The dilemma of medicine

Infected baby toe

You can hardly tell to see it, but my baby toe is infected. It is swollen (if I had a “before” picture, it would be easier to see) and painful. A slight itch Saturday afternoon turned to distracting pain at bedtime. By noon on Sunday, when I arrived at the after hours clinic, the toe was puffy and adjacent foot tissue had turned a sickly lilac. I snapped this photo four hours after taking my first dose of antibiotics. By then the swelling and discolouration had already started to come down. I was running a fever and my glands were swollen.

It may sound (and look) trivial, but foot infections are not. They can quickly move up the leg, with severe consequences. I do not like taking antibiotics, but I had this happen once before. I know to address these infections quickly and aggressively.

Killing us softly

It reminded me of a recent post by my friend Toni, who has Grave’s disease. She had to have her thyroid gland killed to prevent her own body from attacking it, and now she is hooked into the machine, dependent for her survival on manufactured thyroid hormone, produced at unknown cost to the environment and transported long distances. It challenges Toni’s ardent philosophy about living sustainably on the Earth. She is one of those people who would live off the grid if she could. She can’t.

Damned if i don’t

I have a similar relationship with an anti-depressant drug that relieves symptoms of anxiety disorder. After a number of rough years trying different medications on and off, I started taking this one eight years ago. Immediately, I began sleeping well for the first time in my adult life. I stopped waking up in a screaming panic.

Several years ago, feeling that I had reached a more stable plateau, I consulted a psychiatric specialist about going off the drug. She said that with my past history of major depression and anxiety, I should expect to stay on it for life.

I do not know whether I would be alive or dead without anti-depressants. I never approached suicide, but went through episodes when existence seemed unbearable. For a whole decade I coped but was unable to work.

This drug has taken away a certain creative edge. It stimulated my appetite and put on 25 pounds I wish I could lose again. But now at least I can face a room full of people. I can speak up for myself and address unpleasant situations without losing my nerve. I have started building a life based on what matters to me instead of just what I can handle. I am happier than ever before.

My father’s superbug

In 2009, a year after my mother died of breast cancer, Dad developed angina. He needed triple bypass surgery. Despite the blockages, he was a fit and active man for his age by any standard. After the drastic physical invasion of his body, he began recovering quickly, exercising lightly and seeing his friends.

Suddenly a few weeks later, a high fever came over him and threatened his life. In his first hospital visit he had picked up methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, one of the superbugs. His second hospital stay lasted twice as long and was spent in quarantine. They had to open his chest a second time. The drug-resistant infection was harder on him than the bypass surgery.

This is one of the reasons I hate antibiotics. They are both a solution and a cause of our diseases. They complicate our lives and occasionally screw people up terribly. However, many of us could not survive without them.

How medicine makes us

While we should question our dependence on drugs, we must also recognize how these illnesses depend on our way of life. Auto-immune diseases and allergies have been linked to modern hygiene, a shift away from the parasites and microbes that used to commonly inhabit our bodies. How much is my body made susceptible to infection because of the sheltered, altered environment in which I live?

I do not know, but rejecting antibiotics will not solve the problem. A few decades ago, a minor infection like this could have gone to my heart, cut me down in the middle of life. It is nothing like what struck my dad, but I know better than to give infection a toe-hold.

7 thoughts on “The dilemma of medicine

  1. “Hardly tell to see it”? Trust me, that is one swollen toe!! Looking like this AFTER it started to go down, I can only imagine what it was like.

    Get better. Medicine is definitely a lifesaver. It just doesn’t have to be a crutch as well.


  2. How courageous of you sharing about meds and anxiety. Living in the Northwest, I am often parched for sunlight. I’ve come to the conclusion that people that spout off about “drugs are crutches” – have not experienced a serious brokenness in their life.

    I think it takes maturity and confidence to share about what you need.

    1. Thanks so much, Jan. Winter can be a shaky time here in Ontario, too. I have mixed thoughts about that, because I believe the thing we call Seasonal Affective Disorder is really a natural response to the environment, but one in conflict with the social order. It’s imperative that we speak about these things rather than hiding them. As I write this, I realize Scott Neumyer’s recent essay, I am Royce White encouraged me to be less reticent.

  3. Hi Van, thanks for an interesting read and for taking my little thought experiment on another journey. It’s sobering to realise sometimes how interdependent we are on modern technological-industrial systems like medicine. Undoubtedly it keeps us alive and greatly improves our quality of life, and with the individual drive we all have to survive very few people would choose to go without (those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter…)

    Like you say though, a lot of the maladays we’re treating are linked to the modern techno-industrial lifestyle we’re all leading: the hyper-hygiene (something that really stood out on my last trip to Peru), the pseudo-food, the fracturing of social networks and the elevated long-term stress. Grave’s is triggered by stress expressing an underlying genetic pre-disposition. I have asthma and allergic rhinitis likely linked to my parent’s (historic) smoking habit. There’s evidence suggesting that coeliac disease is related to a lack of internal parasites creating an over-hyped immune system and other food intolerances may be linked to the consumption of processed, industrial food and a huge dietary shift to a few specific crops.

    There’s also a huge social pressure these days to not be sick: to be constantly productive, need no downtime, take no time off work. This takes a huge toll, physically & psychologically, and to keep going and meet those expectations (and employment conditions) we reach for the drugs. We take anti-biotics to keep us on our feet when a couple of days in bed would cure us. We don’t get the time to look after our mental health and manage the down-swings. Over-treating normalises medication use, abnormalises illness and leads to medication-resistant diseases.

    The chest infection I brought back from Peru was resistant to the first 2 types of anti-biotic I was prescribed for it. Resistant, most likely due to Peruvian economics: it’s expensive to see a doctor there, and poor workers can’t afford time off, so pharmacies dispense antibiotics without a script. You simply walk in, ask for the antibiotic you want and how many doses, and the drug is in your hand with absolutely no consideration if it’s the right one to be taken, or even needed at all. I don’t know how you’d even begin to resolve the problems there.

    I will never live off-grid, and maybe that’s ok, because I like hot water and electricity and plumbing a whole lot. But I can get by for a month at a time, so long as I have my tablets, (or 2 weeks in a hot climate) with no ill effects, and there’s plenty I can achieve from this position. I will never be free of the machine, but I *can* reduce my dependence on it in other areas of my life. This is the journey we both find ourselves on.


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