I recently started working for a pharmaceutical company. It is changing some of my perceptions and I am on an overwhelmingly steep learning curve. What struck me today though is a different lens on some of my life’s defining periods – all of which were healthcare-related.
Firstly, I had asthma during my childhood and teen years. It took a very long time to discover what caused it. Meanwhile, I was on steroids, primarily oral, which caused obvious side-effects on my body and life. I gained weight that became impossible to lose. Every year I missed a number of days of school in the first month. There was awkwardness, limitations around physical activity, and so on. My parents consulted a number of doctors. Today I realise we had a right to question what my doctors prescribed. And that we never had enough information about my options living with the condition or even for the medication. At this moment, I am trying hard to resist the temptation of blaming it on India of the ’90s. It is shocking for me to learn though that the first inhaler was invented 50 years ago. Why were the most sophisticated doctors prescribing me those inhaler drugs in oral form?!
Secondly, in my late teens, I developed polycystic ovarian syndrome. It is terribly common in urban India. Doctors and diagnostic professionals doing a prognosis around fertility come across as quite casual. Behaviour aside, I was put on the daily pill, ie, hormones for an indefinite period. The prescription was repeated at every check-up. My meek questions about long-term solutions or impact were dismissed. Some specialists said I needed to reduce my weight, but nobody told me that the pill created a vicious cycle of excess weight. Of course, this time I had the internet at my disposal, but the information available was always so disparate that I’d give up after reading a few articles, some of which were also contradictory. After seven years of being on the pill, I made a unilateral, executive decision to discontinue it. The main driver was simply the feeling that I’d taken more than enough of it. Some of my symptoms returned, some didn’t. However, my blood tests were clear. No doctor (in the UK) recommended getting a scan after seeing clear blood work. But here is the most important piece of the puzzle – not one of the many gynaecologists who were part of my treatment indicated even once the impact of the pill on mental health. I went from experiencing ‘typical teenage challenges’ to being sad to being depressed, not knowing why! Last night I had dinner with a lady who talked about her 15-year-old daughter’s overworked hormones leading her break-up to seem and feel like a problem ten times bigger than it was. And here I was relating to that story from even when I was 25. I was taking the pill and going to a psychologist in the same period and nobody ever saw the correlation. It took me two years after discontinuing that cycle to even realise what had happened. Lying on the floor in the dark and crying because a man you care about was rude to you is not normal.
Thirdly, I have learned a new term used to describe the category of people like me. Commonly known as hypochondriacs, we’re also called the ‘worried, well’. To put it in context, a respiratory specialist who treats patients with lung cancer (obviously) thinks that a patient who’s had a cough for four weeks and shown up at his door is a worried, well person. I totally belong to this group. And from my perspective – why won’t you see a doctor if you’ve been coughing for four weeks! Hypothetical situations aside, time and again I have had health issues that doctors have found hard to diagnose. None of those issues may be life-threatening, but they have been frustrating and affected the quality of my life. In the moment, it’s easy to take things lightly. But funnily, when the time to retrospect comes, the issue becomes that of an ‘erosion of patient rights’, leaving people like me wonder why something that was invented 20 years before I was born wasn’t an option for me.