It pays to be to be smart when it comes to our own health. We
need to learn to inform ourselves. Otherwise, the consequences
may be very serious indeed. Like many patients today, I listen
to my doctor, but I also research my condition and ask
questions based on my findings. There is nothing to be ashamed
or afraid of in that.
About five years ago, I was taken to the hospital. I was suffering
from a total lack of energy. Even though I was able to move, I
felt very lethargic and disoriented. The emergency doctor found
nothing wrong, said I was a little dehydrated, gave me a glass of
water, and sent me home. It was the most expensive glass of
water I’ve ever drunk.
This happened over a weekend, and I followed up by going to my
own doctor on Monday. She was a new doctor to me. I had seen
her only once before, for my yearly physical.
I told her I was very stressed out, that I had been depressed for
some time, and couldn’t sleep nights. I also told her I was
disoriented at times and lost track of my thoughts. She
explained it made sense that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I was
suffering stress. In response to my hospital visit, she said it
appeared I’d suffered a mini-stroke, but just to be sure, she
scheduled a brain scan.
On that first visit, she gave me a shot of Valium. She finally
sent me home with a prescription for Paxil, and a bag full of
Now, Paxil is an effective antidepressant, but after doing a bit of
research I found out it is a very addictive drug and not one that
should be prescribed arbitrarily.
The brain scan came back normal, but it showed, in the doctors
own words, “a very tiny shrinkage in the lower region of the
brain.” Based on that “tiny shrinkage,” she made a preliminary
diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and scheduled further testing
of my brain.
Thank goodness I am and proud to be stubborn. I would not
accept such diagnosis. I did some research. Alzheimer’s is a
progressive degenerative malfunction in the part of the brain that
controls thought, memory, and language; mental ability
continues to diminish, despite treatment. There is no magic pill.
As far as running further tests on my brain, the only sure way to
determine whether Alzheimer’s disease is actually present is
through the examination of brain tissue during an autopsy. I
wasn’t ready for that one, so I took the Paxil into the bathroom
and had a memorial flush.
Since that preliminary Alzheimer’s diagnosis five years ago, I’ve
written in excess of 200,000 words worth of fiction, not counting
my novel, now on the final stages. Twenty-five thousand words
published in a short story collection, and forty-five thousand on a
sole-author collection scheduled to come out in July. I have won
awards for both fiction and poetry. Might I have been
However, my sleep problems continued, and they have worsened
in the last three years. Work and other problems again made
stress a factor. My ability to concentrate diminished
considerably and, consequently, affected my performance at
work, and my ability to write. I sought the advice of one other
doctor, who gave me sleep medication, but it only worked for a
while. I started experiencing severe palpitations, hyperventilation,
disorientation, and memory lapses. I started to believe the
Alzheimer theory and was scared to death to think I was losing
my mind. I desperately ignored my symptoms and struggled to
carry on with my job as if nothing was happening.
Many times, I was taken to the hospital emergency room with
the same old symptoms: lack of energy, stress, anxiety, and
my heart pumping like that of a race horse. No cause was ever
I went to yet another doctor, one who knew how to listen
carefully to what I was saying. Again, I told her about
experiencing depression, and to my surprise, she put me on a
heart monitor. I wore the monitor for twenty-four hours, and in
that time, it showed something that had never been detected in
an electrocardiogram: an irregular heartbeat. The condition
known as tachycardia is an abnormally rapid heartbeat that can
be as high as 200 beats per minute. My heart pumped up to 170
times per minute at irregular intervals. Surprisingly, it was
mostly during the night while I was supposedly asleep. In my
case, it was corrected through a surgical procedure which
stabilized the heart’s rhythmic function. However, that’s not
where the story ends.
About three months afterwards, symptoms returned. Again, I
ended up in the hospital. My surgeon explained that my heart
was working properly after surgery and that I was experiencing
symptoms of anxiety and depression identical to those of a
heart dysfunction. He advised me to follow up with my family
doctor, took some blood tests, and prepared a report for her. In
other words, my family doctor could have easily prescribed an
antidepressant drug and let it go at that, but she didn’t; she
knew to monitor my heart just in case, and she was right.
Now I was back to square one. Anxiety and depression were the
symptoms that had impelled me to seek medical help five years
before and those symptoms had been diagnosed as Alzheimer.
As my family doctor was on maternity leave, I would be seen by
her associate. Thank goodness, he was as intelligent and
attentive as she.
My family doctor’s associate did give me medication to reduce
stress. After a while I felt better, but something was still wrong.
I told him that I still couldn’t sleep. I told him about falling asleep
during the day. With that information, he sent me to be tested
for sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a disorder that commonly affects more than 12
million people in the United States. Its name comes from the
Greek word apnea, which means "without breath." People who
suffer sleep apnea literally stop breathing during their sleep,
often for a minute or longer and as many as hundreds of times
during a single night. My test revealed that I had stopped
breathing eighty-eight times during a five-hour period.
The most obvious outcome from the inability to achieve deep
stages of sleep is to experience excessive daytime sleepiness.
A person with sleep apnea does not enjoy restorative sleep, and
this can have very serious consequences. I travel thirty minutes
each way to work and back. After a while, dozing off while driving
became a frequent hazard. I’d fall asleep in the middle of a
phone conversation, and on the job. I once fell asleep while sitting in my boss’ office, talking to him. Sleep deprivation can
also lead to personality changes, mood swings, decreased
memory, a sudden lack of energy, and depression, all of which I
have experienced. Sleep apnea can also cause strokes or heart
Perhaps the ‘mini’ stroke that first doctor said I’d suffered five
years ago was a calling card that should have been taken
seriously. I don’t know if there is a direct link between sleep
apnea and tachycardia. In my case, it might have been a
separate issue. But there is no doubt in my mind that I have
suffered physically and emotionally for five long years because
two doctors simply did not know about this common disorder
and made far-fetched and mistaken diagnoses, instead.
As there are symptomatic similarities between depression and
some heart malfunctions. There are also some symptoms
caused by sleep deprivation, such as lack of memory, language
impediment, and disorientation, very similar to those of
Alzheimer’s. There is one major difference: patients who
experience sleep apnea respond to treatment and continue to
lead productive lives. I needed neither a psychiatrist nor sleeping
pills. I just needed a little oxygen.
I feel lucky to be alive. I could have killed myself while driving. I
could have killed someone else. I could have suffered a stroke,
or heart attack. No less tragic was agonizing about the thought
of actually losing my mind and believing the day would come
when I would no longer be able to read or write.
Disorientation and lack of memory doesn’t always spell
Alzheimer’s. It pays to be informed. It pays to relate to our
doctors exactly what and how we feel, and to insist on further
treatment if we don’t feel the situation has been corrected, or
properly diagnosed. Yes, dementia threatens as we age, but it
doesn’t mean it has to happen. Not to me. Not today.
©Carmen Ruggero 2006