All the doctors sang the same tune, “You’re getting older.” Generally, I didn’t think I looked or felt like I was approaching 50, whatever that is suppose to look and feel like. But it’s difficult to feel young when the diagnosis is “old.”

I did feel sweaty at night, hot during the day and generally irritable all the time, which my young female gynecologist shrugged off with: “It’s all part of getting older; each woman experiences peri-menopause differently; we don’t know how long hot flashes last.” I wish she had expressed a little more sympathy, or empathy, or something to soften the blow of impending crone-dom. Maybe she was embarrassed that the medical community hadn’t figured this whole thing out by now.

I knew I couldn’t escape aging, but it was getting harder and harder to ignore. I needed my glasses to read the alarm clock. I needed physical therapy to recover from exercise. Memory slips happened more frequently. I needed physical therapy to recover from exercise.

My girlfriends and I laughed about our shared age-related activities because as Clarence Darrow said, “If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think.” We may have lost the reason we walked into the kitchen with a pen in the hand, but we still wanted to be able to think it through. While we laughed together, I secretly worried. Sometimes I stumbled when I walked. Just down the street, up a flight of steps, when I went to the kitchen with a pen in my hand. I tried not to worry myself into bad health – something I think my mother had a knack for – and blamed everything on estrogen or lack thereof.

The hormone explanation came up numerous times during my pre-jubilee birthday health check-ups. The dermatologist said my dry patch of skin was very common in menopausal women. “That’s just part of getting older,” he said. The radiologist showed me pictures of my hips and spine with osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis, which I thought I had staved off with miles of running and drinking milk well into my 20s. The dentist said my receding gums were due to being older, not disease. That was the good news, I guess, but it got me thinking: If my womb, abdomen, bones and gums were old and they were part of me…wouldn’t that mean, according to the transitive property, that I was old?

It took three weeks to decongest from a cold that started on a long flight from New York to Chicago. I ended 2004 and started 2005 with a red nose. By mid-January I was breathing again, but I couldn’t ignore one remaining health issue: My head really hurt. These were hold-your-head, massage-your-temples, ibuprofen-isn’t-working-headaches. While my nasal passages were fairly clear, my ears were stuffed and neck stiff. I wasn’t sleeping, but that could be part of that getting – process I kept hearing about, so I don’t think I mentioned this to the doctor.

Dr. Barry Levine, my trusty internist who would see me in any emergency and took a panicked call from me two days before my wedding when I experienced unusual unsteadiness, checked me out. I passed the standard exam, said “ah,” followed the light with my eyes, had clean ear canals and good reflexes. I could even balance pretty well on one leg. But my head pounded. The doctor was stumped.

“You present yourself as healthy,” he said. I always try to put my best foot forward, I thought. It wasn’t until I mentioned being off-kilter when I got out of bed in the morning, as if still intoxicated from a night of merriment, that he ordered the brain scan. “Maybe you do have a sinus infection or latent congestion from your cold, so I want to scheduled a brain scan to see what’s there,” he said.

“What do you mean what’s there?” I asked.

“I want to see if you have an infection before I prescribe more antibiotics,” he said. “A brain scan will tell me.” The best news would be no answers to what’s going on – meaning that the scan would not show anything. No news is good news, as the saying goes.

Within an hour I was getting cozy with the MRI machine. “What a novel way to start the weekend,” I joked with the radiology tech. I tried to put myself at ease with a bit of lame chitchat: “I hope the doctor can find my brain…. I would hate to flunk this test.” Ha. Ha. How many times had she heard this before?

It was Friday afternoon. I was scanned and home for the start of cocktail hour, with a whole weekend ahead to self-diagnose and worry. A factoid from Gale Sheehy’s book “New Passages” came to me. “If a woman reaches 50 without cancer or heart disease, she could expect to reach 92.” I was 49 years and 5 months old. I held out hope for a few more months of good health.

My mom having her portrait drawn by a sidewalk artist in New Orleans. She must have been about 45 or so then.

I had been suppressing worry for about the 10 years since I had turned 40 – since 1995, when Mom had been struck by life-changing strokes. I had watched her articulate, bright self slip away bit by bit. It was difficult looking at someone who looked just like me lose the ability to communicate and ambulate. It was more difficult knowing that I had a propensity to anxiety and depression just like Mom. And then I started experiencing difficulty with my speech and memory.

I have always been known for my ability to talk fast and be facile with words. I presented with flair, spoke extemporaneously and was never without something to say. But now I sometimes sort of slurred words, and not like a drunk. It was more that I couldn’t find the right word and my mouth kept moving, making sounds but not words. In meetings, when I gave presentations, I was sometimes unable to field questions adeptly because my words didn’t come. I often completely lost the words for common objects and resorted to charades. Once my pantomime for the word umbrella miserably failed to communicate, even when I danced through rain drops like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. I felt helpless and a little scared.

I took to calling these lapses “sympathetic stroke moments,” convinced that my mom must be experiencing some mental kink in her head at the same time. Sometimes colleagues responded to my lack of communicative ability with quizzical expressions or furrowed brows. Still I never said anything to my doctors, willing myself to believe this was just part of the life process, not a genetic disposition to  disease or disability.

However, two days before my wedding, in February 2004, I experienced my first staggering experience. I had just finished running at the health club and was headed to the locker room. I opened the door from the stairwell and needed to cross the hallway. I veered to the right in order to avoid the line of oncoming traffic, and I couldn’t stop veering. I only stopped because I met the wall. I was dizzy and my vision blurred.

No one noticed my slanted path. It probably looked as though I just overshot my dash across the hall. I was scared. Mom was gone, so I knew this wasn’t a sympathetic reaction unless she was still influencing me from heaven, which wasn’t beyond consideration. I didn’t want to tell anyone for fear that would lead me to a doctor who would tell me that I had to go to the hospital, couldn’t get married in two days, couldn’t travel to South Africa for my honeymoon, just couldn’t. I was 48 years old and 48 hours from marrying for the first time. “Oh, please God,” I prayed, “let this be nothing.”

I debated telling anyone what happened but relented and called Dr. Levine from the locker room with an impassioned plea for a good bill of health and a bon voyage wish. He didn’t go that far, but he said I could get married and go on safari as planned since this was a one-time incident during a very stressful time. After all, my previous physicals indicated that I was a healthy female specimen.

The doctor called Monday evening following the Friday MRI. It was around 8 p.m., and I was midway through hosting a book club in my new home full of half-unpacked boxes and not much else. We were eating California Pizza Kitchen Barbecue Thai Chicken Pizza and drinking white wine. I don’t remember the book.

“Hello Julie, this is Barry Levine. How are you?”
“How am I?” I asked.
“The good news,” he started, “is that you don’t have a tumor and there is no sign of sinus infection.”

Tumor. He hadn’t mentioned tumor before. I thought we were just looking for infections in the sinus cavity, not tumors on the brain. I moved to a corner of the kitchen and talked into the cabinets.

“And the bad news?” I asked.
“The scan shows bilateral areas of abnormal increased signal intensity.”
“What, wait, I have to write this down.”
“It will all be in the report.”
“No, I need to write it down now. What does this mean?”
“These are areas that show signs of past strokes, perhaps, or injury or inflammation in the white matter of the brain.”

Aha, he said the word I dared not speak. Stroke. He must have ordered this scan because of my mother’s stroke history and my health club incident. He must have thought I had suffered strokes. I felt vindicated. My speech irregularities were explained.

As if responding to my inner demons he said, “Julie I don’t think you have had any strokes. These abnormalities are probably old scar tissue. I want to ask you some questions Did you ever go camping as a kid?” “No, why?”
“Lyme disease could present itself in this way.”
“Well, I camped once as an adult but it was 30 degrees.” I hoped that was too cold for deer. “There are deer around my house in Indiana, though.”
“Have you had an AIDS test?”
“Yes and it was negative, but that test was years and a partner or two ago.”
“Do you have any history of ear infections or infections in general as a child?”
“Just a lot of bronchitis and the croup. We all had the croup. And Mom always made us go to the doctor.”

She did. If you coughed at my house when I was a kid, Dr. Jones was at the door with a shot and prescription for some bad tasting/looking/smelling medicine. You ran a little fever in the morning and you might have to go downtown to see Dr. Jones’ partner, Dr. Kagey, for the same treatment. Or maybe he would just phone in the foul prescription and it would miraculously appear at the door. Vick’s VapoRub was our aromatherapy. Nose drops our hell. Flat 7 Up and dry toast our get-well meal. And if we were lucky, Smith Brother’s Cherry Flavor Cough Drops our treat. I ingested so much tetracycline antibiotic before age 5 that it permanently stained and weakened my permanent teeth.

“Have you suffered any brain injury or trauma?”
“Not that I remember.”

What if I had been dropped on my head as a baby and no one wanted to tell me? What if there were mobs of deer in the woods by the lake cabins where we spent summer vacations? I checked with my sister Amy later. She confirmed that my head had not been injured. Even after falling out of the car that one day when she was nice enough to suggest that Mom might want to turn the car around and pick me up. She had no memories of ticks and rejected my suggestion that we once fed deer kibble at a petting zoo. She refused to create or confirm my blame-the-scan-results-on-childhood scenario.

Book club turned into medical support group. We reviewed the doctor’s game plan: Get a follow-up scan with a dye infusion to see if my lesions were active or inactive. Make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat guy because the scan also showed I had fluid in the mastoids, which are prehistoric sounding sacs in the back of the head that should be full of air not fluid. I definitely should not have flown with my cold on New Year’s Eve. Get some lab work done. Lastly, make an appointment with a neurologist for further evaluation, whatever that meant.

Check back for the next installment, and watch Danis resolve her medical mystery – sort of.  (Ed.)

Writer, commentator and humorist Julie Danis is a Chicago-based strategic marketing professional, and a consumer insights lecturer at Northwestern University.  She’s worked for Frito-Lay, Inc. and held senior level strategist positions at J. Walter Thompson/Chicago and Draft/Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agencies. An  editor and contributor to The Works magazine, Danis wrote a column called “It’s a Living” featured in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, and has contributed workplace commentary to public radio’s Marketplace. She speaks to various groups on the subject “How to Make Work Work for You.”

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  • jeanne November 16, 2010 at 6:27 am

    Hello Julie!What a story isnt it;waiting for news about you.Didier living in France.bye bye

  • Patty Grauf November 12, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for the story Julie. I hope we can celebrate 92 together. (and remember it)

  • Lynnette Hinch November 11, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    I could relate to this column!!!