Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A frustrating experience

My father went in for spine surgery today. It was a routine and relatively noninvasive procedure (keeping in mind that "noninvasive" and "spine surgery" probably don't belong in the same sentence) to correct a herniated disk that had been compressing his spinal cord and apparently causing him severe and debilitating sciatica pain. The procedure reportedly went well and if all goes according to plan he should be released from the hospital in the morning.

The fact that my dad had to have surgery is, by itself, not frustrating. He's getting old, and these things happen. What he finds frustrating, rather, is the fact that this procedure really should have been completed several months ago.

My father had been suffering from sciatica since early this spring. In an attempt to seek relief, he went through a veritable merry-go-round of doctors, orthopedic surgeons, neurologists and other specialists, and took battery after battery of tests, MRIs, myelograms and other diagnostic procedures. At first, his doctors told him to take up a vigorous exercise regimen, in hopes that physical activity would resolve the problem. When that approach didn't work, they told him to do the exact opposite: get plenty of rest and avoid as much physical exertion as possible. They simply hoped that the problem would resolve itself (to be fair, herniated disks often do repair themselves over time; my father's condition, however, was clearly not getting better). The painkillers they prescribed him were woefully inadequate, as well; the pain in his legs and hips was oftentimes searingly intense and conventional painkillers simply didn't work.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that he was finally sent to a spinal specialist who looked at all the available data and, unlike all the other professionals my father had been referred to, realized that the only reliable fix for this problem would be surgery. An appointment was set and, as of this evening, the procedure is complete.

I'm not really clear as to why none of my father's other doctors wanted to take the surgical route, or why it took so long for my father to be referred to a specialist who finally did decide to go ahead with the surgery. Perhaps the medical profession, as a whole, is so afraid of lawsuits that they avoid surgery for these types of ailments at all costs, hoping instead that the problem will eventually resolve itself without the need for medically-invasive procedures. Perhaps the insurance companies, looking to keep ever-spiralling medical costs under control, ask doctors to refrain from recommending surgical procedures if they can help it. And perhaps my dad's doctors were so worried abut my dad developing an addiction to powerful painkillers that they refused to provide him with medicine that would offer him real relief from his pain. While I can't completely fault the medical profession for wanting to err on the side of caution, my father's experience nevertheless seems to paint an impression of a health care community that is directed not by the doctors themselves, but rather by their legal counsel or their accountants. Is the fear of lawsuits - be it from botched surgeries or from patients addicted to painkillers - or the need to keep costs down really so pervasive that it creates an attitude of inaction so entrenched that the patients themselves are forced to needlessly suffer without resolution for months until decisive action - one of my father's doctors admitted that surgery was a "last resort" - is finally taken?

Not only, after all, did their reluctance to pursue the surgical option until now cause my dad to experience so much pain for so long, but it's also affected my parents' summer travel plans. They had to cut short their annual trip to New Orleans (I accompanied them and will write about it in a later post) this past week, and, depending on how long it takes my dad to recuperate, the big several-weeks-long trip they were planning to make to the west coast later this summer could be in jeopardy as well. It just doesn't seem right; my father, naturally, feels like the medical community has let him down.

Of course, this entire rant could be for naught: there's no guarantee that the surgery was a success. My father will know in the coming days whether the pain persists. If the procedure is successful, then at least my dad will have received the care he needed later rather than never and will be able to eventually resume normal activities. If this procedure doesn't alleviate the pain, however, or if complications arise, then it's back on the medical merry-go-round again for more agony and frustration.

No comments: