“Warrior Patient Rule No. 1: Choose to live. Take personal responsibility for getting better. It is not your doctor’s job. It is not God’s job. It is your job. God and your doctors might help. And they might not.”
This is the first rule Temple Williams gives in his often humorous, and even more often enraging, story of his three-year odyssey through the wilderness of serious illness and medical (in)competence. Diagnosed with prostate cancer while in his late 60s, Williams describes how a comedy of errors turns what should be a fairly routine procedure (prostate cancer, he notes, is the second-most-common cancer among men) into a multi-year nightmare of untreated infection, hernias, drug reactions, and eventually renal failure. Williams not only survives all this, but even, miraculously, returns to near full health. However, like many patients with serious illnesses, his faith in the American medical establishment is shaken. This book is the result of that, and is part an autobiographical tale of his own misadventures, and part a collection of tips and warning signs of bad doctors and bad practices, and how to avoid them.
But how was it possible for such a routine procedure to go so wrong, and why wasn’t Williams more savvy at the outset? Part of the problem is that humans are fallible. And part of the problem is that, as Williams tells us, “It is easy to be stupid in an age of miracles. It can also be deadly.” The reason is, he says, “Medicine is not magic, and doctors are not magicians. But in every culture, the medicine man assumes the mantle of an all-powerful demigod. As patients, we willingly raise them to that level with acclaim and applause. Bad doctors continue to bury their mistakes, and nobody hands out a Nobel Prize to patients who survive bad doctors.” Everyone is looking for a quick and easy cure, and we’ve all been trained to defer to doctors and their authoritative manner, even when they know less about what’s going on in our body than we do. Or when they don’t care: some of the doctors Williams first sees don’t do basic things like culture what turns into a serious MRSA infection, or check to make sure the drugs they’re prescribing don’t interact with the medication he’s already taking. And then there are just silly mixups and a basic lack of communication: Williams’s wife is diagnosed with ovarian cancer while this is going on, and no one bothers to call her back and tell her that the biopsy results were in fact negative; Williams himself shows up for an operation only to be told that the surgeon had cancelled it two days earlier.
This could be a depressing litany of medical malpractice, or an angry rant, but, while Williams is certainly outraged by some of the things that happen to him, the story is overall upbeat and full of humor, as he is not blind to the amusing side of all of this, and a good dose of competent doctors, fighting spirit, and plain old luck see him through. An entertaining story of one man’s battle against the excesses of our modern-day idols, with suggestions on how to navigate the rocky waters of western medicine when you, too, fall into them.