Medical Advice: Advocate for Yourself
How one woman learned never to settle when it comes to your health.
There’s nothing simple—or typical—about what Dr. John Mitchell does at the University of Colorado Hospital. Surgically removing damaged sections of lung through a small incision takes serious skill, yet Mitchell makes it sound so easy. “I’m familiar with techniques to deal with infection in the lung,” he says, “and I’ve been doing it a long time.” That may well be true, but what he does in conjunction with the folks at National Jewish Health is miraculous to his patients—especially Deborah Schwartz.
Schwartz, 62, lives outside Philadelphia, but she found medical salvation in Denver in 2010. Diagnosed with mycobacterial infection (similar to, but not the same as, tuberculosis) in 2004, she was put on antibiotics by her East Coast physicians. She lived well for two years before she began experiencing adverse reactions to her medications. Her doctors took her off the antibiotics. That’s when she started coughing up blood. “I needed more advanced care,” Schwartz says. “My doctors told me I was a perfect candidate for some doctors they knew about in Denver.”
Schwartz made the cross-country trip to see physicians at National Jewish. They recommended surgery with Dr. Mitchell, but when Schwartz decided she didn’t want to have surgery so far from home, she went back to Pennsylvania to see specialists. But no matter whom she spoke with, not one doctor was willing to offer what National Jewish and the University of Colorado Hospital were offering. “At first, doctors back East told me that they didn’t want to do surgery at all,” she says. “Then they told me that they couldn’t do the surgery thoracoscopically; they would be using a gigantic incision. And they also told me that no one could do the surgery safely the way the doctors in Denver wanted to do it.”
Schwartz’s story isn’t uncommon. Dr. Mitchell says he hears similar anecdotes often. “A lot of my patients express frustration with treatment they’re getting at home,” he says. “Debbie was experiencing suboptimal treatment options, and instead of giving in she fought for herself. She was determined to be proactive.” It’s a refrain that Mitchell—and now Schwartz—uses often. Although they’re coming from different perspectives, both stress patients’ need to learn to be their own best advocate when it comes to their health.
“I think people often go to one doctor and then that’s the doctor they go with,” Schwartz says. “People need to study, sit down at the computer and see what other doctors are doing.” Schwartz acknowledges she is fortunate to have insurance and the financial wherewithal to travel across the country to seek different treatments. However, she still advises others to know their options. “If I had gone with docs in Pennsylvania, I may not have been able to get surgery or I would’ve had a huge incision and a tougher recovery.”
Instead, Schwartz signed on with Mitchell for two minimally invasive procedures. A few days after each surgery Schwartz was shopping in downtown Denver, and today she is breathing much easier.