A middle-aged female writer in previously excellent health awakens one night with excruciating pain in her left shoulder and upper back. She describes it as “feeling as though she’s being stabbed with a knife.” The pain radiates down the ulnar aspect of her left arm, and there is numbness of the fourth and fifth fingers. It is not relieved by high-dose Tylenol, anti-inflammatories, Valium, or even narcotics. The pain is severe enough to keep her from sleeping for more than a few hours each night, and for several weeks, she spends most of the nights whimpering in a chair. Neck movement does not exacerbate the pain. The shoulder has full range of motion. The patient reports she has been under stress recently, with the release of her new novel.
On physical exam, there is marked weakness of the left triceps muscle and decreased reflexes of the left arm.
What’s the diagnosis?
Ah, dear readers, you may be wondering why I’m presenting a medical case on my blog. But by now, some of you have probably guessed that the above patient is me. Yep, I’ve had a pretty rotten last few weeks. The pain started while I was in Maui, and it’s kept me from sleeping and even eating these past few weeks. I gave birth to two kids, without anesthesia, and this pain was worse. Way worse. Yet I kept thinking, “it’ll go away, it’ll go away.” Here I’m a doctor, and my husband’s a doctor, and we both assumed it was just nerve irritation in the neck, and that would settle down eventually.
We’re such idiots. Believe me, having two doctors in the house probably means you get WORSE medical care!
So finally, practically in a trance from lack of sleep, and whimpering all the way, I show up in a neurologist’s office. Dr. Stein listens to my story, nods, and says: “Even before I examine you, I know exactly what you have. Brachial plexus neuritis. It’s often preceded by a viral infection or a vaccination. It hits perfectly healthy people of any age, and it’s said to cause some of the most excruciating pain anyone can have. And I can help you.”
My god, I wanted to kiss this man’s feet. Not only did he acknowledge that I was miserable, he gave me the reassurance that the pain would be completely gone within a month, and that my arm would regain its strength within a year. He prescribed a pill usually used to control seizures. I took two doses, and that night, for the first time in two weeks, I slept like a baby.
I tell you this story not because I like to talk about my health. Geez, that is the most boring topic anyone could ever talk about! No, I’m telling you this because I want to say something about doctors. Good doctors.
In many of my books, I write about evil doctors. Doctors who lie and kill. Doctors who are villains. I’m often asked, in interviews, whether I know any evil doctors, and my answer has always been the same: NO. I’ve known doctors with human frailties, doctors who’ve fallen in love with their patients, doctors who’ve made mistakes and tried to cover them up.
But evil? I haven’t met a single one.
The docs I know are simply people trying to do the best job they can. Maybe they miss a detail, or get distracted and careless. Maybe they’re arrogant. Maybe they have poor relationship skills. They’re like every other human being in this world.
And damn it, when you’re sick and you’re hurting, you don’t go to a carpenter. You go to a doctor.
So here’s a toast to the medical profession. And to neurologist Dr. Rob Stein of Rockport, Maine.
(And if I’m late replying to your emails, you’ll know why!)