By Joanna Mechlinski.
My rheumatologist was killed in an accident in April. It’s terrible enough, hearing about a fiery car crash in the news when it’s a stranger. Now imagine realizing it’s the doctor you had been seeing regularly for the past 14 years, the one who’s been with you every step of the journey since you were initially diagnosed. No one ever dreams that when she walks out of the doctor’s office, it’ll be the last time she’ll see that doctor alive.
After the initial shock had passed, I realized I needed to find another rheumatologist as soon as possible. Not only would his former office staff be overwhelmed with copying and forwarding the files of hundreds of patients, but it can often take months before doctors will see new patients. (In my case, it took THREE.)
In the meantime, I needed refills of all my prescription medications – including Tramadol. As everyone with chronic pain in today’s world knows all too well, it can be an uphill battle getting opioids under regular circumstances. In my case, I had to return to a primary doctor I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, simply because my medical problems had long ago surpassed her purview. Although she knows me and my family, I was in essence a new patient at that point.
Although it may sound like speaking ill of the dead to some, the truth is that I was unhappy with my rheumatologist for quite some time. While he did have a number of pluses, such as being available to me via cell phone at literally any time (I once called him while he was on a ski lift – and he answered) he also had his fair share of minuses. Often he would tell me something specific during a visit; then during the next visit, he would tell me the exact opposite or else forget the whole subject entirely. He also had a blunt way of speaking, so that even though I knew he likely hadn’t meant anything by it, he could be hurtful.
Yet I was hesitant to switch doctors. Yes, I had sought second opinions over the years, but I never cut off my first rheumatologist entirely. For one thing, in my experience, there is no such thing as a dedicated doctor determined to find the cure for your disease except on television dramas. To date I’ve seen over a dozen specialists, some nationally renowned, and all treated me merely as a job. And for another, there’s something to be said for a 14-year history, regardless of whom it’s with.
My doctor’s death, as horrible as it was, forced me into action I would not likely have taken otherwise. Although it’s only been a few visits so far, I already have a good feeling about my new rheumatologist. He’s been looking at my symptoms and history in a totally different way, offering new diagnoses and medication combinations. He’s even examined an infusion that caused an allergic reaction in me and was immediately stopped, simply stating that a Benadryl thirty minutes prior to the procedure would have avoided any reaction. And all I can think is, why didn’t my previous rheumatologist see this? For the first time in years, I have some hope.
Odds are, your doctor isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. I am fully aware that my situation is a rarity. However, there’s a lesson to be learned – for all of us. Make sure that you have a copy of your medical records. In the event of an emergency, you’ll be prepared. And if there’s anything those of us who live with a chronic illness know, it’s to expect the unexpected at all times.
Joanna Mechlinski is a former newspaper reporter who now works in education. She is a chronic pain sufferer who lives in Connecticut and is a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.