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Stanford University School of Medicine

The road to diagnosis: How to be insistent, persistent and consistent

We've partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; the latest comes from retired nurse Joan Jahnke.

After 2 ½ years of seeking a definitive diagnosis for my heart disorder, my physician of 14 years told me, "You have been insistent, persistent and consistent each time you presented." She smiled at me as she said this, and I accepted this compliment as a job well done.

I had been diagnosed with cardiac endothelium dysfunction. I considered the diagnosis a triumph of some sort: Standard tests don't always identify the disease, and I had gone on quite the journey to identify the source of my problems.

From the beginning, I had stayed focused on my heart symptoms. When various specialists insisted on blaming other organs (gall bladder, uterus, lungs) for my chest pain, I was insistent that they were off target. As a cardiac nurse, I knew that the mounting conflicting test results were confusing, but I felt confident my heart was the issue. After all, I knew myself far better than anyone else could.

Within weeks of my symptom onset, I read an interview with Dr. George Sopko, a cardiologist at the National Institutes of Health, who said, "Women, pay attention to your heart symptoms." And so, I did that. I began a very succinct journal documenting the timing, duration and quality of chest pain I was experiencing, and I also included what I did to relieve the symptoms. It presented a cause-and-effect pattern with details that supplemented my memory.

I persisted in my search for a definitive diagnosis for my symptoms. My sources were not anecdotal stories from Internet blogs, but instead were scientific papers funded by medical universities and research institutions. I copied medical articles, whose content and format would be most familiar to physicians. I sought out the opinions of medical friends and colleagues, and I approached my research from the perspective of a student - not that of an emotionally distraught woman whose quality of life was rapidly failing.

I remained consistent in my approach. Mindful of how time-consuming difficult diagnoses can be, I came prepared for appointments. I brought with me my ever-present journal, previously prepared questions and medical articles. Many times, my husband would serve as my note-taker, which allowed me to listen closely and concentrate on getting my questions and comments addressed. I offered options for my physicians to consider. I was wrong many times, but never was I rebuffed.

My behaviors culminated in a referral to the Emory Heart Center in Atlanta. By then I was very short of breath, and pain dominated my life. I forwarded my precious journal to the Emory cardiologists, Dr. Jerre Lutz and Dr. Habib Samady, and asked them to read it prior to my appointment. Dr. Lutz knew by page four what was wrong! And he immediately initiated a medical plan of action, in conjunction with Dr. Samady.

My advice to anyone traveling on the difficult road to a diagnosis is to not become the difficult patient - that is, the patient who doesn't keep track of tests or medication trials as the medical record grows in size, who doesn't return for appointments, or who disrupts an office practice and makes accusations that no one is listening to his or her complaints. A squeaky wheel doesn't always get the first or best attention.

Instead, develop a set of behaviors that make you a participant in your healthcare - not merely its recipient. And be insistent, persistent and consistent in your communication and relationship with your physicians.

Joan Jahnke, a retired R.N. with experience in cardiac nursing, lives in South Carolina. She has written about her heart experiences and been active on the Internet since 2008. In 2012, she appeared on a PBS show to discuss how her heart disorder has changed her life, and the difficulties she had in obtaining a diagnosis.

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