Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chloë G. K. Atkins' "My Imaginary Illness"

Chloë G. K. Atkins is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, My Imaginary Illness: A Journey into Uncertainty and Prejudice in Medical Diagnosis, and reported the following:
Page 99 of My Imaginary Illness describes my spouse and I in the middle of a perilous car trip. I had recently been discharged from an intensive care unit in Montreal after having experienced a respiratory crisis. We had been attending a friend’s wedding over the Labour Day weekend and had enjoyed the humid late summer days exploring the city and eating Quebecois cuisine. Unfortunately, my tentatively diagnosed illness (myasthenia gravis) flared and my breathing faltered Saturday afternoon. I arrived in the ER as a code blue. The doctors intubated me, placed me on a respirator and admitted me to the ICU. Within a few hours, a plasma exchange took place, replacing my antibodies with fresh ones that no longer attacked my neuromuscular systems – and thus my breathing muscles started to work more consistently. I began to feel much better.

But, as soon as my medical chart history arrived by fax after the long weekend, the ICU staff became hostile. Once again the possibility that my illness was psychosomatic became the primary focus of all the health care practitioners who looked after me. Suddenly, I became a con artist and a patient who no longer deserved care. The plasma exchange was halted and my nurse told me I was to be discharged from the hospital within 24 hours. While I was certainly less critically ill, I knew that I was not stable. I could breathe, but speaking made me winded. Orderlies moved my bed to a small room off to one side of the unit. Nurses and doctors did their best to ignore me in order to ensure that I didn’t receive any untoward attention that further my inappropriate illness behaviour.

I called my spouse in Toronto and asked her to drive the 5 hours to pick me up (to “rescue“ me) from the hostility of the hospital which now cared from me. Page 99 captures the long humid car trip home. Neither of us were sure that I would survive it. We felt utterly desperate and alone. And yet we were also simultaneously deeply committed to one another and to the understanding that my illness was horribly real and threatening and should normally require compassionate and comprehensive medical care - something I had yet to really receive as a patient.
Learn more about My Imaginary Illness at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue