So I’ve been dealing with a persistent ear infection thing for the past 10 days. Started while I was sick, but has lasted long beyond the other symptoms, which have passed. Scarily, it has survived a round of antibiotics without diminishing. Feels like a knot of something behind the inner ear – either a vacuum or a clod somewhere in there, leaning against the cochlea maybe. My hearing in the left ear is diminished by about 50%, and there’s a persistent ringing. My voice reverberates in my head, as does my every footstep. It’s uncomfortable and scary and leads to hypochrondriacal thoughts about tumors and other dangerous nasties – not typical thoughts at all for me, but its resistance to medication and unrelenting nagging at my state of being is doing a number on me.
My M.D. has run out of theories and has referred me to an otolaryngologist. Here’s where my patience with the medical system runs into a brick wall. When you get referred to a specialist in this country, you go into this double limbo state. First, you’re given a list of doctors covered by your plan. In this case, I had 18 to choose from, with zero criteria to use in choosing one. Throw a dart at the wall and see where it lands. No Consumer Reports for medical specialists, no user rankings, no anecdotal assistance. Just pick someone at random to entrust with your most critical needs.
Fortunately, I did have one criteria: I needed to see someone yesterday or today, because I fly tomorrow to Austin for a week at SXSW/Interactive. That’s where you hit limbo state #2. Started calling names on the list, only to find that earliest appointments were three weeks out. If you need to see someone soon, you’re directed to the emergency room — where you end up not seeing a specialist, like your doctor ordered. These are your choices: wait weeks (while more damage is possibly caused, depending on the malady), or go to the E.R. where you’ll wait all day and see someone who doesn’t specialize in the problem (gee, isn’t that why my doctor sent me to a specialist to begin with?) If you’ve got something that needs rapid attention, you’re S.O.L. What really weirds me out is that when you try to talk about this paradox with nurses and receptionists, there’s zero sympathy. That’s just the way the system works, and my goodness, aren’t you a weird one for bringing attention to it?
Finally did find someone with an appointment for today (a cancellation), but it took hours out of my work day yesterday, wading through phone trees, waiting on hold, waiting for call-backs, having the same conversation over and over again…
Everything – everything – is wrong with this picture. The idea seems to be that medicine somehow stands apart from the free market. I would expect that there being more demand than supply would result in there being more practices. But it’s not even about that. A lot of the offices I spoke too said things like “We only see patients Tues and Thurs mornings.” Huhn??? If you’re setting appointments three weeks out, why don’t you work more hours?
Every time I’m forced to deal with Medicine in America I feel like I’m walking on a strange planet where the rules of reality are in permanent suspension. None of it makes any sense.
Update: So it looks like I’ve contracted a form of virus that attacks the inner ear. Unlike bacteria, virii aren’t addressed by antibiotics (which is why there’s no antibiotic for colds or AIDS). There’s really no treatment, except to wait for the body to deal with it, which it probably will on its own. There is the remote possibility of permanent hearing loss, but so far it looks good – he tested my hearing and I actually haven’t lost nearly as much as I thought. It’s common for people to overestimate because the sensations are so weird. The “reverberations” are from a phenomenon called “autophony” — hearing yourself — also common when the cochlea is filled with fluid. Just in case it is a strong bacteria and not a virus, he’s put me on a stronger course of antibiotics, just to cover all the bases.