© Copyright 1998 by Sheryl Andre
Dr. Joe Garry tosses and turns restlessly as his dream of skiing down a mountainside turns into a nightmare. His patients are chasing him, yelling angrily, "Now you see! This is what we feel like too!"
Several patients nearly catch him. He sees pretty Mary Sue with her tiny body and curly hair. He talked to her just before his hospitalization. He told her that she couldn't possibly be having new cramps because she just had a successful surgery. Now he wonders how successful that surgery really was. He remembers seeing the pain in her eyes as she described her new symptoms, things that he was feeling now himself.
Then Frank, an older, balding patient, appears in the dream, hounding him and yelling, "Now will you give me some pain medication? Do you understand yet that I wouldn't get addicted? How do you like that pain?"
Another patient, Stephanie, with her tired eyes and usually quiet voice, calls out to him, "How do you like waiting for things? Do you understand yet why waiting for three weeks was a problem for me? I was in agony, but you were too busy playing golf to see me."
Joe struggles to wake up from this nightmare as the angry patients nearly catch him. He senses they are trying to give him their symptoms and he attempts to run away, but his legs are like cement. They won't move. Just as the patients reach him, Joe awakens. He wipes the sweat from his face and looks around to make sure none of his pursuers are still around. Shaking his head, he tries to tell himself it was only a dream.
However he is still in the hospital and his legs still feel like lead. He has no energy even though he just woke up. Are the dreams sapping his strength; is something horrible wrong?
Joe's neurologist, Dr. Happy, doesn't look like he has any new suggestions as he enters the room today.
"Sorry Joe, but the EKG didn't answer our questions. We still don't understand why you are so weak."
"What do you mean you don't know?" Dr. Garry shouts as he stares at the white haired man next to his bed. Dr. Garry just suffered through his fourth series of tests in a week, and still Dr. Happy cannot tell him what is wrong.
"How many different tests are you going to make me endure? You know the symptoms. Can't you figure it out? Isn't that why they call you a neurologist?" Dr. Garry runs his hand through his dirty hair. He had suffered a serious fall on his way out of the doctor's lounge five days earlier and had been stuck in a hospital bed ever since.
"Calm down, Joe. Have patience. You are reminding me of why doctors make the worst patients. You know that I have to rule out things with all these tests," Dr. Happy says with his characteristic smile softening the hard truths he has to speak. His gentle brown eyes show concern for his distraught patient.
"Yeah, I know. But I'm getting damn tired of this hospital bed with my closet of a room and the beautiful view of the other side of the building. They keep drawing blood and waking me up at odd hours. You won't give me anything for pain, and I hurt, and I hate bedpans! When I am awake, they want me to stay in bed! I'm getting as weak as a kitten. I'm sick of being sick! I am sick of waiting for your answers!"
"At this point, Joe, all the tests have turned out negative. I can't give you pain meds or they will mask the symptoms. Your muscle pain and headaches could easily just be something your mind is doing to your body. Now, now, don't throw a fit! I know you are sane, but sometimes our minds play tricks."
"There is NOTHING wrong with my mind! I need to get out of here!" Dr. Garry glares at his longtime friend angrily.
"Okay, let's stand you up and see what happens."
Joe eagerly grasps onto the side of the bed and pulls himself into a sitting position, but as soon as he tries to step onto the shiny hospital floor, his legs give out and he sways unsteadily, grasping onto the bedside table for support. Dr. Happy lifts Joe back into the bed and says, "I think we need to run a few more tests. First, let's review what we know." as he ticks off Joe's symptoms on his fingers, his brow lined with worry.
"You have been dropping things and tripping over your feet recently.
"You are experiencing frequent and painful leg cramping.
"You have been having burning sensations on your legs and back.
"The EEG and EMG show nothing significant, and the myelogram showed nothing either."
"Yeah, and I keep getting wicked headaches which were not helped by your myelogram." Joe says, his anger dissipating into a wave of fatigue.
"Let's try an MRI. Maybe it will give us some clue. I'll schedule it for tomorrow." Dr. Happy says as he searches for potential answers to his patient's condition.
"Can you at least get me a shower?" Joe asks as he resigns himself to still more poking and prodding.
"Sorry, but the nurses are too busy right now. Given your dizzy spells, it's best that we stick to bed baths."
Dr. Garry watches his neurologist leave the room wondering if he will ever return to his medical practice and his beautiful home. Flashes of memories fly through his mind of all the family times in the past and his hopes for the future. All his dreams might disappear because of this rapidly progressing illness. He remembers those patients who reported problems similar to his and wonders if he could have been more thorough and more understanding. Now that he is the patient, the need for empathy is much clearer.
Joe tries to stay awake and avoid the terrorizing dreams, but fatigue wins as he slips into another nightmare world. He can no longer hold his two year old granddaughter or drive his red Porsche. He sits at home, by his window, and watches the world go by. Then the view in the dream changes and there are more angry patients. They raise their fists and shout, "Will you tell my insurance to help me now? Will you talk to Social Security for me yet? Will you take the time to explain to me what is wrong?" Joe squirms around and tries to wake as they howl more questions at him.
As he wakes again, Joe thinks too many more of these dreams and he will be ready to talk to the psychiatrists. He resigns himself to more waiting until he can have his new MRI.
Two days later, the pounding noises of the MRI further irritate Joe's headache as he lays still in the tiny capsule. He fights to remain motionless so that the results will be clear and maybe give some indication to the cause of his problem.
Shortly after he returns to his room, Dr. Happy enters with a smile lighting his face.
"We've found it! You have syringomyelia. It's a cyst in your spine that is pressing on the nerve cells and causing them to misfire. The result is kind of like a pinball machine; sometimes things work, like when the ball ricochets off the rubber cones, and sometimes they don't. The headaches are caused by a buildup of fluid in your spine."
Dr. Garry feels an initial wave of relief that his problem has a name. "I'm really not crazy! I am not the only one who feels this way! Why did it take so long to find it? All this time I've been worried sick and my symptoms have been getting worse! I don't remember hearing of this disease in med school. How do we treat it?"
"There is an operation, but nobody
can guarantee that you'll be better afterwards. There is a chance that
you might even be worse. I'm going to send you to the neurosurgeon first.
He can tell you more about the operation."
Things like: "Do you feel this?" when they know I can't feel anything. Another round of squeezing fingers when everyone knows my strength is nearly nil.
The following morning, Joe awakes feeling very unusual. His headaches and dizziness have disappeared, and his fatigue has lessened. Dr. Happy is standing at the foot of the bed, obviously anticipating Joe's questions.
"What's happening?" Joe asks. "I feel really strange. My headache is gone. Did they operate?" he whispers, amazed at the loss of symptoms.
"Dr. Garry, you have just finished a week in our Virtual Medicine laboratories. All of your symptoms were virtually induced by the computers. Your body is fine. A little bit of exercise and you will be back to your old self," Dr. Happy pronounces.
"You aren't kidding? That was a terrible trick to play on me! Why did you do this?" Dr. Joe hollers, his eyes as big as saucers, a frown beginning to form on his flushed face. His fists are tight with wanting to hit something, but memory of the weakness holds him back.
"No kidding, Joe. That's why they call me Dr. Happy. The patients always leave the hospital healthy. I hope that you now have a better insight to what agonies your patients go through when searching for a diagnosis and dealing with their diseases."
"You bet I do. I'm going to call a few clients right away! Somebody ought to write a book!"
"I know a few other doctors who need this kind of treatment too!" Joe thinks as he begins to understand the benefit of this unusual treatment.
Dr. Happy explains, "The way that doctors receive this treatment is they are recommended by either patients or fellow doctors, so you are welcome to make any suggestions you like."
"I sure understand now why I was one of the doctors chosen. My empathy level has changed dramatically in just a few days."
"That's the purpose of the program. Eventually all our medical professionals will find Virtual Medicine and our patients will be much better cared for."
The American Medical Association approved using Virtual Medicine to improve doctors' empathy with patients. The pilot program, which ran from June, 2000 to June, 2001, required doctors in three states to attend a week-long session of training. Results showed, above all, that doctors make the worst patients. However, it also illustrated how much more understanding the medical professionals can be when they have firsthand knowledge of the patients' experience. The above incident, taken from the pilot testing, illustrates the results most clearly. The Virtual Medicine will become a part of every doctor's retraining within the year.
Sheryl Andre was born in 1945 just as World War II was ending. She has built up a large store of memories, some happy and some sad. Her travels have taken her all around the US on vacations and in various family moves. She has two beautiful children and has worked as a computer programmer/analyst. After fifty-some years she is now settled in Ames, Iowa, and enjoys writing about days gone by. She is currently working on a "Memories Book" for her children and grandchildren.
Editor's note:For most of her adult life Sheryl suffered from scoliosis and syringomyelia, a painful, degenerative nerve disease that limited her mobility and physical independence but never limited her fighting spirit or tenacious determination to help others. Sheryl was active in the SM community, using her technological savvy to stay connected with others, leading SM support groups through ASAP (American Syringomyelia & Chiari Alliance Project), and working to raise funds for medical research into the condition. She was also instrumental to an investigation into the status of disabled accessibility to her home town businesses, which led to improvements in local laws in the 1990s.
Sheryl died on August 23, 2012. There is a beautiful obit you may wish to read.
Sheryl's children, David and Tami, have put together a memorial page you can enjoy. Click here.
Contact Sheryl's family
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Another story by Sheryl: Restaurant Living