Thursday, July 12, 2012

When They Said I had IBS

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A friend was talking about In N-Out Burger and over the weekend, and it reminded me of one of my past experiences with doctors of a different sort than I usually write about.

My husband and I were in Los Angeles eight years ago, before I had any obvious manifestations of autoimmune disease. (I was actually considering a move to LA for graduate school and was torn about what to do but that is a whole other story!)  Our friends in LA and my now hubby raved about the hamburgers at In N-Out and insisted that I had to try one.  Not being much of a fast food gal, I still went for the bait. Initially I enjoyed the meal, but I quickly came to regret my decision--just my luck I had gotten myself a very bad case of food poisoning.  Simple food poisoning usually passes fairly quickly, but this was different. The food had thrown my stomach into complete turmoil and the symptoms lasted weeks after my return home.  Every time I ate, my stomach revolted.

Eventually I went to my internist at the time; he then referred me to a gastrointestinal specialist. They ran tests and cultures to make sure that I hadn't picked up a bacteria or a parasite.  When they came back negative, the GI specialist insisted on a colonoscopy.  It didn't show anything in particular and the doctor then concluded that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  I know that IBS can be a serious diagnosis and I have several friends who struggle with it.  But, what did this diagnosis mean for me?  It meant I had stomach problems... and since the doctor couldn't find anything with the tests, he threw a catch-all diagnosis on it so he could stop dealing with me.  His therapeutic suggestion?  That I should do yoga to relax--intimating that my stomach upset came from stress.  I was confused.  I had never had stomach problems before this food poisoning.  How did one thing lead to the other?  He didn't know, but the problem was he didn't seem to care.  A switch had been flipped.  Once he decided I had IBS, he immediately decided to go to his "playbook" for IBS: reducing stress was a good cure for him.  It is not that I’m opposed to yoga by itself as a treatment, but rather it was clear that it in my case the suggestion was a convenient way of categorizing and dismissing my symptoms...and getting rid of me.  As I've learned since, there area various treatments and steps one can take to help rebuild the gut, but those weren't discussed. 

Looking back, I still wonder if this physician would have treated a male patient the same way and told him to do yoga and relax. I have a hard time seeing a doctor tell my husband to do that in the same situation.

I guess it shouldn't have surprised me a couple years later when I started to have symptoms of autoimmune disease and doctors kept telling me that if they couldn't see anything wrong in the test results then I couldn't be that sick. At the time I didn’t realize that the process I had endured with my stomach would repeat many more times in the coming years once my autoimmune disease kicked off:

Step 1: Go to doctor for problem.

Step 2: Doctor conducts set of tests they "do" for a particular condition.

Step 3: Test come back inconclusive, slap a diagnosis (or not) on me, and tell the me try to relax or take pain killers.

The concept that further thought and clinical analysis was needed, that what I said was accurate, or that they should try to figure out a potential cause for my symptoms did not seem to enter the equation for most of the doctors I saw.  Or, another one my favorites, that they didn't know what was wrong with me, but I was young and would eventually get better and I just had to wait it out.

Thankfully, my stomach did clear up on its own with careful diet and the tincture of time.  It took almost a year for it to really return to normal.  Maybe this was an early clue as to how sensitive my body is to any assaults or disruptions.  And of course, I will never eat an In N-Out burger again, but the picture of the one above does look particularly good.

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