A dear friend, Caroline*, recently announced that she chooses to live her life without prescription drugs. A few years ago, her doctor told her she had high blood pressure, and advised her to begin a regimen of blood pressure medication. Caroline never went back to the doctor, and currently has no firm plans for a checkup.
When I read this declaration on her popular blog, I was stunned and worried about this woman, a lady with an extraordinarily beautiful soul, who is as precious as a sister to me. Although I share some of Caroline’s views that prescription drugs can possibly cause harm and prolong life without maintaining an acceptable quality of life, I hope I can convince her to rethink her choice to avoid doctors and completely refuse any prescription medicine.
In her post, Caroline cites the experiences of her brother and father. Both men died too young. Her brother underwent a time of kidney dialysis, until his life was an endless round of visits to the dialysis center. His quality of life was miserable, and he finally chose to refuse treatment. Caroline’s father began his decline with the simple step of taking blood pressure medicine that led to more and more prescriptions, and death at 67. Knowing Caroline’s loving nature, watching these adored family members succumb to ill health was heartrending and hellish for her.
She has a valid point when she rebels against the idea that there is a pill for every minor-to- major blip on our health radar, and that sometimes the smart thing to do is to say no or at least get a second opinion before embarking on drug therapy. Our nation is awash in a sea of pills. With a Walgreens, a CVS, or a Rite Aid on nearly every corner, drug ads on prime time TV, and even children taking prescriptions in record numbers, we are over-medicated, as Caroline implies. Having had some unfortunate experiences with drugs, I can understand why she is wary of being made sick from prescription pills.
My own best example of prescription troubles started when I was in my late forties and was diagnosed with slightly elevated cholesterol. My doctor prescribed statins, and I remember being hopeful that these common drugs would lower my lipids. After all, many people take statins, they are considered safe overall, and some doctors believe so strongly in them that they propose adding them to the public water supply! At this time, I also got serious about my diet, added more exercise, and lost twenty pounds, bringing me into a healthy BMI. Proud of my lifestyle changes and sure that along with the statins, my cholesterol levels would be the envy of all, I had another blood test. My cholesterol had gone UP!
First, I was incredulous, then dismayed and discouraged. How was this possible? My physician, Dr. D., was unconcerned, and told me that some people had hereditary high levels that were stubborn to treat. Over the next eight years, she tried me on four different statins, and on increasingly higher doses. At the highest dose of the strongest statin, my back, wrists, and muscles began to ache. Brushing it aside as too much time spent commuting and working at the computer, eventually I complained to Dr. D. She advised me to stop the statins, and a scant week later my painful back, joint and muscle pains disappeared.
The pain that I thought might be my lot to bear for the rest of my life—after all, old people have aches and pains, right?—had been caused by the pills that were supposed to make me “well.” The statins had caused me to ache all over, and had NOT reduced my cholesterol to “healthy” levels. This experience shook my faith in the marvels of supposedly safe modern drug therapies.
So I approach any prescription drug with caution, and with the thought that if the drug does not accomplish its stated goal within a reasonable amount of time and with a minimum of negative side effects, it’s time for a second opinion. But I feel bound to add that over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and herbal supplements need much the same caution. Tylenol can be deadly to the liver, vitamins can be toxic at too high levels, and herbal supplements should be considered as potentially as powerful, and as prone to unpleasant side-effects or interactions as any prescription drug.
We can’t be passive consumers; we must do our research and due diligence. It exhausts me to put so much thought into health, but I haven’t found a shortcut around working with my doctor while also trying to stay reasonably well informed about any drugs she prescribes. Additionally, I attempt to keep up with ongoing research for my health conditions. Alternative therapies can help in some cases—I also get therapeutic massage and I’ve tried acupuncture.
After my sobering experience with statins, one might expect that I am living a happy-go-lucky, drug-free life. I was, for about six months. Then some other conditions reared their ugly heads; I now take 3 prescription drugs on a daily basis. I’m not thrilled, but I have realized that my current prescriptions are necessary for me to function. The drugs keep me going; without them, I would not be able to work, to be here for my husband, or for my aging mother.
I used to have concerns, as Caroline does, about “what if I have to stay on these drugs the rest of my life?” For me, and for many people, if prescription drugs are what it takes, so be it; we are resigned. Sometimes, we’re even grateful. At least these drugs are available, and the alternative for me is near complete disability. Without these drugs, there would be no “rest of my life” to worry about.
Further, I would tell Caroline that yes, she is her own woman and she has the right to refuse treatment. We have the freedom to choose how to live, and how to die. However, she is not an island. She has a loving husband, children, grandchildren, and many friends who all love her. We don’t want her to die too young. We don’t want her to suffer anything remotely near the fates of her father and brother. We do want her to consider finding a doctor she has can develop a trusting relationship with, and who in turn answers her questions about high blood pressure, possible treatments, and recommended lifestyle changes.
We want this for her not because we are trying to tell her what to do or because we are trying to make her feel guilty, ashamed, or unreasonable for her choices. We want her to be WELL, to live a long time among us, and when the time comes, to be able to have a dignified, pain-free death.
Prescription drugs are not inherently good or evil. They are chemical compounds, as are OTC drugs, herbal supplements, and the food and drink we consume daily. Our own physical bodies, at the most basic level, are chemicals. Prescription drugs are sometimes useful chemical tools that can help to decrease or delay many diseases. Life expectancy was a bitterly short 47 years for an average American woman in 1900 (University of California, Berkeley, n.d.). The average woman today can expect to live 33 years longer, to over age 80. The CDC (2008) says Caroline, as a Hispanic woman, can expect 3 years more than that, on average, 83 years!
Prescription drugs are certainly no guarantee of longer life. However, many people would agree that when used judiciously under the supervision of a knowledgeable, caring physician, drugs are an option we sometimes must consider. Caroline—please make that doctor appointment soon. We love you and want you healthy, happy and with us for many, many years to come!
*not her real name
This blog is not intended as medical advice. Consult your own health care professionals for advice related to health and prescription drugs.