Fault Lines

This past week brought more doctor’s appointments. The culture on my ankle ulcer came back positive for a rare gamma-negative bacteria. And, of course, I’m allergic to the sulfa antibiotic that is the treatment of choice.

So it was time to see my infectious disease specialist. And, of course, he was not available. Another very experienced specialist was covering for him, but when I asked for an appointment, I was told that his next available was in three weeks.

Now, I don’t know if the receptionist really understood what the doctor’s specialty is all about. But I wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

“This is an active infection,” I said. “I have to see him this week.”

She took my phone number and told me someone would get back to me. Soon after, I got a call from one of the nurses, who said the doctor had reviewed my test results and wanted to see me that day. Which I did. He gave me a prescription for a different class of antibiotics, and so far, it seems to be working.

It pays to be assertive, especially when dealing with the medical profession. Over the past three-plus decades, I’ve learned that you have to advocate for yourself. I don’t mean being obnoxious or yelling at hapless appointment secretaries. But medicine involves a lot of gatekeepers, some of whom insist on sticking to rigid rules of access. I do my best to be firm, polite, yet clear about what I need. That requires a willingness to push the envelope.

It also requires creative problem-solving. The other appointment that I needed was to see a wound care specialist. Several of my digital ulcers are somewhere on the skin damage continuum between second and third degree burns. I know they are going to take months more to heal. This is the worst they’ve ever been, and I need some serious advice.

When I saw my podiatrist about my ankle ulcer, he had referred me to the wound care specialist at his hospital, an hour-and-a-half from home. This physician is very good. But when I called for an appointment, I was informed that one of my other doctors, who is familiar with my digital ulcers, would have to send some medical notes.

Enter the world of HIPAA releases. I had two choices: to send records from my Boston Medical Center rheumatologist or from my rheumatologist at home. BMC, I soon discovered, would take 7 to 10 business days to process the written and faxed request. If I went through my local medical center, the request would only take a few days. But there was still the matter of then getting an appointment. All told, I estimated it would be a good month before I could actually be seen. Too long.

So, when I saw the infectious disease specialist last Wednesday, I asked his advice for a wound care specialist at my local hospital. He gave me the name of a vascular surgeon, and I then asked Al, who works at the hospital, to find out what he could. One of his colleagues, another social worker who knows this doctor’s work with patients, gave a sterling recommendation. I called the wound clinic and immediately got an appointment for this coming Thursday.

I’ve learned a great deal from living with scleroderma for three-plus decades about how to get the right care. You have to be tenacious, no matter how lousy you may be feeling that day. You have to understand the complexity of your disease, research about treatments, what’s covered under your insurance, what isn’t, how to find the right physicians, and how to get the answers that will really help you to heal.

And that’s just for starters. At the granular level, managing a chronic “pre-existing condition” is a whole lot more complicated—and stressful, and exhausting (not to mention expensive and time-consuming)—than soundbites or political slogans can ever convey.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Zoshua Colah

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