I was a Registered Nurse for 8 years — in one of the first HIV specialist units in the country, in the only public ER of one of the murder capitals of the US, in cardiac telemetry, in home care. It was a good, demanding, well-rounded career, if a bit short for my taste.
I’ve often wanted to re-educate my nursing self in light of my experience as a patient.
Here’s one of the most outstanding, outrageous lies we tell ourselves as clinicians: medications are not invasive.
That statement bears no resemblance to the reality of those being treated. It relates entirely and exclusively to the clinician’s experience. The clinician’s unstated assumption is, “I’m not hanging onto the thing that’s getting under your skin; therefore, what I’m doing is not invasive.”
News flash: Treatment is not about the clinician. It’s about the person being treated.
Medications get taken into the whole body, not just the ill part. Injections go right past the first barrier against infection and assault, the skin. Oral medications go through the mouth, descend into the stomach, and there meet the second barrier to infection and assault, the GI system… which they either aren’t bothered by, or can resist.
They’re then taken up by the blood, which goes everywhere.
They are all processed in the liver (it’s called “phosphorylation” and, privately, I suspect that’s why we tend to have trouble with phosphorus issues when we’re on lots of meds.) This is why too many meds for too long can lead, or contribute, to liver failure.
What goes through the liver goes through the spleen and kidneys, because that’s how it works. This is why some drugs can cause kidney damage.
What hangs out in the blood can, all too often, hang out in the brain. This is why some medications for organ issues or even a simple infection can cause deafness.
Blood circulation exchanges fluids with lymphatic circulation. Blood and lymph communicate with the central nervous system via the blood/brain barrier and the sheath around the spinal cord. The blood/brain barrier provides partial, rather temperamental protection, but it can be suborned by anything that makes the tissues fragile — fever, illness, injury… and some kinds of medication.
What is in the blood goes everywhere.
How is that not invasive?
I’m watching my partner fading with weakness after only a week on a couple of cardiac meds. I’m certain his heart has not gotten worse in a measly 7 days. The only thing that has changed is that he is seeing doctors and taking medication — for nearly the first time in his life. (“No side effects,” my left foot.)
How much of that weariness is stress, how much of it is the past couple of years catching up with him, how much of it is heart disease (actually, that part is pretty clear) and how much of it is medications? Each of these things has some part in it, there’s no question, but drawing the line between them is more than I can really do. I know the meds are part of it, but how much?
Medications are intimately, unavoidably invasive. There is no completely safe dose, and there is nothing that helps you for free.
Everything — meds, interventions, surgeries — EVERYTHING has side effects. There is no single thing you can do to your body, or allow others to do, that doesn’t affect every part of you in some way.
My years as a CRPSer, where the consequences of every change are so exaggerated, makes this pitilessly clear to me.
Given that there is no free ride, we have to look at the tradeoffs. Knowing that there are issues with absolutely everything, however “natural” or “close to our bodies’ own chemicals” it may be, we have to balance that against whatever benefits it may have.
Herbs are included, by the way. My increased sun sensitivity (which my disease causes a bit of anyway) and impairment of birth control (which I don’t take — what, mess with these chaotic hormones?) are side effects I shoulder with my eyes open, so that I can have the neurotransmitter support of the St. John’s wort herb I take twice a day.
I review all my medications twice a year at least, to see how I can tread the narrow path between optimum benefit and minimal confusion. Doing this from a chronically slightly confused state is, naturally, a whole different kind of fun. Working out which part of the daffiness is disease and which part is meds and supplements is really my most important task.
My partner has to choose between cautiously building back up some heart strength and circulation — and meanwhile have a life that is a small fraction of what he used to have for energy and activity, unless and until the medications and rehab really work; or risking the total loss of death by having a surgery which would leave him in pain and in rehab for awhile — but, afterwards, bring him back a lot closer to his normal, with many good years ahead.
Wait and see and work and hope, or take a leap and — if you live — work and probably win?
In a way, I envy him. If there were a procedure to do a bypass graft to eliminate CRPS, I’d be in the OR already. I’ve had enough of a twilit life, of exhaustion and fog. I want to get back into the full sun.
I miss running, too.
But it’s his heart, not mine. I do my best to explain things, listen carefully so as not to run over his real thoughts, and grab hold of my anxiety with both hands, so that any decision made is truly his. As it has to be.
Until then, he has to peer through the fog and work through the weariness of these “non-invasive” medications, to make his choices and his appointments. I’m just there to help — and to make sure he’s taken seriously, which is a real drawback to looking as fit as he does.
But that issue is another post…