Steve August 16, 2020

“You have a growth between your L3 and L4 vertebrae.”

The statement from my doctor didn’t seem real when he said it on the phone. It still didn’t when I met with the surgeon a few days later and he explained the scans, surgery and recovery process in more detail. Because of the tumor’s size, he told me I only had one or two months until the chance of permanently losing sensation in my right side increased. In fact, he warned me, I’d likely already lost some sensation, but my level of pain was hiding it.

Coronavirus has made it easy for us to become dismissive of warning signs that we experience — and for others to become dismissive of what we’re dealing with.

His diagnosis made me angry with myself for waiting to seek care. I knew something was wrong, but my fear of the coronavirus, the overwhelmed health care community and my false hope that I’d just get better made me wait. I will never know what that time cost me.

The whole world is consumed with COVID-19, understandably so. There is endless talk of the risks and inadequate resources. But one important conversation is largely overlooked: What happens when the coronavirus prevents you from getting unrelated care that you need? Just because you don’t have it yourself doesn’t mean it can’t affect your health negatively.

Fear of exposure to COVID-19 is keeping people from seeking sorely needed medical help. Moreover, the stigma that you’re burdening the system or endangering others when you do so means guilt and anxiety are also discouraging people from getting treated.

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At the heart of this conflict is the question of what essential care is. There’s a longstanding debate on whether we, as a country, are over-medicalized. How many of the visits, tests and procedures we get are medically necessary? How much do patients’ anxieties, doctors’ desires to avoid lawsuits and the system’s misguided fee-for-service incentive structure result in excess?

While these questions are all important and worth examining, they shouldn’t be communicated in ways that discourage those who need help from getting it. It would be the wrong lesson to draw from the pandemic that since so many people stopped their normal checkups, elective procedures and other medical steps, much of our health care is unnecessary.

In fact, if we don’t start to focus on the steep cost in lives and worsening chronic conditions resulting from our avoidance of regular health care during the pandemic, we will see much more preventable death and suffering in a country that has already experienced far too much of both.

In an interview with NBC’s “TODAY,” emergency physician Ryan Stanton painted a bleak picture of the losses already: “We’ve seen heart attacks, strokes and surgical issues that would have been a relatively benign procedure or something that we could have acted on that are coming in too late for us to do much with it.”

In the same segment, cardiac physician Ahmed Osman stated, “There’s a lot of patients who are basically dead on arrival by paramedics because they waited too long.”

A May poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of Americans have deferred medical care because of COVID-19, and 11 percent of people who have delayed or skipped medical care since the outbreak reported their physical health has gotten worse. While this shows that a majority of people feel their physical health has stayed the same, this still amounts to a huge number of Americans who have jeopardized their health as a result of waiting. Millions more might be unaware of deterioration in their health or have yet to suffer the long-term consequences of missed appointments and diagnoses.

I, personally, am only too aware of what the delay in getting treatment cost me. After eight weeks of debilitating pain in my lower back down my leg to my toes left me unable to move, I finally sought help. Unfortunately, I thought the highest risk was that of contracting COVID-19, so I measured that danger against the pain I was feeling rather than the danger of what having the pain signified.

I have an autoimmune disease that affects my kidneys and lungs as well as other chronic health conditions — including ones that are heart-related — so I am the definition of high-risk for the coronavirus. I had been viewing any medical environment as a guarantee for contracting the virus and all the devastation that would bring. Once I began to get treatment, I felt like I was playing an extended game of chicken. With every appointment and test that followed, I felt like I was pushing more than any luck I’d been afforded.

Thankfully, seeking medical treatment now is much safer than it was not long ago. Whenever I go somewhere, my temperature is taken and I’m asked questions about my possible exposure to the virus immediately upon arrival. At a hospital, I have to show proof of my appointment; many hospitals do not even allow people to visit patients. But many Americans are not aware of the improved safety at health facilities and continue to prioritize their fear of COVID-19 over all else.

Many Americans are not aware of the improved safety at health facilities and continue to prioritize their fear of COVID-19 over all else.

The coronavirus has made it easy for us to become dismissive of warning signs that we experience — and for others to become dismissive of what we’re dealing with, as only “necessary” care is encouraged. The term “necessary” sounds thinly coated in judgment, implying the question, “Is this important enough?” In other words, “Do you matter enough?” The answer is, yes, you do.

Most people forget that when it comes to their health, there are two experts and the first one — you — matters more. No one will ever know your body better or have your intuition, familiarity and intimacy with it. You are the only one who can put sense in the senseless word “necessary.”

When I think of those eight weeks lost, I try to move past my anger. In addition to the possible loss of feeling, being immobile for that long caused me to gain 15 pounds and for my blood pressure to go through the roof. My body was — loudly and obnoxiously — telling me something was wrong, and I ignored it. From now on, I will listen to it more carefully. I hope everyone will, too.

D. Michael Whelan

D. Michael Whelan is a gay, gender nonconforming, disabled and deaf writer and activist. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Manifest-Station and Midnight Circus, among others.

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