Like many others, I was shocked and upset by the death of Prince. While I never owned any of his records, I liked his music and recognized his exemplary talent as a guitar player and song writer. His death at 57 was doubly shocking, and early reports have speculated that he died of an overdose of Percocet. This sensational story from the Daily Mail alludes to an underlying chronic pain condition and a “phobia of doctors”:
“The dealer, often to the stars, said the musician, who he described as ‘majorly addicted’, suffered crippling stage fright and could not get on stage and perform without the drugs – but had a phobia of doctors so could not obtain a prescription legally.
Tragically, Doctor D suggests it could have been a physician that unknowingly contributed to Prince’s death – by prescribing strong pain killers to the singer for his hip condition without knowing the extent of his secret opiate addiction.”
Clearly we should be skeptical of claims of this nature, so in no way do I flatly accept this as truth. Nevertheless, it provoked in me a strong reminder of what I know to be fact, which is witnessing the same sort of behavior in my mother.
My mother developed type II diabetes in about 1970, when I was only about 8 years old. As a child, I was too young to understand the medical nature of this situation. I do recall my mother deciding, rationally, that adjustments to diet were a good idea. Unfortunately she also decided, irrationally, that diet alone could CURE type II diabetes. She began to consume brewers yeast as a suspension in water, believing that the chromium within could CURE diabetes. She remained overweight, and did not exercise. In deciding that she was cured, she stopped checking her blood sugar levels, which at that time unfortunately entailed visiting the doctor’s office.
Life went on uneventfully for a number of years. In the mid 1980’s, she developed herpes zoster, a very painful skin condition. It’s well understood how high blood sugar levels can promote bacterial infection, but I remain unclear whether high blood glucose levels can promote viral infection. That said, I remain convinced that prompt, aggressive anti-viral treatment would have had a better chance of staving off what eventually happened, as opposed to doing nothing. Though novel, acyclovir was available at that time:
“Acyclovir got FDA approval and was released commercially in 1982. It was marked under the trade name Zovirax by the Burroughs Wellcome Company. The original formulation was a topical ointment. Acyclovir became available in oral formulation (200 mg capsules) in 1985.”
My mother must have visited a doctor early on in the process, as I clearly recall learning that her blood sugar levels were abnormally high. Obviously she never “cured” her diabetes with nutritional yeast and chromium… As to whether this doctor did or did not prescribe or recommended acyclovir, and/or she declined treatment, I just don’t know.
The disease process worsened, and she began to lose mobility. She was eventually using a walker. She was in a great deal of pain. Instead of having a doctor prescribe opiates, she chose to use aspirin. I know this because she was having me buy it for her at the pharmacy. She would ask me to buy her giant bottles of the stuff, claiming that she “wanted to make sure she had plenty on hand.” I knew that was an obvious rationalization. I attempted to reason with her, advising her that aspirin simply does not have the same pharmacological power as do opiate pain killers, and simply increasing the dose of aspirin would not help. Essentially I was enabling her self-destructive behavior simply by buying all this aspirin for her. I rationalized my own behavior thusly: I had a medical therapeutics textbook from one of my pharmacy classes that documented how some arthritics would take large doses of aspirin on a long term basis. Even then, the risk of GI bleeding was significant. At one point my mother complained of tinnitus, which I again advised her was a symptom of excessive aspirin use.
The color of my mother’s skin turned greenish yellow. I feared that she had somehow experienced liver failure. Not knowing what else to do, I turned to my father, begging him to order or coerce my mother go see a doctor. At this point I knew reasoning with my mother had failed, and was desperate for another solution. He declined to intercede.
At this time I slept in the basement and my mother slept in a bedroom on the main floor. My mother would gain my attention by rapping on the floor with a wooden cane. One Saturday morning my father had taken a walk to the library. As it happened, I had planned the night before to go jogging. I had planned to really extend myself that Saturday; perhaps I could run for 10 miles. As good fortune would have it, I was lazy that morning, and blew off my giant jog. I heard the rapping of my mother’s cane on the floor. I went upstairs to check on my mother. She was in acute distress, and incoherent. She was disoriented regarding person, place, and time. I KNEW that I had to call 911, despite her protests.
Making a bad scene worse, two nosy neighbor females trespassed into my house during this crisis. One of them even had the audacity to lecture me and give me unbidden psychological advice. I never forgave her for that.
My mother was transported to St. Patrick hospital, where I witnessed blood being pumped from her stomach. Indeed, she had not developed jaundice; her skin was yellowish because she was losing enormous amounts of blood from a GI bleed, caused by her pathological intake of aspirin. Had I chosen to go jogging that morning, I suspect my mother may have died.
Not only would my mother have known “by description” that aspirin would not work as an effective pain killer, she would have known it by “by acquaintance” simply by its failure to kill the pain.
For years I considered this matter very simply: My mother failed to listen to reason. Last night, as I pondered how a rich and supremely successful man like Prince might have died, I considered the connection between his death and my mother’s. According so some accounts, Prince suffered from chronic hip pain, probably requiring surgery. He chose not to undergo this surgery, allegedly due to a phobia of doctors and/or belief in a taboo against blood transfusions. If this is true, it’s another example of a failure of reason: Hospitals are not torture chambers, doctors are not sadists, and blood transfusions are safe and ethical.
It began to dawn on me that IRRATIONAL FEARS DON’T APPEAR IN THE MIND SPONTANEOUSLY. My mother’s irrational fear of doctors and hospitals MUST have had an origin in her personal history.
Once when I was a child, I was riding in the family car with my mother and brother when my mother alluded to a medical procedure she had undergone some years prior. I naively asked what it was. Evidently my mother was too uptight and repressed to say the word “ovary” as she said she “the same condition as Julie Nixon Eisenhower” who recently had an operation for an ovarian cyst. Perhaps my mother experienced some sort of physical or emotional trauma during that encounter. Many people of my parent’s generation had tonsillectomies. Perhaps my mother did, and perhaps she found the experience aversive. Most disturbing for me was to speculate that perhaps my mother’s Christianity was factoring into this; perhaps she felt her suffering was “God’s will” or that suffering brought her a deeper understanding of Christ’s Passion. Sadly, these are only speculations, but again, I’m now convinced that her fears had an origin.
Would I have been able to persuade my mother to seek medical treatment if I had been able to get to the root of her fears? I simply don’t know. Obviously an appeal to reason alone was insufficient.
It’s one thing to know the truth, it’s another to behave in accordance with it. Everyone who smokes cigarettes knows this. Everyone knows smoking is bad, yet most are unable or unwilling to act on this knowledge. Is the goal of skepticism and reason to simply know what’s true, or likely true, or is it to change behavior? At this point, I’m trying to broaden my own thinking, to at least factor in WHY people have come to the beliefs they have.
For many years, I thought of “skepticism” as simply the willingness to address and investigate claims about such subjects as astrology, Bigfoot, UFOs, ESP, and other “fringe” ideas. But as time has gone on, I see reason itself as an even more fundamental process. There is no need to be skeptical as to whether megadoses of aspirin can cause GI bleeding, it’s a well established scientific fact. The deeper issue is HOW we can persuade people to act in accordance with this reasonable principle.
As it happened, my mother survived her near-death experience, but did not recover from the atypical damage from the herpes zoster infection. At one point she was misdiagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She spent the last 13 years of her life bedridden.
Her story largely contributes to my own dedication to reason and skepticism. Belief in things like Bigfoot, UFOs, and ESP has little real world harm, generally. But belief and subsequent behaviors based on medical misinformation can literally be deadly.