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Listening to Hypochondria

A new understanding of the condition is lending it legitimacy, and leading to novel treatments.


Lee Gardon  

There could be no doubt: Lee Gardon had multiple sclerosis.

It was, of course, an agonizing fate to confront, not least because Gardon, 45, had gotten married only months earlier, late in 2005, and seemed finally to have secured a measure of hard-won stability in his life. Gardon was a realist, though, and there seemed to be no use denying the overwhelming evidence. In fact, the diagnosis made such sense, accounted so reasonably for the disparate welter of symptoms with which Gardon had long grappled, that it was likely he had been suffering from MS for some time. He had been an avid athlete since childhood, and remained a gym rat, but as he approached middle age he had come to feel inexplicably “battered and abused” by a variety of pains, sometimes vague, sometimes acute, affecting his joints, his muscles, even his bones. Although he harbored a distrust of traditional medicine, he would periodically relent and seek help from doctors, to little avail. “The doctors I saw weren’t thorough enough,” he complained. “I wanted a complete evaluation, some attempt to put together the pieces of my puzzle, but what I would get was a 30-second visit before the prescription pad came out.” Not infrequently, he would leave the doctor’s office feeling humiliated that his concerns had been diminished.

Gardon didn’t look the part of the sickly patient. He stood five feet eleven inches, and seemed fit. He had a vivid, skeptical mind, and spoke in fervent tones about politics, culture, and—his most passionate subject—health. With a shaved head and goatee, Gardon could have been a Lower East Side hipster in an early Jim Jarmusch film. (His Slavic accent was part of the package.) Despite his appearance, though, Gardon was suffering. His symptoms would improve for a while, then suddenly return. By 2005, his pain had become chronic, accompanied by fatigue and lethargy, muscular weakness and respiratory difficulties.

Then, out of the blue, Gardon had a terrible flash of insight into the nature of his problems. He learned that one of his friends, a longtime colleague at the posh New Jersey country club where Gardon works as a purchaser, had been diagnosed with MS. The two men were around the same age. “I was devastated by the news,” Gardon says. In the wake of his sadness for his friend, he came to wonder whether he too had MS. The more he thought about it, the more irresistible the suspicion became. He went online and started researching the disease, and it wasn’t long before he encountered suggestions that it might be caused by exposure to environmental toxins. He was terrified. Before marrying, he had lived for twelve years on the grounds of the country club, in a lodging located near the site where pesticides were stored. He did further research, and learned about cases in which MS was said to have occurred in clusters. “I knew it was highly unlikely that the two of us would develop the disease at the same time,” he reflected, “but it was not out of the question.” He began to monitor his symptoms closely. He had numbness and tingling in his extremities. Sometimes his legs would buckle under him when he attempted to walk. “Man,” he told himself, “it’s highly possible I have this.”

Gardon made plans to see a neurologist. He had a long wait until the appointment, and in the meantime his symptoms grew worse. His wife didn’t know what to think. She accompanied him to the neurologist and implored the physician to put Gardon’s mind at ease by ordering a brain scan. The test produced the outcome Gardon most feared. “The MRI found spots on my brain,” he recounted. In the ambiguous field of MS diagnosis, such lesions, which can indicate the deterioration of the myelin sheath surrounding nerve bundles, are among the strongest findings in favor of the disease. The neurologist, however, cautioned Gardon against seizing on premature conclusions. She told him that the pattern of his lesions was atypical for an MS patient. Nor was she impressed by the coincidence of Gardon’s developing MS at the same time as his friend, or by the array of symptoms he presented. Still, Gardon got his hands on the radiologist’s report, which, as he recalled, concluded, “The possibility of demyelinating disease”—MS—“cannot be excluded.”

“I went to pieces,” Gardon says. He contacted more neurologists, making one, then another, and then another appointment in search of further opinions. The intervals between these appointments stretched on endlessly. Gardon couldn’t imagine living with MS. His late mother, a physiatrist, had treated patients with MS when Gardon was a child, and he retained a memory of these unfortunate people wasting away in wheelchairs. He would go to his office in the middle of the night and spend hours online. Much of what Gardon read seemed merely to confirm the inevitability that he had the condition.

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