After concussion – I’m not stupid, you just think I am

This is an extension of the piece I wrote years ago (January, 2011), called “After concussion – you’re not stupid, it just feels that way“. I’m writing this after seeing a physiatrist for a follow-up appointment regarding neck & shoulder pain/stiffness and tingling and weakness in my left hand and arm. They had given me a prescription for a physical therapist to get some help, but I never got PT help, because:

  1. Carving time out of my schedule is a challenge. I already have two standing appointments after work, each week, and a third (and sometimes a fourth) usually shows up, which doesn’t leave me enough time to rest.
  2. The one PT who I am interested in seeing has an office a good hour from my home, which not only makes it tough to find the time, but it also threatens to wipe out any benefits I get from them, while I’m driving home.
  3. It’s hard for me to explain what’s going on with me, because I get turned around – especially when I’m tired, and my symptoms shift and change. It’s hard for me to A) remember from one day to the next how I’ve been feeling, B) track how I’m feeling without it being disruptive, and C) put into words the impact of my issues. Not being able to explain — especially to people who do not know me, and who do not know how to parse out all the information in a meaningful way… it’s just a waste of time.
  4. The PTs I’ve worked with in the past have had no clue (I mean, NO CLUE) what to do with me, when they found out about my head and neck injuries. They either treated me like I was mentally deficient, or they got so in a tizzy about my different injuries and whole host of aches and pains and issues, that they were no use to me at all. They were so obsessed with being careful, that they achieved nothing at all.And what they showed me was stuff I already knew how to do.

So, no, I didn’t follow up with a PT, and I told the doctor a few of the points above. I should have written it down, but I didn’t get to it.

The doc was a little taken aback, probably because I had seemed so compliant and cooperative when we’d met. I explained to them that I hadn’t had good experiences with PTs, and anyway, I thought I’d try to fix the issue myself with some light exercises… which has worked. Strengthening my trapezius muscles in a specific way and also stretching my neck has resolved my issues. That, and being determined to not get hooked into a healthcare system that is A) clueless about me, and B) too impatient to be of much help to me.

In the end, we parted ways with them telling me that I was going to be fine and I guess trying to be encouraging. That’s fine, but it was also a bit infuriating, because (cover your ears and/or close your eyes) Jesus Fucking Christ They Treated Me Like A Goddamned Simple-Minded Idiot. They talked slowly and said “Good job!” a lot, like I was a goddamned puppy learning a new trick. They were complementary towards me for taking things into my own hands and being pro-active, but the way they did it seemed forced, like they were making an extra effort to accommodate my “disability”.

I do not have a disability. I have a history of injuries that have changed the ways I process information, and just because I’m struggling to find the right words — “X-ray”… “arthritis”… “traps” — doesn’t mean I’m not parsing all the information as well as the next person. My brain works differently — not worse. But every time I stopped to find a word or I had to work at putting thoughts into a sentence, they got a little more “accommodating” and remedial with the way they interacted with me. The worst thing was when I started to tear up over explaining why it’s hard for me to get help.When I get angry or frustrated, I tend to cry. And you’re right, if you’re thinking “How inconvenient… How infuriating.”  It is. And that makes me even more prone to tears. Arrrrgggghhhh!!!!! &(*$^%#*!!!!

I’m sure they were trying to be compassionate and empathetic and whatever, but their total affect came across like they had to talk more slowly and put ideas into small words and lower their communication level for the simpleton in the room (that would be me). It seemed like they thought that I was less intelligent and less capable of processing information due to my history of TBI, so they had to talk to me like a 5th grader. Plus, they kept saying that everything that’s happening to me, is just because of my getting older. They said that a lot, last time I saw them. And they kept saying it with this air of “professional resignation”, like that’s just how it is, and I was a mentally deficient person who was getting all paranoid with bad thought habits, thanks to my history of head injury.

The thing is, my 50 years on the planet might be a factor, but my family members regularly live well into their 90s and  past 100, so I’ve got another 50 years ahead of me. At least. It’s medically possible now to live till 120, so we’re probably looking at 150 being possible, by the time I near that. That’s my plan, and all this talk about “well, that’s just what happens when you get old” is not helpful to my plan. It’s just a bit resigned. Pessimistic. Cynical. None of the things that actually help me… or are consistent with my own attitude towards life and living it to its fullest.

Now, if I were going to see this doctor regularly for an extended period of time, I could do something about this. They would get to know me. They would change their mind about what “has” to happen as we grow older. They would realize that they don’t have to give me me special treatment – they just need to have a little patience while my brain coughs up the right word. And I’d be able to educate them about the ways in which I am strong – so strong – instead of just what they see with the verbal issues.

But I’m never going to see them again. I can deal with my issues on my own. I don’t need to be constantly told to adjust my expectations down, thanks to the inevitable march of time. And call me crazy, but adding an hour of driving, breaking up my work day, and spending $40 a pop to go see someone who is just going to talk down to me, no matter how helpful they’re trying to be… seems like a waste of time. It was a great lesson to learn — next time I’m not going to bother going back again, if I’m actually not having any more issues. Consider the lesson learned.

It’s best that I just steer clear.

And while I’ll never have to deal with them again, most likely, this is the thing that makes me NUTS about people and their cognitive prejudices. If you’ve got difficulties putting words together verbally, people assume you’re less intelligent or are “slow”. If you have little tics or fidgets, they think there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t answer them immediately with a definitive reply, they take you for weak-minded and indecisive, and they sometimes get angry to boot. If you get tired and distracted and lose track of what they’re talking about, they think you’re not interested in what they’re saying, and they get angry. If you can’t remember things that happened only a few minutes ago, they think you’ve got Alzheimer’s or some other degenerative condition that’s making you lose your mind, and they start “helping” you remember things.

Doctors are just as susceptible. They are human, after all, and medical education doesn’t always impart insight or interpersonal clue-fulness. Maybe this physiatrist has seen other folks with concussion / TBI, and they needed the extra help. But it’s really demeaning to treat people in that way — like children, or developmentally delayed “dearies” who just need love and understanding – not cold, hard facts.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have treated me like I was “special”. Like my inability to remember things marked me as less-than. Like my losing track of things and getting lost with directions meant I was functionally impaired.

I am not an idiot. I am not simple-minded. I am not intellectually impaired.

I have a handful of issues that get a lot worse when I am tired, in unfamiliar conditions, or under pressure. I have a handful of issues that I have learned to work around. I don’t need anyone’s condescension or “help”. I just need people to cut me a break, be polite, and treat me professionally. I need them to treat me like the adult I am, and with the respect I deserve.

Is that so much to ask?

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Town and Country – Where (and how) we live should determine the treatment approach for TBI / Concussion

Not everyone lives in a city – or thinks and talks like it

Since I’ve been down with the flu this week, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how different sorts of people get — and respond to — different sorts of treatment. This can be for flu… or it can be for traumatic brain injury / concussion. The basic paradigm is the same, across the board, I believe. And it’s something I think we really need to consider, when it comes to treating TBI / concussion.

One thing I have noticed, over the course of my life, is how I am often at odds with my doctors over being self-sufficient… to the point of being considered a “risk taker” with regards to my health. This includes doctors, dentists, neuropsychologists, therapists, nurses, etc. The thing they don’t seem to understand, is that this is how my whole family is – has always been.

See, here’s the deal – even though I have spent half my life in cities and half in very rural settings, I come from a rural family. I mean, frontier-rural — prairie rural. My great-great-great grandparents (on both sides of the family) were some of the “sod-busters” who moved out into the newly opened prairie (my apologies to the Native folks who were driven off — I am really deeply sorry for what was done, and it’s a little horrifying to me that my ancestors benefited from your terrible losses).

Before them, too, my ancestors were adventurers and explorers who traveled far and wide throughout the European world, and lived on the margins of “mainstream” society. They were self-sufficient. Because they had to be. Same with my great-great-great grandparents. They lived miles from the nearest doctor. He was usually a day’s wagon ride away. If you fell or got sick, you had to make do, until he got there, or for as long as you could.

Sometimes you couldn’t even get a doctor.

Given this fact of life, my family — both sides of them — had to develop a self-reliant quality that would keep them alive and keep them from depending too greatly on professional help for their daily needs.

Contrast this with folks in cities or other developed areas, where you can get to professional help within hours, if not minutes. In a city, or in a developed community, the challenge is not keeping yourself alive, it is learning to communicate the details of your ailment/need to the professional who can help you.

Now, let’s fast-forward through time to today — when I am still as independent as anyone in my family, and I look for solutions of my own to issues I face.  My doctors/providers approach me at times as though I am “hostile” to their help, when all I’m doing is having the same orientation of independence that folks in the middle of nowhere have to have. I also live at some distance from the nearest hospital I trust implicitly, so I have to choose carefully when and where I get my medical care.

It’s not that I am uncooperative or hostile. I am rural at heart. Self-sufficient by nature. I am my great-great-great grandparents’ offspring (aside from the Native antagonism), and that’s how I stay alive. It’s how I always have, and it’s how I really feel I have to be, to get by in the world. But when I try to communicate with my doctor, they seem to think that I am being intentionally difficult, simply by needing to stand on my own when I can. I have to be able to function without leaning on everyone around me — which is the way that you can be when you’re in an urban environment; social interaction and interdependency is built into your dna. I’m not knocking leaning on others. If you can do it reliably, then fine. But with me, depending on others can very well shorten my life needlessly, if I disregard my own judgment an the signs I see about my own situation.

The other piece of this, which I think needs to be factored into adequate TBI / concussion care, is class. I’m not talking about taste and money, but the way in which you work and live your life. Working class folks have different ways of interacting with authority figures, than professional class folks do. I think Malcom Gladwell made a really going point of it in his book “Outliers” which is about people who do exceptionally well in life. He points out that people in professional classes are taught (sometimes from a very young age, if they’re born into it) to interact with “authority” as peers, rather than subordinates, while working class folks expect authorities to offer them guidance and direction and clear instructions on what to do.

When you “occupy” a certain class, it’s like you occupy a certain “geography” – and I would wager to say that being part of the professional class is like being urban/suburban in nature. You have more money, you have more access to other professionals (by social association as well as perks and benefits with work, etc), and you are more interdependent with others, from service providers who care for your house and your property and your money and your health (in all its manifestations).

When you’re working class, however, your world is different. The scenery is different. You have different types of friends and acquaintances, and different levels of access to different aspects of life. And you have to be a lot more self-sufficient, just as you do when you’re rural. You don’t have the same amount of money that gives you instant access to certain services and assistance, so you either have to do without, improvise, or find alternatives. That applies to every aspect of life, including health care.

And here is the big disconnect I see between the kind of help that’s offered to TBI / concussion survivors and the providers who seek to help us. At least, this has been my experience… The doctors I know and have worked with over the years have often come from urban or suburban backgrounds. And they obviously are members of the professional class. As such, even if they grew up in urban surroundings, they are now part of a class that is by its nature geared towards interacting with other professional class members as peers, rather than as superiors/subordinates. So, when folks come to them asking for help, and those folks are from working class or rural backgrounds, the docs don’t always ‘get’ what’s expected of them in that relationship. Either that, or the docs aren’t willing to meet their patients half-way with language and communication that bridges the gaps in class and background.

A prime example is my own experience with my PCP – I have a great doc, who it took years for me to find. They have my best interests at heart, and they are very personable towards me. They clearly want me to be well, and we have had some great exchanges. But they just don’t get my need for self-sufficiency. And they seem to think that my wish to be independent and self-sufficient is a sign of distrust of them and/or our relationship. They see my reluctance to get flu shots as being stubborn, when my real rationale is that it’s just plain unhealthy for a human body to not build up its own resistance to heavy-duty infection (as unpleasant as the building up process may be). They interpret my need to call the shots in my own life and make my own health decisions, as disrespectful of their expertise, when it’s just me exercising the very essential mental muscles, so that I can have some say in my own destiny. It’s a little problematic for our relationship, and I need to do some clearing up, when I get a chance.

I may get this chance on Friday. Or not. But whether I do or not, it’s always going to be a factor with them. On Friday, I hope to ask them if they were raised in a city or in the countryside. That should shed a lot of light on the dynamics. We’ll see how that turns out.

In any case, I think especially when it comes to post-TBI care (be it medical or ongoing rehab), the socio-economic background of the individuals involved needs to be factored in and adapted to. This is something that every medical school should teach, in my opinion, because teaching young doctors to realize the differences between individuals based on class and where they live, could truly transform the doctor-patient relationship – especially with regard to such gray areas as concussion / TBI.

Specifically with regard to concussion / TBI, I think it would make sense if there were different ways of instructing Emergency Room visitors to handle TBI recovery. Instructions should be phrased differently, based on the person — not over-simplified “d’oh” language for hayseeds, but plain English for those who need that, versus more technical explanations for those who need that. The English language offers many different options. We should use them all, in explaining proper TBI care to patients who desperately need it.

Beyond immediate medical response and care, I’m sure there are elements of rehab that could also be modified to accommodate different classes and geographies, but I don’t know enough about them to speak to them. All I really know about is dealing with my own doc who seems to think they know enough about TBI and don’t need to factor that into my overall healthcare, let alone discuss the impact it might have in individual circumstances. TBI and the issues that arise from it touch on every single aspect of my life, yet my doctor just seems to dismiss it. And when I bring it up, they just get nervous — perhaps because it’s not something they can fix with a pill or a prescription. And it’s also not necessarily something they can bill insurance for. If they can’t bill for something, they’re not going to spend the time. It’s not that they’re negligent — they are under pressure from their practice to log truly billable hours. I’ve seen that first-hand, and it’s not pretty.

I think, in the end, there are significant aspects of our lives which are not getting due respect, because they’re concealed beneath the layers of socio-economic bias that separate so many of us. And nowhere is it more visible, than in healthcare — particularly in care for those who have sustained TBI / concussion. People who do rough, dangerous jobs stand a greater chance of sustaining a traumatic brain injury, than those who sit behind a desk all day. And those who do rough, dangerous jobs, tend to not have Ph.D. after their names.

What’s more, out in the country where you’re living a bit closer to Mother Nature than when you’re in town, you’re more exposed to the kinds of events that will get you hit on the head. Farming accidents. Building accidents. Hunting accidents. ATV accidents. Falls. Tornadoes. Storms. Floods. Sinkholes.  The list goes on. And if ever there were a need, it’s for people with the power and influence to provide advanced medical care, to make it more accessible to those without the letters after their names and the zeroes a the end of their salaries.

I’m not asking for hand-outs or charity. I’m just asking for common sense. In the end, access to quality care isn’t just about proximity and availability, it’s also about interpretation and understanding.

Sometimes, understanding is what we need the most.