September 14, 2011

Be Your Own Best Advocate: Become Informed and Trust Your Instincts

I dreamed last night that I was in London and needed to get to Heathrow airport in record time. I was pretty sure I knew the fastest route from past experience, but a policeman suggested a different way. I took his advice, got hopelessly lost, missed my flight, and regretted not trusting my own instinct.

Now, I wonder if the dream was a shadowy recollection of an experience I had three weeks ago, when I had to drive to an unfamiliar part of Washington, DC to recover some personal items from my totaled Honda Fit. I checked a map, and saw what looked like the best plan to get from here to there. Pretty simple, really. Then I did a MapQuest search, which provided a different, more complicated set of directions. Thinking that the computer program knew something I didn’t, I followed the MapQuest suggestions. About one hour after leaving home, I finally arrived at the lot, frazzled from getting completely lost – and in torrential rain the entire time. Had I done it my way, the trip would have taken fifteen minutes.

These experiences – one imagined, one real – underscore my belief in the importance of being well-informed, and then in trusting one’s own point of view.


Many personal medical examples come to mind. Several years ago, after a trip to Nepal, I returned home wracked by depression, anxiety, and insomnia. I suspected from the beginning that my problems resulted from overuse of two sleeping aids. But doctors, shrinks, even sleep experts kept prescribing new meds for me, none of which helped. I kept spiraling down. Finally, a psychiatrist really heard what I’d been saying and took me off ALL those medications. After hypnosis, acupuncture, and a dalliance with new-age brain wave music therapy, I found a meditation routine that got me back on track.

I wondered: Why hadn’t I heeded – and shared more convincingly with my healthcare professionals -- my own suspicions from the beginning? No, I don’t have a medical degree, but nobody on earth knows how my body works – and how I really feel -- better than I do.

Let’s face it: there’s a lot of ambiguity out there about what’s best for us. There are conflicting recommendations for almost everything, if you dig deep enough. In recent months, we’ve seen many meds and supplements touted AND questioned, including CoQ10, Resveratrol, Ramipril, Isradipine, and niacin. Last week, the American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging declared nine meds -- some of them pretty common – risky for seniors (details in my September 5 recap, below).

Ambiguity and conflict aren’t confined to meds and supplements. Is there anything we can really do to prevent or slow the onset on dementia? Can we really predict the likelihood that we’ll develop cancer, or Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s? On September 6, 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that old-fashioned cognitive quizzes with paper and pencil – not the more recent high-tech tests for biomarkers in blood, spinal fluid, and saliva – provided the “best” early diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease.

Until science provides us with beyond-all-doubt results, aren’t we best served by considering as much evidence as we can? Wouldn’t an Alzheimer’s diagnosis that combines the new DNA technology with old-school tests just seem more… complete? Isn’t there a role for common sense here? I have similar feelings about treating depression – something familiar to me – with both meds AND talk therapy. Why overlook any potential avenue toward a solution?

God knows, I owe huge debts of gratitude to all the medical professionals who’ve gotten me this far… including the wonderful, compassionate docs who patched me up after my auto accident two weeks ago. Thank you, one and all. My life has depended on you! Still, in the final analysis, we need to be own own best advocates. We need to use common sense. We need to assemble as much information on our own when deciding what options make the most sense for us. We need to listen closely to our own bodies, and make sure our doctors hear what we do. We need to trust our informed instincts.

After all, if we get lost on the way to Heathrow airport, it’s probably our own fault.

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