My Health Story

Let me start by saying how flipping grateful I am for modern medicine and the people who administer it.

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Thank you. To my brother who is in his third year of med school. To my friends who are doctors, nurses, therapists, etc. To the medical teams I work with overseas. And to that anesthesiologist I kicked in the gut when I was on the table to have my adenoids removed (I’m so sorry – I was only 5, and very spunky).

I’m blessed. I have access to a healthcare system that is usually high quality, well staffed, and well equipped. I know from working where I work that this is not the case for most of the world, and am fully aware of how good we have it.

I’m also going to say for the interest of transparency that I am a healthy puppy who has had all of her shots, and some you haven’t heard of before because…Africa. While I tend to lean towards a more natural approach, I do believe modern medicine/science is incredible and effective, and I use a mix of both camps. So that’s out of the way, let’s jump in.

Would you like a pill?
As a little peanut, I had great pediatricians; a gift I was not faithful to appreciate (that anesthesiologist was not the only medical professional I’ve kicked). When I turned 12, the quality of care started to change. For every complaint I had, my doctors kept prescribing the same thing…birth control.

Now, I’m not an idiot. I know that birth control can do more than just keep you from getting pregnant. I have no issue at all with birth control; its effective, usually safe, and its one of our best tools to lower maternal mortality in the developing world. My problem is how a prescription for one drug became a substitute for comprehensive medical care as soon as I hit puberty. 

Around age 13,  I had three piercing migraines in a six-month stretch. When I went to the doctor I was not examined; no tests or scans were recommended; neither my lifestyle nor my diet were scrutinized. I was handed a script for birth control. I could have been housing a brain tumor the size of a tangerine, and it would have gone undetected since no examination was performed. We never filled that script; we just watched my diet, and the migraines cleared up on their own within a month. This was the first time I was dismissed via prescription while my symptoms went unchecked. It was not the last.

Let’s hope a shark doesn’t eat you.
Over my teenage years, I began to gain excess weight even though I was exercising and eating a very healthy, proportioned diet. Yet, every time I left the doctor’s office, I was handed a new script for birth control. Maybe they were hearing ‘food baby’, I don’t know. And this was not just one doctor. I had three doctors telling me the same thing. Can’t lose mystery weight? Birth control. Feeling stressed out? Birth control for your hormones. It started to get ridiculous, and my symptoms slowly grew worse. The running joke in our house was if a man-eating shark bit off everything from my waist down, my doctors would meet me at the trauma center with ice packs and birth control.

In college, my health took a nosedive. Despite being in the gym five days a week, abstaining from tobacco, drugs, and alcohol, and eating an organic diet that was perfect by most nutritionists’ standards, I was gaining weight like crazy. I had developed adult acne, my lymph nodes were constantly swollen, and I lived with chronic post-nasal drip. A 3-month bout with bronchitis had me wheezing when I walked up a tall flight of stairs. I was a hot mess. When I came home for Christmas break my senior year, my mother had a full schedule of doctor’s appointments waiting for me. Can you guess what the doctor prescribed? Birth control. I kid you not.

I blame cows.
Around the same time, my mother had started seeing a doctor of osteopathy. He referred us to an osteopathic specialist. Insurance would not cover the visit, but we made the appointment anyway, and I received a new patient intake packet from the specialist. It was twelve pages long. My homework for two weeks was to record everything I ate (everything), how I felt after I ate it, my sleep and exercise patterns, and my stress levels. I had to fill out a detailed family medical history that stretched all the way to my great-grandparents, and every injection, supplement, or medication taken in the last 10 years had to be included. I sent back the ‘Book of Samantha – An Anthology of Swelling and General Yucky Feeling’, and the specialist reviewed it. On the day of the appointment, we sat with her for two hours while she went over my answers.

“Honey,” she said. “You have every symptom of someone with a milk allergy and your diet is loaded with dairy.”

“Yeah, but everyone eats dairy,” I said – thinking this woman’s going to take away my right to ice cream, and that is NOT happening. “The dairy I eat is nonfat and organic!”

“Yep, and its organically sending you into a tailspin. Some people can handle the proteins in cows’ milk. You can’t. Your skin, gut, glands, and respiratory system are in chaos because you are giving them something that they have learned to identify as a toxin. Go off of dairy for one month, record how you feel, and we’ll review.”

No prescription for birth control. No prescription at all! Just a list of superfoods I should be incorporating into my diet, allergens I needed to cut out, and some recommendations to make my 2-hour gym sessions shorter and a little more productive. The insane thing? It worked. It all worked. My weight adjusted back to normal, the swelling went down, my skin started to clear, and the respiratory problems were gone. After 10 years of hearing ‘take the pill’, my symptoms vanished without so much as a supplement.

People. It should not take 10 years.

I’m sharing my health story because you need to know you have more than one option; because the gaping divide between holistic/osteopathic medicine, and what we would call conventional medicine is straight-up absurd. It’s also composed of stereotypes. You either  have to be in the ‘hippy-greenpeace-crunchy-granola’ camp that uses herb poultices instead of smallpox vaccines, or you are in the ‘sterile-drugdealers-in-labcoats’ camp. We aren’t allowed any happy medium, and yet, I (as a non-medical professional) still know that if my friend with a peanut allergy eats a Payday bar, no amount of essential oils (as much as I love them) are going to save his life. He needs epinephrine. When my friend had an obstructed labor, she and lil’ one needed that C-section, complete with all the drugs. And yet, while I was building an intolerance for 10 years, I needed a doctor to look at my diet instead of writing me scripts. There has to be a meeting on the no-man’s land of the healthcare battlefield, and a laying down of the arms of arrogance. Neither camp is going to be right every time. You’re going to be wrong. I’m going to be wrong.

Even in the U.S., physicians and the healthcare systems can be wrong. Since 1990, maternal mortality has doubled in the U.S., leaving us trailing countries like Libya and Iran. Over 30% of the American population is obese; a number projected to jump to 50% by 2030. Cancer, sexually transmitted infections, and a myriad of other conditions are still stampeding through our ‘developed’ nation. Let’s not assume even the most educated amongst us are demigods with infallible answers. Humans are human. And people in the holistic camps? We need to keep a spoonful of humility handy to stir into our homemade kombucha. Yum.

Research. Get a fifth, sixth, seventh opinion. Don’t go looking for the opinion you want. Look for the physician who will give you an opinion based on a thorough examination of you and the facts around your symptoms. If they are arrogant and pushy, go find someone else. Hold what they say against the light of what others in the field are saying and what you know about your own body.

It shouldn’t take 10 years. Be an advocate for yourself. And don’t kick your doctors.

Samantha Bossalini