The chronic disease landscape is a surprisingly contentious one. Despite significant numbers of Americans suffering from autoimmune, rheumatoid, and inflammatory conditions, the general practitioner population is often hostile to to patients who come in with vague but debilitating symptoms of pain and fatigue.
I’m lucky. I was given a diagnosis relatively early in my health care journey, but I still spent a fair amount of time getting dismissed. I got offered every psychiatric drug in the book (and happily accepted since pharmaceuticals will be good trading in doomer times), but took months before someone ran a useful biomarker panel that gave me a diagnostic direction. I’ve learned that my case is more complex than my initial diagnosis but I’ve nevertheless leaned heavily on being one of the privileged in chronic care that had a diagnosis and clinical work to lean on. Not everyone is so lucky.
Because of this experience, I keep very close tabs on the controversies and infighting in academic medicine. So I was thrilled to see a ‘blue check’ institutional voice discussing the frustrations that come with chronic disease in a heartfelt opinion piece by Ross Douthat in The New York Times. He used long haul COVID to introduce the many controversies surrounding Lyme disease (which I didn’t not know he suffered from) and his own journey back to full health. He discussed the anxiety and exhaustion of being told you have a disease with symptoms will never go away.
The reason for this particular editorial is the publication of a new book called Chronic
The Hidden Cause of the Autoimmune Pandemic and How to Get Better Again,” written by Dr. Steven Phillips, a Lyme practitioner and researcher, and one of his patients, the musician Dana Parish. The book makes the case that the spread of what the authors call Lyme+, an array of tick-borne pathogens that often infect patients simultaneously, is responsible not just for the more than 400,000 cases of Lyme disease diagnosed each year in the United States but also for an unknown number of chronic infections beyond that — undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and left untreated because of a combination of testing failures, institutional bias and the horrible complexity of the diseases themselves.
He writes with a surprise amount of nuance and empathy (not something I associate with him or editorial) and covers a lot of ground.
While I’m officially an autoimmune and rheumatoid patient, I’ve been slowly working my way into the chronic infection space as I’ve tackled more and more of my symptoms. It turns out that inflammatory autoimmune diseases like ankylosing spondylitis (my official diagnosis) and reactive rheumatoid conditions often overlap in clinical presentation with trigger infections that rarely get caught. I only saw significant improvement in my associated symptoms once I went further into some of the treatments Douthat discussed.
Some of it feels like woo and some is just not fully settled science. It’s all extremely frustrating to live through and has required significant time and financial resources. I’ve often felt like giving up as so much of the medical establishment tends towards “learn to live with it” attitudes. I have simply refused to live a life bedridden, exhausted and in constant pain even if doctors have said that’s as good as I’m going to get. I’ve had ups and downs as the pandemic has gotten in the way of access and treatment but I’ve generally made progress.
I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to see institutional heft and loud voices discuss what I’ve come to associate with dismissed and discounted communities. Frankly it’s nice to have a white man talk about it as much of the chronic community is made up of women. I know it sounds stupid but we just take men like Ross more seriously than we take women like me. And I’m at the very top of the food chain of women being upper class and white so I get taken relatively seriously compared to many patient populations. But nothing validates quite like a blue check dude saying yeah I’m living through this too.