No Symptoms Doesn’t Equal No Disease

I recently visited the nice people at Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan for a coronary angiogram, with overnight accommodations, IVs, heart monitors, and blood draws as part of the all-inclusive package.

How I got there is a long story, full of coincidences. I like my doctor, but I try to avoid him whenever possible, so it was unusual for me to go for an annual wellness exam. “Unusual” is an understatement – I hadn’t been for a physical in 37 years. And I only scheduled this one because my insurance pays for it, and I had some complaints I hoped he would address at no additional charge.

The doctor was about to pronounce me fit as the proverbial fiddle, when he heard an unwelcome sound in his stethoscope, a bruit, and he sent me for an ultrasound. The ultrasound confirmed a blockage in an artery I didn’t know I had, and I was sent to a surgeon. The surgeon explained medical intervention was not called for under current protocols, and invited me back for a follow-up in a year.

During the follow-up, the surgeon told me to check with my family doctor about taking a cholesterol-lowering drug and undergoing a test to discover if there might also be a blockage in my heart. I scheduled my second wellness exam with my doctor in two years, told him what the surgeon said and explained, “I don’t want to go on cholesterol meds, and I don’t want to take the heart test. But I don’t want to be stupid, either, so I want your counsel.”

He had an EKG done in the office, and when the results came back wonky, he sent me to a cardiologist. The cardiologist looked me in the eye and said, “If I were a betting man, I’d bet there’s nothing wrong with you.” But he wasn’t a betting man, so he sent me for a stress test. It also showed possible blockages.

I spoke to a second cardiologist before the heart catherization, and he agreed with the first: there was probably nothing wrong with me. A false positive – it happens all the time. But when I came back from the cath lab, it was with two stents in my heart. I had two arteries that were 90 percent blocked.

I had no symptoms. If it hadn’t been for the vascular surgeon, I would not have thought to check for problems. Two weeks before the procedure, I was hiking state parks, scuttling up and down ravines, and climbing and descending hundreds of stairs, without a problem. When the hospital called to say the doctor wanted me to come in that day, I’d just returned from a three-mile walk and was planning to go hiking that night. (They told me not to do it.)

I could have said, “Come on, there’s nothing wrong with me! I don’t drink. I’m not overweight. I exercise regularly. I eat well. I’m fine. Besides that, the cardiologist as good as said there’s nothing wrong with me.”

While all that was true, it didn’t change a thing. I was standing on the threshold of a heart attack, knocking on the door. I could have disregarded the vascular surgeon’s directive, ignored my family doctor’s advice, and clung to the cardiologist’s off-the-cuff assessment. Maybe I’d be just fine. Then again, maybe I’d be dead.

As a pastor, I understand how a doctor must feel when he warns a patient of impending trouble, and the patient ignores him because he’s had no symptoms. The Bible warns us of the disastrous consequences of sin to ourselves and to the world. But people say, “Sin? Not me. I go to church. I try not to hurt anyone. I’m better than most people!”

That may be true, but it doesn’t change a thing. I can compare myself favorably to other people, and some expert can tell me I’m fine, but I’m not. None of us are. The biblical message is that we have a disease (known familiarly as sin) that will destroy us, sooner or later. But we also have a healer who can save us. We must admit our need, trust him and place ourselves in his care.

In biblical shorthand, it’s put this way: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 8, 2017

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