The insistent chirp on the phone was a reminder from Fran. “Don’t forget to stop at the compounding pharmacy.” For $58 cash these specialists turned a pill into a cream. GERD made Fran intolerant of most oral medicines.

Tired from the long drive, I thought back on my years of marriage. Back pain was the first problem, I think. Then GERD, then migraines, dizziness, TMJ, panic attacks, fibromyalgia. They were all tough, serious problems. But all together?

At first Fran and I battled illness as a team. We were united against the uncaring medical system, the cruel doctors who didn’t understand chronic pain and wouldn’t prescribe more opiates, the selfish doctors who wouldn’t open their schedules to accommodate a crisis. I felt like a hero.

They knew me at the compounding pharmacy after so many years. “You know, Mr. Haggerty, we can mail you the cream.”

“Thanks, no.” I answered, “It’s easier this way.” Fran would worry too much about the cream getting lost in the mail, decomposing in the heat, getting stolen by aliens. So much could happen. It wasn’t that far out of my way to pick it up. What the heck, another minor inconvenience, another drop of blood. I was used to losing blood.

Paprika was the first clue. Peppers, even the mildest green peppers, would instantly activate Fran’s GERD. She would gag, spit them out, guzzle water, then grab a fistful of Zantac. Paprika, on the other hand, was Fran’s favorite spice. Chicken, in her hands, ended up a pumpkin colored mush. Once, at the grocery store restocking paprika, I looked at the ingredients, “Ground red pepper.”

Once my eyes were opened, there were a thousand paprika stories. I began to read about somatoform disorders, those puzzling illnesses that look physical but are actually mental or emotional. The dirty little secret in medicine is that many patients are not sick, at least not in the usual way that we think of illness. We all collude in the game. Patients get care and attention, doctors get money, families like me get the fake peace of non-confrontation and the fantasy of being a caregiver hero.

The long drive was almost over. I thought of my anger, my grief for a wasted life. I was done. I would drop off the cream and leave for good. I had no blood left.

Greg Mahr
Detroit, Michigan


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