Saw my Stanford-affliated ENT yesterday to follow up on the ear that’s been blocked on and off for the past six weeks. The ear that looked perfect when I saw her last month, but remained blocked for days at a time. The ear that was within normal limits when the audiologist tested my hearing, but hours later was blocked again. The ear that I will have to fly to Sicily with in 10 days.
Doctor J. looked in both ears, my nose, my mouth. She pushed a button to move my chair back so she could examine my ear under the microscope. When she finished, she maneuvered the exam chair so I was seated normally, rolled her stool back and said:
“I’ve gotta be honest with you, Carol. I have no idea what the hell’s going on with your ear. It looks perfect.”
It made me laugh, first, because of her delivery, which was New Jersey perfection itself, and then because of its honesty about the limitations of modern medicine. I really do love this doctor’s style.
She went on to say that most people are born asymmetrical. She reminded me that I had a deviated septum on that side and that a former ENT had told me that it was pretty close to my Eustachian tube on that side.
“Eustacian tubes are only about a millimeter across,” she said, ” so it doesn’t take much to block them. It could well be that as your head grew, that’s the way it developed. After all, it happened to you once before.”
Ok then! So after a month of prednisone, during which I tried to eat everything in the house, almost including Riley’s food, I’ve had 5 days of just about normal hearing. But my problem could come and go a few more times before I have an extended period of time during which my left ear does not feel like it has a conch shell attached to it. Whoooosh!
Medicine is more an art than a science and neither can explain all things. Not yet, anyway.
What was going on with my ear is simply not evident with the tools we have today. So she didn’t know what it was. This was an assessment I could accept. After all, it was just a blocked ear. If it had been something more serious? I might have more trouble. But in the end, what can you do? Modern medicine is still imperfect.
I know plenty of people who would’ve argued with the unknown nature of my diagnosis. Or non-diagnosis.But having a hard time with the limitations of modern medicine doesn’t change the fact that it IS limited.
My doctor shared her fantasy, too: “I can see a day when we will be able to thread a tiny camera up your nose and see exactly what is going on. But we’re not there yet.”
Then, I remembered something I wanted to run by her: “A friend had a similar problem and her doctor said that Eustachian tubes can sometimes get floppy as we age.”
My doctor laughed. “Someone made that up.”
“How about those pressure-equalizing ear plugs, called EarPlanes?” I asked.
“I’ve had patients for whom they worked well and others who scratched their ear or blew out their ear drum. I think you’re safest with Sudafed and Afrin on the flights. You’ll probably do fine.”
“I can’t tell you with 100 percent certainty you won’t blow out an ear drum. You could get a bad cold on your trip and have to fly.”
She closed my file.
“And also sometimes airplanes do a big drop without warning,” she said, “and you might be unprepared.”
“If that happened, Dr. J,” I said, “I’d be at bigger risk of a coronary. How about a prescription for nitroglycerine?”
She laughed, stood up, held out her hand for me to shake. “It’s been a pleasure,” she said, “but I hope I never see you again.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” I replied.
And that was that.