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When It Comes to Health, Listen to Your Heart

From Susan Parker
Tuesday December 16, 2003

I took time off from my San Francisco State MFA studies to take my husband, Ralph, to the doctor. It was a routine appointment with his urologist but we had some concerns. Due to his paralysis, Ralph cannot feel pain below his shoulders. But I can tell when he’s sick in a variety of ways: fever, slurred speech, lethargy, sediment in his urine, unpleasant smells. 

It does not take a rocket scientist to know when Ralph is not well. Wait, I need to clarify this statement. Ralph IS a rocket scientist. He holds a PhD in nuclear physics from Cal Tech, but he doesn’t always know when he’s sick. It doesn’t take a medical degree for me to know when Ralph needs help. 

After almost ten years of living with his disabilities and more visits to the emergency room and stays in intensive care unit than I can count, I should get one of those honorary doctorates just for hanging around Kaiser. Hell, Ralph and I may put in more time there then some staff members. 

But the urologist disagreed with the urgency of my urinary track diagnosis. I don’t think he ever actually looked inside the tube inserted directly into Ralph’s bladder and I’m sure he didn’t try to make a diagnosis by smelling its content. He told us, as he has in the past, that Ralph would always have these kinds of problem and that urinary tract infections are routine in a quadriplegic. 

I took Ralph home, put him to bed and attempted to make him as comfortable as possible. What do I know? I thought. I may live with Ralph for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but isn’t it “the doctor who knows best?” 

Throughout the week Ralph grew sicker and sicker, and finally, after 24 hours of his not being able to keep food or liquids down, I called an advice nurse at Kaiser. I explained that I thought he had a urinary tract infection and that he was dehydrated. She advised me to get him to the emergency room as soon as possible. He needed immediate attention.  

Surprisingly, after a few hours in the ER, Ralph’s urologist showed up. He told the attending physician that Ralph always has urinary tract infections. Give him some tests, he advised, and plenty of fluids. Eight hours later we were sent home.  

But Ralph grew sicker. He did not keep down the IV liquids he had been given. By the time I got him back to Kaiser to see his general practitioner his blood pressure had plummeted to an almost unreadable level. 

The doctor looked at Ralph’s massive, eight-inch thick file. “Why didn’t someone read the results of the test he was given on Thursday in the ER?” he asked me. “Why wasn’t your husband given antibiotics?” 

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I don’t actually know how to read those tests and I’m not allowed to prescribe drugs.”  

The GP called the ER and told them to get a room ready for us. Ralph was given antibiotics through tubes in both arms and dopamine to bring up his blood pressure. After 10 hours we were sent to the intensive care unit where he continued to get drugs intravenously. I suppose this was to make up for the antibiotics he should have gotten a week earlier. But hey, what do I know? 

I take that back. I did know. And someone should have listened to me. We could have saved Kaiser a bundle of money. We could of saved ourselves $100, the bill for two visits to the ER (soon to go up to $200 I’m told) and we could have kept Ralph from suffering. Lord (and Kaiser) knows, he has suffered enough already.  

By the light of the green wavy lines from various machines that Ralph is hooked to, and with the sound of his labored breath beside me, I crack open one of my text books from SFSU and try to study. But it seems silly and pointless. Maybe I really should be going to school for a medical degree instead of an MFA.