Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Common Doctor Blind Spot

Patient alert: Many doctors seem to have a blindspot while treating infections. This can subject patients to needless agony or worse. I have personally observed this at least half a dozen times in India and the US, and some cases ended very badly. In all of these the patients were intensively treated with all kinds of strong antibiotics, to no avail. Here they are in chronological order:
  1. Over forty years ago my father's uncle suffered a slow and agonizing death from virtual starvation after being hospitalized and then released. He refused to eat anything, and by the time they figured out why, it was too late.
  2. My brother Kaku as an infant was afflicted with this infection and suffered for weeks after a hernia operation. It even transferred to my mother who was breast-feeding him. Finally, a very good and experienced doctor diagnosed the problem and it disappeared quickly.
  3. Vivek from my college and subsequently my IAS batchmate in HP had a severe illness in the late 70's that landed him in one hospital in India and then another for several weeks. He had high fever, loss of appetite, yellow eyes and other symptoms of hepatitis that had doctors stumped since he did not respond to conventional treatments. Starting from a healthy body weight he lost about forty pounds in that time before doctors in India's famed AIIMS hospital correctly identified the infection. They then quickly (and easily) treated him, bringing him back from the brink.
  4. In the late 80's my friend Raj was hospitalised in LA for several days with high fever and other symptoms that defied any treatment. Finally, a doctor of Indian origin happened upon his case, asked him one very relevant question, then ordered a test that confirmed that doctor's suspicions and prescribed medication that rapidly cured Raj.
  5. About 10 years ago my young cousin Pavan in the US who was a medical student had a tonsillectomy. A few days later the pain in his throat was so acute despite all the medicines he received that he couldn't eat. Based on her experience (and high intelligence) my mother who has no medical background guessed at the problem and asked Pavan's family to bring it up with his doctor. The doctor after needless delay finally listened and Pavan was treated, but his prolonged suffering caused him to miss his medical board exams that year.
  6. Just last month my father-in-law (Daddy) was recovering from two major surgeries at Inlaks hospital in Pune, including complications of pneumonia and hospital acquired infections. His lungs cleared and surgical wounds healed after a strong regimen of antibiotics, but he continued suffer from cough and persistent throat irritation. He couldn't sleep, asked to gargle every 15 - 30 minutes even at night. The Inlaks doctors ordered more antibiotics and tests and thought the irritation was due to residual infection in the breathing passages, as well as the feeding tube that was subsequently inserted because Daddy wouldn't eat or drink. But the problems was as bad or worse for several days after the feeding tube was removed and he was taken back home. Then I had Dr. I examine Daddy at home. Dr. I is very intelligent and sought after though he doesn't have quite the fancy qualifications of the Inlaks doctors. He had Daddy open his mouth wide, depressed his tongue and peered at the back of his throat with a flashlight. That was enough to provide the answer and clearing the condition in two days, though this was after two weeks of avoidable suffering and debilitation.
There is a common thread in all these cases. The doctors did not consider anything beyond bacteria and viruses as the cause of the infections, or simply ascribed the problem to "weakness" or irritation.

But in four of these cases at 1, 2, 5 and 6 above involving my great-uncle, brother Kaku, cousin Pavan and Daddy respectively the culprit was oral fungus, commonly known as thrush. The "good" bacteria in the oral cavity normally keeps this fungus in check, but antibiotics can kill this good bacteria. Then this very painful fungus infects the delicate lining of the oral cavity and typically shows up as white spots (though these may not be visible in the esophagus.) Once diagnosed, thrush is easily and rapidly treated. But if doctors who don't catch on and simply give more antibiotics can make the problem worse instead of better.

In case 3 involving my colleague Vivek, the culprit was amoebiasis where it was the amoeba that had invaded the liver. Again, while antibiotics don't work at all, anti-amoebic medications rapidly clear the condition - provided the doctors make the correct call.

Wanna guess what Raj had come down with in case 4? Well, it was malaria. The American doctors did not have this on their radar as it rarely occurs in the US. But the Indian doctor asked Raj if he had been abroad recently, and when Raj mentioned his recent trip to India, the doctor asked for his blood to be tested for the malarial parasite, and viola!

The takeaway: it seems to be a fairly common doctors' blind spot. If conventional treatment isn't working ask your doctor early on if he / she has considered and ruled out non-bacterial and non-viral infections like those caused by fungi, amoeba and parasites.

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