Learning to interpret health risks with my sonLearning to interpret health risks with my son

By Jane Flanagan

Volume 16 • Issue 22 | Oct 28 – Nov 03, 2003

Learning to interpret health risks with my son

These days I spend a lot more time focusing on things medical. It’s partly because I’m in my mid-40s, the age when things start to break down. But I also have a young child and visit doctors’ offices twice as much.

I’m making some odd discoveries.

This summer I came across a newspaper article reporting the latest reason why hormone replacement therapy is not a good idea. As I recall, the article said that H.R.T. does not stave off dementia as was originally hoped. The really big news, of course, came a year earlier when the National Institute for Health halted its research when it concluded that H.R.T. actually increased the risk of invasive breast cancer, heart disease and strokes.

On the brink of menopause, I am paying close attention. I’m certainly relieved to be learning the truth about these drugs. But it gives me pause. In the year prior to the N.I.H. announcement, 67 million prescriptions for H.R.T. were written, according to an article I read in Washington Monthly magazine. Why did so many doctors believe it was good for women when there was no evidence backing it up?

It’s an odd time, too, to be uneasy about the wisdom of medical practitioners. With so much state-of-the-art technology at the doctor’s office, there are some unusual things going on.

Last summer, I brought Rusty, my 5-year-old son, to the dentist for the first time. The dentist and I were going to great lengths to make it a non-threatening experience. He promised Rusty a surprise if he was a brave boy. I held him in my lap for the exam. The dentist and I kept complimenting him, too, “you are so grown up,” “what a trooper,” etc.

But then came time for the X-rays.

Rusty could no longer sit on my lap, said the dentist. In fact, I would have to leave the room. The dental assistant went to get the lead apron.

“Why are you putting this on me?” Rusty asked.

“Just going to take some pictures,” said the dentist.

I was instructed to wait outside, preferably against the opposite wall. The assistant joined me.

“Okay, it’ll just take a minute,” said the dentist. With that, he pressed a button and bolted out of the room, nearly knocking into me. He did this three more times. With my back against the wall, I couldn’t help but ponder this. Dentists may know a lot about easing a child’s fears, but they are clueless about mothers.

This man, who had been through advanced medical training, saw fit to bolt out of a room my son was still in. Lead apron, schmed apron.

Welcome to the world of nuclear and radiation medicine. I have, of course, decided to go with it being perfectly safe in limited doses and with proper precautions. (Is there a choice?) But I can’t say current medical etiquette is putting me at ease.

Last month I had a nuclear stress test. Smart people tell me that it’s the only reliable test for women’s hearts and I was grateful to get it. Still, the advice of the technician who injected me with the nuclear dye gave me pause.

“Just to be on the safe side,” he began, when he was interrupted by a phone call. While he was on the phone, I speculated about what he was going to say.

I concluded he would most likely tell me not to exert myself for the rest of the day.

He hung up the phone.

“Just to be on the safe side, don’t get within six feet of your son for the next 24- hours. And no hugging. I have kids, too, and that’s what I would do.”

So, the emissions of whatever was coursing through my veins was potentially dangerous enough to harm a child six feet away.

Certainly, state-of-the-art technology has given me uneasy moments. But, I have to admit, it has also been a godsend at critical junctures.

One year ago this week, I went under the knife for emergency abdominal surgery. Nothing life threatening, thank God, unless, of course I didn’t have the operation. Or the surgeon and his equipment weren’t top notch.

Fortunately, they were. This excellent doctor used a new, special scalpel that greatly reduces blood loss as well as a machine to re-circulate a patient’s blood.

Talk about terrific technology.

Yes, I appreciate technological advancement. Of many types. As the surgeon was wheeling me into the operating room, I marveled over another one:

“To think I found this guy on the Internet.”