July 2007

What ails us

By David Feela

I wasn’t feeling so great, but I didn’t know how to describe what was wrong. I should have gone to the doctor, but with gas prices out of control, my medical co-pay doing the double whammy along with my monthly insurance premiums, and my prescription- drug costs replacing the food I normally put in my mouth, I decided on a more frugal means of discovering what troubled me.

I turned on the television.

It’s difficult to believe all the debate in Washington about health-care reform for the last decade has accomplished nothing, at least nothing more than opening the door for drug companies to bring their products to prime time. If you watch television, it becomes increasingly obvious that the commercialization of illness has become the public’s first line of defense in treating our ailments.

I wondered if a television consultation would work for me, so instead of sitting in a waiting room I sat down in my recliner and aimed the remote control. Pushing the buttons, my fingers felt stiff and achy. Definitely the onset of an illness, but which one?

The first commercial I watched discussed achy legs, not fingers. As I got to thinking about it, my legs weren’t doing so well either. The ad-man called it Restless Leg Syndrome, or RLS (a handy little acronym to help me remember what my problem might be). I wrote it down on the notepad beside my chair along with the prescribed medication and continued to surf the networks.

Next I heard about BPH, which turned out to be another way of saying Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia, more commonly referred to as an uncontrollable urge to pee.

Average-looking people were gasping and dashing toward a bathroom. The ad said, “If you’re experiencing symptoms such as...frequently waking up at night to go, you might have a potential problem.” I copied the number on my notepad. Their offer for a one-week free trial sounded tempting. I haven’t had a full night’s sleeping without getting up to pee since I turned 45.

Eventually the “little purple pill” appeared, and I listened closely to hear if I was suffering from something it might resolve. A fatherly-looking actor went around the house telling his studio children to finish up whatever they were doing and then he produced a sour expression. This must be what actors do, I thought, because I recognized the look, even had the bitter taste of it in my mouth as he spoke to a Hollywood doctor about the risk of his esophagus burning up. I wasn’t sure if stomach acid could make my fingers and legs ache, but I jotted it down, just in case I decided to take the salsa out of the refrigerator for lunch.

I breezed through a few smaller ads about common aches and pains, ending in sales pitches for overthe- counter relief. But my achiness felt more serious, something that “take two aspirins and call me in the morning” wouldn’t cure.

When I saw the handsome, happy couple focusing all their attention on each other, I had to stop and watch. It turned out that his problem was ED (as in EEEEE DEEEE), and I don’t mean it as an acronym for the word Education, although I learned quite a bit just listening to the list of side-effects. I certainly wasn’t experiencing any of that, but in the back of my head I kept wondering if a stiffness in the limbs was how it all started. She looked pleased that he’d done something about his problem, and her smile certainly deserved an Emmy.

These medical dilemmas on television were not running out of patients, but I was. Diseased incarnations fashioned as artery blockages, irritable bowels, high cholesterol, migraines, skin rashes, hair loss, and diarrhea made their way into my living room and offered themselves to me like voodoo dolls. When I turned the television off, I felt worse than when I sat down, because every medical scenario had been marketed to appeal to me, to encourage me to consult a doctor, armed with a crib sheet full of symptoms and a shopping list of drugs.

When the doctor finally entered the examining room all he’d have to say would be, “Which commercial did you watch?” I’d consult my notes, give the correct channel, time, and date, and we could review my diagnosis on a Tivo, share some small talk while I’m waiting for my prescription. Yes, I’d say, I’ve been studying medicine now for most of the fall season.

My mother would be proud. She always wanted me to be a doctor.

David Feela writes from Cortez, Colo.