The diagnosis

It is only 6 words.

‘I think you have polycystic kidneys.’

But there is nothing simple about being given a diagnosis. It means interaction with a new world of people and initiation into a different way of life – the doctors, nurses, therapists, surgeons, technicians, and the places you will find them in- the new hospital clinic you haven’t been to before, the x ray department, the laboratory, each with their own particular perspective on your illness and what is going to be best for you- body and/or mind. It is about learning how to speak in a different language. It is also about your own memories, ideas, worries and expectations of what that diagnosis means to you, and all the other things you will have to do in your life, or have done to you, that you have never experienced before and hoped that you never would have to. And all those things that you hoped to be able to do, but now perhaps never will.

I don’t have much memory now of how kidneys should work. Blood flows in and urine flows out- and the kidney works some kind of magic in between. The first patient whom I cared for long enough in my first job as a doctor to get to know as a person, and who I then saw die, had kidney disease. It was very different from my own. He had diabetes and came into hospital when a viral illness sent his damaged kidneys into failure. I listened in the ward office to the renal team as they decided against taking him on for dialysis, which unlike now was very unusual for patients with diabetes as they ‘did badly’. I watched from the door of the single room where he spent his last few days as he said goodbye to his wife and children. He was a young man- no more than 40. And I felt even more helpless as his wife screamed out in agony at the sheer unfairness of his sudden, and so unexpected passing. A phrase, ‘The Renal People’ uttered by the surgeon, a very kind and well-meaning man, evoked a particular and unwelcome memory for me.

Despite feeling fitter than I had for years, it felt as though my body had let me down. Something was happening inside me over which I had no right of determination. For the first few days after the surgeon delivered his verdict I felt numb. Then, like many people, but especially doctors, I spent hours on-line researching the subject until the rational part of my brain was exhausted. I collapsed onto the easy chair in my study and burst into tears. I sobbed until my throat was hoarse, my chest was tight and my shirt was wet with tears. John put his arms around me and held me. I knew I was beginning to grieve for the loss of my health, and the hopes I had for the future. And it all seemed so terribly unfair. Just `at the point that I had given up the work that was gradually killing me, and was prepared to restart that life I had postposed for so long, I had to find out that something else was going to do that anyway. The sociologist Mike Bury talks about the biographical disruption of chronic illness- how it necessitates a fundamental re-thinking of one’s biography and self-concept. The timeline of my life has been fractured and it is still physically painful.

Now I know that I have a genetic disorder of the kidneys that I’ve had for many years, but didn’t know about before, and which is going to get worse as I get older, at a rate as yet undetermined. There is a possibility I will eventually need to have dialysis. My kidneys and liver contain within them cysts, which have been slowly growing in size, squashing the healthy tissue into destruction since my childhood, or that is what the Professor of Nephrology had told me.

‘It is something you have always had. It isn’t new. Its autosomal dominant so you have a 50% chance of developing it if one of your parents carries the gene, but in about 10% of cases it’s a new mutation.’ He couldn’t understand why investigations carried out in my early thirties hadn’t revealed the problem then. As the years passed the timer on my kidneys had been ticking away silently inside me and I had been completely unaware. It had been programmed into me at birth and was probably running quite slowly otherwise it would have been noticed much sooner. But I suspected that the other problems that my family genes had contributed to- a constant sense of anxiety and periods of severe depression, would have been even harder to bear if I had known. Neither of my parents had been diagnosed with kidney disease as far as I knew before they died, but my maternal grandmother had collapsed in the street and died suddenly in her thirties. I’ve always believed that must have been due a brain hemorrhage, and brain aneurysms are a possible complication of this disease.

It may be impossible to ‘recover’, in terms of restitution to my former state of ‘health’, in mind or body and I have no idea what will happen in the future- other than I hope I can manage my mood more effectively than in the past, and that it is possible I may need renal dialysis at some point. I can no longer make the excuse that I am still waiting for the future to arrive before I have to reclaim the life I always wanted to live if I just had the time. The ‘future’ is now and I will have to discover how I can make the most of it.

My latest book, a memoir of psychiatry and depression, The Other Side if Silence is available now

 

 

 

On not being immortal

When I was a medical student, I remember one ward round when we were gathered around the bed of a patient who was breathless and coughing up blood. She admitted to being a heavy smoker. The surgeon gave her his usual stern ticking off about the dangers of cigarettes, and then we all trooped back to the doctor’s office where he took the patient’s chest x-ray out of the envelope and pushed it up onto the light-box on the wall.

“Look at the mass there he said,” pointing to dense shadow in the left lung, “almost certainly a carcinoma.”

And then he calmly took a packet of Senior Service cigarettes out of the pocket of his white coat and lit one up, puffing away as we discussed the prognosis. You have to understand this was the Stone Age.  People did still smoke in hospitals, even doctors. But some things haven’t changed. I think many doctors still have a peculiar belief in their own immortality. That knowing all about disease not only gives you power over it but makes you immune to it. It begins at medical school. Many medical students aren’t even registered with a GP where they go to university. They alternate between being sure they have every disease they learn about and denial of their own susceptibility. And it carries on. Doctors generally don’t smoke now, but we still abuse ourselves in other ways, notably with alcohol. We are tough and macho, don’t admit to weakness, and rarely follow the advice we give our patients, yet expect them to wholeheartedly agree with us.

Last year I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to be immortal after all. I don’t mean that in the sense of transcendence of my soul.  I’ll keep out of that argument for the moment.  Rather I am not going to live forever, and life might get quite a bit harder for me physically in the future than it is now. To add to the anxiety, depression and hypothyroidism, I was diagnosed with progressive kidney disease.

Okay, so I know I will not live forever. Of course I won’t. Indeed would I really want to? There have been times when I’ve been so depressed that I’ve wanted to end my life somewhat sooner. The thing about depression for me, unlike physical illness, is that it feels like if I were to die from it, it would be because I wanted to. I have control. Even though I know rationally, as a psychiatrist, that what I perceived I wanted would be strongly influenced by my mental state at the time.  But there is, I think, a part of all of us that secretly hopes we can cheat fate and carry on forever (only while enjoying of course the perfect health of youth). When I was a young child, the idea of dying seemed so impossibly far away as to be almost irrelevant to being alive. Then my grandfather died followed by my father, both at ages not so different from where I am now. When people close to you die, death became a real possibility for you too.

People who have chronic illness are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and the more chronic illnesses you have the greater your risk. In the last research project I worked on in Manchester, we attempted to offer psychological therapy to people with diabetes and/or heart disease who were also depressed. What was striking was how few of these people were actively receiving help despite the fact that all them had been screened for depression on an annual basis as part of the payment incentive system for GPs in the UK. Some of them had never discussed their mood or suicidal ideas with their doctor. They didn’t want to, they were embarrassed or they didn’t see the point, so they suffered in silence. It can feel stigmatizing having chronic illness, and having a mental health problem as well just doubles the stigma.

So it turns out I have a genetic disorder of the kidneys that I’ve had for many years, but didn’t know about before, and which is going to get worse as I get older, at a rate as yet undetermined. There is a good chance I will eventually need to have dialysis. Despite feeling fitter than I have for years, it is as though my body has let me down. Something is happening inside me over which I have no right of determination. Like many people with chronic illness I feel my useful life has now become shorter, so I’m beginning to speed up my rate of travel, picking up again those things I started to do many years ago but dropped because of my career, and aiming to achieve a few of them while I’m still quite healthy. Not quite a bucket list but something similar. It has increased my level of anxiety but I don’t feel depressed about it yet because I’m still in control, trying to keep myself fitter than I have since – well ever.

Or maybe it’s because I’m just being tough…. and I still believe I can win.