Second Opinion

The dark glasses he wears lie on the physician’s desk in front of him; he had cataracts removed from both eyes, but he still suffers from macular degeneration- a condition where center field of vision blurs and eventually leads to blindness. His visit is a result of a recent diagnosis of parkinsonism. He has come for another opinion.

Losing his hearing, the patient asks the doctor to speak up, interrupting him, as he speaks. The doctor repeats himself, with abbreviated thoughts. The patient holds his palm up towards the doctor, interrupting, telling him to let him speak. His hands are big, his finger long. Several of the fingernails on his left hand are cropped off, midway through the nail. He is 88 years old and expects to live to live to 120. An American chess champion in the over 75-year division, he visits Florida once a year to compete. He claims in his youth he could play ten games blindfolded, now he can play only one game this way; his short term memory is not what it was. But it is the tremor in his hands that bothers him, especially when eating soup. Three years ago, he noticed his handwriting became larger and shakier. He comments also he has lost the bounce in his step; he no longer rises up onto his forefoot when he walks. Balancing is tricky.

The doctor stands and takes the man’s hand, and folds it inward towards his shoulder and out. He tells the patient his upper body is supple, without rigidity. The patient concedes he was a magician, and takes a packet of cards from a small leather case in his trouser pocket. He describes a trick he was able to do with one hand, holding the deck of cards divided into two bundles, he was able to shuffle them with one hand. Standing, he positions the cards in his left hand, and then nothing happens. The doctor follows his actions, and nods, understanding dexterity is gone from his hands. The doctor assesses the patient’s sensation with a large tuning fork asking whether he can sense the vibration of the fork, when applied to the bony prominences of his feet and legs. Noteworthy, the patient fails to feel vibration applied to the right leg. The physician explains it is a cheap and easy way of assessing the integrity of the long sensory nerves in the body, and states the lack of sensation explains some of the change in his walking style, as he appears to have a mild sensory neuropathy. The cause, the physician guesses is from compression of the nerve roots in the spine. The doctor explains we rely on three mechanisms to keep us upright in space; position sense derived from the sensory nerves in our limbs that pick up vibration, fine touch and temperature; our vestibular system of the inner ear and our vision.

When the physician summarizes his findings, he notes the patient has a mild action tremor, and a mild sensory abnormality in the right leg and foot. He would like an MRI to look at the blood vessels of the brain. However, the patient leaves on Thursday to his home state, he’d prefer to have the testing performed there. The doctor agrees to send notes to the physicians involved in his care and the conversation shifts to what sort of cutting edge therapies exist in the field of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Sitting behind the desk, the physician explains an experimental study in which people with Alzheimer’s are receiving GCSF (granulocyte- colony stimulating factor) to remove the amyloid plaques from the brain and improve cognition. The patient voices some interest in undergoing the same treatment, and the doctor wonders whether that would be ethical, or even practical, as the patient lacks the symptoms of those with the illness. He also notes when the amyloid is removed it can get stuck in small blood vessels, and result in micro-hemorrhages. He is unsure of the consequences of such trauma in the brain of a healthy, yet older individual. The man, wearing a woolen red sweater over a collared shirt, reaches into a file and withdraws the list of therapies he receives regularly from a physician whose specialty is aging. In the second or third line is a product called Neupogen, the same substance used in the research study for patients with Alzheimer’s.


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