Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Height of Medical Ignorance

I may have told this story already. I can't remember. If I have, perhaps you won't remember reading it. The same way I don't remember writing it. 
          A few years ago I got into a cab and noticed that the driver had a contraption hung over the passenger seat in front of me. For lack of a better description, it was some kind of a filter with a fan attached. Since the windows were closed and the air conditioning was on, I asked him what it was for. He said he had a lot of allergies and it filtered the air, so he could breathe more comfortably. 
          I asked him about his allergies and he said that he had had bad asthma as a child. Apparently he was the only one in the family with asthma. Unfortunately, he continued, having asthma stunted his growth, so he had to spend his childhood, not to mention his life, as the runt of the family -- his description, not mine. 
          When I heard about his stunted growth, I immediately realized that asthma probably didn't cause the problem.  
          There has been childhood asthma in my family, too. When she was eight, my older daughter started having breathing problems during mold season, so I took her to a well-respected asthma clinic for help. The drug they prescribed for her was theophylline, a medication that's almost never used any more. With good reason. There are too many unpleasant side effects and some are pretty dangerous. 
          After a year of having my daughter on this evil medicine [unbeknownst to me], we went to the doctor for a check up, only to discover that she wasn't growing. She was still the same height as she had been at her previous exam. Even more disconcerting, she had lost two pounds. For a nine year old child, not growing and losing weight are scary symptoms of something, but what? 
         The pediatrician said he had no idea why she wasn't growing, although I'm sure he thought I was doing something WRONG. When in doubt, blame the mom. At the time, I didn't think to ask the asthma clinic what was happening, since it never occurred to me there was a relationship between the drug my daughter was taking and her growth. Of course, no one wearing a doctor's uniform had warned me about side effects, since [as I've learned from personal experience], many of them don't bother to read the PDR [drug book] to find out the good and the bad about the drugs they prescribe. 
          By her next exam, a year later, my daughter had started growing again, but her little sister, who is two and a half years younger, had already caught up to her. For the next four years they were about the same height. Until the younger one passed her older sister.  
          A few years later, I made an accidental discovery on the internet. While searching for something else, I found an article by a mother with an asthmatic child who was warning everyone to get their kids off theophylline. She claimed it had stunted her child's growth. I knew immediately that's what had happened to my child.  
          Both my daughters had been on track to reach six feet. The old rule -- double a child's height at two and that's how tall they'll be -- accurately predicted my height. Both of my children were three feet tall when they turned two. Like me. One of them reached six feet. Like I did. [I'm currently on my way down.] 
          But the one who was prescribed theophylline for asthma stopped at 5'7." Luckily she thinks that's a great height, but I'm sure the theophylline cost her five inches. Especially since she didn't grow at all that one year and only slowly after that, because she was still on the medication.
          Back in the cab, I asked the driver if he'd ever been on theophylline for his asthma. He said, "Oh, yeah, for years." I said that was probably the reason his growth was affected. I told him how there was anecdotal evidence that theophylline stunted growth in children. And how I was convinced it had affected my daughter. He became silent and just started shaking his head. 
          "That explains a lot," he said. While he didn't explain exactly how that explained a lot, I was sure he was experiencing an AHA moment. One that Oprah could appreciate. How would you feel if you had just realized there was a good chance your body been messed up by the medicine your docs gave you? 
          So I didn't say anything else. I figured I'd told him more than enough for one cab ride.  


Jon said...

If you did tell this story before, I don't remember reading it.
It's absolutely incredible and very frightening.
I'm wondering how many other children with asthma have been affected by this drug. I've never heard of theophylline, and I sure hope it's not still in use.

Mrs. L said...

Jon, I think theophylline is out of favor now. But I'm sure the pharms will fool the docs with something else.