As a new volunteer for Patient and Family Centered Care at the University of Michigan, I have been asked to share part of my story at Kellogg Eye Center to a group of new Kellogg employees. What has my patient experience been like? Since I am more accustomed to writing than to speaking, I thought I’d share what I plan to say here.
In the summer of 2012, while my family and I were living in St. Louis, MO, I started experiencing joint pain. I had been, up until that time, a full-time teacher, school administrator, mother of four, and avid runner. I was a very busy woman in excellent shape, so when I first experienced pain in my elbows, I believed I had an overuse injury. However, over the next several months, I began experiencing pain in my hands, feet, neck, and shoulders. The moderate sacroiliac pain and issues with my skin that I had dealt with for most of my adult life intensified. When I began to feel so exhausted at the end of my work day that I couldn’t remember driving myself home, I started the long journey toward a diagnosis — a journey I am still on almost six years later.
You might imagine that this journey has involved visits to my primary care doctor, a rheumatologist, and a dermatologist. Indeed, it has. And, since I’m standing in front of you now, you have probably concluded that my journey has also included ophthamologists. Correct again.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, my doctors were convinced I had psoriatic arthritis. They had confirmed that I have the genetic marker, HLA-B27, joint pain, and psoriasis. Although I did not have any inflammatory markers, they agreed that a diagnosis could be given in the absence of such evidence. I was therefore treated with the standard course of medication: NSAIDs, biologics, and other standard pharmaceuticals — certainly I cannot remember everything I have tried.
In the spring of 2014, I was winding up the academic year, one daughter was graduating from college, and another was graduating from high school. I was exhausted and in a significant amount of pain. My rheumatologist decided to treat me with a prednisone taper to give me some relief during this very busy time.
I did experience relief; however, the combination of immunosuppressant drugs and steroids created the perfect environment for ocular herpes. I woke up on Memorial Day 2014 with excruciating eye pain and extreme sensitivity to light, so I called my St. Louis ophthalmologist, Dr. Todd LaPoint. He saw me right away –came into the office before a family picnic – and immediately got me started on a course of medication that got the situation under control. I saw Dr. LaPoint several times over the next few weeks, but then another problem surfaced — I was moving to Ann Arbor at the end of July with a newly diagnosed chronic eye problem. What would I do for care?
Dr. LaPoint said he would do a little research and get me a referral. It wasn’t long before he suggested that I make an appointment with Dr. Sugar at Kellogg Eye Center. He had attended a talk that Dr. Sugar had given and knew he was the best of the best.
I remember quipping, “Dr. Sugar? I wonder if he is sweet.”
Dr. LaPoint replied, “He is!”
I want to tell you that almost four years later, I have visited Kellogg over twenty times, and I must say that Dr. Sugar is indeed sweet — one of the sweetest — and that Kellogg has been an oasis as I have wandered the desert of my medical journey.
I will certainly not recount twenty office visits for you, but I do have a few highlights I would like to share.
When you saw me walk up to the podium this evening, you might not have expected that I have battled chronic pain and fatigue. In fact, if you ran a battery of tests on me right now, you would find virtually no clinical evidence that I suffer. Patients like me often meet health care providers who believe that there is nothing wrong with us. We are hypochondriacs, pill-seekers, and whiners. Even well-intentioned doctors shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t have anything to offer you.” Time after time we walk into doctors’ offices with concerns and questions, and we leave feeling humiliated and defeated. Because we have experienced this so often, we often walk into doctors’ offices with our defenses up. We expect to be judged, dismissed, and disappointed.
Since I’ve moved to Ann Arbor, doctors at U of M and St. Joseph’s have removed my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis. One doctor says I have fibromyalgia; the other says I have degenerative arthritis. Frustrated with the confusion I experience from this continually changing diagnosis, I discontinued the biologics and anti-inflammatory medications and spent a year trying out homeopathic remedies. Finally, after years of trial and error, I am currently on a path that seems to be working — physical therapy, chiropractic care, lifestyle changes, and steroid injections. I’m just a few months into the first significant relief I’ve had since 2012.
In the midst of that long season of struggle, I have had one recurrence of ocular herpes and two rounds of scleritis. Both of these illnesses are quite uncomfortable, so one day when I felt a slight change in my left eye, I called Kellogg and arranged to see Dr. Sugar. When he entered the examination room he said, “How are you doing?” I answered, “I may have jumped the gun, but I just feel like something is wrong with my eye.” I was already putting up my defenses, expecting Dr. Sugar to be like many other doctors I have seen; I could already imagine him saying ‘there was nothing wrong with my eye’. However, he didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “I always want you to come in, whether we find something or not. If you think something is wrong, I want to see you.”
It may have been during that same appointment, or it may have been at another one, when he examined my eyes and said, “I don’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean you are not experiencing anything.” This may seem insignificant to you who practice medicine, but to those of us who suffer with invisible illnesses, finding a doctor who does not dismiss our complaints or deny our reality is rare and life-impacting.
In January of 2017, my husband and I were planning for a trip to Israel. Because I had recently struggled with a round of scleritis, I was concerned about traveling abroad. What if I had a flare in Israel? When I mentioned my concern to Dr. Sugar, he pulled out a pad of paper and wrote the name of a colleague– a cornea specialist — who practices in Tel Aviv. He assured me that if I had a problem, I should contact that doctor and he would be able to help me.
One weekend last spring, I woke up on a Saturday morning with pain in my eye. I immediately called Kellogg. The on-call doctor opened my file and said, “I see you are a patient of Dr. Sugar. He likes to be called whenever one of his patients has trouble on the weekend. Let me try to reach him, and I will call you back later today.” Not fifteen minutes later my phone rang. The on-call doctor had already spoken to Dr. Sugar who had given him a message to convey to me including the fact that a prescription was waiting at my pharmacy.
Surely you agree that Dr. LaPoint’s recommendation was spot on.
Let me just take a moment and share one other layer. I am a life-long educator. I have had students of all ages from early childhood up through college. One extra joy I experience at Kellogg is the mentorship I witness. While some patients may be annoyed that a resident or an intern is in the room, I love witnessing the interchange of Dr. Sugar with these future-specialists. His approach is intentional — I have seen him be encouraging with one resident and direct with another. I have watched him peer through one side of a dual-microscope while a resident peers through the other. He listens to the ‘student’ describe what he sees and points out anything he has missed. It’s quite phenomenal to witness. I have remarked to more than one resident that they are quite privileged to learn from such a distinguished physician. I do recognize that his standards are high, and that working under his supervision may not be easy, but I believe the experience they are getting just standing in the room with him all day long is among the best training they could receive in the nation.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that along with Dr. Sugar I have received care from others within his office including Dr. Shtein and many fellows. Each time I have received quality intentional care that leaves me feeling heard and understood. I have not had one bad experience. This is uncommon.
I have visited many health facilities in the past six years — both in St. Louis and in Ann Arbor. I have met numerous health care professionals. Kellogg is at the top of my list of a very few places that I actually look forward to visiting to receive care. Please continue this tradition of excellence as you join the Kellogg staff.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is within your power to act. –Proverbs 3:27