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Guest column | Dr. Rao Musunuru

A doctor sees medicine from the other side

I was a picture of perfect health, 6 feet tall, weighing 155 pounds, without any bad habits, and never needing to call in sick for 33 years. Of course, people expect that of me, being a cardiologist, teaching good habits and preaching good health for more than three decades. I have to lead by example, and I did.

Unfortunately, unknown to me, my spinal cord in my upper neck was being compressed progressively for many years, by bony growth of vertebral body (spinal stenosis, which I could not have prevented, even if I had known about it), to the extent that in April I suddenly developed symptoms that almost lead to quadriplegia.

Facing the prospect of permanent disability or death, I underwent emergency surgery at 4 in the morning. Thank God, I recovered completely and am back to full time work, both professional and voluntary. Thanks to all the prayers and support from thousands of well-wishers. I was touched by the endless outpouring of human kindness and compassion.

The local expertise and the superb skills of the medical and paramedical professionals, especially the neurosurgeon Dr. George Giannakopoulos, speaks for itself. I also was reminded that nurses are the backbone of the medical profession. I know that, but it is gratifying when people prove you right and reaffirm your belief and faith.

Typically, I imagine, one would expect me to say that I now understand what patients and families go through and that I now have become a more compassionate person. Sorry to disappoint you. That is not how I feel.

I realized that I always knew how patients in the bed and families in the waiting room felt. I have always spent hours with them explaining their condition and available options. I never kept patients or families waiting. I called families at home, even out of state, very early in the mornings or late at night. They saw my face peering over theirs after they were resuscitated in the emergency room or they gained consciousness in the recovery room. I even offered to drive them home if they didn't have a ride.

But what I was very pleased to learn is that most of my doctors did the same for my family and me. Not because I am a physician and not because I was a friend (I had a difference of opinion with some of them more than once regarding hospital issues), but because I was a helpless patient, at their mercy struggling for my life and because they are trained, dedicated and determined to help and save.

I suspect that some can tell about how bad their own hospital experience was. A bad apple can be expected in every barrel. One physician visited me on the weekend, sat for two minutes at the other end of the room and spent most of that time trying his best to talk down to me during my most vulnerable moments, for no obvious reason. Certainly, offending one of my doctors (with whom I never had any conflicts) was not on my agenda that day. I was a patient struggling to get out of the hospital alive.

I originally wanted to go out of town for surgery (for privacy concerns, in my case, as the long time patients tend to freak out when they hear their doctor is very ill). I could not, because of the acute worsening of my condition. That truly turned out to be a blessing.

I could not have possibly gotten any better care, help or results anywhere else in the country. To think otherwise is a big myth. We have unparalleled medical expertise locally in many fields. We have been expanding services at local hospitals to unimaginable levels of national prominence, since I came to town 30 years ago. Little did I know, my heart hospital would save my neck (literally) one day.

Moreover, local social and moral support, as I personally learned, is the most vital in the treatment and recovery process. My son, who coincidentally came from Harvard to deliver a pre-arranged lecture to the medical staff locally, was instrumental in my full recovery, staying by my bedside for two weeks.

As we all recognize, we have many pitfalls in our health-care delivery system, which justifiably leads to many endless debates and enormous distress. I do not suppose to imply that my happy ending is so typical, by any means.

I needed to take a stomach medication, after my surgery. I knew one particular brand works best for me. My health insurance company refused to cover it. I decided to buy it myself. My regular drug store wanted $400 for 30 capsules. I can afford it, but I would rather donate that money to help the needy, and I know tens of thousands of them, being involved in many charitable organizations that help homeless, helpless and hopeless. What about patients that have to make a choice between the medication for them and food for their children?

God gave me another chance and I can only promise to continue to pay back, in any way I can. I am barely 60 and, God willing, I have many good years left to continue to do the right things.

However, I never take life for granted and I count my blessings for every good day that is presented to me.

Dr. Rao Musunuru is a practicing cardiologist in Bayonet Point.

A doctor sees medicine from the other side 05/25/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 5:09pm]
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