Why We Don’t Take Our Meds (Again)
Recently, two journalists (Tim Harford and Simon Kuper) working for the Financial Times of London attended the FT Weekend Festival. The topic of their onstage conversation was “the nightmare of writing a weekly column.” Tell me about it.
I don’t know about Harford and Kuper, but when I’m stumped for a subject to write about I often go back to some earlier blog post that was popular with my readers and see if I can’t write a bit more about that topic.
This post, my 300th (!) since I launched the blog back in 2013, harkens back to a series of posts published in 2015 titled “Why We Don’t Take Our Meds.” Everyone liked those posts (except physicians), and so here I go again.
When my father was in his early 80s, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. I forget what the prescribed treatment was for N-HL at the time but whatever it was, it didn’t work. We drove up to Dad’s ranch to see him one day and he looked terrible. As we said goodbye, we were sure we would never see him again.
With nothing to lose, Dad’s doc started him on a regime of Rituximab (Rituxan), a drug that was then approved by the FDA to treat certain autoimmune diseases, but not N-HL. Amazingly, it worked wonders, and Dad lived another four or five years. That was the good news.
The bad news was that those weren’t good years for Dad. He declined rapidly, even as the chemo treatments pushed back his cancer. When he was first diagnosed, Dad was an incredibly robust octogenarian, working seven days a week on his horse ranch. Dad boarded horses and he spent his days mowing hay, lifting bales, shoveling horse manure, and shouldering 1,500-pound animals out of his way.
But he soon gave up boarding horses for other people and not long after that he gave up his own horses. He felt lousy all the time and was in and out of the ER, the hospital and the doctors’ offices on a weekly basis. Dad assumed that it was the disease that was making him so miserable, and I, too, assumed that must be the case.
That is, I made that assumption until I happened to walk into his kitchen one morning when he was taking his meds. Dad had a pill box that was one hell of a pill box—it had to be 13 inches long and 8 or 9 inches wide. It contained plastic cubbyholes almost too numerous to count.
The pill box was supposed to help Dad take the right meds at the right time, but you would have needed a supercomputer to get it all right. Some meds were to be taken once a day, some twice a day, some two days a week. Some were to be taken in the morning, some in the evening. Some with food, some without. Thank goodness Dad’s girlfriend, Bonnie, was around to help out.
I said to Dad, “What the hell is all this stuff?” Dad was a little foggy on the specifics, but he knew that he was taking several meds to deal with side effects of the chemo. He was also taking several meds for blood pressure, several for cholesterol, a beta blocker or two, something for pre-diabetes. I didn’t count them all but I swear he was taking at least 13 different meds.
And I found out that this wasn’t at all unusual. When people get very sick (cancer, heart disease) the docs focus like lasers on us and find all sorts of things us poor folks didn’t know was wrong with us. Then, once we’re on 8 or 10 meds and feeling horrible, we need to go on even more meds for depression and anxiety.
I suggested to Dad that he might feel a whole lot better—not necessarily live longer, but at least enjoy life longer—if he stopped taking about two-thirds of those meds. Why in God’s name should an octogenarian with a terminal case of cancer be taking meds for chronic conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and pre-diabetes? It made no sense to me at all.
But Dad was having none of it. “Now Greg,” he would say, “I’m sure those medical fellows know what they’re doing.”
I didn’t believe it for a second, but Dad was a grownup and he was going to do what he was going to do. But as for me, I vowed that when my time came and the docs were prescribing every med under the sun for me, I wouldn’t stand for it. It turns out that vows are easy to make, but much harder to keep.
As my long-term readers know, my time came only a few years after Dad died. In the summer of 2014, I suffered a massive heart attack while traveling in France. I should have died, but didn’t for reasons I’ve written about in these pages. (If you have a morbid turn of mind, you can find the first of those posts here.)
Over the next six months my doctors had a field day. Like Dad, I was prescribed just about everything under the sun: three meds for blood pressure, four meds for cholesterol, a med for pre-diabetes, two beta blockers, two blood thinners. If you’re keeping track, that’s 12 meds. And on top of that, one of my docs suggested that I start taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds, just in case.
Given my vow, you might suppose that I rose up in outrage. Not at all! I took every single one of those damn meds. Well, except for the stuff for depression and anxiety. As I said to my doc, “Are you nuts? I’m not depressed—I should have died in that hayseed French village, but didn’t. My problem is that I’m way too happy!”
At some point—maybe at med #10, say—I should have slapped myself upside the head and said, “Humble Blogger, are you freaking insane?” But I didn’t. It took until somebody else slapped me upside the head that I wised up. As we’ll see next week.