Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Before diagnosis

I am a scientist and artist. I graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Chemical Engineering in 1995. I worked at Ford Motor Company as a Manufacturing Development Engineer from 1996 to 1998. While researching new painting technologies for Ford, I noticed that all the cool research jobs were held by people with PhDs. So in August 1998 I quit my job and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I earned my PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2004. My research was computer simulations of the growth of silicon germanium quantum dots.

I have enjoyed science since I was a little kid. I always loved going to science museums, playing with chemistry sets, building models, programming computers, and watching science documentaries. I thought that everybody had the same interests -- I didn't realize until high school that my interests and talents in science were noteworthy.

I have also always loved art and music. When I was young I listened to my father and sisters play piano and violin and tried to play myself. Later I studied violin and took art classes, doing well enough that my high school art teacher encouraged me to study art in college. I did take several art classes at Michigan State -- my sculpture professor noted that my kinetic art creations were exceptionally well engineered -- but ultimately I decided that a degree in chemical engineering would be better defense against starvation. While working at Ford I continued to paint and in graduate school I made friends with other art fans. We cofounded the University of Michigan Public Art Underground Society (UMPAUS) and created several projects including Project Easter Bunny.

While in graduate school I also started developing digestive problems. In 1998 I started seeing bright red blood in my stool. That's the sort of thing that health advisors always warn about, so I saw my family doctor. He said it was probably just irritation due to spicy foods and nuts: change my diet and it would go away. I made the changes and still had the symptom, so I went back to see him two more times. He did digital exams of my rectum to look for hemorrhoids and found none. He suggested that it was probably harmless anal fissures; come back if my symptoms changed but otherwise don't worry about it. I kept getting the feeling that the doctors thought I was a hypochondriac or that my problems were self-imposed by doing perverted sexual things. So I stopped bothering the doctors and just lived with the (painless) bleeding.

In 2000 I started having debilitating nausea. I would feel sick to my stomach most of the morning and afternoon every day. It eventually got bad enough that I could barely eat and couldn't concentrate. I stayed home from school most days and layed around trying not to vomit. I saw the doctor repeatedly. I was told to avoid spicy foods, caffeine, and stress; I did but the symptoms continued. I was checked for the bacteria that cause ulcers but none were found. I was prescribed various anti-ulcer medications; none helped until I tried Prilosec and the symptoms slowly went away. When I stopped Prilosec they returned, so the doctor sent me for an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. They didn't find anything visibily wrong with my esophagus or stomach, so the doctor said there was nothing seriously wrong with me. Continue taking Prilosec as needed and I'd be fine.

These health problems had a big impact on my personal life. I wasn't getting much done at school since I was so often sick, and I felt isolated from my friends since I rarely felt well enough to go on social outings. I had been dating a fellow chemical engineering grad student for several months. During the months when I was feeling the worst we had problems related to my ability to engage in boyfriendly duties like social activities and romance. We had an argument after a movie one night and she left my place in tears. I felt too sick to patch things over, so I let her go. What began as an argument transformed into a breakup and we never returned to the close friendship we had before.

That was a couple months before I discovered that Prilosec would control my symptoms. Eventually I started feeling better, returned to my usual activities, and after much hard work finished my doctoral dissertation. I resolved that I just had a sensitive digestive system and if I could manage the symptoms I would have an otherwise normal life.

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