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My Own MS Symptoms Were Dismissed as Depression, and It Has Made Me a Better Doctor

Closeup shot of a doctor holding a patient's hand in comfort

Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist and medical writer and editor in Chicago, IL. Colleen also has multiple sclerosis. She understands well the difficulty of balancing the demands and unpredictability of a chronic illness with a career and family.

I was a 23-year-old medical student, excited for my future as a doctor, when I first developed crippling, relentless fatigue. For days on end, I could not get out of bed, and if I did, I dragged myself around, feeling as though I was pulling around a block of concrete.

Just when I thought I couldn’t feel worse, I developed more bizarre, alarming symptoms: numbness in my legs and blurry vision. I finally sought medical attention. However, after three different doctor visits, I still had no answers, other than I may be clinically depressed. I actually recall thinking, Yes, I am depressed. I’m a motivated young woman, yet I’m sick, and no one can help me.

Eventually, after explaining my symptoms to a family member who was a physician, he ordered a series of tests based on his suspicion for multiple sclerosis (MS), and the pieces of this puzzle began to come together. An MRI revealed classic MS lesions (“bright spots”) on my brain. After a lumbar puncture and a few other tests to rule out other diseases that mimic MS, like lupus, Lyme disease, and vitamin B12 deficiency, my diagnosis was confirmed.

While I felt anxious about and fearful for my MS diagnosis, I also felt validated — my symptoms were real, and there was now an explanation for how I was feeling. I could move forward with a treatment plan, while still pursuing my career as a physician.

Looking back 15 years later, perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from my MS diagnosis journey is to really listen as a physician.

Looking back 15 years later, perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from my MS diagnosis journey is to really listen as a physician. Too many times, doctors — and I’ve been guilty of this myself — are so focused on recording data on a computer, completing a physical exam, and ordering multiple labs and imaging tests that they do not realize the diagnosis they are searching for is actually right in front of them. My diagnosis taught me to listen carefully to my patients and to consider all of their symptoms before coming to any conclusions. To this day, as a doctor, mother, wife, and friend, I try my best to be a careful listening ear — a mission that has had the unintended effect of fostering profound, soulful relationships I may otherwise never have formed.

My MS diagnosis has also humbled me. Living with a chronic illness is no small feat and is truly a daily battle of willpower. Like many, I have experienced the sting of isolation and even blame for my symptoms. But by being an advocate for myself, whether that was finding a doctor who I trust and who cares for my health and well-being or being tenacious in finding ways to combat the fatigue (for me, the most debilitating symptom), I’ve developed an unshakable resiliency.

I encourage you too to take a proactive attitude when it comes to your health. Most importantly, find a physician you can develop a healing partnership with and trust, someone who listens to your concerns and addresses them one by one. Keep seeking out answers to your symptoms, surround yourself with people who are kind and empathetic towards your needs, and focus on the parts of your health you can control, such as taking your medication, eating healthily, exercising, and avoiding bad habits, like smoking.

In the end, I hope that through persistence and self-advocacy, you or your loved one can find the resources you need to get to the bottom of your health concerns, as well as strategies to help you feel well again. It may require some time, trial and error, and a dive into your deepest inner strength, but you can do it.

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