Death by Diagnostic Prejudice

It was summer in Maryland, and I could have been indulging myself in sports outdoors with other teens in my neighborhood, but I was attending Biomedical Seminars at NIH for students interested in medical careers. Fun stuff, huh?

On the first day, we watched a film of an operation in which the patient was having a cancerous lung removed. At the point they were lifting the diseased lung from the patient, the doctor running the seminar paused the film and told us to take note of the blackened appearance of the lung. “That is what tars and nicotine will do to a lung,” he said. “Turn it permanently black as coal, and then kill it.”

I did the unpardonable. I raised my hand and asked, “If the tars and nicotine turned it black, why is the other lung still pink and healthy looking? Was he only breathing smoke into only one lung?”

He turned back to the screen and saw that, yes, the other lung was visible and quite healthy looking. His response: “Young man, leave my classroom. And I do not want to see you back in here again.”

Such was my introduction to medical prejudices, as well as to such flim-flam explanations.

Many years later, my father began to have difficulty breathing. He assumed it was some sort of chest cold. But after six months, the condition grew steadily worse and he went to a doctor.

The doctor consulted his chart and saw that my dad had been a smoker – though he currently could no longer indulge that habit – and told dad that it was just a side effect of having smoked for so many years.

I visited dad about a year later and was astonished to find the condition even worse – he could barely walk across the room before he had to stop and catch his breath. I took him to another doctor who looked in dad’s file and delivered the same diagnosis: a smoking ailment. We tried to get him a prescription for oxygen, which seemed to help him while at the hospital, but no doctor would write a prescription for one who so “obviously had the smoker’s ailment”.

Another year passed and we could not get any assistance from a physician anywhere. Finally, his condition got so bad he was admitted to the Veteran’s Hospital, where he could get oxygen for the short duration they would allow him to stay. The Chief Physician told me point blank that they could not take up a permanent bed for someone with “the smoker’s disorder”.

As a last resort, we sent him to the VA Hospital’s Lung specialty unit in Houston. Typical for bureaucracies, his folder was not sent in a timely manner and they were reluctant to see him without the folder. But, fortunately, one doctor saw that his condition was dire and took on his case, even without his medical history folder.

After a couple of simple tests, the doctor returned with the result: dad had walking pneumonia. Fluids had filled most of his lungs, leaving him with only 5% breathing capacity. He marveled that dad had been in this steadily worsening condition for over two years without succumbing. His one comment was, after seeing the xrays and mri of the lungs: “It’s a good thing you never smoked, or this thing would have killed you.”

So much for “blackening of the lung tissue from tars and nicotine”… another medical fiction put to rest.

Armed with proper prescriptions, dad returned to the VA Hospital at home and began the therapy to heal his lungs. A few weeks later, still in the hospital, his lungs were up to 40% capacity when he contracted influenza.

Unfortunately, it killed him.

I like to think that IF there had only been some observant and non-biased doctors, his condition would have been properly diagnosed sooner and he would have been restored to health rather than becoming a martyr to the supremely absolute stupidity of the medical community in America.

I found it gratifying to see that a recent leading news journal proclaimed the #1 cause of death in America is DOCTORS!

Funny, but the news didn’t surprise me in the slightest.


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