December 2010 | Newsletter archives
Our Aging Parents
By Eva Cwynar, M.D.
Recently, I worked with an older woman who had been sick for more than 10 years. At 60, she had become horribly fatigued, suffered shortness of breath and headaches. When she initially got sick, the top surgeons in her city – Chicago – diagnosed her with mitral valve regurge and said she eventually needed open-heart surgery.
The woman is a retired physician, a holocaust survivor who had immigrated to New York years earlier, raised a family and helped heal children. Her husband was an architect, now also retired. She would travel to her doctor's office for an appointment but couldn't remember anything that had been discussed once she left. Nothing except the one horrible thing that the doctor had said, in this case, open-heart surgery.
It was a diagnosis she never questioned though for ten years she refused to actually have the surgery. All the while the woman's daughter, a doctor herself, continued to listen but also never questioned the diagnosis, thinking: "my mom is brilliant, she's a physician, she has the best doctors. She knows what she's doing."
Only she didn't. When the daughter finally started asking questions, it was amazing what she found. The woman had been misdiagnosed. For ten years, she had visited her doctors, communicating her story to first the nurse, then the intern, followed by the resident, the fellow and finally the doctor. The story was never passed up the line. For ten years, she had lived her life thinking she wouldn't wake up in the morning, thinking she needed open-heart surgery, when in fact, the culprit of her problems turned out to be … sleep apnea. It was simply a matter of asking questions.
Why did this happen? Perhaps it's because of physicians who specialize. They at times may only look at their specialty as the possible cause for a patient's illness. In this instance, the woman's cardiologist only looked at the heart. She didn't feel she needed to seek out another doctor because she'd been told the problem was her heart, specifically a heart valve. Her doctor had told her and she trusted. She didn't question; it would be rude to question.
In fact, sleep apnea caused the heart problem. Reverse the sleep apnea, reverse the valve issue.
The woman and her doctor-daughter stayed in California for some time and for five weeks I treated her. I put her on a special diet, she began a protocol to treat the sleep apnea, and after the first 13 days, she had lost 12 pounds, was sleeping through the night and felt 100% better.
What happened when she and her husband returned to Chicago and their lives will be chronicled here, in an ongoing series I'm calling Our Aging Parents. It's a phenomenon that eventually happens to us all, having to step in and become the parent when it comes to helping our mothers and fathers receive proper medical care, making sure they ask questions at doctor's appointment and ensuring that they are proactive where their health – where their lives – are concerned. We all think they know what to do when sitting in front of a doctor; they're our parents, after all. We love them, but when we start to notice things, we need to know how to help. We need to help our aging parents by honoring them, by caring enough to do so.