When should you listen to doctors?

It’s best to follow medical advice except in those situations where you shouldn’t.

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Surgeons in masks.

When should you embrace medicine and when should you run away? It’s a complicated question.

Neil Steinberg/Image generated by Dall-E artificial intelligence program

Anti-vaxxers have a point.

Not in their blanket rejection of vaccines. Those save millions of lives, maybe mine. I’ve taken five, count ‘em, five, COVID shots and wish you would too, even though you probably haven’t — 90% of Americans didn’t bother with the latest booster.

But they have a point about questioning medicine. Doctors are not always right; their advice is sometimes clouded by self interest. Some are highly skilled; others, less so. How to tell the difference?

In 2019, when something was obviously wrong with my spine, I fled the first surgeon I spoke with, but let a second, at Northwestern Medicine, cut open my neck — decisions based on differences of bedside manner and because Illinois Bone and Joint Institute’s name sounded to me like something plucked from a Lemony Snicket novel.

It’s a gut call. Earlier this year my father contracted COVID at his senior lifestyle community in Buffalo Grove. They sent him to a hospital. After a few days he was discharged into a rehab facility in Arlington Heights, and the facility told me he’d need two weeks of physical therapy to learn to walk again.

Interesting if true, as they say in my business. As soon as he was out of isolation, I hurried over to the chaotic facility. Eventually I found him in a wheelchair in a dim room. We exchanged pleasantries. His roommate watched a blaring television.

“Let me wheel you into the hall, Dad, where we can talk,” I said. I looked closely at him. He smiled back. A youthful 90, heavier than in the past, due to not remembering that he’s just eaten.

“Dad, can you stand up?” I said. He did. “Dad, could you walk over there and back?” He walked over there and back. I went to the nurse’s station.

“We’re leaving,” I said. Oh no, a nurse said, you can’t do that. There is paperwork. “Email it,” I said. My father and I walked out of the rehab facility to the car. His gait was as steady as mine. Our escape felt exhilarating, like the ending of “Big Fish.”

So ignore doctors and take matters into your own hands? Not so fast, again using my own experience as yardstick, like everyone else does. In June I had my annual check-up. I mentioned to my doctor the self-diagnosed arthritis in my right shoulder. Getting hard to put on a jacket. Painful. He referred me to a shoulder surgeon.

I waited four months — delay is my go-to medical strategy — then slid by for an X-ray. Not arthritis, the doctor said, but “frozen shoulder,” a medical condition I’d never heard of. My range of options were a) surgery; b) be put under anesthesia and my shoulder manipulated; c) a cortisone shot and stretching rehab and d) do nothing and it’ll go away on its own. I chose a version of c) — rehab without the shot. After the first session — at Illinois Bone and Joint, I should mention, lest they feel slighted — it felt much better and I reminded myself this whole ‘consult professionals’ business has value.

Returning to our initial question: How do you know when to accept medical advice and when to reject it? I’d say trust your instincts, but some people are staggeringly stupid and cling to a crazed knee-jerk skepticism about everything as the closest to reason they can manage.

I suppose the answer is to view healthcare as a journey, which brings you in and out of offices and websites. You try this door and that one. Trust is your friend until it’s not.

None of us know what challenges, medical or otherwise, we will face in the coming year, and some reading this now might be ashes scattered under the marquee at Wrigley Field come spring. Don’t neglect your health, but don’t rush off to embrace any fad cure either. Listen to your body, and to what doctors say, but don’t blindly follow orders — that shoulder surgeon would have gladly cut me open to fix something that a few minutes of stretching took care of beautifully. I’m tempted to say, “Be smart,” but that’s a high bar to clear, a mark missed at one time or another by all of us. Better to say, “Be lucky,” because that seems to work for me. As for how to be lucky, well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?

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