The Doctor Will See the Real You Now
Disclosing MS to potential employers is risky, but William Shaffer is glad he opened up. In fact, for this newly minted neurologist, it was a brilliant career move.
In early 2009 Shaffer landed an offer from North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colo., which loved his idea of a doctor with MS treating patients with MS. So for MS Awareness Week 2009, he and his new bride were getting ready to move it from Chicago, where he was completing his neurology fellowship, to pursue new frontiers in MS care.
If there’s such a thing as a right time to get an MS diagnosis, Shaffer’s timing was impeccable. He dropped out of college in 1988, spent the '90s drumming for power-pop alternative bands The Breathers and Much Too Fantastic, then got his undergraduate degree and proceeded to medical school. He was diagnosed in his second year — a perfect opportunity to decide on a specialty.
“I didn’t know too much about MS before I was diagnosed, but I decided to spin it into a positive turn of events,” he said.
When he opens his doors in August or September, following a belated honeymoon, Shaffer said he’ll be able to offer a quality of care that many doctors can’t, because MS symptoms can be so hard to describe.
Fatigue, for example. “It is a different kind of fatigue. If you haven’t experienced it, it is difficult to put it into words,” he said. Shaffer has a National MS Society grant to try to better measure and understand it.
Doctors who don’t have MS obviously can’t forge the same connection that Shaffer can. The real problem comes when they cross the line into thoughtlessness. Shaffer said he knows of doctors who will give a newly diagnosed patient four information kits — one for each of the approved disease-modifying drugs — with no counseling at all.
“They walk out of there even more confused than when they went in. So I explain to them each drug, my opinion, and also what studies have shown. People that are reluctant to go on a medication — once they hear that I am taking one, they might be more accepting of the concept.”
Sensory symptoms can pose a particularly challenging doctor-patient communication gap, leading the doctor to suspect the patient of exaggerating or even being hysterical.
“Doctors have their tests, but not all symptoms of MS are able to be observed with the tests we do. Many people would just like to hear a doctor say, ‘Yes, it is real. Yes, I’ve experienced it. You’re not crazy.’”
Shaffer also wants to educate fellow doctors about the importance of beginning MS drug therapy early: “Even now you hear stories about somebody being diagnosed with MS but their symptoms completely resolved, so the doctor might say, ‘You’re doing fine, I don’t think we need to put you on anything.’ But I don’t agree with that, because the current medications may not be effective in the secondary-progressive phase. I’m trying to educate people and the medical community to get on it right away so we can prevent people from getting to that point.
“Each case is different, but it is important to be cognizant of starting treatment earlier rather than later.”
The fact that Shaffer’s life has twisted and turned may put him even more in tune with patients facing unexpected developments. Even more remarkable than his unorthodox career path, he says, is how he and his new wife reunited after losing touch for 13 years.
“I’ve seen life beyond just going from high school to college to medical school,” he said. “Nowadays there’s the whole thing about doctors not having enough time with patients. It’s not always the quantity of time. The quality is what’s important.”