there was one stone too many to fit in his gall bladder, he came down with serious, severe pain. He tried to call out to me. And passed out, stone cold, in the bed. Woke up some time later. Tried to talk.
    The pain returned, with the exertion of talking.

    I dragged him to the car and drove him to the emergency room. The surgeon removed a gall bladder full of stones…and was rather astonished that he hadn’t complained of any pain, before that.

    Actually, he HAD complained of a small chest pain. If he exerted himself, his chest hurt. His internist ran an EKG. Didn’t know what it meant. Referred him to a cardiologist. Cardiologist ran a treadmill stress test, pronounced Dad healthy as a horse. They repeated that treadmill stress test annually for 4 years, and had no luck at explaining the occasional twinge of pain Dad got, upon exertion.

    Until finally he had one gall stone too many.

    He lived most of another decade, with that gall bladder out.

    But I wonder if he’d have held together longer, stayed stronger, and enjoyed a few more years of his life, if someone had taken that twinge of pain seriously and said, “If it’s not his heart, then it’s something else, so let’s figure out what it is.”

    You see, folks, when a person has too much pain to exert himself, he exerts himself less. He asks less of himself. He just slowly collapses inward, into the shell of who he could be.

    Yes, it sounds reckless of Cynthia to have gone swimming some laps in the pool, after that horrific bout of nausea…but if she lives to be 93, folks who love her will chalk it up to the spunk that sent her back to the pool so frequently, to enjoy the sensation of movement.

    Doing nothing, can be the worst possible thing to do.

  5. JoDawn at 9:38 am

    Another brilliant article, and timely reminder.
    We are the ones dealing with pain. We need to know our bodies & educate ourselves, as much as possible, about our conditions and (heaven help us) any medications we may be taking.
    As always, Cynthia, THANK YOU for sharing your wisdom with us!!

  6. MichaelL at 9:07 am

    Don’t know who you saw…But, pain is most commonly not a presenting symptom of any types of cancer. As a general surgery resident, we learned that pain was more likely due to inflammation. Inflammation is more commonly seen with infections like appendicitis. Inflammation is seen in acute cholecystitis, not usually associated with an infection. Pain in the colon would more commonly be seen with sigmoid diverticulitis and not cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is one of the few cancers that presents with pain. Even, lupus (SLE, systemic lupus erythematosis), can give patients peritoneal inflammation and pain.

    Pain in the colon could be associated with obstruction, and that is not going to go away without some intervention, most of the time. Then again the pain is not going to be the primary presenting symptom in obstruction.. It would present with vomiting bilious stomach contents (even that is not 100%, since the last time I had gastroenteritis, at 64 yrs old, I was belching sulfide gas and vomiting bile!), or fecal content, in lower intestinal obstruction.. The obstruction could be due to cancer. But, if one is obstructed by cancer, that is not going to go away without intervention, either. The lack of pain in cancer is one of the reasons that it gets so out of hand if we don’t screen for it. A simple test for occult blood could rule cancer out if the test was negative for blood. Even a positive occult blood in the stool does not prove cancer is present. Blood from other sources, like hemorrhoids and fissures, would be a more commonly seen than cancer.

    But, that jump, to an unlikely cause (misdiagnosis) of abdominal pain, might cause one to not treat the real problem. It would be the pattern of running up unneeded lab tests, colonoscopies, and a myriad of other tests and x-rays. It is partly due to the malpractice problems and CYA testing. But, in your case, it is looking for the least likely diagnosis! There is nothing wrong with looking for cancer as I was taught with all of medicine. Think of the deadly options first. A man with blood in his urine needed to be screened for urinary tract cancer first. Kidney, urinary bladder, and prostate cancer, being the most deadly, would be ruled out first. Even with that, cancer is not present in over 50% of the cases!

  7. Debra gordon at 7:15 am

    Good for you Cynthia! So glad all turned out. You’re a strong warrior & smart one too! Great article! Deb💗

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