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The older you get, the more medical tests doctors order

By Ernie Williamson / Special to The Bulletin

My dad always said growing old isn’t for cowards.

I suspect many readers know all about that.

One disadvantage of being a 71-year-old paraplegic with a spinal cord injury is that I have acquired numerous “ologists.” I have a neurologist, an urologist, a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, a pulmonologist and a dermatologist.

I also have a rehab doctor. She, for reasons unclear to me, is an “ist”, as in physiatrist.

They all have one thing in common. They like tests.

I don’t know about you folks, but the older I get the more stressful the tests become. With the exception of MRIs, the tests themselves aren’t that bad. It’s waiting for results.

My fear of test results may be because my new life in a wheelchair has made me feel more vulnerable. After all, 65 years of eating right, exercising and getting regular checkups didn’t work.

Adding to this sense of vulnerability is the fact that friends and acquaintances are aging right along with me, acquiring their own health problems and providing further evidence we are not bulletproof.

The biggest reason for my testing phobia, however, is that two tests have come back with “incidental” findings. The “ologists” were testing for one thing but thought they found something else. Each time I had to get back on the medical merry-go-round and undergo more testing, costing insurers more money and me more emotional capital.

The first incidental finding occurred when an abdominal CAT scan detected a solitary nodule in the lower part of one lung. Off to the pulmonologist. Another CAT scan of the full lungs found more nodules.

Luckily, the nodules were small. That, according to the pulmonologist, and the fact I never smoked probably meant they were benign.

But … the only way to be certain was to do a CAT scan every six months for two years.

That meant in addition to the two scans I already had, they wanted to give me four more, each with an effective radiation dose that is the same as the average person receives from background radiation in 3 to 5 years.

It was a long two years. Those of you dealing with the threat of cancer know the cycle. Anxiety. Testing. Waiting. Worrying. Hoping.

The final CAT scan showed the nodules were shrinking. My pulmonologist theorized the nodules were probably scars from a previous illness, not cancer.

Phew.

Not long after that, I had an MRI of my brain and spinal cord. This is done routinely to ensure there are no changes in my condition. I wasn’t worried about this one.

So it surprised me when my neurologist said the MRI showed a brain abnormality. He explained it could simply be the result of my moving during the procedure. Or it could be sarcoidosis (an inflammatory disease). Or, get this, a rare lymphoma.

Transverse myelitis, the disease that left me a paraplegic 7 years ago, is rare. There are only 1,500 cases a year in this country.
Now my neurologist was telling me I might have another rare disease.

I remember thinking this was just my luck. I couldn’t beat the odds and win a Powerball jackpot, but apparently I am quite good at collecting rare disorders.

At least this time it wasn’t going to take two years to find out. That’s a good thing because the typical brain lymphoma patient dies, without treatment, within two months of diagnosis.

Another test (what else?) confirmed it was not a brain lymphoma. By the time I got the results, I wasn’t worried. Several weeks had already passed, and I was alive and kicking.

There is much controversy in the medical community about the increasing amount of screening and testing being done, particularly on older folks.

It’s a healthy debate.

All this testing is making a coward out of me.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)