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“It feels like my stomach muscles are being twisted. If I am in class and it starts hurting then I cannot do anything else because it hurts so bad so I have to leave and I cannot focus on anything but the pain”. Alexa’s parents said that she first started experiencing this stomach pain when she was really little but she does not remember. It went away for a while and then she started getting these outbursts again in seventh grade. The pain was overwhelming, so she thought it was a good idea to get it checked out. I wrote this narrative to explore to what extent does having a proper diagnosis affects one’s ability to cope with their pain.
She described it as a dull heavy pain about a 7 out of 10. It hurts for a couple of minutes then it goes away then it comes back. It consumes her that whole period of time when it is happening. A pain rating of 7 out of 10 pain is pretty serious and I can attest that it is bad. I have been with her multiple times during these outbursts and every time she is overwhelmed with pain. Off of this description and a handful of other tests, the first doctor she went to labeled what she was going through abdominal migraines. Abdominal migraines are recurrent episodes of moderate to severe stomach pain that can include nausea, and vomiting (Angus-Leppan, 2). Alexa is a very outgoing person who is always engaging someone in conversation by making jokes or just being her fun-loving self. But when she has this pain, she does not utter a word and even finds it hard to be around people at all. As someone so close to her but still watching from the outside it is tough because I cannot do anything but sit back and watch her struggle through the pain. She is such a tough person who takes everything so lightly, including her pain, so it took some persistence in getting her to fully open up about all that she goes through. At first, she was brushing off her pain as if it were minimal but then I insisted that I did not want her to make light of the situation. This is when she finally opened up and described the information above about the pain during these episodes but also described how it causes trouble in her day-to-day life.
“I get scared because I can’t do anything about it and then it creates extra stress and I am preoccupied with it because even when I am not worried, I am just scared that it is going to start. A limitation because I cannot do things to my full potential because when it is hurting, I can’t be myself.”
Her suffering goes beyond the pain itself and into her everyday life. She has to be cautious of her every action because of this fear that the pain will come back. Again, it is this theme of consuming her life because even when she is not having the pain, she is thinking about it so it controls her life. In almost everything she does, she has to think about her pain or at least have it in the back of her mind when making decisions.
After her first diagnosis and months of using the medicine given to her by her doctor, she realized that the pain was never alleviated. As the problem was still consistent, she continued to pursue doctors to see if they could get to the bottom of it. As she continued to see these doctors, she got the feeling that none of them were too concerned about her pain. Despite none of them being too concerned they all ran tests and tried to pinpoint her pain and some treatments that would help. After all the doctors she went to she still did not receive any concrete reason or name for this pain. It is anywhere from Intestinal migraines, IBS, related to stress, an allergy, or a sensitivity to certain foods. This left her confused but she did not blame her doctors because stomach problems can be vague and or too broad so she was happy they at least tried. An article published in 2021 explains that chronic abdominal pain is hard to pinpoint so it makes sense that her doctors were having trouble with her diagnosis (Sado, 1). The doctors did not know what to think about her pain but they did not fear it was anything life-threatening. This left Alexa still battling with her physical pain as well as left her mental state unresolved. She did not receive any clarity of a specific reason or name for her pain. This would lead me to think that her interaction which her doctors were negative. However, when asked who or what has helped her most with this stomach pain? She responded “My doctors have helped by giving me preventative medication, food elimination diets, and pain medicine. Exercise has also helped and like healthy diets and vitamins. My parents have also helped me figure things out and cope with it.”
This was interesting because the first thing she listed when asked who has helped her were her doctors. This is the answer that most people expect because that is what doctors do, they help people with their pain. However, in her case, I thought this was contradicting because she did say that everything doctors had suggested did not help. “(Doctors) are fine but when they all say something different, I do not know what to think because everyone is just taking a guess. Every time they tell me to do something it doesn’t help so I do not know what to think.” I wanted to make her realize this contradiction without verbally pointing it out myself. So, I continued to poke at this question and asked her to explain why and how they had helped her. She replied that they helped her by running multiple tests to figure it out and giving her multiple options to try and help with her pain. She also discussed that they listened to her problem and gave her reassurance that she will be ok and one day she will get over this problem. Despite her elaboration, I still thought she was being naïve because I still could only see how none of their treatments got rid of the pain. However, looking back on it, I was the one being naïve because I neglected to realize that there is much more to health care than the physical aspect. She did not receive the correct diagnosis, treatment, or medicine but the doctors were still able to help her in other ways. They acknowledged her pain and sympathized with her as they still tried everything, they could to solve it. This may have not helped her physically but it helped her outlook on the pain which has helped her in different ways. She felt as she mattered and also eased her mind believing she will be ok. I believe this was also why she mentioned her mother as a major person who helped her with her pain. Her mother did not do anything to physically treat her but she knew what she was going through and sympathized with her pain. She provided emotional and mental support to get through these hard times. This adds a layer to health care, that goes beyond what most people think of.
She still faces this pain today but faces it with a different mindset knowing that she can overcome her pain. When these episodes come, she has the assurance that she can push through them and that they will be short-lived. She now deals with this pain as it comes and it is a less consuming factor of her life. Even though she might not have a name or reason for this pain she can still grasp an understanding of it through her own perception and others’ reassurance. Receiving a correct diagnosis can help one get the correct treatments, validate their suffering, and better connect with other individuals facing the same problem (Sartorius, 6). Receiving a diagnosis is helpful but Alexa’s journey shows that coming to terms with the pain herself can be just as beneficial. The physical aspect of medicine is important but it is by no means the only way one can better handle their pain. While I thought Alexa was just being nice and not wanting to blame anyone, she actually realized this additional aspect of health care. This is one of the reasons why I think she wants to be a doctor. She is studying Biology at Baylor University and hopes to one day go to medical school to become a trauma surgeon. She will be a great doctor because she understands that there is more than one way to help her patients. She can use her sweet sociable personality and connect with her patients on a personal level. This will go beyond physical health and promote health for the person as a whole including their mental, social and emotional health.
Angus-Leppan, Heather. “Abdominal Migraine.” BMJ. Feb. 2018, p. 1-10. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k179
Do, Alexa. Interview conducted by Michael Fair 14, Nov. 2021.
Sado, Christina. “Chronic Abdominal Pain in General Practice.” Digestive Diseases, vol. 39 no. 6. Feb. 2021, p. 1-9. doi: 10.1159/000515433.
Sartorius, Norman. “Why we need a diagnosis? Maybe a syndrome is enough?” Dialogues clinic Neuroscience vol. 17. no. 1, Mar. 2015. p. 6-7, doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.1/nsartorius