Lisa sits down with doctor Carrie Carter to discuss how life changed for this doctor one day when she because the patient. This is reprinted from HopeKeepers Magazine, 2004.
“I woke up feeling better than usual and I’m not a morning person. I was driving to work and pulled into the parking lot when everything around me began spinning so fast I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know where I was. I held onto the steering wheel and the pinwheel feeling lasted a few minutes. Finally it settled enough so that I could see the horizon and I pulled my car over. That was the last time I drove.”
Dr. Carrie Carter had spent years studying to become knowledgeable about medical conditions and nutritional supplements. But in the fall of 1999 she entered a new phase of education: the life of a person with a chronic illness. Diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, a chronic, incurable inner ear disorder, life changed dramatically.
But as author of Thrive: A Woman’s Guide to a Healthy Lifestyle and Mom’s Health Matters (endorsed by MOPs), both released in 2003, God has redirected her life in a way she could not have imagined just five years ago. She brings us a unique perspective: That of a doctor who has listened to patients who looked fine but felt terrible. But also a doctor who feels poorly herself, but is told “Gosh, you look great! You must be doing so well!” [Note from editor: her newest book is A Woman’s Guide to Good Health (2006)]
“There’s something in me,” shares Dr. Carter, “that rises up and wants to say, ‘but I’m still sick! I really am!’ I have a measure of health that varies in quantity and once I use it up, I’m done until it’s replenished—however long that takes. I want people to understand that and yet it shouldn’t matter what people think. . . But it does. It’s that in between place that is very weird.”
I sat down with Dr. Carter to discuss her journey of living with a chronic illness, her new books, her radio programs—and how God fits into it all. With great emotion she shared her story, in hopes that it will encourage you. Yes, even doctors get sick.
HK: What are the most difficult parts of your day?
CC: Fatigue and any visual movement, like walking down grocery store aisles, causes vertigo. Vertigo is different than being dizzy. It’s extreme and unpredictable, sometimes I have several episodes a day. The severe fatigue is hard to describe. If I ride on an airplane or go to an event, I have to pay for it for days. But I’d rather not be housebound. I’d rather live and have these experiences, and know that when I come home I’ll have to spend five days in bed. That’s the price, but it’s better to live and do as much as I can with my family whenever I can.
As a doctor, the fatigue was one of the things that surprised me the most; it’s one of those symptoms most people with any chronic illness experience. I also lose my memory. It’s extremely scary. I had cognitive testing and discovered that I was basically coming in under average in the ability to think and process memory—very scary! Thankfully, I got through the worst part and my memory has mostly returned, but it’s very hard for my family. One day I’m very bright and capable and the next day I’m telling my son, “that thing over there.” I can’t remember what a chair is called. It’s frustrating and very humbling.
HK: How do you see God using illness in your life?
CC: I learned the hard way that I’m not invincible. Last year I went to CBA [Christian Booksellers Association conference] and it worked out that I went alone and overscheduled myself, but in the moment I was doing well physically. I felt wonderful, the best I’d been in four years. I expected once I got home I’d be in bed a few days, but I was stuck in bed for six weeks. I canceled all kinds of things.
HK: Yes, It’s hard to know when God is giving you a gift and you want to enjoy it; you’re saying, “Thank you, Lord. You knew I needed this.” Then you get home and realize you took a little too much of the gift. It was a small gift and you took a larger portion.
CC: Exactly. I often think, “God, You’ve given me this wonderful opportunity [to write, practice medicine, etc.]. Now, what I am supposed to do with it?” But I’ve had the most amazing blessing to write two books that came out in 2003. They were literally a gift from God; groundwork I had laid years before coming to fruition.
I’ve stopped asking God “Why do I have this disease?” I’ve had five surgeries, all the medicines, alternative medicines and therapies, and they’ve only helped a little. I’ve stopped asking, “Why me?” but I still get really angry at God. I don’t understand. Those six weeks were very sobering, laying in bed, unable to even read or watch TV. I don’t understand why.
HK: Explain how, as a doctor with a chronic illness, you ended up writing a book on wellness.
CC: They were literally dropped into my lap. If I had written a book earlier I would have written it from the perspective of a healthy person, about what one should do to stay healthy, but it would have been much less valuable than Thrive! I know what you’re supposed to do to stay healthy, I did it. Now, I’ve lost my health, and I know how hard it is to be without, so I want to help you hold onto whatever health you have.
At first, I wanted to hide my illness [from the publishers]. I thought there is no way they’re going to want a sick doctor writing about wellness, but now I realize what a sense of humor God has. He picked a sick doctor. I hope the book encourages those who feel discouraged because they have a lack of health; because they deserve to feel better, no matter where they are in the illness spectrum—there are some things one can do to help oneself thrive. The first of which is to be grounded spiritually. If you aren’t, you’re sunk.
HK: What was your typical week like before illness?
CC: I worked as a pediatrician, three-quarter time in an office. I was on call a lot and a mother of an eight-year-old who I spent a couple of afternoons a week with. I was involved with a lot of activities; I danced for Christian Community Theater and even took private tap dance lessons. I spoke to parent groups, and spoke around the country on healthy lifestyle choices and nutritional supplements. I had a very busy, full life that came crashing to a halt. Everything hit a brick wall and it was all gone—everything but my family and my home.
HK: How did you respond?
CC: I was in denial for quite awhile. In medical school all I learned about the disease was in one paragraph in my textbook. I thought any day I would just snap out of it and go back to work. There was one moment that was very telling. About two weeks after I had become ill, I saw a specialist who diagnosed my illness; he gave me medicine and said, “Come back in six weeks.” I thought the medicine would start working immediately and that I’d be better and back to work within a few days. Two weeks later I wasn’t feeling any better and I began to panic. I called the doctor and he said, “I don’t think you heard me clearly. It’s at six weeks we may begin to see some improvement.” My heart just dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe that this was my life now. And if you’d told me then, that four years later I’d never work another day as a pediatrician . . .well. . . It was quite a change. . .
HK: What are some of the major lessons you’ve learned through having an illness?
CC: First, that I needed to learn to be honest with God about my feelings—and they are not pretty. I know some people can honestly say, “I’m just trusting God and everything is going to be fine.” My feelings don’t fit that mold. They can be ugly—but I’ve discovered that God can handle it. . . And that He wants that intimacy with us. There were times I didn’t talk to God at all. I was so mad that He wasn’t answering my prayers to be healed because I knew He could do it and He could do it like that (snap).
I’ve also learned to celebrate the little miracles. I was able to get disability and social security without a whole lot of hassle. I have a wonderfully understanding family. God is providing even though He isn’t answering my prayers. Paul says, in Philippians 4:6 to bring everything —the good, the bad, and the ugly to God in prayer and petition.
Tell God the truth. I had to realistically come to terms with the fact that I may have this illness the rest of my life—and I don’t want that and I’m mad about it. But then Paul says, “with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” I’ve learned the thanksgiving part. It doesn’t make sense to be thankful when you’re mad—it just doesn’t! But when you do. . .it’s miraculous.
In order to survive, I have to choose to exercise thanksgiving. I consciously find something each day that I am thankful for Some days that is just, “Thank You for giving me an illness which I’m not dying of.” Sure, it’s taken away the life I had, but my son won’t face life without a mother. But I don’t think we should sugar-coat it and try to force ourselves to be positive all the time because that can keep one in denial.
HK: Tell me about the response you’ve had from others about your illness.
CC: A lot of people have a hard time accepting my illness. The Christian community expects me to be healed and they feel anguish that I’ve not been. A lot of times I feel I have to explain to them, “I’m really not doing anything wrong that’s preventing me from being healed!”
I’ve tried everything. About two years ago I had the surgery that would probably work and it didn’t; it took me a long time to recuperate too. I got low. So low that if I could have gotten to the bathroom and the big bottle of pills it would have been a tempting offer—but I made sure that couldn’t happen. But it was revealing—and God met me there. I felt Him tell me, within my heart, “Sometimes I answer your prayers for healing by teaching you how to live with what you’ve got.”
That was exactly what I needed to hear. I hope that’s not His final answer, but He has taught me how to live with what I’ve got. . . And a lot of people have a hard time hearing that. They say, “You just need to pray more; you just need to try this supplement; think more positive!” They mean so well, but it’s so exhausting. When I can barely have a conversation, and then I have to go beyond that and explain, “No, just because I’m not taking that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. . .”
At the beginning I had visits from my staff and partner. Nobody knew what to do to help. They feel powerless and it’s hard for them to know if they should call or not. The biggest thing that helped me was my office got a huge card and had the families of my patients sign it. I treasure it. Because when you’re so sick, and all your abilities are taken away, it’s nice to know someone still remembers what you could do and still values you.
People bringing meals was the most helpful thing. One family in my church has provided a meal every week for years. It’s impossible to express how much that’s meant to us. Most people fall by the wayside. I don’t blame them, people are busy, but it gets more isolating. I have months of feeling isolated, but I don’t feel well enough to invite someone over to do something. It can be tough.
HK: What keeps you encouraged during difficult times?
A lot of times it’s just making it through each day. I treasure notes and emails, especially when I hear how one of the books I’ve written touches someone. That’s an earthly thing, isn’t it? But it helps me to know that my existence here still matters.
I also just love doing radio interviews. God gave me back that part of my life that I loved so much in my medical career, a chance to talk heart to heart and help someone find a better state of health. God has provided so amazingly that I can sit here and encourage others in my pajamas with my little dog at my feet and my cup of tea.
My husband is truly the most amazing man in the world. In some ways my marriage is actually better since my illness—it’s grown. He’s accepted me so completely in this state; even when I look horrible, am too sick to wash my hair, he says, “you’re always attractive to me.” God has given him good blinders.
HK: If you could take out a headline in tomorrow’s front page of the paper, what would it be?
“God’s Grace Comes Through Again”
Visit Dr. Carter’s web site at www.carteronhealth.com.
Lisa Copen is the author of Why Can’t I Make People Understand? Discovering the Validation Those With Chronic Illness Seek and Why and she is the founder of Rest Ministries, Inc. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since 1993.